We must have made an odd sight - two out-of-towners in a bar on Hollywood Boulevard on a sunny Saturday, hunched over a smudgy newspaper weather map, drawing thick lines in black ink.
We had six hours before the hometown Dodgers played the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the first game of our annual trip on a quest to visit every stadium in Major League Baseball.
So we took to the map and plotted courses for future years. We could hit Oakland and San Francisco in a single trip. We could connect the two Chicago teams with Milwaukee, just up the road. Maybe go west to Minneapolis.
And we could be finished - in 2017.
No matter. We could do this forever. So far, my friend Mark Niesse, who writes for The Associated Press in Honolulu, and I have hit 10 stadiums, an even third of the MLB 30. This year we go blue-collar for three more: A swing through Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
And here's the remarkable thing: In almost every case, the details of the game itself have faded fastest from our memories.
What stays with us are the fans we meet: The best and worst were at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park - two elderly women with an extreme passion for the Phillies, and a pack of drunken college kids who kept chanting for the football Eagles. And spitting. Occasionally on us.
Or the fun of getting there: For trips from New York to Boston and Philadelphia in 2004, we boarded an absurdly cheap Chinatown-to-Chinatown bus, and got what we paid for. Including a screening of a painfully awful made-for-TV movie, "Commitments," that we laugh about to this day.
Or sizing up mascots: In 2004 we met the incomparable Mr. Met, who has a baseball for a head and who sat patiently for hours posing for snapshots with fans. In 2006 we watched San Diego's amiable friar lope around the upper-deck seats.
(No such mingling or picture-posing from the oddly reclusive Phillie Phanatic. When we asked a park official whether we would see him, he looked at us the way they looked at Dorothy and the gang in the Emerald City when they asked to see the Wizard of Oz.)
Our baseball friendship is tied, like many, to one team. We have been bantering almost continuously about the Atlanta Braves since we met in college. And Atlanta's Turner Field remains our most frequent, and perhaps most beloved, destination.
But taking these trips has expanded our appreciation for baseball in the way traveling to Europe expands your appreciation for history. We know players and teams so much better now than we would by relying only on our shared obsession with the Braves.
If you're interested in embarking on your own baseball excursion, here's a 101 course:
- Plan early. Very early. By the winter holidays most teams have preliminary schedules posted at
Starting early also gives us plenty of time to watch for airfare deals, and to jump on game tickets the moment they go on sale. We spent hours on the phone for Red Sox-Yankees seats one cold winter morning in 2004. (More on that later.)
- Rely on your friends. If you have a college buddy or eccentric great aunt in a faraway big city, this is the time to ask for a favor. We had couches to crash on in Baltimore and L.A., saving hundreds of dollars on hotels.
- Make it about more than the game. Read up on your destination and take in the local flavor. We ambled around San Diego's charming Gaslamp Quarter and Baltimore's redeveloped Inner Harbor before game time. We stuffed ourselves at Jim's in Philadelphia - cheesesteak paradise.
- Get to the ballpark as early as possible. (Again, check
Arriving early also means the chance to take in several hours of batting practice, and scramble for baseballs that land in the seats. (We have yet to find success. So far.)
- And most importantly: Mementos are key. A friend of ours once joked that the object of filling out a baseball scorecard was to suck all the fun out of watching the game. We disagree. We keep score everywhere we go, and now we have a growing archive that instantly brings back innings long since forgotten.
A word here about ballpark cuisine: One of us had some disagreeable barbecue at Camden Yards, so we stick to the hot dogs. Besides, how can you not buy a ballpark hot dog? (Favorites: L.A.'s Dodger Dogs, and New York's Shea Stadium's Hebrew National dogs, if only for the slogan: "We answer to a higher authority.")
As you can probably tell - and as we realized about 15 excruciating minutes into "Commitments" on that bus to Philadelphia - the joy in all this really is in the journey. We remember the people and the places long after we forget what happened between the foul lines.
And sometimes, if you're really lucky, lightning strikes in the game itself.
On the Saturday afternoon of July 24, 2004, we waited out a four-hour bus trip to Boston and a 54-minute rain delay at Fenway Park. We watched a punk band, Dropkick Murphys, perform "Tessie," the song that became a Red Sox team anthem.
And then we saw perhaps the most thrilling game in all of baseball that year, including a brawl touched off by Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek and ending with a two-run home run that gave the Red Sox an 11-10 win and arguably turned around what became their curse-killing championship season.
Devoted Yankee-haters, we left Fenway Park hoarse and happy that day, bopping along to what we remembered of "Tessie." We had forgotten many of the words, but we had been reminded many times over why we started this tradition in the first place.