Chugging along the back roads of Florida between Fort Myers and Lakeland, Matt and Carolyn LaWell are trying to explain why they quit their jobs and put their lives on hold this year to take a 152-day road trip across the country to see 120 minor-league baseball games.
But as they do so, the conversation keeps swinging away from why they're doing it to exactly how they're doing it. Right now the topic is the healing power of apples, peanut butter, and an economy-size bag of edamame.
"Up in Port Charlotte, they have a 10-inch hot dog wrapped in bacon, then covered in pulled pork and onion straws," Matt says over a chuckle. "You gotta try it, right? But we can't just eat everything."
He's talking about their road diet — one that's inevitably heavy on ballpark food — and the beating it can dish out over five months. If you've ever seen a sportswriter in person, you understand. The LaWells spend virtually every night at the diamond, where hot dogs represent the Weight Watchers end of the menu and where the park specialty is usually some sort of calorie-blasted gimmick meal. It's a recipe for a life spent in elastic waistbands.
But the hours away from baseball — the ones spent in the car, which doubles as their transportation and their sleeping quarters — are set aside for gastrointestinal recuperation and nibbles that help ensure their shared baseball adventure doesn't end with shared bypass surgery. Thus the apples, peanut butter, and edamame, the latter of which will arrive in a package from Matt's parents that they'll pick up later in the day.
The twentysomething Lakewood couple just pushed past the first thousand miles of the journey in their orange 2004 Honda Element, the odometer rolling over to 117,460. In all, they will cover 26,000 miles, a span longer than the Earth's circumference. The origin of their quest goes back many more miles, to the southeastern Ohio college town of Athens.
As with most good ideas, this one germinated in an Ohio University dorm room. Matt was sitting around, bored out of his mind during the summer before his sophomore year, wanderlust filling his otherwise unoccupied head. He went up to the bookstore to get a map and set about diagramming the perfect road trip. As his eyes darted around the states, baseball immediately became the obvious linchpin connecting all the places he wanted to visit.
"I centered on minor-league baseball," he says. "There are so many options all over the place. I color-coded 160 or 170 teams and started making tentative routes and plans."
And then, like most college daydreams, it got backburnered by real life, including a wedding. But he never totally forgot it, never entirely wrote it off.
Matt met Carolyn in an 8 a.m. Spanish class. It was the first quarter of the year, he says, and while college kids may be known to skip a class or two here or there — especially one so early in the morning — most actually show up for the first class of the first quarter of the year. Lucky for him: Carolyn was there.
Shortly after he moved to North Carolina for a job in 2006, she followed. They'd move back to Cleveland in 2008, the same year they were married. He worked freelance writing jobs here and there, and hosted trivia nights in Cleveland bars. She landed a job as an associate editor for a lawn and landscape magazine.
Carolyn, now 27, first heard about Matt's minor-league dream in 2009 and fully supported it — "I didn't know how she would react," he confesses — but every year there was another reason not to do it. She had a nice gig, they didn't have enough money saved up, he would say "next year," and then "next year," and then "next year."
Eventually, they said this year.
And Carolyn was more than game. "I've always been a fan, but yeah, I probably wouldn't watch sports that much if Matt wasn't around," she says. "I was really excited initially. It was awesome. I never didn't want to do it, but it's a difficult decision when you have a job you love. Eventually, we just picked 2012. I said you can't do this without me. It would be such a regret to not be with him for this, which actually made it an easy choice to help fulfill his dream."
They started planning two years ago, though the details began to be harvested in earnest last year. Two huge spreadsheets became their Bible: color-coded teams, schedules, cities, dates, mileage, and lists of friends they could stay with. They scrimped and saved, eventually socking away about $10,000. They downsized their Lakewood apartment and pinpointed a new lease to end near their departure date. Carolyn quit her job, and they stowed all their belongings in storage.
It was a logistical beast.
They dubbed the trip "A Minor League Season" and built a website by that name where they would report on their travels — a diary of sorts, natural since both are writers.
"The purpose isn't really to watch 120 baseball games," says Matt. "The purpose is to talk to the wonderful people in and around baseball all over the country and find their stories."
Just a few weeks into their journey, they already have.
There was Ed Attalla, seven-time Southern League groundskeeper of the year in Jacksonville. Attalla is from Northeast Ohio — they're bumping into more than a few Cleveland ex-pats along the way, all of whom have been predictably helpful. Turns out Attalla still orders his field paint from Pioneer Paint in Cleveland. One day he got a $3,000 bill from the company. He was a little flustered and half-joked that for all that money, they'd better be sending along some Stadium Mustard with his order. They did, and they still do to this day. He gave a bottle to Matt and Carolyn, which they bring along to every ballpark, doling out a little taste of Cleveland to anyone with a naked dog.
There was the GM of a Florida team who told them he had 10 minutes to talk. He ended up spending the better part of an hour chatting with them on his team's opening day.
And there are the folks they've only met online or by phone so far — strangers who have reached out to lend a hand because they think the trip is too freaking cool.
"Most people's reactions are jealousy, and that it's great," Carolyn says with a laugh. "There's a lawyer in Oklahoma City who e-mailed us to say that he wouldn't be in town when we were there, but that he wanted to buy us a hotel room for the night. Now he's telling us he's trying to find a way to get out of his work trip so he can hang out with us. We're helping people play hooky now."
The hotel will be a welcome break. Matt says about half the nights they have a friend or a friend of a friend lined up to house them, but that the other half of their sleeping lives will be spent in the recline position in the Honda. They signed up for the premium membership at ubiquitous Planet Fitness, so that they could have someplace to work out no matter where they are — and, more important, so that they have somewhere to shower.
It's all part of a meticulously planned schedule that, along with the website and near-daily ballgame obligations, makes A Minor League Season less like a vacation than you'd imagine.
"We're seeing a lot of stuff as we travel along, and there's stuff we'd like to see all over the place, but it's hard," says Matt. "We don't have much time to do anything but get to the site in the early afternoon, get our interviews done, write, watch some of the game — which is hard, because we've been talking to employees or have been asked up to the press box — and then take pictures, get on the computer after the game, sit for a few hours updating and sending e-mails. It's a really long day."
The far-flung geographic quirks of the minor-league system also put tight deadlines on the cross-country drive, leaving no room for improvisation. To see a game in Tacoma, Washington — there's no other team within hundreds of miles — it's a six-day commitment to get there and drive back to Salt Lake City for the next stop. Plenty of their sightseeing gets done through their car windows.
On July 25, the duo will return to Northeast Ohio to catch an Akron Aeros game. More than a month will remain on their odyssey, but the brief pit stop near home should be a welcome respite for the weary pair after thousands of miles of hot dogs and press boxes and nights in the car. They imagine it will be, but they're not worried about it yet. The baseball lovebirds are simply enjoying the ride.
"When we started telling people, some said that we're absolutely crazy. We get that," says Carolyn. "But it was the people who said How can you possibly spend that much time together? that I didn't understand. Well, of course we can."