Summer 1998. Baseball. McGwire and Sosa. The home run chase. Impressive, right? Try these numbers: Thirty ballparks, 38 days, 15,000 miles. All by car. Dave Kaval and Brad Null did it, starting on June 20, 1998, in San Francisco and ending on July 27 in Kansas City. They've documented the whole adventure in a book, The Summer That Saved Baseball, and on their Web site, www.baseballtour.com.
The baseball world, still reeling from the effects of the strike, was more than willing to support the endeavor. Twenty-eight teams comped them tickets, and 19 ballparks gave them tours and free food. In Detroit, they met then-Tiger outfielder Luis Gonzalez. "Of all of the players," Kaval says, "Luis Gonzalez took the most interest. He even skipped batting practice to go over our itinerary."
The duo also attracted the interest of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who gave them his front-row seats at Yankee Stadium, where they again ran into their favorite player, as the Tigers were in town for a series. Kaval recalls when "Gonzo" came up to bat. "He looks up and sees us, calls time, and steps out of the batter's box. Then he motions with his hands like he's holding a steering wheel. We shout and nod, and he shakes his head and laughs." Unfortunately, Gonzalez went without a hit.
Thanks to ESPN, the carefully planned trip almost ended on July 11. The cable channel requested that the Orioles change their game time to accommodate the opening of a new theme restaurant in Baltimore. The Orioles were able to contact Kaval and Null, forcing the duo to drive 937 miles from Tampa to Baltimore overnight. They made the game with 15 minutes to spare.
Of course, you can't tour ballparks without creating a best and worst list. A sense of history places Boston's Fenway Park at the top. The Metrodome in Minneapolis, home of the Twins, takes the bottom rung. "No atmosphere. It's like, okay, just what sport are we playing today?" Kaval says. The former Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome, ranked 15th. But on the Web site, Kaval's co-author Null wrote that "in spite of the fact that the park was old, it was a great place to see a baseball game ." Null may be a bit biased here; he is, after all, a native Houstonian.
As for the new playpens, like Oriole Park at Camden Yards or the Ballpark in Arlington, that's one of the primary themes of the book. "There's going to be a backlash to these [new] cookie-cutter ballparks," Kaval says. "In five to ten years, people will realize that they're all the same."
When that happens, a cross-country trek like Null and Kaval's won't have much of a point.