The ultimate summer road trip
When Jack Kerouac penned On the Road, that seminal exploration of youth and the America beyond our city limits, he probably didn't have minor league baseball in mind. Or the thought that somewhere out there was a bobblehead in own his image.
In this respect, intrepid reader, Sal Paradise has nothing on you.
What you'll find below is the most staggering challenge ever levied at a fan of pure, unadulterated baseball: a road-trip spanning 71 summer days, more than 16,000 miles, two countries, at least 43 different ballparks and, yes, precisely one Kerouac bobblehead. You'll visit the independent Northern League and Triple-A affiliates of the Pacific Coast; peach-fuzzed college kids in the Cape and grizzled never-will-be's in Fargo; the state of Washington -- twice; and the perfect place to pay homage to the late, great Rod Beck in Des Moines.
Yes, there will be some sleepless nights. (The Independence Day journey from Quad Cities, Ill. to Lowell, Mass., will separate boy from man.) But the price of gas (very high) will be offset by the price of food and tickets (cheap to all-you-can-eat/free, respectively). Most importantly, it will all be worth it when you can say you ventured from Alaska on June 21 -- site of the Alaska League's legendary Midnight Sun Game -- and then crisscrossed the country, making it to New Orleans in time for Labor Day.
So want to know what the "Beer Batter" is in Billings, Mont., or why, exactly your hair will be cut off by Jay Buhner himself on Aug. 8?
All you have to do is find your own Dean Moriarty, read on, and hit the road.
June 21-June 22
Fairbanks, Alaska -- Alaska midnight sun game, Growden Memorial Park
June 23-June 26
(Driving down from Alaska; 10.25 hours per day)
Vancouver, Canada -- Vancouver Canadians vs. Eugene Emeralds, 7:05 p.m., Nat Bailey Stadium
No Youppi? No problem. Little-known fact: when the Expos left Montreal for our nation's capital, the Blue Jays weren't left all alone in the Great White North. Out in the Pacific Northwest sits Nat Bailey Stadium, home of Oakland's Single A affiliate and the only MLB farm team in the nation. Before you flash your passport at the border, greet Billy Beane's freshly drafted (and creatively named) minor leaguers in Vancouver, the Canadians.
Spokane, Wash. -- Spokane Indians vs. Tri-City Dust Devils, 6:30 p.m., Avista Stadium
Kick off the American leg of the trip in Spokane, a minor league town since 1896 with a uniquely progressive team -- the Indians. Yes, the Indians. The squad is actually an all-too-rare highlight in Native American-pro sports relations. During their 2006 logo redesign, the Spokane tribe served as a full collaborator, helping design an insignia featuring an eagle feather and a second logo in Salish, the tribe's native language.
Billings, Mont. -- Billings Mustangs vs. Great Falls Voyagers, 7:05 p.m., Dehler Park
It won't take much to entice you to root for the Mustangs, who will be playing not only their home open but also the first game in spanking new Dehler Park. The Reds' Rookie League affiliate features a promotion called the Beer Batter: every time a designated Mustang player collects a hit, fans get the opportunity to buy four beers for all of $10. You never heard such applause.
Fargo, N.D. -- Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks vs. Kansas City T-Bones, 7 p.m., Newman Outdoor Field
Ah, Fargo in July. There's none of the trademark snow (fingers crossed), but there is Northern League baseball. You may not know it, but the RedHawks were Baseball America's Independent Team of the Decade in the 1990's -- and finished first in their division the past three years, to boot.
Beloit, Wisc. -- Beloit Snappers vs. Clinton LumberKings, 7 p.m, Pohlman Field
Baseball is a game of sharp contrasts: bunt and homer, fastball and change-up, Chris Cates and Ludovicus Van Mil. Only Pohlman Field in Beloit features them all. Cates would be the Snappers' 5-2 1/2 shortstop, hailing from Tampa, Florida; Van Mil, Beloit's 7-1 starter from Oss, Netherlands. (Both are 23 years old, though.) There's no official statistic, but if there's a larger height differential in baseball, we'd honestly like to see it.
Davenport, Iowa -- Quad Cities River Bandits vs. Cedar Rapids Kernels, 6 p.m., Modern Woodmen Park
There's nothing more American than watching a baseball game on Independence Day -- unless, of course, it's observing a nighttime fireworks show. On the Mississippi River. While sitting in a Jacuzzi. But in Quad Cities, Ill., why choose? Situated next to the Centennial Bridge, Modern Woodmen Park is a stadium built for the Fourth of July, complete with explosions on Independence Day that are visible from the outfield's new Hot Tub Deck. God bless America, indeed.