Produce or perish: The journey of Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly

This story originally appeared on TWCSportsNet.com in May of 2014

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Ryan Kelly was gathered with his family at home in Raleigh, N.C., last June, watching the NBA draft on television and waiting to find out where his basketball journey would take him.

He attempted to stay away from the commotion, taking refuge in the kitchen and watching on the smallest TV in the house. Finally, in the second round, the news broke, courtesy of his grandmother, who got the scoop from Twitter: Los Angeles Lakers. No. 48 overall.

The Kelly family (from left): brother Sean, father Chris, mother Doreen, sister Erin, Aru (from Sudan, who has lived with the family for six years), and Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Kelly family)
The Kelly family (from left): brother Sean, father Chris, mother Doreen, sister Erin, Aru (from Sudan, who has lived with the family for six years), and Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Kelly family)

After a successful career at Duke that included four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a national championship, Kelly would be leaving North Carolina for Hollywood, swapping his blue and white for purple and gold.

“It initially hit me that I had been playing at Duke for the last four years,” Kelly said. “We expected championships every year, and when I got drafted by the Lakers I was like ‘wow, there couldn’t be any more perfect fit’ considering how greatness is expected on a daily basis. So I was really excited.”

What followed, though, was a season with more difficulties than anyone could have predicted, as the Lakers battled a constant stream of injuries and limped to a 27-55 finish. By comparison, Kelly experienced just 23 losses in his four seasons at Duke.

But with the losses and injuries came opportunity. And Kelly, despite being drafted deep in the second round, was better prepared than most to take advantage – and not just because he played for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. For Kelly, it goes much deeper than that.

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Not all records are made to be broken

This story originally appeared in September of 2011 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, things are a little wonky. I’ve revived it here, and I hope it inspires you to go out and break some records.

——

“I’m hoping someday that some kid, black or white, will hit more home runs than myself. Whoever it is, I’d be pulling for him.”
— Hank Aaron

It was April 8, 1974 when Hank Aaron flicked his wrists and sent the ball sailing over the left-field wall.

Barry-BondsIt was something he had done hundreds of times before, but this one was special. It was the 715th of his career, and it had broken the most-hallowed of all baseball records, a record held by the legendary Babe Ruth, a record that had stood for 39 years.

It was a mark many thought would never be broken, having been unchallenged for so long. Only one player had given it a serious run, and that player — Willie Mays — finally ran out of gas, with 660 homers in 1973.

Aaron would go on to add 40 more home runs to his record, retiring in 1976 with 755. An amazing example of consistency and longevity, Aaron had to average 33 home runs a season over his 23-year career to set the record. If not hopelessly out of reach, his record certainly seemed secure.

Then again, Babe Ruth fans probably thought the same. They couldn’t have predicted Hank Aaron would come along.

And then again, who could have predicted Barry Bonds?

Bonds, the surly slugger whose father Bobby was a contemporary of Aaron’s, brought an incredible combination of raw power, dazzling bat speed, and a surgeon’s eye to the game. Sparked by his amazing 73-homer season in 2001 (another record), he ended Aaron’s home run reign in 2007, and finished his career with 762.

There are plenty of questions about how Bonds attained the home run record, with many people believing he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. (In his trial this year, a jury couldn’t decide if Bonds lied to a grand jury about his drug use, though he was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case.)

But regardless of how Bonds got there, the record remains. Now the only question is will anyone ever break it?

“Seventy-three home runs will probably never be done again,” says Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, a two-time All-Star with 118 home runs in five seasons, “and the (career) home run record will probably never be done again, at least in the next 100 years.”

Maybe so, but as Bonds’ proved, you never know for sure.

Records are made to be broken, the old saying goes. Babe Ruth found out the saying was true, and Hank Aaron predicted it would be, but is that really the case?

Let’s take a look at some of the other great achievements in baseball, and with the help of input from the players themselves, attempt to predict which marks will fall, and which will stand the test of time.

g-spt-110926-calripken-942p

CAL RIPKEN JR.’S STREAK OF 2,632 CONSECUTIVE GAMES PLAYED

Imagine going 17 years without missing a single day of work. Now Imagine your job description includes turning double plays as base-runners try to knock you on your backside, taking countless sprints around the bases, and dodging the occasional 95-mph fastball aimed at your ribs, knee, elbow, and hands. Now you have an idea what Cal Ripken Jr., who spent most of his career at the demanding position of shortstop, had to go through to break Lou Gehrig’s record.

“In baseball now, you play so hard,” says Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. “You can pull a hamstring, you can sprain your wrist. There are so many things that go against even being close to that record.

“Even if you do stay healthy, you get tired. To be in the lineup every day, 162 games, is almost unheard of. You might last a couple years, but not 12 or 14 years.”

Ripken broke Gehrig’s 56-year-old record of 2,130 in 1995, then proceeded to add another whopping 501 games to his total.

To put it in perspective, only seven players have even played more than 1,000 games in a row, and the man in third place all-time – Everett Scott – compiled fewer than half as many as Ripken (1,307).

“It’s amazing what Cal Ripken did,” says Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann. “I can’t even put into words how hard that is. To never have anything go wrong. Luck was on his side and he had the determination to go out there and perform every day. You put those things together and it’s amazing what he did.”

Verdict: Will anyone break Ripken’s record? “I don’t see it happening,” says Beltre. We agree.

JOE DIMAGGIO’S 56-GAME HITTING STREAK/HITTING .400

We’ve included these two together because it’s been 60 years since either happened. It was 1941 when Yankees great Joe DiMaggio set his record. DiMaggio’s rival, Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, hit .406 that same year, and neither mark has been touched since. A Yankee and a Red Sox. Two amazing achievements that haven’t been matched in 60 years. It just seems right to keep them together.

There have been some close calls. Pete Rose compiled a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, and Paul Molitor reached 39 in 1987. In the chase for .400, Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994, and Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977. But that’s about it.

There are a number of reasons that will make it difficult for anyone to top either record, including an increasing reliance on specialist relievers out of the bullpen and the intense focus of attention from the modern-day 24-hour news cycle, neither of which DiMaggio or Williams had to face.

“If Ichiro can’t get it, nobody can get it,” says Votto, describing the type of player it would take to break DiMaggio’s streak. “You can’t be a guy who walks, you can’t be a guy that strikes out. You can’t be a guy who is too deep in the order, because you’ll lose opportunities. And with the way the bullpens work now, if you’re at game 40, you’re facing some specialists-times-two, innings six-through-nine, for your last two at-bats. Good luck, you know?”

Beltre agrees. “It would take a contact hitter, a hitter kind of like Ichiro. A guy who can get a dribbler for a hit, who can get a blooper for a hit, a guy who doesn’t walk a lot, but he can get a hit any time.”

As far as hitting .400 goes, it would likely take the opposite kind of hitter, the kind who has a more discerning eye at the plate and is willing to be patient and wait for a good pitch to hit.

“It would take a lot of walks, a lot of walks, and a lot of walks,” says Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. “You gotta make sure you get at least two hits, or one hit and go 1-for-2. You gotta get two hits, or one hit and a lot of walks. Then you could do it.”

Verdict: Either mark could be reached under the right circumstances, but the planets would have to align in an almost unprecedented way. As Votto says, “the pressure media wise and the overall attention will be exponentially more than anything Joe DiMaggio dealt with or Pete Rose dealt with. It’s too much.” That’s probably a big reason neither mark has been touched in 60 years.

CY YOUNG’S 511 WINS

The top annual awards for pitchers are named after Cy Young, and for good reason. Playing from 1890-1911, the right-hander not only won 511 games, he actually completed 749 of his 815 career starts (92 percent!).

Clearly, baseball was a far different game when Young pitched, and it’s difficult to imagine a pitcher making 40 or more starts (as Young did 11 times) or winning 30 games (five times) in a single season.

“We don’t pitch nine innings all the time,” says Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who has thrown 10 complete games in six seasons. “We’ve got set-up guys, we’ve got closers, and I think the teams are more evenly competitive. In order to get 500 wins you’d have to win, like, every start. So that’s not going to happen. (In Cy Young’s era) they’d have 40 or 50 starts a year, and they’d win 30 or 40 of them.”

Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who has won 107 games in seven seasons, including a league-leading 24 this season, agrees.

“I don’t think Cy Young’s wins will ever be approached,” he says. “I happened to be in the clubhouse the other day, I think it was in L.A., looking at some old-time pictures and I saw a picture of Cy Young. How old did he pitch until? Man, he looked ancient! I don’t think guys can do that anymore and get away with it at this level.”

Verdict: 300 wins is generally considered worthy of automatic induction into the Hall of Fame. 511? That’s just not possible in the modern era.

NOLAN RYAN’S SEVEN NO-HITTERS

Nolan Ryan was a tour de force, a frightening force of nature hurling lightning bolts from the mound. He could paint the corner of the strike zone with that nasty fastball, and he could also be a unpredictable with his control, which made him even scarier. Hitters were never comfortable, and it showed on the mound. When Ryan was at his best, he was simply unhittable.

NBCSports-Sections-Personal-Williams, Ed-Photos-Old Athletes-old_NolanRyan.standardIn addition to his talent for pitching, he also was amazingly durable, pitching 27 seasons in the big leagues. Pitching for the California Angels, he threw his first no-hitter on May 5, 1973 at age 26, his second coming just a couple months later. He was 44 years old and pitching for the Texas Rangers when he threw his seventh and final no-hitter.

“That’s pretty tough to do,” says Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price. “He was pretty dominant and set some pretty high records up there, and to be honest I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”

No one has come close to Ryan’s no-hit record. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax threw four no-hitters, and no other pitcher has tossed more than three. Does that mean Ryan’s record is safe? Not necessarily.

“I think Verlander could do it,” says Hamels. “I mean, he’s got the stuff. The guys who’ve thrown no-hitters are guys who can throw 98 mph, guys who have four pitches. I think that possibly can happen. It’s a pretty impressive stat, but every generation there are guys who are unbelievable and Verlander is one of them.”

Verlander, 28, who threw the second no-hitter of his career in May, doesn’t dismiss the notion outright, but says there is a lot that is out of the pitcher’s control.

“The difficulties are that a lot of it has to do with luck and you can’t really control that,” he says. “You look at most well-pitched games – two, three, four hits in a game, a complete game shutout – and I’d say of those hits, a couple of them are probably pretty soft hits that just find their way in. That’s the way it goes a lot of times. If a guy is really on and he has good stuff, he’s going to be hard on hitters. That’s where the luck factor comes in. If you have really good stuff for long enough, and you pitch well for a long time, I think that’s how you start accumulating some no-hitters, because every now and again luck is going to be on your side as opposed to against you.”

Verdict: It will take a pitcher with great stuff, unusual durability, and the aforementioned luck, but it is possible this record could be broken. The end of the steroid era could give pitchers an edge, too.

NOLAN RYAN’S 5,714 CAREER STRIKEOUTS

If you play 27 seasons and possess the kind of heat that Nolan Ryan did, you’re going to rack up a lot of strikeouts. But Ryan piled them up at an amazing rate. Ryan led the league in strikeouts 10 times and whiffed at least 300 batters six times, including in 1989 at age 42. By comparison, Verlander leads all major leaguers with 250 strikeouts this season, and the last pitcher to surpass the 300-mark was Randy Johnson, who did it four straight seasons (1999-2002).

Not surprisingly, Johnson is second on the all-time list. But at 4,875, he needed to average 280 K’s a year for three more seasons to top Ryan, which would have had him pitching into his age 48 season. That’s a tall order, even for the Big Unit.

“That just goes to show you (how tough it is),” says Price. “You can’t get away with punching out seven or eight, you’ve got to be 12, 14 every game.”

Verdict: Is the strikeout record unreachable? “You never know,” says Verlander, who has 1,215 strikeouts in six full seasons. “Someone could come along some day and possibly approach that.”

PETE ROSE’S 4,256 HITS

When it comes to enshrinement in Cooperstown, 3,000 hits is considered the magic number for automatic induction. Only 28 batters have ever reached that level, with Yankees star Derek Jeter accomplishing the feat earlier this spring. Jeter, 37, would have to average 170 hits a season and play through his age 44 season to pass Rose.

“Can anyone catch Pete Rose’s hits record? Not unless they play until they’re 50,” laughs Phillips, who has 1,084 hits in 10 seasons. “You’ve gotta get like 250 hits a year to be able to catch that guy. That’s amazing. That’s just dumb.”

Phillips is right. If a player averaged 250 hits over 17 seasons, he would still come up six hits short of Rose. To show how difficult that is, Ichiro is the only player to top 250 hits in the last 81 years, and he only did it once. Tony Gwynn didn’t do it. Wade Boggs didn’t do it. Heck, not even Pete Rose could do it. Rose did it with longevity, averaging 177 hits over his 24 seasons.

Verdict: Can Rose be topped? “(Rose) could flat-out hit,” Phillips says. “Don’t get me wrong, Derek Jeter is a great player, but I really don’t feel like anybody can catch Pete Rose.” We tend to agree.

RICKEY HENDERSON’S 1,406 STOLEN BASES

Shortly after Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock’s career stolen base record of 938, he brashly called himself “the greatest of all time.” He was only 32, and he was absolutely right.

NBCSports-Sections-Personal-Chiappetta, Mike-MLB-ss_090112_HallofFameClass-090112_StolenBases.standardHenderson would add another 467 steals over the course of his 25-year career, compiling a resume of theft that no player has come close to challenging. In fact, aside from Henderson and Brock, only one other player has stolen more than 900 bases (Billy Hamilton, 914), and the active steals leader is 33-year-old Juan Pierre, who is 852 behind with 554.

Henderson stole early in games, and he stole late in games. He stole in close games, and he irritated opponents by stealing in blowouts. Perhaps most impressively, he stole when everyone knew he was going to steal, and they still couldn’t stop him. Henderson swiped at least 100 bases in three different seasons, including 130 in 1982, the second most in a single season.

To approach Henderson’s record, a player would have to average 70 steals a season for 20 years, a pace that Los Angeles Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos doesn’t believe is possible.

“That amount is just ridiculous,” says Bourjos, a second-year player who many consider to be the fastest in the sport. “Nowadays guys don’t even play 20 years, and to maintain your speed over those years? Usually guys will have that (speed) for eight or nine years and then start slowing down.”

Bourjos, who stole 50 bases in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2008, knows about the toll it takes on a player’s body with each dash for the next base, with each dive into the bag, with each collision with an infielder. It not only takes speed to compile a lot of steals, but durability.

“I felt like I was running on every pitch (in 2008),” says Bourjos, “and halfway through the year I was dead-tired.”

In addition to the physical hardships, pitchers are more focused on controlling the running game, scouting reports are better, and catchers are stronger and quicker getting rid of the ball.

If it were going to happen, it would take a special player who not only compiles hits, but also walks a lot (Henderson is second all-time in walks with 2,190). And it would take a physical freak who not only stays healthy throughout a long career, but does not lose his speed.

Verdict: Is it possible? We’re going with Bourjos’ take: “Stealing 1,400 bags? I just don’t see that happening.”

A code to play by: Baseball’s unwritten rules

This story originally appeared in October of 2010 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, it has vanished. I’ve revived it here, and I hope it makes you feel like breaking the rules, written or otherwise.

“Get off my mound!” the pitcher screamed, directing his rage at a base runner as he left the field following an inning-ending double-play.

amd-dallas-braden-backpage-jpgHe threw his glove, kicking various objects out of his way as he stomped into the dugout, his sensibilities offended by a slight very real to him, yet very puzzling to others. The pitcher, Dallas Braden of the Oakland Athletics, had become incensed earlier that inning when Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees had run across the mound while retreating to first base following a teammate’s foul ball.

You just don’t do that, Braden would later say in explaining what caused him to lose composure. In his mind, it’s an unwritten rule in baseball that a base runner does not walk, run, trot or crawl across his mound. That’s the pitcher’s territory, and woe to anyone who enters it. Rodriguez, for his part, expressed a mixture of puzzlement and amusement at the whole incident, saying he had never heard of such a rule. And since the incident in April, reaction across the game has mostly landed in Rodriguez’s corner.

But not entirely.

David Wells, who pitched in more than 600 games over the course of a 21-year career, told ESPN after the incident that Braden was absolutely correct to take offense at Rodriguez’s actions. But former third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who hung up his cleats in 2008 after an 8-year big-league career, bluntly disagrees.

“David is wrong,” says Ensberg, who is now a broadcaster who also blogs about baseball. “That’s like saying Braden isn’t allowed to pass through the batter’s box when he’s backing up home plate. That’s silly.”

Such are the hazards of navigating a sport viewed by many as a gentleman’s game. A sport that more than any other is largely governed by a set of these so-called unwritten rules. The unwritten rules are a code of conduct, a guideline for conducting oneself on the field of play. The umpire can’t punish you if you break them, and the league can’t suspend you or dock your pay. But if your transgressions are bad enough, you will be dealt with on the field of play, for baseball players govern themselves.

Drop a bunt to break up a no-hitter? That’s a big no-no.

Hit a batter with a pitch on purpose? Expect one of your teammates to get hit.

Steal a base during a blowout? You’ll likely get a pitch aimed at your ribs the next time you come to the plate.

Try to steal the catcher’s signs? The pitch might be aimed at your head instead of your ribs.

Run across the pitcher’s mound? You’ll be yelled at – fiercely.

The problem is that the players often disagree on what exactly the rules are, interpret them differently, or choose to ignore them altogether. This leads to countless disagreements, some heated moments, and a handful of brawls every season. To understand how difficult it is to sort out, all you have to do is ask a player if he can tell when a pitcher is throwing at him. You’re likely to get a variety of answers.

“You can tell. There’s conviction behind it,” says catcher Rob Johnson, who played 61 games for the Seattle Mariners this season.

But Ensberg says “I don’t think the majority of the time you are (being thrown at). You definitely know if you get a ball on the far shoulder of your back. But if a guy is simply coming inside, it’s too arbitrary to really know.”

And Milwaukee Brewers All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun has yet another take: “Sometimes (you know). It depends on the situation, it depends on the game. There are a lot of things that factor in, but that’s also part of baseball.”

You can understand why conflicts arise, and the Braden-Rodriguez incident was only one of several to occur this season. In May, the Colorado Rockies caught a Philadelphia Phillies coach using binoculars in the bullpen to steal signs. In the same month, Chicago White Sox players took offense after a Florida Marlins player stole a base with the Marlins holding a 7-0 lead in the fourth inning. And in early September, Washington Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan started a brawl against the Marlins after he was hit by a pitch. His offense? Stealing two bases with his team trailing 11-0. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Nats, Marlins brawl after Nyjer Morgan is hit by a pitch
Nats, Marlins brawl after Nyjer Morgan is hit by a pitch

The rules are passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, they are not passed on actively – it’s not like there is an unwritten rules convention every year during spring training where rookies are taught the ways of baseball – but players are expected to learn through osmosis.

“I don’t teach young guys about the rules,” admits Cincinnati Reds reliever Arthur Rhodes, a 19-year veteran. “They just go out and play the game hard every day and do what they’re supposed to do. If the other team hits one of our players, you might have to hit ‘em, you might not have to hit ‘em. But you don’t put all that in a young guy’s head.”

So it is assumed young players will just know what the rules are, and how to follow them.

“They’re part of the game,” claims Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher. “They’re part of the workplace, part of your job. You know what they are and you stay with them.”

But when asked how he learned the unwritten rules, Swisher cracks a grin. “When you come up you might not know every single one of them, but you’ll learn them along the way. Then again, there are probably some that I don’t know,” admits the seven-year veteran. “And hopefully by my 15th, 16th, 17th year, then maybe I’ll know more.”

Spend enough time around the game, most players say, and you just learn how to play the game properly. But the assumption that everyone knows the rules, can learn them, or is even willing to follow them, seems to be misguided and the root of the problem.

“I think the issues arrive because not everyone necessarily knows the unwritten rules, or because they’re unwritten they don’t think they have to follow them,” says Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. “Because of those two things it leads to issues sometimes.

“I think a lot of it too is just a difference in mentality between the guys with old school philosophies and opinions, and the younger guys.”

braun-110803-standard1A generation gap, as it were. Older players demand respect, younger players refuse to give it, and problems arise. Ensberg, though, says the blame lies not on the players, but by those entrusted with the responsibility to teach them.

“I think the majority of coaches and managers don’t really have guidelines,” he says. “Their default answer is that you just know when a guy is disrespectful to you. They don’t know.”

Further complicating matters, some believe that players, being ultra-competitive athletes, will sometimes make up their own rules as a kind of motivational tool in the heat of battle.

“I think that on the big league level guys are so intense and want it so bad that sometimes they invent some unwritten rules where you’re not even quite sure how it came about,” says Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, talking specifically about the Braden incident. “I think it’s just two guys competing, sometimes it gets a little heated and it’s more emotions than say, unwritten rules.”

Tulowitzki says such tension is constantly brewing beneath the surface, mostly unnoticed by fans. Perhaps a batter is mad at himself for missing a pitch he felt he should have hit, so he kicks the dirt, swears at himself, shows some emotion. The batter is only angry at himself, but the pitcher might view it as a sign of disrespect. At times like this, Tulowitzki says, “you know as a player you have to cool down.”

So if no one really knows all the unwritten rules, coaches and veteran players are not actively teaching them, and some players actually make up their own as they go, is there any hope at all at solving this dilemma? Will there ever be serenity on the baseball diamond, and would we even want it?

Should the unwritten rules, in a shocking act of revolution, be put down on paper?

“They could (be written down),” says Braun with a laugh, knowing they never will be. “I think that presents the highest likelihood of everybody following them and understanding what’s going on.”

Or is the answer, as St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday asserts, much simpler?

“Honestly, I’m not sure what any of that means. I don’t know what we’re talking about as far as written rules, unwritten rules. I just try to play the game hard, play the game right, try to respect your opponents and try to respect your teammates.”

And so we have completed the circle and come back to where we started. Baseball is a gentleman’s game. A game of respect and honor. A game where players strive to bash their opponents into submission, but with the proper amount of civility.

Sounds simple enough

Heaven, hell and the ultimate baseball road trip

This story originally appeared in May of 2009 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, it has vanished. I’ve revived it here, and I hope it makes you want to take a monster road trip.

HLG_MLB_Roadtrip2.hlarge

Mike Hartman and Aman Dhaddey sat beside the road in the blistering summer heat, feasting on grocery store chicken and trying not to melt into the asphalt.

Their car’s tires had shredded in the desolate southeastern corner of California, about 40 miles from the Arizona border. After a tow into Blythe, Calif., (centrally located on I-10 at the Arizona-California border!) , they found themselves curbside as they waited for new tires, devouring their elegant meal and trying not to sweat in the 115-degree heat. As they sat there, they noted the misery of their surroundings.

“Blythe is probably the most depressing place on Earth,” recalled Hartman in a recent e-mail interview. “As Aman put it, ‘everyone there looked like they wanted to die.’”

In that moment, on the surface, so did they.

But deep down, it was another story altogether. Deep down, they were having the time of their lives, their car troubles just a little setback on an epic journey.

Dhaddey and Hartman
Dhaddey and Hartman

Hartman and Dhaddey were attempting the most ambitious of baseball odysseys: attending a game in each of the 30 Major League ballparks, all in one season.

And while the pair of college kids would come up short in their quest, hitting 24 parks before being sidelined by a lack of funds, the adventure itself was worth the effort.

“It would have been amazing to keep going, but it had almost been 10 weeks worth of traveling and we had seen so much of the country, met great people and had dozens of interesting experiences.”

Others who have attempted such a trip agree.

“This journey was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Troy Foster, who accomplished the feat with a friend in the summer of 2008.

“Anyone who is a baseball fan should do it,” said Cary Freels, a hardy fellow who actually did his trip on a motorcycle – in a mere 40 days – in 2008. “I think it’s our Mecca. It’s something you have to do before you die.”

So fear not the heat of Blythe, Calif., baseball fans. Just get out your maps, gas up the car, and prepare for the ultimate road trip.

Just don’t forget to check those tires.

CHARTING THE COURSE

Perhaps the most difficult part of pulling off such a trip is the logistics of scheduling. It seems so simple. Open up a calendar, pull out some team schedules and make them match. But a number of factors make this more difficult that it seems.

Teams can go on extended road trips just as you arrive in town, leaving you stranded. Cities with two teams don’t always have them both in town at the same time. And long distances between cities, particularly in the West, can make for brutal travel as you scramble to get to the next game.

“Our route was probably one of the most difficult things to figure out as far as logistics went,” wrote Hartman. “It was very much a trial and error sort of thing. I posted a screen capture of the route on Facebook and several people pointed out potential time-savers. I don’t know how we would have managed to plot it all out without the Internet.”

For Freels, the scheduling was especially important, as he was attempting what he thought would end up a Guinness World Record – 30 ballparks in 40 days.

A 33-year-old native of Houston, he could’ve just hopped on his bike and done the trip, but as he explains it, he never does “anything small.” He designed his trip to raise money for Livestrong, Lance Armstrong’s foundation fighting cancer. He was accompanied by his mother Lynn Funk, a cancer survivor, who rode alongside in an RV. Also in the RV was a small camera crew to document the trip, plus another crew member to man his web site.

Freel’s hope was that his record chase would stir up publicity for the charity. While aware that others had done it in fewer than 40 days, he hoped for a special classification as he was doing it while riding a motorcycle.

Unfortunately, halfway through his trip, he was notified that would not be the case.

“If not for the record I would’ve really slowed it down,” Freels said. “I took some chances that could’ve cost me my life. … I would do it again, but not in 40 days.”

He’ll have a hard time convincing his mother, who is seven years in remission, to go along next time. “We’ll always have this trip no matter what happens,” Freels says, before adding. “But she swears she’ll never do it again.”

DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT

Once you’ve got your course charted, a huge obstacle looms – how to pay for your trip. Gas, lodging, food. And, don’t forget, you’ll need tickets, too. It’s daunting to even think about it, especially in the current economic climate.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the average price of gas nationally as of May 18 was $2.31 a gallon. At that price, and assuming your car gets 25 miles per gallon – and you took our suggested course — you’re looking at least $1000 for gas alone.

Foster (middle) and friends
Foster (middle) and friends

Fluctuating gas prices were frustrating for Foster, when he planned his 2008 trip. The former newspaper editor – who has since started his own media company (Foster Group Media LLC) and aims to become a documentary filmmaker — sold his house to help finance his trip.

He convinced two of his closest friends — Daren Many and Nolan Rice — to attempt the ultimate baseball road trip. The idea was to meld business with pleasure, shooting video along the way to eventually produce an in-depth multimedia project. (You can view some of the videos at Basecrawl.com)

While selling his house helped set aside financial worries, it was nonetheless jolting watching gas prices soar in the summer of 2008, from $3.06 during the planning stage, to $4.25 by the time they started their trip.

Even more painful, Rice bailed on the trip after seven games, homesick for his girlfriend. Foster and Many forged ahead in a gas-guzzling SUV, while Foster’s hybrid car – too small for three passengers but just fine for two — sat unused at home.

“It would be maddening at times to spend $80 to fill up my tank when I had a hybrid sitting at home,” Foster said.

But while the cost of your trip will remain at the whim of gas prices, there are ways to save money, namely on lodging.

Foster suggests sitting down and writing down all the people you know: Old friends, relatives, former classmates and co-workers. “You’ll find you know people everywhere,” he said.

Furthermore, once word gets out of your trip, unexpected assistance just might surface. Foster and Many said they were contacted by friends of friends, people they didn’t know, who offered them a place to crash for a night or two.

“We slept on a lot of couches,” Many said. “These people fed us dinner and put us up for multiple nights.

“It was amazing how interested people were in the trip. We couldn’t have done it without them. We didn’t have that kind of money for hotels.”

Hartman and Dhaddey also recommended avoiding hotels. Camping is cheaper, as is sleeping, as they did at times, at rest stops.

“Ear plugs and a Benadryl and I was out like a light,” wrote Hartman, “Some of the rest stops in Iowa, if I recall, even had free wireless Internet.”

Hartman stressed what he said was another good source for lodging, a web site called couchsurfing.org, a community where people host passing travelers.

“Aman and I met some fantastic people who went out of their way to make us feel at home,” Hartman wrote. “We made some lifelong friends through the process.”

Another way to save money is to contact the teams for tickets. Explain your trip and what you’re trying to accomplish, and you might score some free seats.

Allan Stejskal, who visited all 30 ballparks in 2003 along with his wife Pattie and sons Sam and Max, used this method with some nice success. In addition to receiving free tickets from “about a third of the teams,” Sam (12 at the time) and Max (11), ended up with some nice perks. The boys were allowed to take the field at Dodger Stadium, to interview Marcus Giles on the jumbo-tron in Atlanta, to catch pop-flies in Minneapolis, and meet the man in Baltimore who rubs down the baseballs before every game.

The Stejskals
The Stejskals

Freels also received special treatment, helped by the fact his trip was raising money for charity. The Phillies let him drive his motorcycle on the field and he met players Shane Victorino and Brad Lidge. In Arizona, he presented Orlando Hudson with a Livestrong bracelet, and his mother spoke with pitcher Doug Davis, a fellow cancer survivor.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Like that nasty pitcher on the mound, life will throw you a curve ball once in awhile, and being on a lengthy baseball odyssey will only enhance your chances of encountering the unexpected. Be prepared to embrace the challenges ahead, and roll with the punches.

We already mentioned the possibility of out-of-control gas prices wreaking havoc on a budget. But that is just one of many problems that can crop up when driving thousands of miles on single trip.

Foster and Many made an expensive mistake in Washington, D.C., when their car was towed, forcing them to get a $250 hotel room in the city and destroying their $500 lodging budget in one fell swoop.

Later in Chicago, Many was caught in a scalping sting while trying to sell a ticket on the street. After being threatened with jail, he was issued a citation, which he accepted coolly without letting on that Foster was filming the encounter from across the street. The end result was $240 out of Many’s pocket.

And don’t forget the havoc that weather can play.

Stejskal said he had two games rained out in the first week of his trip. The ensuing chaos meant games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati – in that order, with Cincinnati a noon start – on successive days, a rough stretch of travel. “That was probably the toughest part of the trip,” he said.

Not all of the surprises from your trip need be bad. Hartman, then a student at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo, liked the Milwaukee area so much that he ended up moving there, which he said “confounded friends back in California.”

And Stejskal said his flexible approach led to some entertaining adventures, like a 250-mile detour to New Orleans just to have dinner.

“It was a great experience to spend the summer with no stuff. You just go where you go and don’t have to worry about much of anything.”

BONDS STRENGTHENED, OR TORN ASUNDER

Stejskal stressed his trip only brought his family closer together. Books on tape helped keep the boys occupied during the long drives, and their leisurely pace, including early arrival to many games, allowed them chances to talk and explore the ballparks together.

“We were really lucky,” he said. “Hardly anyone has the chance to spend two and a half solid months with their kids. For me, anyway, and I think it goes for the rest of my family as well, it was a really special time for us.

“Whether doing it with your family or friends, it really is about doing it with people you care about.”

Foster, however, offers words of warning for those who don’t have a family to take with them, yet may be leaving important people behind.

“Be single,” he said. “I had a girlfriend when I left, and when I got home I was single. It fell apart, man.”

For your bucket list: MLB’s must-see players

Griffey

This story originally appeared here in July of 2010 on NBCSports.com. But since they’ve change publishing platforms, it has vanished. I’ve revived it here, and I hope you enjoy it, and excuse the references to Ryan Braun. We didn’t know he was dirty at the time.

He lounged alone in the clubhouse, idly clutching his trademark black lacquered Louisville Slugger, eyes glancing from the golf highlights flickering on the nearby flat screen, to his iPhone, and back to the golf.

A longtime veteran, highly decorated and with a place in Cooperstown already safely secured, the man seemed weary and perhaps a little bored. He lamented the lack of time he had to hone his own golf game, and spoke glowingly of the family he missed. He talked about his three children, and specifically about his desire to buy a Winnebago and travel with his daughter – an eighth grader – to her many youth basketball tournaments.

GriffeyAfter 22 seasons in the big leagues, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and 630 home runs, George Kenneth Griffey Jr. appeared to be ready to go. This scene occurred a month before Griffey would abruptly bring an end to his Hall of Fame career, but even then he seemed ready to walk off into the sunset, content with the indelible mark he had left on the game.

Griffey was what you could call a bucket-list player. Every time he took the field there was a chance he would do something amazing, whether at the plate or in the field. He was the type of transcendent talent that every baseball fan should make the time to see. A player you would brag about to your children, saying “I remember that time when Griffey …”

But on that day in early May, Griffey was ready to pass the torch on to the next generation of players. It’s a generation as deep as it is talented. A generation that has been – and hopefully will remain – mostly unscathed by the steroid era, a time in which Griffey starred yet was never tarnished by. Don’t worry fans, just as you bragged about Griffey, there are plenty of young players your children will be able to brag about to their offspring.

“There are a lot of guys now,” Griffey said. “If we spend all this time talking about what guys did 15 years ago, then you miss out on what these players are doing now. There are a lot of great young player right now, and it would be sad if we didn’t notice how good they are.

“Baseball today is in a lot better situation than a few years ago.”

Sticking to players under the age of 30, Griffey touted players like Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and Brewers sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

longoria-110512.standard[1]When asked if there were any pitchers worth seeing, Griffey feigned disgust. “Pitchers!” he snorted, rolling his eyes. But those same eyes lit up a moment later, and two words popped from his lips: “The Freak,” he blurted, referring to shaggy-haired San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum. “He’s undersized and maybe 160 pounds soaking wet. But he’s not afraid to come right at you, and he knows how to pitch. He’s just one of those guys who is fun to watch.”

Conspicuously absent from Griffey’s list was St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols, a first baseman widely considered to be baseball’s best player, but who at age 30, did not qualify under Griffey’s self-imposed age limit.

Ask just about anyone in baseball, though, and they’ll tell you that Pujols is a must-see talent.

“What’s impressive for me with (Pujols) is that he’s got the whole package,” said Twins designated hitter Jim Thome. “He hits for power and for average, he drives in runs, he runs the bases well, has made himself into a great first baseman, and doesn’t strike out.

“Being a guy that strikes out, and who has hit home runs,” said Thome, referring to his 2,300-plus whiffs and 569 career home runs, “you look at a guy like Pujols and go ‘wow, he doesn’t strike out.’ Over the long course of a season, you’d think a guy with that much power would strike out. He doesn’t, and that’s impressive.”

Rays stars Longoria and B.J. Upton also mentioned Pujols, as well as Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, as must-see players.

“He (Pujols) and A-Rod will be on the cusp of breaking a lot of offensive records,” Longoria said. “All of these guys are players who can have a tremendous impact on a game all by themselves. They can change the course of a game with one big play.”

Upton agreed.

“Me being a hitter, I like watching guys hit, and these guys are all great at it. I think overall (the No. 1 guy to see is) A-Rod. It just always looks like he’s going to hit it, and it always looks like he’s going to hit it hard. He’s just fun to watch.”

Upton, despite being a speedy outfielder and dazzling base runner, made it clear that he enjoyed watching home run hitters most of all. After all, the old commercial didn’t say “chicks dig the stolen base.”

But several players did mention Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, marveling not only at his on-field success, but his amazing level of focus and preparation.

“He’s got something in mind that he’s going to do, and he’ll do it,” said Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins. “That’s what makes him great.”

“You could talk about Ichiro,” said Twins catcher Joe Mauer, 27, himself a must-see player as perhaps the best catcher of his generation. “He’s been doing it a lot longer than people realize. He was doing it for 10 years over in Japan.”

Thome compared Ichiro to Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, with amazing bat control to seemingly place hits wherever they want. “They’re that good. It’s like they’re magicians the way they go about it.”

Another magician has the attention of his colleagues, this one for his mound wizardry: Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay.

“He’s one of those guys who every start will give his team a chance to win,” said Longoria, expressing relief that the former Blue Jays ace had switched to the National League in the offseason. “He’s got four ‘plus’ pitches, and at any time in the game, he can throw any of them for a strike. Even if one of them isn’t working, he still has three. (Red Sox left-hander Jon) Lester is another guy who has developed into one of the best in the league.”

One thing that seemed common to all the players mentioned was that they had earned respect from their peers not just for their talent, but also for how they handled themselves as professionals. Flashy prima donnas were absent from their lists.

McCutchen“They go about it the right way,” said Mauer, a clean-cut kid who carries himself like a regular guy despite already having three batting titles and an MVP award on his resume. “They’re not the ‘look at me’ type of guys. They play the game hard and they play the game the right way. It’s not about the flash or things like that, it’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”

“It’s how he comes to play every day,” said Figgins, who expressed admiration for unheralded players like Juan Pierre and Garrett Anderson. “With all these guys, that’s what they do.”

They also happen to be great baseball players. The kind of players you’ll want to be able to say you saw in person, to be able to point out to your son or daughter and say “See him? He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”

So get your tickets and head out to the park. Take your kids to see the current and future greats of the game. As Griffey says, it would be a shame if you didn’t.

Welcome to my little blog

helloHello and welcome to my blog. I’m not sure what I’m going to do in this space, but hopefully it will be fun.

If nobody reads it, I’ll just be entertaining myself, and that’s just fine really.

One thing I do want to do here is share some stories I’ve written in the past. I’ve worked on numerous fun and interesting projects in recent years for NBCSports.com and MSNBC.com. Unfortunately, NBCSports.com has changed to a different publishing system and in the process some of my work has vanished. I’ll salvage what I can and put it here for all to enjoy. Well, at least I’ll enjoy it … and maybe my parents. Hey, it’s a start.

Cheers!