Bellingham bicyclist riding to all 30 Major League Baseball parks
Bellingham bicyclist Darren O'Donnell has set out to visit every Major League Baseball stadium this season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The trip to date
When Major League Baseball's season began, so did Darren O'Donnell's.
O'Donnell was two years out of Western Washington University, where he majored in economics and accounting. He worked at a Bellingham food co-op, where he had been promoted to meat manager.
But O'Donnell really loves baseball, and he dreams of someday becoming a team's general manager. So he quit his job and took off in early April on a tour of all 30 major-league ballparks — by bicycle. O'Donnell plans to meet people, watch baseball and maybe even find a job.
"In a perfect world, I would get some contacts with the major-league clubs and work my way into a front-office position," said O'Donnell, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, before moving west for college. "I would love to do statistical analysis for a team. Or really just working in the front office at any level. I just think it would be awesome to get paid to watch baseball."
During his trip, O'Donnell will spend 170 days and 10,500 miles on his bicycle, seeing the country and experiencing the national pastime in every city that has major league teams.
Though his mode of transportation and endurance are unusual, O'Donnell, 24, is not alone in the quest to see every MLB diamond. Countless people attempt the journey — most pecking away at their goal by taking in a few stadiums a year — as a way to connect with the game and feel like a kid again.
Graham Knight, 36, runs www.baseballpilgrimages.com, a website featuring up-to-the-minute information and stories on major- and minor-league ballparks, recommendations for places to eat and stay, and lists of tourist attractions nearby. Knight, a former journalism student at the University of Georgia, writes the articles.
There is an addictive nature to ballpark tourism, said Knight, who compared it with how he felt when he took up running.
"I ran a 5K. That turned into a 10K. That turned into half a marathon. It snowballs," Knight said. "The baseball season is called a marathon because the season's so long."
The boys in the van
While O'Donnell pedals across the country, a group of four 18-year-olds — former Little League teammates from Queen Anne — is making a pilgrimage in a 1999 Volkswagen Eurovan.
The group even persuaded companies to sponsor their trip. The van has a custom wrap on it, with "Ballpark Boys 2011 Tour" and their sponsors' logo on one side and a map on the other. More than one of the guys expressed concern about the sturdiness of the van.
But if it holds up, the Ballpark Boys plan to finish their trip — an almost 14,000-mile, 54-day venture — on Aug. 3 in Seattle. Across the country, O'Donnell will be at a game in Washington, D.C. — with 12 parks still to visit.
"In every city we're going to find one landmark and do something crazy," said Jack Wilson, who graduated from Lakeside School in Seattle days before the boys took off. "In Times Square we want to play catch. The goal of the trip is to capture the nostalgia and vintage American culture."
Before leaving on the trip, Wilson had been to one MLB stadium: Seattle's Safeco Field.
"This is a dream come true for all these guys," said legendary Seattle sports fan Lorin "Big Lo" Sandretzky, who attended a send-off for the Ballpark Boys at Kerry Park on June 10. "For everybody to come together and support these guys doing this — it's a wonderful, wonderful thing."
Big Lo, who has been to 14 MLB stadiums himself, coached the boys in baseball for five years.
1,000-mile ride last year
While the Ballpark Boys have been planning their trip for years, the idea for O'Donnell's ride came last summer after he rode about 1,000 miles from Bellingham to Chico, Calif.
O'Donnell, who has family in Ohio and grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan, asked for time off from the co-op's meat department. His boss said no.
"So I quit my job," O'Donnell said. "... I'd rather take my chances and do something I really want to do."
So he took off on April 8 and went to his first game in Seattle, the home opener for the Mariners against Cleveland. His trip will end Sept. 25, with a game in St. Louis that pits the Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs. In between, he will visit all 29 stadiums in the United States, as well as Rogers Centre in Toronto.
O'Donnell's bike carries 41 pounds of gear, which includes riding clothes, street clothes, a sleeping bag, a tent, a towel, first-aid and hygiene supplies, bike supplies and food. He gets a hotel some nights but usually finds a spot on the side of the road to camp.
The money comes from an account O'Donnell had set up for graduate school.
"I wasn't completely set on going to grad school," he said. "I thought, 'Well this seems better than grad school right now, so I'm going to do this.' "
Letters sent ahead
Instead of more schooling, O'Donnell wants to venture into the real world, and use his trip as a way to promote himself.
His father is sending letters to major-league front offices, informing them when O'Donnell will be at their ballpark.
The letters don't ask for an interview or recognition.
Instead, they explain what O'Donnell is doing and invite the reader to simply meet O'Donnell when he's in town. Along the journey, he's using Twitter to stay in touch and update his trip status.
While on his way to Tampa Bay, O'Donnell began tweeting with the Rays' David Price and Evan Longoria, who invited O'Donnell to the field for batting practice.
O'Donnell talked to them and manager Joe Maddon, who also likes to bicycle.
The team presented O'Donnell with a personalized No. 11 jersey — Tropicana Field is the 11th stadium on his trip. (He shipped the jersey, a hat and other memorabilia from the Rays home because he had no room in his pack.)
"The Rays laid out the red carpet for me for sure," he said. "It was an absolutely unbelievable experience."
O'Donnell is using the trip to promote the benefits of cycling, raise awareness for food co-ops and food banks and encourage people to volunteer in their communities.
Of course, there are also the stadiums to see.
Unlike other professional sports, major-league-stadium designs can vary significantly. Each stadium has its field dimensions, foul territories differ greatly and a few ballparks feature roofs — both permanent and retractable — which throw in a whole other set of variables.
"How they allow the game to be played differently in each stadium, but yet they have the same set of rules, is fascinating," O'Donnell said.
On his best day of cycling, May 10, he left Albuquerque, N.M., and biked 166 miles to Wagon Mound, N.M., in a little less than 10 hours with the wind at his back.
A week later, he had his toughest day. Biking directly into the wind, O'Donnell could get only 52 miles away from Limon, Colo., eventually camping out off Highway 287 next to some construction equipment.
He's faced many obstacles along his journey. Some were accounted for before leaving — flat tires — while some have caught him off guard — tornado warnings.
After all this, he'll end up in St. Louis, about 2,164 road miles away from Seattle. By then, O'Donnell suspects he'll be done with his bike.
"My plan is to catch a plane back," he said. "St. Louis is a long way from Seattle, and I don't really want to bike over the Rocky Mountains in October."
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