Posted August 14, 2013
It combines traveling, sports, food, memorabilia.
It can be done solo, with family or in groups.
A camera and itinerary are useful, making it easy to track what you’ve done, where you’ve done it, and when.
You just need time, wheels and some money for gas and tickets.
Those in the game might call it “collecting ballparks.” It’s the hobby of visiting as many professional, semi-pro and/or collegiate ballparks as you can.
Baseball fields and stadiums dot the North American landscape from coast to coast, from Canada to the Caribbean.
When descending or ascending in an airplane, ball fields and swimming pools rank side-by-side atop the list of coolest things to spot from above.
And visiting these myriad ballparks, not so surprisingly, developed into a passion for countless baseball enthusiasts.
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Count Randy Whitaker, general manager of the Harrisburg Senators, among those. Same with Brian Williams, the Senators’ Fan Club president.
But this isn’t solely for those directly tied to a front office or fan club.
“For families looking to do something cost effective, minor league ballparks are the way to go,” said Jim Britton of Harrisburg, who moved to the area in 1987, the same year the Senators returned to the Eastern League.
Jim’s wife, Denise, is in on the act, too: “I grew up in a sports family [three brothers], and baseball was a big part of our family vacations. That continued when I met Jim.”
The Brittons, like Whitaker, Williams and so many others, are collectors, so to speak.
It’s certainly not just minor leagues.
"Unless I get to see a game, it doesn’t make the list.” — Senators GM Randy Whitaker
Obviously major league ballparks fit the bill, as do independent league parks like we have locally in York and Lancaster. It’s also fair to include college stadiums, summer league stops, and even the abandoned ball yards.
Whitaker fit the bill of collector long before, seemingly out of nowhere, he was named Senators’ GM after the 2007 season.
He’d unknowingly been training for the job for more than 20 years when, in the mid-1980s, a co-worker from WHTM abc27 got him hooked by suggesting a trip to check out a ballpark in Frederick, Md.
“Cool ballpark, neat experience,” Whitaker remembered of that Frederick trip. “Figured I’d go to another one, and it started spreading from there.”
While you can’t exactly “collect” a ballpark, you can snap plenty of pictures, grab souvenirs, save your ticket stubs (ala Whitaker) and keep records.
Heck, you can even share your experiences with the world …
THE ULTIMATE HOBBYIST
When he was a teenager in 1988, Brian Merzbach and his family set out on a vacation not terribly far from home in Amherst, Mass., visiting several upstate New York ballparks along the way.
Now 39, the joy he discovered 25 years ago has transformed into a thorough love affair with the game — or, more accurately, the settings of those games.
In 1997, Merzbach started a website to post photos of the ballparks he visited. He added reviews and discovered his passion was shared.
He purchased the domain name, www.ballparkreviews.com in 2001, and he’s been updating and sharing pictures, data and reviews ever since.
In fact, the Senators’ home, Metro Bank Park, features two reviews: one from before the 2009 renovations, and one after the renovations were completed. Let’s just say the grade improved.
“The No. 1 quality for me is the setting, or sense of place,” Merzbach said. “When I’m watching a game, I like to have something in the setting remind me of where I am.”
Merzbach, who’s visited 45 major league parks (current and former) and 264 minor league parks (affiliated and independent), said concourses, sightlines, concessions and background noise heavily factor into his grading system.
“I prefer the focus to be kept on the game,” Merzbach said. “This means no sound effects — some music is OK — and minimal distractions. I like to relax when I go to a game, especially minor league games, so I don’t like to be bombarded with unnecessary noise.”
Ask Merzbach to name his favorites, and the question needs to be more complicated.
He breaks ballparks into two categories: old and new.
Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass., McCormick Field in Asheville, N.C., fit the old-school bill, while Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C., and Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island, N.Y., rank among his favorite newer parks.
Merzbach, whose day job at IBM occasionally involves travel that has helped him add to his impressive total, says he’s been to stadiums in 48 states (only Wyoming and Alaska are out) and estimates there are roughly 50 ballparks he hasn’t yet visited.
PUTTING IN THE MILES
Sometimes a trip is spontaneous, like when the Brittons made a last-minute decision years ago to drive 300-plus miles to Canal Park in Akron, Ohio, for an Eastern League playoff game against the Senators, then return home afterward as if it was a routine visit to the grocery store.
Often, though, trips are planned well in advance, with multiple stops along the way.
Years ago, Williams met a guy named Mitch Mansfield at a baseball fantasy camp at Doubleday Field in Landisburg. A friendship developed, and the ballpark trips began in 2005 with a jaunt through the MLB: Philadelphia, Baltimore, both New York teams, then Washington, D.C.
Mansfield, Williams said, travels a lot for his job.
“We decided to do it every year, and that’s what he would do when on the road for his job,” said Williams, who estimates he’s been to 57 ballparks, 23 in the big leagues. “He’d look at schedules and start to formulate a plan, deciding where to go next.”
One year took them from Toronto to Detroit to Toledo to Cleveland.
This year featured what Williams called “the most aggressive trip,” covering 2,500 miles and nine ballparks (plus three breweries and two museums) in eight days throughout the Midwest.
The Brittons, who’ve been to an estimated 54 minor league parks and 33 major league parks, tout the Carolinas corridor as a terrific area to collect some quality stadiums.
They also pointed out our own area — with Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Reading, Altoona, Allentown, Williamsport, etc. — as an ideal spot for knocking out multiple parks in a short period of time.
Keep in mind, though, you’ve got to do a lot more than cruise past the ballpark to check it off your list.
“A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to Finger Lakes, N.Y., for wine tasting and decided to go see a Batavia Muckdogs game [at Dwyer Stadium], but it got rained out,” Whitaker said. “Got to see the parking lot, but unless I get to see a game, it doesn’t make the list.”
Whitaker, who was also a longtime autograph collector, says he originally kept notes on the best places to land signatures and was even considering making a book out of it.
“Then I evolved from autographs,” he said. “And even before I got an inkling I was going to get into the business, I was fascinated with why concessions stands were way out there, or why this was this way. I’d notice things, and I was interested to see how it all operated.”
Now the Senators’ general manager, Whitaker, who’s been to approximately 113 ballparks across all levels, can open his notepad and read good and bad observations from his various visits to help determine what to do (and what not to do) at Metro Bank Park on City Island.
“I’d write things down, just long lists with things like ‘souvenir bucket of popcorn,’ or ‘commercials on the scoreboard,’ ‘listing anthem singers in the program,’ ‘including a ballpark guide in the program,’ ‘a player autograph booth’ or ‘red carpet for first pitches.’ ”