The boys of summer are back, and for a certain kind of baseball fan, that means only one thing: road trip.
For such die-hard fans, taking a tour through the National Pastime provides an unforgettable chance to experience such famed ballparks as Tiger Stadium in Detroit, where Denny McLain put together his 30-win season . . . or New York's Yankee Stadium, where Roger Maris smashed Babe Ruth's home run record . . . or venerable Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the immortal Ernie Banks built one of baseball's greatest legends.
"This summer, I plan to do five parks in eight days in California -- San Francisco, L.A., Anaheim, San Diego and Oakland," says Jack Spector, a Laurel psychologist. "Last summer, I visited parks in Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee."
For fans like Mr. Spector, visiting shrines such as Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, is pure bliss. He doesn't even care who the visiting teams are.
"More than any other sport, the appeal of the game supersedes the appeal of the team," he explains. "It's more than being a fan of the Orioles; the places where baseball is played have an appeal of their own. That's because baseball is a sport where history counts for something."
Whether it's a whirlwind bus tour that hits three stadiums in three days, a custom itinerary designed by a baseball tour operator, or a trip where you go it alone, there are plenty of opportunities to step up to the plate for a road tour.
"Movies such as 'A League of Their Own' and 'Field of Dreams' have had a large influence on the popularity of baseball tours," says Dottie Maitland, president of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Tour Association, a 600-member trade organization of group tour operators. "We're seeing a growing interest in baseball and sporting tours."
Baltimore's Charm City Travel has been escorting Orioles fans to out-of-town games for more than a decade. "New York, Boston and Toronto are our most popular destinations," says Leo Harnen, who organizes the trips. "We order tickets as soon as the official schedule comes out, block space in hotels and planes, and order buses."
Accommodations are an added treat for O's fans taking a Charm City tour. "We stay in the same hotel as the Orioles," says Carole Siegert of Baltimore, who has twice visited Fenway Park on Charm City tours. "I don't bother team members or talk to them, though. But it's interesting to see the team at the hotel."
A sense of history
"Baseball people are unique," says Jay Buckley, a La Crosse, Wis.-based baseball tour operator who's been leading bus trips to major league ballparks for 11 years. "They're into stats and who made their mark on the history of the sport. They can go into a stadium and feel the history."
This summer, Jay Buckley's Baseball Tours offers 20 motor-coach trips, including a 12-day blockbuster tour visiting baseball hot spots such as Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Mile High Stadium in Denver and the Houston Astrodome (the trip costs $945, based on double occupancy; departs July 28 from La Crosse).
Folks who sign up for this trip won't get a lot of sleep. The tour whisks clients to 10 games played at nine stadiums.
"It's a very fast-paced tour," Mr. Buckley says. "We plan on spending eight hours in the motels, so there's no time for lounging around the pool."
He predicts the 900 customers signed up to tour with him this summer -- "male or female, age 8 to 80" -- will love the hectic pace.
Making new friends
Convenience may explain the popularity of motor-coach trips, even the hectic ones. Mr. Buckley buys the tickets, books the rooms, sets up sightseeing tours and shopping trips along the way, and provides all the transportation. The friendships that develop between clients are an added plus.
"A few years ago, a widowed farmer from Minnesota in his late 60s brought his 11-year-old grandson along on a tour," Mr. Buckley recalls. "Then he met a lady on the trip and it didn't take long to realize there were some sparks there. Some nights I baby-sat the grandson while the couple danced the night away. They got married a month later.
"Wives and husbands of die-hard fans enjoy it too," Mr. Buckley says. "There are plenty of other things to do, like shopping and sightseeing."
Tom Broach, owner of Broach Tours in Charlotte, N.C., is in his second year of offering scheduled bus tours to major-league games. His three top destinations are Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Camden Yards.
New -- and old
"It's a new stadium that's designed like an old stadium, so it has atmosphere and a unique personality," says Mr. Broach of Baltimore's stadium. "Camden Yards is the first stadium to go back to the old tradition of stadiums."
Mr. Broach says a lot of fans can tour America's ballparks on their own, but suggests they might be missing something. "The camaraderie of being with 44 other pure fans on a bus is a lot of fun," he says.
Mr. Buckley says there aren't too many tour operators who specialize in baseball trips.
"You have to be a real baseball fan to run this kind of business," he says. "Also, schedules are tight and it takes a long time to learn 28 different cities. And a lot of tour operators don't want to put up the money for baseball tickets, since you can't cancel or return them if they're not sold."
Ms. Maitland adds: "There will be more baseball road tours when the baseball owners wake up and realize there's a market there. When baseball is popular they sell out to the local population. But when it's slow, say, at the end of the season, the owners could increase attendance if they worked with tour operators."
Looking to the future
Orioles spokesman Bob Miller says the team recognizes the popularity of road tours. "But I'm not aware that we help private tour operators," he adds. "Maybe somewhere down the road, all sports-- and not just baseball -- will offer packages to bring fans on the road with the teams."
Booking a seat on a scheduled bus tour might be the easiest way to experience the thrills of a baseball trip, but it's not the only game in town. Baseball Odysseys in Washington, for example, will design a custom itinerary around your budget and goals.
"Bus tours are great, and you don't have to make any decisions. But not everyone has the time," says Baseball Odysseys owner Mark Handwerger. "For our clients, we get the hotel, give directions to the ballpark, get the tickets, even book the airfare. We can do as much or as little as the client wants."
Baseball Odysseys, now in its third year of operation, can also incorporate other events into a major-league baseball trip -- say, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., or a minor league park.
"I really push minor league games," Mr. Handwerger says. "There are 150 minor league teams out there, and people who go are really excited about [the games]. It's down-home America. If you go to one game, you'll go to a lot of games in the future."
Baseball Odysseys charges an average service fee of $50 for its custom-tour services. "We have the connections, and we're always able to get tickets, especially for post-season games," Mr. Handwerger says. "Our business is strong because baseball is strong. And it's a great way to see the country."
Drive but plan ahead
Still, some fans choose to hit the road on their own. Joe White, a computer systems manager who lives in Bel Air, took off by car last fall with two co-workers for a three-day road tour to watch the Orioles play in Detroit and Cleveland.
"We left very early in the morning, drove straight through to Detroit and saw the Orioles play the Tigers that night," Mr. White recalls. "The next morning we left for Cleveland to see the Orioles play the Indians."
After a second night in a hotel, the trio stayed in Cleveland to catch a night game that evening. After the game, they split the driving three ways for the long drive home, reaching the Baltimore area around 5 a.m.
"We go for cheap, not extravagant," Mr. White adds.
Does this avid fan have any tips for do-it-yourselfers?
"Plan ahead as much as you can," Mr. White recommends. "Make sure you don't drive too much, or make sure you have enough drivers."
Even with the tough touring schedule, Mr. White says, the trip was still a hit. "It was total baseball for three days. In Cleveland, we even went to the movies and saw Tom Selleck in 'Mr. Baseball.' "
COVERING THE BASES
If a baseball road trip is in your future, you've got three choices to consider: a guided motor-coach tour, a customized trip designed by a firm that buys the tickets and reserves hotel and airline space for you, or a self-guided tour.
* Charm City Travel in Baltimore schedules guided bus, train and air trips to Orioles games. Two-, three- and four-night packages include transportation, game tickets, city tours and bullpen parties. Prices range from $349 to $539 per person, double occupancy. For a schedule and more information, call (410) 789-8687. Clients stay in the same hotel as the O's.
* Jay Buckley's Baseball Tours offers 20 guided motor-coach tours ranging from three to 12 days in length. Popular baseball destinations include Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Prices range from $75 to $85 per day, which covers everything but meals. Call or write: Jay Buckley, Director, Box 213, La Crosse, Wis. 54602-02213; (608) 788-9600.
* Broach Tours is offering a Chicago-area baseball trip departing July 25 from Charlotte, N.C. The tour takes fans to five games in seven days, including Tiger Stadium, Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, Milwaukee County Stadium and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. In addition, clients are treated to a Lake Michigan boat cruise, a stop at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a tour of Chicago. The cost is $488 per person, double occupancy. For more information, call or write: Broach Tours, P.O. Box 470976, Charlotte, N.C. 28247; (704) 366-6345.
* Baseball Odysseys in Washington customizes baseball tours. The cost is the price of game tickets, lodging and transportation, plus an average service fee of $50. In addition, clients receive a trip itinerary plus maps and directions to the ballpark and area sights and amusements. For more information, call (800) 752-9225.
* If you're planning to go it alone, pick up a copy of Rand McNally's "The Official Baseball Atlas," a 177-page guide to major-league ballparks that includes schedules, city maps, stadium charts and information on tickets, lodging and other sights in each city. The cost is $12.95.