Reporter's notebook: Take me out to the ballpark

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Baseball aficionados like to say that their sport is the national pastime. I like to claim some sort of membership in that group. However, on behalf of all of those who love the game, I’d like to clarify.

It’s watching baseball that is the national pastime, not playing. We’re pretty good at talking a good game and postulating which batter or fielder or pitcher or era was better than another between innings or pitching changes.

And no matter what any baseball fan tells you, where you see a ball game matters.

I started my little love affair with the game of baseball back in the early 1980s when my folks took me to San Diego Padres games. I don’t remember much, only that we cheered for such baseball greats as Kurt Bevacqua (who, according to Tommy Lasorda, couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat) and Sixto Lezcano (who, surprisingly, had 10 toes, five on each foot) at old Jack Murphy Stadium. No longer home to the Padres, it’s now home to the NFL’s Chargers, college football’s San Diego State University football and the Big 3 Auto Parts Exchange show.

When my family moved to Washington, D.C., I became an Orioles fan. Being a shortstop in Little League, my hero defaulted to one of the game’s greats, Cal Ripken Jr. We’d sit in old Memorial Stadium and yell at Cal to snag grounders — and he’d comply.

That stadium was demolished in 2001 and the Orioles play in nearby Camden Yards.

And years later, when my family moved back to the left coast, I became a Mariners fan. Games at the Kingdome were, well, ugly in the early going. You try rooting for Rey Quinones, Ken Phelps and Scott Bradley each game. I hear they officially counted as Major League games, although a late-season, Mariners-White Sox battle typically drew fewer than than 6,000 fans per game (in 1986, Seattle was dead-last in the American League in attendance).

Since then, the Kingdome’s been demolished, too.

I realized every ballpark of my youth has been razed or traded to some football organization. Yikes.

A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit a couple of ballparks on a family trip to St. Louis and Milwaukee. I started to think about how tough to would be to see all of them, to be able to claim to have been to every major league park in the country. I began to wonder how many people could make that claim. I’d read about these baseball fanatics who’d race across the country and try to do a ballpark each day or all the ballparks in 50 days, and while that certainly seems like a lot of fun, it’s not really my dream. But I would like to see every ballpark I can before I die.

With that in mind, I got an interesting e-mail the other day from a guy from Sequim named Jim Dries who claimed he’d done just that — visited every major league park in the land. And that he’d just been inducted into a Hall of Fame for the effort. I simply had to talk to this guy.

‘Abandoned’ fan finds a home

“It was going to be an accidental goal,” Dries tells me, reclining in his sunlight-filled living room in a home not far from the cliffs overlooking Dungeness Spit.

I say, sure, who can afford that? I look up at his bookcase and see rows and rows of baseball books. This is a real fan, I think, not just a guy showing that he can foot the bill for a bunch of plane tickets.

Dries grew up in Iowa, where his mother and her family were big Brooklyn Dodgers fans. His father passed along to Jim a hero: Ted Williams. Dries began to follow the Splendid Splinter, too, not just for his baseball acumen but his work with children.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, Dries said he couldn’t follow them, that he felt “abandoned” by them. Eventually Dries and family moved to New York.

“The dreaded Yankees became the beloved Yankees,” Dries says with a chuckle.

Dries and a friend would take trips now and then, hitting a string of ballparks on a minivacation when they had the time, but there was no hint of trying to make it to all of them. Instead, the pair would hit a number of ballparks, major or minor league, in a certain geographic region. Dries was content with that.

Working as a teacher in New York, Dries got an interesting offer one day from a teaching colleague who started up a company doing exactly what Dries had been doing, only providing the scheduling, tickets, hotel stays and a “guide” for each excursion.

Understandably, Dries took the job offer.

Hall-of-Fame class of 2009

More of an adult chaperone than a tour guide, Dries helps fans complete a unique baseball experience with what are essentially baseball “road trips.” For a package price, fans get to see two to eight games in up to six ballparks in a little more than a week. The “Eastern Loop” trip, for example, sees 10 teams in five games in five ballparks in just six days, from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, to New York (both Yankees and Mets) to Baltimore.

Other tours include the Baseball Hall of Fame, the All-Star game, a minor league game, the Football Hall of Fame and one — the California Express tour — includes a visit to the Hearst Castle.

Other Sport Travel and Tours packages include basketball, football and hockey tours.

In other words, a sweet gig.

Along the way, Dries picked up games in every major league park, sometimes visiting cities to see newly constructed ballparks. It took him 13 years. With minor league stadiums and fields, he can boast of more than 60 parks.

Nine years ago, Sports Travel and Tours started a program with the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor fans completing the 30-ballpark major league gauntlet.

“We’ve been taking fans to ballparks for many years,” said Jay Smith, president of Sports Travel and Tours, “and the constant comment of our travelers is ‘I want to see every ballpark before I die.’”

And so, with two-dozen other fanatics, Dries was inducted into the Baseball Stadium Hall of Fame on July 25 in the Bullpen Theatre in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

At the ceremony, a staff member of the Hall of Fame welcomes the inductees and Smith awards each member a plaque and certificate in recognition of their achievement. Their names then are placed in a record book kept on file at the membership desk at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“This is a way to honor the fans,” Dries says.

Each member gets to pick a team affiliation for induction. Dries, for years a diehard Yankee fan, chose to be inducted as a Mariner. He now owns the honor of being the first Mariner in the Baseball Stadium Hall of Fame.

“When I moved here, I (decided to) root for the Mariners and I support the Mariners,” he says. “But I still have a soft spot for the Yankees.

Not calling it quits

Now that’s he’s a hall-of-famer, Dries isn’t letting up. I got a note from him just last week that he got last-minute tickets to see the Mariners at Safeco on Oct. 1 and sat 13 rows behind home plate. He got into a conversation with a fan from Tokyo who was in Seattle for three games to see a Mariner — Griffey, not Ichiro.

While Ted Williams remains his all-time favorite player, Dries says he likes Ichiro, the Japanese sensation in Seattle, and the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. But he’s clearly a bigger fan of the game. He walks me into his baseball memorabilia room and I nearly have a heart attack. The wall perpendicular to this vaulted ceiling is literally covered with hats. Yankees hats. Reds hats, Pirates hats. Cardinals hats. Orioles hats. You get the idea.

I’m blown away, partly because I’m in awe of it all as a fellow baseball nut, and partly because I have my own stack of hats not yet mounted back at home.

I started collecting them to remember certain games or times, and it’s grown to a modest 10 or 12. But this, this is ridiculous. He’s even got a World Series hat from the “Subway Series’” (Yankees versus Mets, 2000) with series pins on it. Some hats are from minor league parks.

In the same room, on another wall, are scoreboard numbers from the old Busch Stadium that Dries had displayed, proclaiming his wedding anniversary date. Nearby, a trophy case full of signed baseballs and autographed photos and plaques. Everywhere I turned, a bit of baseball’s glorious past.

It’s like Sequim’s Cooperstown. Beautiful.

Dries and I spend a few more minutes talking, recalling our favorite in-person games. He recounts a 2-0 Yankees win at Boston’s Fenway Park in May 1979. Reggie hit a home run and Tommy John beat Dennis Eckersley with a three-hitter.

I recall a recent trip to St. Louis, watching Cardinal Adam Wainwright throw a 1-0 shutout against Houston.

Dries remembers a game just before the 2008 All-Star game, a 4-2 pitcher’s duel between the Giant’s Tim Lincecum and the Cubs’ Ryan Dempster at Wrigley Field.

“I like a great, fast game,” Dries says.

We could do this all day, but I had other stories to write, so I thanked Dries and headed back to the office.

On the way back, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to see every ballpark in the country. That, frankly, is a lot of hats.

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