HICKORY, N.C. -- In Jules Verne's classic novel, Phileas Fogg traveled around the world in 80 days. Cass Sapir is taking more than twice that long for his trip but then again, Fogg didn't have to coordinate his trip with the schedules of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Greensboro Grasshoppers and 187 other teams spread across 46 states.
Sapir is on perhaps the grandest, most exhausting road swing in baseball history. In a money raiser for the Jimmy Fund (the Boston-based children's cancer charity), he's driving around the country visiting every major league and minor league affiliate stadium in the country -- 189 in all (two teams share a park) -- in just 175 days.
"When we talked about the trip, we never knew whether we would be able to do it," Sapir said when I crossed paths with him in L.P. Frans Stadium -- ballpark No. 110 for him -- at a Hickory Crawdads game during my far humbler minor league tour. "It's an ambitious plan with a strong hint of insanity. But if you're going to do something, you have to do it big in order to have a platform to reach people. "Some people bike across the country. Some people walk across the country. We don't do that. We're built for comfort, not speed. But why not do what we do best? And that's go to baseball games."
So that's what he's doing. He got a leave of absence from his job making documentaries in Providence, bought a 2002 Honda Accord and hit the road. The first game was the Texas Rangers' season opener on April 4. The last game is at Fenway Park on Sept. 8. And everything in between is the result of lot of planning and gasoline.
Minor leaguers think they have it hard? At least someone arranges those uncomfortable bus rides for them. Sapir had to figure out how to see 189 stadiums on his own. It would be one thing if he just had to visit the 189 ballparks. But he has to do it while the team is playing at home, which leads to Barry Bonds-sized scheduling headaches.
"It was like the largest game of Sudoku," Sapir says. "It took me literally 100 hours and most of those were spent cursing. We could not be doing this 20 years ago. You wouldn't be able to figure out the schedules without being able to call them up on the Internet."
One key was searching for day games in cities close to other ballparks, allowing him to hit more than one stadium a day. Even so, he had to drive from the Metrodome after a Twins game all the way to Texas for a Frisco RoughRiders game the next evening. He made it five minutes before the first pitch.
Sapir holds raffles and auctions at each ballpark, and also takes donations on his Web site TourfortheCure.org. He hopes to raise $100,000 before the trip ends. So far he's raised about $30,000, or about $1 for every mile he's driven. Because he wants all the pledge money and donations to go right to the Jimmy Fund, he says he's paying the costs of the trip -- lodging, gas, food -- out of his savings and through a couple sponsors. His brother, Tim, and friends have joined him along the route to help share the driving and keep him sane. Or as sane as anyone can be attempting something like this.
"We camp out a lot," he says. "We stay with family and friends. We stay at hotels. A night or two we spent in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It's actually a very underrated way to stay in a city. There are a lot of campers hanging out in the parking lot."
He's also been eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches thanks to the inexplicable minor league tradition of handing out loaves of bread as fans leave the games.
|Jim Caple's Minor League Tour|
|Jim Caple's latest stop was Durham, N.C., where the best sports movie ever was made, and found it's still a must-see.|
Sapir had to replace the brake pads once but that's been the only auto trouble apart from the odors you pick up over four months on the road. "We've had some bad banana problems," he admits. "You lose a banana in the car for a couple months and it really starts to smell. We've had a lot of rotten fruit smells."
The teams have been incredibly supportive, letting him set up a table for raffles during the games and occasionally donating memorabilia to raffle off. Ten teams have invited him to throw out the first pitch. "For awhile, I called myself the Rick Ankiel of first pitches because I was so horrendous. I couldn't hit anything. I was throwing it over the catcher and all the way to the backstop."
Tuesday was kids' day in Hickory and with so many children in the stands, Sapir's 50/50 raffle brought in only $40. But the good part was the woman who won the raffle donated her $20 share right back to the Jimmy Fund.
I can think of no better way to see and appreciate America than visiting its baseball fields (the only states in the continental U.S. he won't visit are the two without a major league team or a minor league affiliate -- North and South Dakota). He's seen more jaw-dropping sights during his tour than he can name, and that's not even counting Albert Pujols stepping into the batter's box -- sights like the vertigo-inducing highway over Beartooth Pass, Colorado, roads bordered by trees that scratch the clouds and the price of gas in Bakersfield, California ($3.55 a gallon).
The only problem is there's never enough time. As soon as the Crawdads game ended, Sapir and his friend, Eric Moskowitz, threw their gear into the back of the car and headed off to catch a night game two hours away. Another 79 parks and 20,000 miles awaited.
Here's the best part, though. If your idea of a good time is spending six months living out of a car, rushing from a Pulaski Blue Jays game to a Hickory Crawdads game, camping overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots and eating peanut butter sandwiches in one hand, drinking Mountain Dew with the other while driving with your knee, then send Sapir your application. He's looking for someone to do the trip next year. It's a once in a lifetime experience. And he means once in a lifetime.
"My girlfriend would kick me out if I tried this again."
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
The favorite for this week's award was 83-year-old Jim Eriotes, who became the oldest player in pro baseball history when he batted in a game for the Sioux Falls Canaries and struck out. "If I got a couple more at-bats, I'd get a hit. Easy," he told reporters. "He wasn't throwing that hard. I fouled one off. You can be the best hitter in the world and you might not get a hit if you only get one chance. But it was a great opportunity. It was cool."
As we said, Eriotes was the favorite for this week's award but a week later, 94-year-old Buck O'Neill topped him by batting and walking in the Northern League All-Star Game. Twice. His line: 0 AB, 0 R, 0 H, 0 RBI, 2 BB Asked if he remembered who he faced in his last previous at-bat, O'Neill replied, "I don't remember yesterday, and you ask me who the pitcher was in 1955?" Which reminds us. Baseball's Hall of Fame is inducting 17 Negro League figures this month but none of them are O'Neill. After all he's done for the game, how is that possible?
LIES, DAMN LIES AND STATISTICS
Thanks to the more than two dozen people who responded to my Off Base column two weeks ago by offering to send baseball equipment to Greg Steinsdoerfer, the White Sox fan who is working on a development project in Zambia. In addition to his charity work, Steinsdoerfer is also teaching the villagers how to play baseball -- and based on the offers, that village is about to become the New York Yankees of Zambia. Greg says the interest in baseball remains high. After growing frustrated at swinging a metal pipe from a car, a couple children recently cut down a tree so they can have a wood bat. "I don't think they will be putting Louisville Slugger out of business but it sure works better than a rusty pipe."
WIN BEN SHEETS' MONEY
This week's department: Which One Is Not Like The Others?
Q: Courtesy of Cass Sapir, name the five baseball stadiums named after someone who played in the major leagues.
A. Hank Aaron Stadium in the Home Run King's hometown of Mobile, Alabama; Jackie Robinson Stadium in Daytona, Florida, where he began his career with the Dodgers in spring training; Ernie Shore Field in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland, where Cal grew up; and, oddly enough, Mike Lansing Field in Casper, Wyoming. Lansing, apparently, is a very big deal in his hometown. (Tim McCarver Stadium in Memphis is no longer in use.)
"Did you watch the All-Star Game? The Midsummer Classic. The American League won again, 3-2. Performance enhancing drugs are illegal in baseball, but why is every commercial for Viagra?"
-- David Letterman