First class all the way
You'd never know it from the away records of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (4-26), Colorado Rockies (4-23) and Kansas City Royals (8-21), but life on the road is better and more luxurious than it has ever been for major league baseball players.
Teams travel exclusively by charter, though the practice of leasing private charter jets for the season has largely been abandoned. They stay in upscale in some cases, luxury-brand hotels, and every detail of the trip is taken care of: Luggage is transported for them, from clubhouse to bus, train or plane and finally, to their hotel room door.
Players want for little and are asked to do nothing for themselves. Visiting clubhouse managers, who do everything from provide postgame food spreads to make restaurant reservations, serve as a sort of baseball concierge.
If there's one thing players crave more than ever, it's privacy. According to traveling secretaries, most major leaguers stay under aliases, the better to elude pesky radio show producers seeking interviews and fans and memorabilia collectors in search of autographs.
Communication has been made easier thanks to technology. Cell phones are omnipresent on buses to the airport, in hotel rooms and in the clubhouse providing virtually round-the-clock contact with friends and family.
Most players travel with laptop computers, allowing them Internet access and e-mail capability. Portable music devices (MP3 or CD players) help pass the time on planes and buses; DVD players are now common, too.
Boredom is the chief enemy.
"There's a lot of free time on the road," one player said. "Sometimes, too much free time."
The sheer amount of time spent at the ballpark would shock most fans. Although team buses, transporting players from hotel to ballpark, run hours before game-time, many players leave for "the office" hours earlier still.
There's a comfort in the clubhouse their home away from home and it offers familiar faces and diversions. Card games are held, and most clubhouse managers stock a raft of movies to watch.
For those eager to work or treat an ache or pain, there's more help than ever. Visiting teams are usually granted a window for early (or "extra") batting practice on the field. Almost every team travels with computer and video equipment to research past at-bats against a particular pitcher. Or, for slumping players, video from more productive times can prove reassuring.
Most ballparks now offer many amenities to promote better health. State-of-the-art workout facilities are available, as are whirlpool and massage facilities.
Because most games are played at night, players live a largely nocturnal existence. They leave one town for another typically 90 minutes or so after the completion of a game, and teams regularly arrive at their next destination in the middle of the night. Players get in the habit of sleeping late, which throws off their eating schedules.
Many players consume a light, late breakfast or none at all then make it a point to have a big lunch early in the afternoon. That has to hold them until after that evening's game, when the clubhouse attendant provides a varied postgame spread.
For players in an industry where the average salary is greater than $2 million annually, price is rarely an object. On the final day of a road series, it's not at all unusual to see players enter the clubhouse with shopping bags from designer boutiques or other exclusive retailers.
Golf is an increasingly popular diversion, though some clubs have policies against it. Some restrict playing to scheduled off-days and forbid taking clubs on the road. But players agree that's not a difficult rule to circumvent: Most can borrow or rent clubs and get in 18 holes without being found out.
Off-days are cherished the basic agreement mandates that teams can't go more than 20 days in a row without a day off and here again, economic privilege plays a part.
Pressed for time and limited by conventional commercial airline schedules, players have, in recent years, begun leasing private jets to get them from a road city to home. With sometimes little more than 24 hours between the end of one series and the start of another, time is of the essence. Charter jets can fly anytime, day or night, and as a bonus, offer players the privacy they demand. There are no security lines or other mundane travel delays.
So why, then, are some teams so inept on the road? Beyond theories about a lack of parity to the problem of small-market teams stocked with inexperienced players, perhaps a simpler explanation exists.
After all these years, there's still no place like home.
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.