Baseball's a great way to see the heartland of America. How else would a traveler learn the history of the Precious Moments Chapel, which artist Samuel Butcher built under divine inspiration in Carthage, Mo., a decade after finding a market for his greeting cards and figurines of impossibly cute tots with poolsized eyes? How else to find the George Washington Carver National Monument, a federal park on the former farm where the multitalented plant doctor was born to a slave mother, near Diamond, Mo., just up the road from Neosho?
How else to discover Joplin’s Joe Becker Stadium, where the warning track in right field warns of a hill sloping up to the fence and where Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle played for the Yankees’ Class C team in 1950?
But most of all, how else to learn that Cindi had the best vacation ever in 2004?
Some baseball nuts trek far and wide to visit major league venues across the country.
My family takes baseball road trips to towns that would never have made our radar screen were it not for a love of baking on the bleachers while kids racing much too quickly toward adulthood play a game that’s still just a game and not yet a job.
One summer, we built our family vacation around a baseball tournament in the lovely ski village of Steamboat Springs, Colo., only to be dispatched 45 miles west for games played on dusty fields so strewn with rocks that the outcome depended on which players could cleanly field the most bad bounces.
This year's adventure in the southwestern-most corner of Missouri taught us that you can find fine sushi just five miles from an old-timey carousel and miniature golf park on the old Route 66 that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles before interstate highways connected the nation.
We concluded that this part of the country surely has more McDonald’s and fewer Starbucks per square mile than any other corner of the world.
I found myself talking with my daughter about wanderlust and the excitement of travel. About how some people never feel the urge to venture far from the place they were born. About towns that shrivel and die when all their young people move away and the old ones die off.
It was from a complete stranger at a Crowder College ladies room that I heard my husband’s high school had won last year’s Missouri state basketball championship. Who knew?
This trip was a reminder all over again that the leisurely pace of baseball that non-fans find excruciating makes for good visiting, that long miles in the car that teenagers find soooo borrrring provide priceless opportunities for insight that parents otherwise would miss.
Toodling down the Will Rogers Turnpike through Oklahoma on the journey home, my husband and I learned that, given the chance, our son would vacation in Australia to see the Great Coral Reef before environmental hazards destroy it. Our daughter would visit Japan, her trip there this summer with Fort Worth Sister Cities having been thwarted by international swine flu worries.
Instead of going exotic, like to Hawaii, we took them to a mauve-colored motel surrounded by open fields off a highway.
We wandered through an Ozarkland gift shop whose souvenir offerings included huckleberry jam and collectible shot glasses housing tiny hillbilly couples sitting on their porch rocking chairs. Turns out SpongeBob SquarePants had the perfect description for it: a chumporium. But apparently a popular one, because from the graffiti-covered bathroom stall door I learned about the passersby going from Kentucky to Oklahoma, Iowa to California, San Antonio to Springfield. That’s where Cindi immortalized her terrific travels in 2004, sparing us the details.
These summers of discovery are limited-edition treasures, I fear. I'll miss them when they’re gone.