Article by Rob Wilken. Photo is provided by Rob. All rights reserved
Growing up in Houston, I spent countless days and nights at the Astrodome watching the Astros of my childhood years (1970s/1980s). When they were on the road, I was glued to the television following them across the country. Often times, I would dream of being able to follow my team away from home and cheer for my Astros as they traveled to the cities of the National League, before interleague play began and the forced move to the American League. The closest I ever had been to classic ballparks and frequent Astros stops like Wrigley Field, Candlestick Park, Dodger Stadium was the screen on my television.
Fast forward to 1996: I was living in Atlanta, working a variety of jobs. A long-time friend recognized my passion and desire to travel, combined with my love affair with baseball, and suggested I seek a career in the airline industry. Every job has some kind of perk, and the number one perk for airline employees is being able to fly free, albeit on standby hoping there’s a seat available after all the customers that pay my salary are aboard. Lured by this, I began my airline career in August of 996 and by October 1997, I’d relocated back to Houston.
After seeing the Astros multiple times when they visited Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, my first Astros road trip was to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. How cool to be supporting my team on the road and seeing these ballparks in person that previously I had only dreamed of visiting.
What followed in my 19-year airline career was flying standby to see games in 49 different Major League ballparks. When Atlanta’s SunTrust Park opens in 2017, it will be my 50th MLB ballpark visited. In total, adding in minor league ballparks as well as MLB Spring Training facilities, I’ve been fortunate to fly to 121 different ballparks to see games. That’s a lot of scouring flight-load availability, searching for open seats when teams were at home — and, oh yes, making it back home to work so I could continue to enjoy this benefit. I’ve never missed a day of work as a result of failing to make it back from a trip in time. Balancing the complexities and risks involved with flying standby, often I’m buying tickets at the last minute at a ballpark. Sometimes the result is some really inexpensive tickets close to game time.
Not knowing early in my career how long I would be working for an airline (as nothing lasts forever, as they say), I made it a goal to visit every MLB ballpark. After completing this task spread out over a few seasons, I decided in 2003 to embrace the logistical challenge of attempting to visit all 30 MLB ballparks in one season. I had to check flight schedules and availability — not to mention weather forecasts — and the teams’ home schedules. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment that I completed this very awesome experience.
Since then I’ve traveled to a number of minor league ballparks at every level, spring training facilities and kept up with visiting new MLB ballparks as they opened.
This year (2015), I was up for a "new" challenge. I spent most of April on a "around the world" journey visiting Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, South Africa and Dubai.
After completing my trip, a friend joked that "now it’s time to visit all the ballparks." I thought about the changes that had occured at many parks since I’d last visted them, and knowing that I’m always up for a travel-related challenge, I decided to take this on.
The result was a total of 53 flights for a grand total of 55,000 miles, all going to and from ballparks — all on standby! Yes, I accomplished my tour of all 30 parks in the Majors in 2015. With airline load factors being higher than ever and with consolidation among airlines meaning fewer flights, this was definitely a challenge. Again, I never missed a day of work completing this tour — all done on my regular days off.
Spending the summer days and nights of 2015 at ballparks across the country and meeting countless baseball fans created memories that will last a lifetime.
Now it’s time to think about what challenge 2016 will bring!