Not just a pastime—this may be America’s favorite travel quest
by Jennifer Mitchell
We love a good travel quest, especially when it’s inspired and challenging, yet attainable. One that pops up often is the quest to visit all 30 existing MLB ballparks. Seemingly most popular among father and son duos and groups of former college buddies, the ballpark quest is a time-honored bonding ritual where the travel adventures can be even more exciting than the games.
What has led these baseball fans to become ballpark fanatics? We touched base (pun intended) with ESPN baseball analyst and writer Tim Kurkjian who has naturally spent a lot of quality time in every Major League ballpark throughout his career.
“I always look forward to visiting a new ballpark because every park has something different from any other park,” says Kurkjian. “That’s what distinguishes baseball from other sports. Every NFL football field and every NBA basketball court has to look the same by rule. But there are no rules regarding baseball fields, and that’s what makes it so good. I have met countless fans, families and fathers and sons who are on a ballpark quest, and they always have a wonderful story to tell."
We chased down six intrepid ballpark questers who have visited or are in the process of visiting all 30 stadiums. They shared heartwarming stories about their stadium journeys and offered up tips for how to best take on this challenge.
Why visit all 30 MLB ballparks?
Beyond the love of baseball there are compelling reasons why fanatics travel to all 30 ballparks, whether they’re doing it in one summer or over the course of 30 years.
With five of the existing ballparks dating back more than 50 years, the experience of sitting in the stands connects you to significant moments in the game’s history.
“Every time I go to a game at Fenway, I think: Ted Williams played left field right out here, and Babe Ruth pitched on that mound,” says Kurkjian. “That means a lot to me.”
For many questers, visiting all the ballparks is a framework for seeing the country and getting a snapshot of a given city while having a sporting event to rally around.
“Ballparks try to encapsulate the best of their city,” says John Stiens, who has visited nine MLB ballparks over the last several years. “The park gives you a flavor of the city and the people you're visiting. You learn a little local history, you watch a group of people unite to cheer on their team. You can sample all the local foods in one setting. Every town has little traditions that you'll only discover by going to a game.”
For many, bonding with friends and family on the quest is just as important as seeing all 30 parks.
“The most rewarding part of the quest is spending time with my friends,” says ballpark quester Steve Sanger, who has visited 25 ballparks with his closest friend and his friend’s brothers. “Our lives get crazy as we get older. The fact the we set aside one weekend a year to watch baseball and catch up over a nice dinner makes it very rewarding.”
“Since he was 12, my son has enjoyed doing this with me,” says Matthew Hoffmeyer, who has visited 17 ballparks with his now-18-year-old son. “He even wrote about our MLB pilgrimages in his college application essay. He starts college in the fall and we’re already discussing our plans for 2020 and beyond. This quest has given us a goal to accomplish together, and in doing so, we’ve created a bond that is impossible to replicate. We’ve had experiences and memories that are ours alone to share forever.”
Tips for planning your ballpark quest
There’s no one perfect way to tackle this quest. While some opt to have a summer packed with adventure, visiting all 30 parks in one season or even in 30 days, others view this as a lifelong (or at least many year) quest. Some plan their visits to coordinate with their favorite team’s schedule, so they can root for their team no matter where they are. Others find more joy in rooting for the home team at every stadium.
Though this quest should be personal to you, our ballpark questers shared a few tips that have been helpful for them. Steins, for instance, incorporates his quest into his business travels during baseball season.
"I travel all the time for work, so my goal is to try and see whatever ballparks I can while on the road for business,” says Stiens. “I try to see one game each trip.”
Shawn Pitts, a ballpark quester who has visited eight parks with his fiancé, suggests starting with a road trip that hits multiple parks. Getting a few visits under your belt right away will help motivate you to continue.
If you’re hoping to complete the quest with another person or a group of people, deciding who to travel with is key.
“Do it with someone you care about because you’ll spend a lot of time together in close quarters,” says Hoffmeyer. “Also, unless it’s an important game, buy your seats the day of on StubHub to save a few bucks. And know where the shady seats are during day games!”
Many ballpark questers suggest extending your stay a few days to explore the host city and visit museums and historical sites and enjoy the local cuisine. Some have even paired their quest to visit all 30 ballparks with another personal travel quest.
“In addition to some of the tourist attractions, we try to catch an NFL and a college game if possible,” says Jeff Rose, another quester who has visited 17 parks with his son. “We also bring our golf clubs in case we can hit the links.”
Steve Lastoe already completed his ballpark quest, but while he was chipping away at ballparks, he tried to run a race or eat local BBQ in each city.
Like many travelers, some ballpark questers like to commemorate their travels with souvenirs or personal documentation. “I take pictures and complete a diary of every trip,” says Rose. “I could fill half a book with my experiences. I can tell you something about each city and stadium I have visited.”
Stiens suggests purchasing one collectible item like a ballcap from every place you visit. If you’re looking to commemorate your quest as a whole, get a personalized ballpark quest t-shirt from No Small Plan.
Finding the best ballpark eats
We all love peanuts and Cracker Jack® at the ole ball game, however, ballpark food has come a long way since that song was written. In asking which ballpark has the best food, a few parks emerged as clear winners.
Rose and Pitts give the award to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. Rose specifically notes the extraordinary skyline chili dogs. Stiens and Sanger, on the other hand, agree that Guaranteed Rate Park in Chicago takes the cake, saying the quality of the park’s food is unlike any other.
Lastoe names Oracle Park as having the best food and Kurkjian loves the brats (with the secret sauce) at Miller Park.
Hoffmeyer however, sticks with the traditional peanuts and hot dogs regardless of where he is. “We have a tradition of eating a bag of peanuts at every game, and we track the price over time.”
The best MLB stadiums according to those who have seen many
Although your ballpark preferences will likely be colored by your experience, we coaxed our baseball stadium experts into naming their personal favorites. Here’s what they had to say.
Tim Kurkjian: “Fenway Park is my favorite with Wrigley Field as a close second. I love the history and tradition of the game, and those parks are over 100 years old. Camden Yards is my favorite new park because of the warehouse in right field and because it started the trend of building cozy, retro ballparks that remind you of the good old days. The ballparks in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle are spectacular, also.”
Matthew Hoffmeyer: “Oracle Park in San Francisco. It is absolutely stunning. The location on the bay is so unique, and the design is intimate and beautiful. When you circle the park there is a vista in every direction. They painstakingly thought of everything when they built that park.”
Jeff Rose: “I love ballparks in cities that you can walk around and explore (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Boston). I really enjoy the immediate areas around Wrigley, Atlanta and St. Louis. And I’m really looking forward to Safeco Park.”
Steve Sanger: “I'm bit of a baseball historian, so I tend to like the older ballparks like Fenway, Old Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium. When you think about all that has happened in those parks it's pretty impressive. As for the new parks, I like PNC in Pittsburgh, Safeco in Seattle and Oracle Park in San Francisco. I’m excited to visit our final stadium, Chase Field in Arizona. Our plan is to invite our families and rent the pool suite. It will be a nice culmination of our trip.”
John Stiens: “Great American Ballpark is my favorite, but I’m really looking forward to Toronto. I think it'll be really crazy to hear a whole different national anthem before a baseball game.”
Experiences out of left field
Despite all the planning that goes into completing a quest like this, sometimes life throws you a curveball. You might witness a historic moment in baseball, catch a foul ball (as Rose’s son did at Nationals Park) or wind up in the middle of a tornado.
“On our way to Great American Ball Park, I was driving on I-71 toward Cincinnati and drove directly into a nasty weather front,” says Hoffmeyer. “The sky was ominous with dramatic dark clouds. The weather app showed a 150-mile front moving right at us fast, noted tornados in our area and advised us to seek shelter immediately. When we hit the front, the car was buffeted by powerful winds and large hail and we couldn’t see the highway. We pulled into a rest stop for shelter, and everyone there was pretty shaken up. My son and I each pretended not to be scared, but we were petrified. When we finally got to Cincinnati, the game was called just before game time due to weather, so we had to return later that year.”
Because every ballpark is unique, you’ll sometimes learn about a park’s quirks the hard way.
“I was on vacation in Florida with friends watching the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Angels at Tropicana Field,” says Stiens. “It's such a small enclosed park, it’s almost like watching baseball in a 1990s mall. You can shout, and everyone will hear you with perfect clarity. When I taunted a player, the entire stadium responded with, ‘Oooo.’”
Are you on a quest to visit every MLB ballpark? Check out our new ballpark quest apparel and share your stories from the road in the comments below or on social with the hashtag #NoSmallPlan. And if a sports-inspired travel quest sounds fun, but you prefer tailgates or derby hats, check out our travel quest ideas for sports fanatics.
Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.