Nothing like a road trip to pull team together

July 08, 2000|By ROB KASPER

AS I SAT on I-95 outside Washington last weekend, staring at the rear end of an 18-wheeler, I had a parental insight. Namely, there is a direct relationship between the age of your kids and the distance you end up hauling them to play baseball.

When my baseball-playing kid was a tyke, it took about five minutes to get him to his game. Then as the kid began to play on summer travel teams, our baseball commute reached out to some of the most distant and well-hidden fields in the metropolitan Baltimore area. Now that the kid was in high school, and still playing recreational baseball, I was getting a taste of the summer "road trip." Last weekend, I was one of a handful of parents who drove our teen-agers and their Putty Hill Panther teammates to Greensboro, N.C., to play in a four-day tournament.

While it was new to me, the holiday road trip was a familiar experience for other Maryland parents. "On the Fourth of July weekend, kids like to go away for tournaments," Pete Karsos told me in a telephone conversation. Karsos is president of Putty Hill Baseball and a coach who recalled that he once shared an Ocean City motel room with six baseball players. Despite the expense, which teams usually cover by selling raffle tickets and soliciting donations, road trips are a popular component of summertime baseball. Karsos said that three of the five teen-age teams in his Putty Hill association took road trips last weekend.

Moreover, when I looked at the tournament program down in North Carolina, I saw that 10 of the 24 teams in our bracket hailed from Maryland. The rest came from North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri and New York.

As a rookie, it seemed to me that a parent's road trip responsibilities fell into four basic categories: driving, feeding, grooming and policing the troops.

The transportation plan called for our team to travel as a well-organized convoy for 375 miles to Greensboro. That plan fell apart after about 50 miles, when we hit that black hole of congestion, Northern Virginia, where hundreds of highways named "95" try to merge, leaving traffic at a standstill. When an 18-wheeler loaded with a bulldozer decided that it was going to separate me from the caravan, I was not prepared to fight.

Each vehicle in our caravan had a cell phone, but it turned out that we did not have each other's phone numbers, at least not the correct ones. My co-pilot, Dave Jakubowski, punched away at his cell phone but could not reach John Del Monte, the team's assistant coach and chief navigator, or fellow caravaners Ross Bregel and Tex Williams. For an hour, we were a rogue vehicle.

We re-established communication the old-fashioned way: Somewhere north of Richmond, the Del Monte van pulled alongside and signaled to us to follow them to the next exit, the site of a Burger King. The moral seemed to be that if, on the road of life, you ever get separated from a pack of 15-year-olds, just pull into a fast-food joint. If there are burgers, they will come.

During the Burger King pit stop, we got the cell phone numbers straightened out. This turned out to be quite useful when we rolled into Greensboro and couldn't figure out which Holiday Inn had reservations for the team.

After playing Holiday Inn hopscotch for an hour, and after a flurry of phone calls - including a heated one from tour coach Al "I-am-ticked" Nuzzi and a mollifying one from Jim "Work-With-Me" Naylor, a dad who ably assumed the role of team deal-maker - all of us ended up with nice accommodations at a new La Quinta motel.

Even before I unpacked, I rewarded myself for completing the stressful nine-hour drive by downing a large, cold beverage. That night we dined, en masse, at a Fuddrucker's, a burger joint. When you dine with 15-year-old boys, you see a lot of beef and chicken. This is not the salad-eating set.

Good grooming matters were handled by the contingent of moms who made the trip. Dirty uniforms were collected and laundered by Cindy Hoffman and Thea McManus, while another mom, Sandy Herrmann, assumed the role of team beautician. As a sign of unity, the entire team had gone blond for the tournament. If some of the guys needed a little help mastering the fine points of hair dye, the team beautician was there for them.

During our stay, our highly visible and vocal teens drew the attention of various groups of young ladies, of other hotel guests and of the security force of the minor-league ballpark we visited one night.

At various times during our stay, team meetings were called, warnings were given and apologies made. When a large, loud family of "good ol' boys" moved into our motel and assumed the role of chief rabble-rousers, many parents in our group breathed sighs of relief. We were no longer the noisiest group in the motel. The good ol' boys also took a liking to the blond baseball players and paid them $20 to throw our coach in the motel pool.

In between the extracurriculars, the guys played baseball. They won two games, beating teams from West Piedmont, Va., and Greensboro. They lost to a team from Clarksburg, W. Va., and to the 16-year-old team of Yankee Rebels, another Baltimore club.

We got some clutch base hits, made some dramatic catches, had some jarring collisions at home plate and pitched brilliantly. We also made errors, left runners stranded on the bases and served up fat pitches to the opposition.

We arrived back in Baltimore on the Fourth of July - tired, loaded with dirty laundry and full of shared stories. That, I guess, is the value of a road trip. Win, lose or change of hair of color, it brings a team together.

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