WDAY: The News Leader

Published August 06, 2012, 10:14 AM

Ohioans chronicle minor league season on road trip

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Five hours before the first pitch of the Columbus Clippers game, Matt and Carolyn LaWell arrived at Huntington Park for what has become a typical day of work.

By: AMY SAUNDERS,The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Five hours before the first pitch of the Columbus Clippers game, Matt and Carolyn LaWell arrived at Huntington Park for what has become a typical day of work.

The journalists toured the stadium, recorded hours of conversation with staff members, took video from the dugout and photos from the stands before settling in for the July 24 game, their 90th this season.

The next morning, in their Honda Element that sometimes doubles as a bed, the couple headed to a different city, a different minor-league ballpark — as they have almost daily since April 5.

On July 25, they were back in their home territory of northeastern Ohio for the Akron Aeros game. Next it was Eastlake with the Lake County Captains, then Erie and Altoona, Pa. and Frederick, Md., by that Sunday.

When their tour ends at the Toledo Mud Hens game on Labor Day, the LaWells will have traveled 26,000 miles and chronicled their stories of 119 ballparks on "A Minor League Season," the website that the 28-year-olds launched after leaving their jobs and their Lakewood home.

Back in Matt LaWell's Ohio University dorm room, the tour was more of a travel dream than a career move for the lifelong Cleveland Indians fan.

But after seven years of covering sports and business for newspapers and magazines in Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia, the 2005 graduate wanted to tell his own stories, his own way.

Carolyn, also an OU graduate, journalist and Indians fan, agreed to quit her job at a landscaping trade magazine, store their stuff and join him on the tour, which began in Jacksonville, Fla.

The couple's website lists a thesis question of sorts: "What does minor-league baseball mean today?"

At each ballpark, they collect the stories of people whose dedication to the game makes up part of the answer:

— The diverse staff of the Bakersfield Blaze in California, who work in a 71-year-old stadium where the outfield wall fails to block the blinding sun and the scoreboard quits working after the sixth inning

— The interns for the Arkansas Travelers, who live in an apartment at the ballpark and are paid mostly with beer and a chance to someday make careers out of baseball

— The Clippers' media director and historian, Joe Santry, who regaled the LaWells with stories of his previous job milking cows and of the city's role in the development of ballpark hot dogs and umpire hand signals

Every team, no matter how small, has dozens of stories to share.

"We've come across a lot of people who just enjoy telling their stories because they so seldom do," Matt said. "To find that every day, everywhere — it's enjoyable, refreshing."

Meanwhile, the couple has consumed 41.5 hot dogs, heard the ubiquitous "Call Me Maybe" at games 26 times this month and timed national anthems as long as 2 minutes, 9 seconds (which Matt says was 39 seconds too long).

To maintain their $8,000 budget, the LaWells stay with friends and family members whenever possible but have spent 41 nights in the car to avoid paying for hotels.

Speaking from Midland, Mich., one afternoon recently, Carolyn casually mentioned that they hadn't yet decided on that night's parking lot of choice.

"There's a Walmart here," she said. "I don't know; we'll figure it out around maybe 9 or 10 o'clock."

Life still happens on the road: They celebrated Carolyn's birthday at a rained-out game in Augusta, Ga., and their fourth anniversary sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment in Louisville, Ky.

But after 112 days, they had few complaints about the lifestyle or each other.

"If the trip were to keep going on, I think we'd probably be fine with that," Carolyn said.

Said Matt: "If your marriage survives five months out of a car ..."

Neither is yet sure of the ending, for their stories and for themselves.

After Labor Day, they need more time to complete the website, having fallen behind on their work.

Then, they want to start developing the material into a book, hoping to make return trips to write about certain people and places in more detail.

Although the thesis question remains a work in progress, Matt thinks it focuses, in part, on the optimism of people working toward the big leagues — many, of course, who won't make it there.

"We still dream. We always dream," their website states.

It is not unlike their book, which they will attempt without knowing whether it will sell.

Said Matt: "I'd have more regrets not writing it."