baseball vacations

My friends here in New York have ambitious travel traditions. Jesse spends a week every summer with his parents in Hawaii. Aileen goes to see distant relatives in Ireland. Alexa and her kin go skiing in Aspen.

Me? Kansas City. Philadelphia. Houston. Toronto. Growing up in Central Illinois, I never went to Disneyland -- the Cardinals never played there.

The St. Louis Cardinals were the family religion, and we traveled to the altars. When the schedule came out, my dad would sit with a Magic Marker and circle one three-game road series. Then, come summer, my parents, my sister and I would pack into the Buick Skylark and schlep to the most storied destinations, like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. My mother and sister would drag us to some local curiosity during the day -- the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati is even duller than you'd think -- and then Dad and I would drag them to the stadium at night. The deal worked out all right. Your childhood travel memories might involve staring up at the faces of Mount Rushmore, or feeling the mist of Niagara Falls. Mine are in the upper deck of the gone-but-not-forgotten Riverfront Stadium, eating hot dogs while a tubby man wearing face paint screamed obscenities.

All told, I wouldn't trade my experience for yours. Road trips to ballparks are the perfect way to bond with your family. You learn a lot about your parents and siblings when you're in a car with them for eight hours and then spend three more sitting out in the sun, rooted (and rooting) together in a common purpose. To this day, these are among the most vivid memories of my youth. And every time I get the chance, I go home to St. Louis for games with my parents, my vacation in reverse.

This is all fine and good, but I'm a grown-up now, a professional writer, with a girlfriend who, quite understandably, sometimes desires more exotic trips than a visit to western Pennsylvania. (Shame, too: The Pirates' stadium is a marvel.) She's helped me expand my horizons beyond just where the Cardinals might be playing. Recently, we took a weeklong trip to France that almost made me forget that baseball -- and, for that matter, the Midwest -- even existed. I'm starting to realize the world outside the diamond is occasionally a rather lovely place. Who knew?

But let's not kid ourselves. Paris was great, but waking up at four in the morning to catch the end of the Cardinals' win over the Dodgers was better. Dad agreed; he even told me so when we e-mailed during the game. After an hour of back-and-forth, the thought occurred to him: "Hey, how's Paris?" I answered the only way I know how: "Go, Cards!"


Timeless tips for planning your vacation around baseball

Check the sked. Find out where your favorite teams will be, and when, in October. Grab the plane tickets then. In February, when most of the game times are finalized, nail down tickets.

Stay with the team. Some visiting baseball teams all stay in the same hotel near the ballpark. Find out which hotel and book a room there. Keep a pad and pen handy for autographs.

Go far. In early March, the first round of the World Baseball Classic takes place in Toronto, Tokyo, San Juan and Mexico City. One ticket gets you into six games in the city of your choice.