This is an excerpt from the upcoming Home Run On Wheels book.
It wasn’t until February that we purchased our RV and, by then we had partnered with Children’s Hope Alliance – a foster care advocacy organization in North Carolina.
There were so many moving parts to launching Home Run On Wheels and by the time the calendar turned to 2018, we still didn’t know what kind of RV we were going to purchase. We had an idea of what we wanted, and things started to become clearer after we attended an RV show in Charlotte in mid-January.
We saw some high-end RVs we loved but knew would not afford something priced at $400,000 and higher. We had a budget about a quarter of that and that definitely limited our options. We had to find a layout we liked. Patti grabbed every floorplan pamphlet she could get her hands on. I walked into just about every RV at the convention center to see the assorted designs. It didn’t take long to figure out that we did not want a fifth-wheel or a trailer because we would have to purchase a truck to tow it. Patti had a 2009 Infiniti G37S and I had a 2011 Scion xD. We decided Patti would sell her car and we would tow mine, which got significantly better gas mileage.
We also knew we wanted a Class A motor coach as opposed to a Class B or C. A Class A gave us more room, though we had to be sure we weren’t getting something so large that it would be cumbersome to drive.
After visiting a few RV dealerships and attending that RV show, we test-drove two RVs – a 2015 Fleetwood Bounder and a 2018 Thor Windsport. We liked the way the Windsport handled and loved the layout, so that is the one we selected. What we didn’t know is that we would have multiple issues with the Thor. The slideout topper – a piece of rolling vinyl that is meant to protect the top of the slideout from debris like leaves and branches – snapped twice within the first five months; the water heater didn’t work properly for the first two months; the awning wind sensor was faulty over the first month; and the radio dash display – which includes the rear-view and side-view cameras – was out for about three weeks in July before we were able to get the fuse replaced. Fortunately, none of these issues delayed our trip during the regular season – though it did push back our ultimate departure from Charlotte by a couple of days. We second-guessed our decision of purchasing a Thor multiple times during our trip, but spoke with many people who paid significantly more for their motor coaches and every RV has issues – especially over the first year. It’s an accepted fact in the RV industry, even though it shouldn’t be. Lemon laws may exist for cars, but they don’t exist for RVs.
It didn’t help that the Camping World in Concord, North Carolina, was habitually unresponsive. We’d send several emails and leave multiple voicemails without getting a reply. When we showed up on March 10 to pick up the RV, assuming all the repairs had been made, the service representative seemed surprised to see us despite our numerous messages. It wasn’t ready.
Before the RV was officially ours, we rented a U-Haul to take some of the things we wanted to keep to St. Louis. Patti had owned a house there and rented it out using Airbnb shortly after we had moved to Charlotte in December of 2014 until it finally sold in July of 2017. The closing date on the house was September 1. Because the house was furnished, that furniture went into a storage unit in St. Louis. It’s also the unit into which we placed our things from the Charlotte house we had been renting.
While we did take those things to St. Louis, we still had a lot of items to get rid of. We sold some items and donated several things to Goodwill and then had a Salvation Army truck come out to the house. We also threw away a bunch of stuff. You have no idea what a trash truck can do to a sofa until you see that couch snapped in half before it’s devoured by the hydraulic packers.
We put in our notice to the property management office that February 28 would be our final day in the house. By the time that date rolled around, the house was empty and we were almost ready to go. I had informed Perform I would work through the NFL Scouting Combine, but my last day would be March 6. We left Charlotte for good six days later.
We took a weekend trip to Jupiter, Florida, shortly after purchasing the RV to check out the first weekend of Spring Training and give our new home a test run. The first time we put out the main slideout to fill up the RV for its maiden voyage was the first time that slideout topper broke. It was February 20. The brackets on either side of the roller snapped as we tried to extend the slideout. The technician said the manufacturer didn’t attach a necessary spacer. This we later found out was not exactly the cause of the problem. We had the topper removed and put it in our garage so our trip wouldn’t be delayed.
Not only did that maiden voyage weekend provide us an opportunity to become more familiar with our new home, it also gave us the chance to record some interviews for our upcoming podcast. We had our first three interviews recorded – Children’s Hope Alliance CEO Celeste Dominguez was our first guest and helped explain how this whole venture began; my former boss, Marc Lancaster, who used to work as a Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays beat reporter, gave us some food pointers and discussed his favorite and least favorite stadiums; and Sporting News national baseball writer Ryan Fagan offered some travel advice while explaining why he had never been to Yankee Stadium. The fourth episode would be Patti and I talking about our first few weeks in the RV and the issues we inevitably faced trying to downsize from our three-bedroom house to a 36-foot home on wheels.
After that, however, I wanted to fill the podcast by speaking with multiple MLB players. The first three came courtesy of the St. Louis Cardinals after they agreed to provide me with a media credential for that opening weekend. Jordan Schafer, who did not make the 2018 big-league roster, Marcell Ozuna and Luke Gregerson were three of our first MLB player guests. Schafer told me an inspirational story that led to the creation of his foundation to benefit the Boys & Girls Club in his hometown of Winterhaven, Florida.
“There’s a kid I met while I was in Atlanta who was battling cancer. I didn’t know this at the time,” Schafer began. “I was running off the field and I just threw my wrist band (into the stands). A couple weeks later, I get a letter in the mail at the field. It was from his mom. His mom told me that he was battling cancer and, I didn’t know it, obviously – didn’t know who the kid was – but he would sleep with it on every night. She wanted to know how big of a difference that made and how that brightened his day. Every single night he’d wear it.
“That’s kind of when it clicked. I have a greater purpose than just playing baseball. I can affect kids’ lives.
“When you go to the Children’s Hospital and you see the kids’ faces, you see these kids are fighting for their lives, but they have the biggest smiles on their faces when you walk through the door. They’re just happy to see you. That puts life into perspective.”
After the Cardinals allowed me access over that weekend in late February, we were able to get other teams to fall in line when we returned to Florida in mid-March. We interviewed Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris, Rays ace Chris Archer, Martin Prado and Cameron Maybin of the Miami Marlins, and Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl and first baseman Josh Bell. I also interviewed Rays first baseman Jake Bauers in early April while he was still with the Durham Bulls.
We went to three games that weekend – all Cardinals games. Two were at Roger Dean while the other was at First Data Field. I was surprised by how large First Data Field is, but disappointed your outfield walk stopped in center field. What we did love about that stadium, however, was the atmosphere. Mets fans are a passionate group, especially the 7 Line Army. They were there in full force on February 24, taking over the right-field lawn area.
We had a blast hanging out with that group while watching the Cardinals’ 10-5 win. There were four people in particular who stood out.
As we walked out to the lawn area, we got stopped by a pair of Latino men on the ramp near the right-field foul pole.
“Hey man, help us settle an argument,” one of the men, who was wearing a Mets jersey and New York Knicks cap, asked.
“OK,” I responded, sort of confused by what was happening.
“Carmelo Anthony, first-ballot Hall of Famer or not?”
“Dude, he is definitely a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” his friend interjected before I could answer. His friend had longer hair than his counterpart, who kept his hair cut short. The interrupting friend had his dark hair in a braided pony tail.
“I think it depends on who else is in that class,” I ultimately responded. “I think he’s easily a Hall of Famer because of what he did in college and the Olympics.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” the first man shouted.
“I just don’t know if he’ll get in on the first ballot,” I finished.
Patti, who wasn’t sure who Carmelo Anthony is, had no opinion on the topic. We exchanged a few more pleasantries before we both continued our stroll in opposite directions. The funny thing about that conversation is that it came up on my Twitter timeline in mid-July. I stated the exact same opinion and was told by Knicks fans to stick to football. C’est la vie.
When we did make it to the right-field lawn, we were fully immersed in the rowdy 7 Line Army. They were shouting at players – some shouts were negative, but most were positive.
“This is a fun group,” I said to Patti. My comment was overheard by a woman standing in front of us.
“Oh, we love coming down here,” she said after turning around. She was a Puerto Rican woman who was there with her husband – a comedian who told us to look him up when we were in New York. We gave him my contact info and told him to email me his own information. We never did hear from that guy, but we did hear a lot about his life in the 20 minutes or so that we spoke. He is a lifelong Mets fan who tries to come down to Spring Training every year. He had spent some time in prison, but was now married and had a child and was trying to launch a stand-up career. I wish I would have remembered his name, but sadly I had forgotten by the time we returned to the RV park that weekend in Jupiter. If only he would have emailed me like he said. We found that to be a common theme on our trip – people not following through with what they say they are going to do.
Spectrum Field was my second-favorite Grapefruit League stadium of the ten we visited. We did not see the Braves at Disney in Orlando, the Blue Jays in Dunedin or the Twins in Fort Myers – although we did drive by the Twins stadium.
One unique quirk at Spectrum Field were signs of Pennsylvania locations with the mileage to various Gulf Coast League venues. There is a marsh behind the stadium’s right-field wall and we saw Jesmuel Valentin’s walk-off homer land there. The ball left the stadium and Patti and I tried to locate the ball but couldn’t see it through the thick grass. We just assume an alligator kept it as a souvenir.
“The gator got it,” Patti commented. “He’s out there playing catch with his baby gators.”
“Here son,” I added as we both shared a laugh. I jokingly told a few kids to go ahead and jump in to find the ball. Thankfully and not surprisingly, there were no takers.
The very next day we saw the Rays play again – this time in Bradenton against the Pirates at LECOM Park. This was easily my favorite Grapefruit League stadium.
It just felt like a Florida venue with palm trees encircling the small airy stadium with an open design. There are no walls behind the last row of seats, allowing the breeze to blow through the grandstand unencumbered. LECOM, known to locals and longtime Pirates fans as McKechnie Stadium, is the oldest Grapefruit League stadium and has been dubbed Florida’s Fenway Park. It opened in 1923 and renovated in 2013.
“You could tell it’s old, but it doesn’t feel dated,” Patti said of the LECOM Park.
Most of the seats in the grandstand – with a white stucco, mission-style design adorning the press box roof – are covered to provide fans some shade.
The outfield concourse, however, is where I made the first encounter that affected our regular-season trip.
I was able to interview Pirates players Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Josh Bell before the game. Despite jettisoning All-Stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates entered the 2018 season with a ton on confidence. Their 13-10 win over the Detroit Tigers began an 8-2 start, but the Pirates finished the year 82-79 and in fourth place in the National League Central.
Taillon overcame Tommy John surgery in 2014, a sports hernia in 2015 and testicular cancer in 2017, but knew he’d be nervous when he took the mound at Comerica Park. But that paled in comparison to when he took the field for the first time in June 2017 five weeks after successful testicular cancer surgery.
“I just told myself, ‘Take a step back, soak it all in – good or bad. I get to play baseball tonight. I’m back doing what I love,’” Taillon said before a 2018 spring training game. “I got a little emotional there, internally. I might not show it, but pitching opening day, I’ll have butterflies.
“The challenge is how can I positively get those butterflies to help me.”
Taillon’s bout with cancer in 2017 year put things in a new perspective for him.
“If I used to talk to a kid that’s affected by cancer, it’s like, ‘What the heck do you say?’ But now I’ve realized it’s important to just have a conversation with somebody,” Taillon told me as part of the Home Run On Wheels podcast. “You can touch them on a personal level. You don’t have to talk about cancer. I try to not even go there with kids or other people I talk to. But how can I make them feel important? How can I make a difference in their life?
“I don’t have a script or anything. I’m definitely a lot more comfortable talking to anybody about any situation now.
“I say something like, try to celebrate the successes, the good days you have,” Taillon added. “Hitting a milestone; try to celebrate that. If you have a bad day, don’t judge yourself. It’s OK to get down a little bit, but really try to focus on stringing good days together — whether that be with doctors, whether that be with your family; whatever you need to do.
“If you put a good day in today, you won that day. Go into tomorrow, how can I put in another good day? And you just string them together and you’ll be in a lot better of a spot.”