Chugging along the back roads of Florida between Fort Myers and Lakeland, Matt and Carolyn LaWell are trying to explain why they quit their jobs and put their lives on hold this year to take a 152-day road trip across the country to see 120 minor-league baseball games.
But as they do so, the conversation keeps swinging away from why they're doing it to exactly how they're doing it. Right now the topic is the healing power of apples, peanut butter, and an economy-size bag of edamame.
"Up in Port Charlotte, they have a 10-inch hot dog wrapped in bacon, then covered in pulled pork and onion straws," Matt says over a chuckle. "You gotta try it, right? But we can't just eat everything."
He's talking about their road diet — one that's inevitably heavy on ballpark food — and the beating it can dish out over five months. If you've ever seen a sportswriter in person, you understand. The LaWells spend virtually every night at the diamond, where hot dogs represent the Weight Watchers end of the menu and where the park specialty is usually some sort of calorie-blasted gimmick meal. It's a recipe for a life spent in elastic waistbands.
But the hours away from baseball — the ones spent in the car, which doubles as their transportation and their sleeping quarters — are set aside for gastrointestinal recuperation and nibbles that help ensure their shared baseball adventure doesn't end with shared bypass surgery. Thus the apples, peanut butter, and edamame, the latter of which will arrive in a package from Matt's parents that they'll pick up later in the day.
The twentysomething Lakewood couple just pushed past the first thousand miles of the journey in their orange 2004 Honda Element, the odometer rolling over to 117,460. In all, they will cover 26,000 miles, a span longer than the Earth's circumference. The origin of their quest goes back many more miles, to the southeastern Ohio college town of Athens.
As with most good ideas, this one germinated in an Ohio University dorm room. Matt was sitting around, bored out of his mind during the summer before his sophomore year, wanderlust filling his otherwise unoccupied head. He went up to the bookstore to get a map and set about diagramming the perfect road trip. As his eyes darted around the states, baseball immediately became the obvious linchpin connecting all the places he wanted to visit.
"I centered on minor-league baseball," he says. "There are so many options all over the place. I color-coded 160 or 170 teams and started making tentative routes and plans."
And then, like most college daydreams, it got backburnered by real life, including a wedding. But he never totally forgot it, never entirely wrote it off.
Matt met Carolyn in an 8 a.m. Spanish class. It was the first quarter of the year, he says, and while college kids may be known to skip a class or two here or there — especially one so early in the morning — most actually show up for the first class of the first quarter of the year. Lucky for him: Carolyn was there.
Shortly after he moved to North Carolina for a job in 2006, she followed. They'd move back to Cleveland in 2008, the same year they were married. He worked freelance writing jobs here and there, and hosted trivia nights in Cleveland bars. She landed a job as an associate editor for a lawn and landscape magazine.
Carolyn, now 27, first heard about Matt's minor-league dream in 2009 and fully supported it — "I didn't know how she would react," he confesses — but every year there was another reason not to do it. She had a nice gig, they didn't have enough money saved up, he would say "next year," and then "next year," and then "next year."
Eventually, they said this year.
And Carolyn was more than game. "I've always been a fan, but yeah, I probably wouldn't watch sports that much if Matt wasn't around," she says. "I was really excited initially. It was awesome. I never didn't want to do it, but it's a difficult decision when you have a job you love. Eventually, we just picked 2012. I said you can't do this without me. It would be such a regret to not be with him for this, which actually made it an easy choice to help fulfill his dream."