Summer unofficially started a couple of months ago when umpires across the country shouted "Play Ball!" to start the 2014 season. Summer officially starts with Saturday's solstice, and you will never want it to end ... except maybe when you're bleary-eyed and driving late some night as your kids shout: "Are we there yet?!?!?!"
Of course, before you can get there, you first must decide where you're going. And if you haven't planned your summer vacation yet, here are some suggestions all baseball fans will enjoy.
Minnesota hosts this summer's All-Star Game, which is reason enough for a trip to the state. But you'll cheat yourself if you limit a baseball vacation to just that event. Minnesota might be known for hockey, cold winters and ice fishing on Lake Wobegon, but as I'll write in an upcoming story, baseball is where The Land of 10,000 Lakes is at its best.
First, you MUST catch some town ball (officially, the Minnesota Baseball Association), where players ranging in age from teens and 20s to the occasional 60-year-old play for the simple love of the game. Town ball is such a rich Minnesota tradition that occasionally ex-big leaguers will go back to play after their major league careers end, as Terry Steinbach did. Iowa's "Field of Dreams" site is famous for its surrounding cornfield, but it's got nothing on the approximately 300 Minnesota town ball diamonds, many of which are surrounded by crops.
Among the teams to consider seeing are current Twin reliever Caleb Thielbar's former squad, the Randolph Railcats. Or Steinbach's old team, New Ulm Kaiserhoff. Or the Stark township Longhorns, whose team once consisted entirely of one family, the Helget boys.
Next, let loose at a St. Paul Saints game in their final year at Midway Stadium. Started by Mike Veeck and Bill Murray two decades ago, the independent league Saints have some of the most entertaining promotions you'll come across, including "St. Patrick's Day in July" (July 10) and "Night of Unbelievable Fun" sponsored by the Minnesota Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation (July 11) and the follow-up "Faith and Family Day" (July 13).
After the game, stop by for a drink at nearby O'Gara's on the corner of Snelling and Selby. This old brick building is where Peanuts cartoonist and passionate baseball fan Charles Schulz grew up in a second-floor apartment and where his father cut hair in his barbershop.
Before the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, park out at the Mall of America, built on the former site of Metropolitan Stadium. Go inside to take a selfie where home plate was located at the Old Met. Then grab a seat on the light-rail that will take you all the way to the gates of Target Field. Just be sure to salute the Metrodome when you pass its remains on the edge of downtown.
And if you can't afford those expensive tickets, hop in your car, tune in to the game on the radio and drive south for our next trip.
Although out of the way (it's 250 miles from the Twin Cities and 190 from Des Moines), the "Field of Dreams" site in Dyersville, Iowa, is so popular that the last time I visited, there were tourists from Luxembourg and Australia at the field. Best to visit when the corn is high so you can recreate Shoeless Joe and the White Sox stepping through the stalks. Be sure to bring your glove and, if possible, your father.
Next, cruise over to Indiana, the location for a surprising number of great movies about virtually every sport: cycling with "Breaking Away," basketball with "Hoosiers," football with "Rudy" and baseball with "A League of Their Own."
Two very old ballparks in the state's southwest corner are featured in "A League of Their Own." The home field for Geena Davis, Madonna and the rest of the Rockford Peaches was Huntingburg, Indiana's League Stadium, which was built in 1894. Evansville's Bosse Field, which was built in 1915, served as the home for the Racine Belles. Located at 23 Don Mattingly Way, it is currently the home for the Evansville Otters of the Frontier League, so you can catch a game there while yelling at players that there is no crying in baseball.
Indianapolis' former park, Bush Stadium, was where Hank Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League, and it also doubled for Comiskey Park and Crosley Field in "Eight Men Out." The stadium was converted into apartments recently, but much of it was preserved.
Indiana doesn't have a monopoly on movie sites, though.
Another great destination for baseball movie buffs is North Carolina, where "Bull Durham" was filmed. In Durham, you can visit the old Durham Athletic Park, where most of the baseball scenes were filmed, or play pool at the Green Room, where Nuke told a just-released Crash about his big league call-up, or walk past Annie's house. You can also go see the current Durham Bulls play at the new Durham Athletic Park, which has a snorting bull atop the scoreboard.
Better yet, go to the delightfully artsy town of Asheville, North Carolina, where Crash hit his final home run while with the Asheville Tourists. While you're in the state, visit some other great minor league action in Greensboro, Hickory, Winston-Salem, Burlington, Charlotte, and ... well, just about everywhere Crash ever took a bus.
And if you have time, call in sick to work right now and hurry down to Birmingham, Alabama's Rickwood Field, which hosts the annual Rickwood Classic next Wednesday, June 24. This old gem is where Willie Mays started his career with the Birmingham Black Barons (and more notoriously, also where Bull Connor worked as a radio announcer). The 104-year-old park has been so carefully maintained that scenes from "42" and "Cobb" were filmed there.
I'd include "Major League" and "The Natural," but alas, the ballparks where they were filmed (Milwaukee County Stadium and Buffalo, New York's War Memorial Stadium) are torn down. But you can visit some minor locations for "The Natural" in Buffalo, including the Ellicott Square Building and All-High Stadium, which stood in for a Chicago hotel and Wrigley Field in the movie. If in Buffalo, you should also visit the Anchor Bar, where the Buffalo wing was created.
Cooperstown, New York, should be on every fan's bucket list. But if you go to this year's Hall of Fame weekend, be prepared for massive crowds when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas -- plus managers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox -- are inducted. Lodging is always tight (and expensive) throughout the summer, so unless you were able to snag Craig Biggio's room cancellation in January, best to stay outside the town and drive in for the ceremonies, then come back to tour the museum the following Monday and Tuesday when crowds drop a bit.
Better yet, visit during another week when the crowds are more manageable and you'll have ample time to fully appreciate the area.
Cooperstown is more than the Hall of Fame. Enjoy a boat cruise or just sit on the shores of gorgeous Lake Otsego. Take in a show at the Glimmerglass Opera. View the artwork at the Fenimore Museum. Get a slice of pizza at Sal's on Main Street, or savor some fantastic beer and great food at nearby Brewery Ommegang.
Possible side trips: If you time it right in August, follow a branch of the Susquehanna River from its source at Lake Otsego to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where you can watch some games at the Little League World Series. Or if you have the time and are an Orioles fan, follow the river's other branch all the way to Havre de Grace, Maryland, birthplace of Cal Ripken Jr.
If plaques on a wall don't cut it, try a tour of baseball greats' burial sites. As Steve Rushin has written, there are few spots better to start than the Gate of Heaven and Kensico cemeteries near each other in Hawthorne and Valhalla, New York, where you can find the graves of Babe Ruth, Jacob Ruppert and Billy Martin, along with the ashes of Lou Gehrig.
OK. This is not a suggested tour of the Detroit reliever while he waits for a call in the Tigers' bullpen. Instead, it is an excuse to catch some baseball and some interesting sites, beginning in the city with (pretty much) the same name: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"Breaking Bad" fans know this as the place where the gripping series was filmed, and Albuquerque is taking full advantage of that fame (or infamy). There are several "Breaking Bad" tours, including one in a replica of the RV used in the show. How popular was "Breaking Bad"? The day I took a tour, our RV had fans who had traveled from Australia and Britain just to see Heisenberg's home.
Not a "Breaking Bad" fan? That's all right. There's another TV connection at Isotopes Park, home of the Dodgers' AAA affiliate, the Albuquerque Isotopes. They're named after the Springfield Isotopes in "The Simpsons," but you will not find any of Homer's softball teammates there (unless Jose Canseco attempts another comeback).
New Mexico is filled with cities to tour (Santa Fe chief among them), including one with more TV links. Roswell, frequently mentioned in "The X-Files" (as well as the series "Roswell"), is the home of the Pecos League Roswell Invaders, who play at Joe Baumann Field. That diamond is named after the minor leaguer who hit 72 home runs for the Roswell Rockets in 1954.
Did Baumann benefit from the aliens who supposedly crashed there in 1947? Explore and find out. As paranormal investigator and box score aficionado Fox Mulder would tell you, the truth is out there.
You don't have much time to make the first part of this trip -- the College World Series ends in Omaha, Nebraska, early next week -- but everyone should go to the CWS at least once (even though my Washington Huskies failed to reach it again this year).
A great way to extend the trip (or enjoy a completely new one) is to go on to Kansas City, Missouri, where the Royals are currently in first place. (Like I said, hurry!) Kauffman Stadium is a great place to see a game; but more importantly, you must also visit the Negro League Museum. This superb museum is so informative and inspiring that big leaguers often tour it when in town. How many museums can you say that about?
And since you're in Missouri, drive over to St. Louis to show yourself the Cardinals' new Ballpark Village outside Busch Stadium. Just be sure to wipe the Gates Bar-B-Q sauce from your hands before getting in the car when you leave.
ESPN might be in love with the Yankees and Red Sox, but the rest of us know this year's best baseball is on the West Coast. There are just 12 teams with a positive run differential this season, and five border the Pacific Ocean.
Any time is good to tour the West Coast, what with Yosemite, Big Sur, Disneyland, world-class wine countries, the Cascade Mountains, the Olympic rain forest, etc., from which to choose. But summer is the best. Start in Seattle and work your way south, or start in San Diego and head north. Or select any section of that coast -- you'll love it all. But whichever direction and location you decide, be sure to time your trip so that you're in the Bay Area near the end of July when the Giants and Dodgers square off in San Francisco at one of the game's top ballparks, while the Athletics play in Oakland, California, just before that series. The Coliseum gets a bad rep, but the Athletics might be baseball's best team and their tailgating is some of the best west of Milwaukee. Plus, it's another film site ("Moneyball").
If, however, you don't have time for such a trip this summer, don't worry. Most of those teams will be playing in October as well, when the weather can still be pretty awesome.