Baseball tours are a hit with fans

Special to the Los Angeles Times

“Road trip!”

The phrase tugs at the heartstrings of all dedicated baseball fans. It ignites a desire to see the home nine do battle on rival turf or, at the very least, a chance to check out other stadiums and confirm what they already know (“It was OK ... but our ballpark is better”).

As major league baseball gears up for season openers — on Thursday the Dodgers host their eternal rivals the San Francisco Giants, while the Angels are in Kansas City against the Royals — the lure of the road beckons anew.

This wanderlust has generated a cottage industry of organized tours, as motor coaches ply the highways in a hardball variation of “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”

For a set price that includes lodging (good quality for the price), intercity motor coach transportation (efficient but not especially scenic routes) and game tickets (better seats than you might expect), Southern California fans can shuttle the upper Midwest and Northeast corridors and visit must-see cathedrals such as Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Baltimore’s ground-breaking Camden Yards and, most notably, the crown jewel of contemporary stadiums, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.

Rabid baseball followers Steve and Janet Miklos of Orange didn’t plan to be among them, but last summer, at the All-Star game FanFest at the Anaheim Convention Center, they stopped at a booth offering baseball tours and impulsively decided to take one.

Two weeks later, the Mikloses, along with their adult daughter, Jenny, were in a motor coach with 28 fellow fans for a 10-day trip to eight stadiums and the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.

After an initial day of sightseeing and getting-to-know-you in Chicago and at a Cubs game, the group hit the road, and a 24-hour cycle of bus, baseball and hotel quickly established its rhythm. Shared experiences were parsed, but conversations were less about the games and more about the general ambience and contrasts among the parks they visited.

The Miklos clan arrived at a consensus on some broad conclusions: The nicest ushers were in Chicago and Cincinnati; the best food item was the cheese-steak sandwich in Philadelphia (but the Smorgasburgh sandwich in Pittsburgh was less than enthralling); Yankee Stadium was a disappointment; and Wrigley Field delivered in a big way.

Janet Miklos reveled in the ease of the excursion. “No stress, no driving, no relying on navigation systems to get around an unfamiliar city, no making reservations, no worries about where to grab lunch,” Miklos said. “Although we probably could have planned a similar trip on our own and it may have been less expensive, I really think that a tour such as Buckley’s is the way to go.”

Ah, yes, Buckley’s. Jay Buckley, whose company the Mikloses traveled with, is to baseball touring what Alexander Cartwright is to the game itself — not particularly well known but the person most cognoscenti credit with starting it all.

Beginning in the ‘70s, Buckley would drive to major and minor league parks, taking in as many games as he could in August, his month off from his job as a middle-school principal and history teacher in La Crosse, Wis.

“It struck me that others might enjoy this as much as I did, especially if they didn’t have to do all the planning,” Buckley said. In 1982, he led his first tour, a nine-day excursion that included Boston, New York and Chicago.

His niche blossomed. By 1986 he was up to six trips; in 1987 he ran his first national advertisement in the Sporting News; in 1990, with 14 trips, he retired from his day job.

Buckley has 24 trips planned this season and will visit each of the 30 major league stadiums at least once. He now has at least half a dozen competitors, a continuing sign of success even in a choppy economy.

When it comes to tour guides, Buckley draws from a pool of about 50 men and women volunteers, two of whom accompany each excursion (besides the bus driver).

They must be knowledgeable baseball addicts, but more than that, “I want guides who like to listen as much as talk — not just ‘I, I, me, me’ people,” said Buckley. “Schoolteachers, I have found, are good in this role. They can organize and lead groups but also enjoy and value give-and-take.”

Although still a fan, Buckley now roots less for a single team and more for a certain experience. “I like games where a team rallies to win in front of its home fans,” he said. “It makes for a special night at the park even if your favorite team isn’t there.”

Even though he didn’t see his Angels play on the trip, Steve Miklos found something special almost everywhere the tour took him. Still, he acknowledges this pursuit of America’s pastime isn’t for everyone.

“It separates the true baseball fan from the occasional spectator,” he said. “Friends that hear about the trip either think it sounded really awesome or like a trip from hell.”

Miklos, obviously, is a true baseball fan: “For me, it was as awesome as awesome gets.”