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Couple traveling across country to tell minor league baseball's stories

POSTED: June 30, 2012 9:22 p.m.

Matt and Carolyn LaWell sat down on Saturday in the press box at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville.

They hooked up their computers, pulled out their notebooks and spoke with Gwinnett Braves media relations manager Dave Lezotte about their schedule for the rest of the day.

It was about 2 p.m., five hours before game time, on the hottest day of the year, where players and coaches alike had taken shelter in the team clubhouse below.

The LaWells appeared as nothing more than regulars, there to cover the baseball game and escape to a quiet bed once the night was complete.

The only indication to the contrary was the red Honda Element, parked by itself in the middle of the lot, hanging shirts and pillows visible through the tinted windows. A logo sporting the words “A Minor League Season” was pasted in the center of the rear window.

On the inside, the odometer tracked the mileage of their current trip: 19,755.

It was Park 70 of 120, Day 87 of 152, and the LaWells were a little over halfway home.

Hatching an idea

Matt, a 28-year-old sports writer, oozes baseball fanaticism.

In casual conversation about former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, he offered a random factoid, followed with a related trivia question.

“You know, Dale Murphy was one of only four outfielders to win back-to-back MVPs,” he said. “You know who the other three were?”

The answer (Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris) was fairly irrelevant. It was his excitement — like a kid seeing the game for the first time — that was most important.

Because only someone with that level of passion could pull off what he and his wife were doing.

It all began nine years ago in an Ohio University dorm room. Matt was 19 and between his freshman and sophomore years of college. He had only two classes during that half of the summer, and was admittedly bored, so he went to the store and bought a map of the United States.

On it, he marked down every minor league park across the country. He doesn’t even remember why, but the idea intrigued him.

And then he forgot about it.

“Time goes on,” he said. “You graduate, you get your first job and you just sort of forget about it.”

He got a reporting job and married Carolyn. The two had bills and found new jobs. Years passed them by, but the idea remained.

Then Matt came across a sports editor at The Rocky Mount Telegram, where he worked from 2006-08. The editor, Ben Jones, encouraged him to pursue the idea. But it wasn’t a book as Matt had originally planned, Jones said, but a website that could be filled with content on a daily basis.

“Finally, about two and a half years ago, the idea just popped back up,” he said. “And you say, ‘Why not? We have no car payments, no mortgage, no kids. Why not?’”

Carolyn, a former education reporter who most recently worked on staff at a magazine, thought it was a great idea.

“I didn’t think it was crazy at all,” she said.

The two began change their lifestyles.

No more casual purchases; no more going out. They dropped their cable and moved to a smaller apartment. For a year and a half, they tried to live as cheaply as possible.

At the end of last year, they decided it was now or never, and began mapping out their trip for 2012.

The trip would begin in Jacksonville, Fla., and end in Toledo, Ohio.

In between is a trip that will ultimately exceed 28,000 miles.

They packed up their apartment, put everything into storage, and Carolyn quit her job. When the two began the trek on April 7, it was a moment mixed with excitement and amazement that they were actually going to do it.

“It kind of sunk in at that point, like ‘Oh my, God. We’re really doing this,’” Carolyn said.

They aim for a total cost on the trip to be around $8,000, including $3,000 spent on getting their website up and running.

That means no hotels.

They’ve had the nicer occasions, where they have been able to stay with friends or friends of friends. But, as with their trip during the day, the majority of nights have been spent in the car.

Twenty-six to be exact, compared with 24 nights spent in a bed. The Honda Element’s spacious back end allows for decent sleeping conditions, but on seven occasions, the couple has been forced to sleep in the front seat.

 “Are y’all about to die,” one member of the G-Braves staff asked on Saturday.

“Not yet,” Carolyn replied with a laugh.

In all, though, the trip has thus far lived up to their expectations.

“It’s exciting to be in a different city every day,” Carolyn said. “I think we wake up a little more excited than we go to bed, of course, but the driving hasn’t been bad.”

“You plan for years,” Matt added. “I don’t think either of us really knew quite what to expect. But, in terms of hearing stories, collecting stories, sharing stories, I’d say it’s probably exceeded expectations.”

Telling a story

The minor leagues are home to thousands of individuals.

There are the players, of course, who spend hours upon hours honing their craft and an equal amount of time dreaming about what it would be like to make it to The Show.

But there are also those behind the scenes. The scorekeepers, the general managers, the promotions specialists, the radio broadcasters, the concessions staff, and much, much more.

The goal of Matt and Carolyn’s website, AMinorLeagueSeason.com, is to tell the story of minor league baseball through all of those individuals.

“What does minor league baseball mean today?” Matt asked, rhetorically. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. It means something different to a lot of people.

“I think you can use it as a reflection of baseball in America, a reflection of different groups of people. It’s always reflected America in some way. I think they’ve evolved on parallel courses.”

Matt and Carolyn pursue the stories like seasoned professionals.

Matt asks about everything, from the person’s history to the contents of the individual’s refrigerator. All the while, often without the subject’s realization, a story is formed.

“People love to tell their stories,” Matt recited, matter-of-factly.

On Saturday, Matt spoke with Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage and shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, who spent some time with the big club earlier this season.

Brundage spoke about the fun ways he had come up with to tell a player he had been called up. Pastornicky talked about the cycle he hit for Mississippi, the Braves Double-A affiliate, in 2011.

Matt was quiet and observant, genuinely soaking in the stories.

“The stories reflect hope,” Matt said. “You see struggle too. You go to parks and see crowds that were maybe smaller than they were five or 10 years ago. But I think we’ve been surprised to see as much prosperity as we have seen.”

Day 152

One day, September 4 to be exact, the journey will end and the LaWells will return home.

Over the final days, they will finish their stories and videos, post them to the website and then contemplate what to do next.

They haven’t thought that far ahead.

“We’re not worried about it right now,” Carolyn said. “There are a few different things we think we can do, but we’re not really sure and we’re fine with that.”

One thing would be a book, which the two hope to write once they’ve had some time to relax.

And they will probably have to stay with their parents for a week or two while they figure out where to live and what direction to take.

But for now, the only plan Matt has made is a simple comfort often lost after 152 days on the road.

“I’d like to sleep for a day or two,” he said. “We really have no idea past that.”


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