published Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Mark Wiedmer: Couple travels cross-country for the love of marriage, baseball

Seventy-seven days, 67 games and 18,500 miles into their self-proclaimed "A Minor League Season," Matt and Carolyn LaWell found themselves in Nashville's Greer Stadium on Wednesday night about to watch a Sounds game.

"I'm looking at the guitar-shaped scoreboard right now," Matt said. "Placing the runs by innings along the neck is brilliant. It fits perfectly with its city."

Before it all ends on Labor Day in Toledo -- the closest city they could find to their Lakewood, Ohio, home on the outskirts of Cleveland to conclude their pilgrimage -- the LaWells will have added nearly 27,000 miles to their 2004 Honda Element and visited 119 communities ranging from Adelanto, Calif., to Zebulon, N.C.

Next on the list is our town, the couple hitting AT&T Field tonight for the Lookouts' game against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

"We've heard great things about Chattanooga," said Carolyn. "My parents are actually meeting us there for a quick visit."

It all started in an Ohio University dorm room in 2003. Matt determined that his ultimate road trip would be to crisscross America for five months watching minor league baseball.

Only he never told Carolyn that, despite having met her more than a year earlier on the first day of their freshman year in their 8 a.m. Spanish class.

In fact, he wouldn't tell her until 2009, the year after they had married.

"There was no need to tell her everything," he said. "It might have scared her away."

But Carolyn didn't scare easily. Yes, both the 28-year-olds had good jobs in journalism and nobody lucky enough to have a good job in a stagnant economy -- especially in hard-hit Ohio -- ups and leaves it for a five-month road trip to soak up the culture of minor league baseball.

Well, almost no one.

"Eventually, we just picked 2012," she told an Ohio publication during the first month of the trip. "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.'"

If there's an online voting site for Wife of the Year, expect Carolyn LaWell to win it.

Yet Matt also gets high marks for still loving the game at any level after he chose to become an Indians fan at the start of the 1991 season, a summer in which the Tribe eventually lost 105 games.

"I guess I fell in love with cruddy baseball," he said.

Matt remains such a sports fan of all things Cleveland that he says of the Indians-inspired movie "Major League: "Are there any other sports movies?"

Asked his thoughts about current Miami Heat star and former Cleveland Cav LeBron James possibly winning his first NBA title tonight, he answers: "I don't want him to ever get hurt or anything, but I hope he never wins a championship."

What they both most wanted to experience on this trip was to see communities with minor league teams and the people who make those teams special.

"I probably love the travel best," said Carolyn. "That and meeting so many wonderful, interesting people. Just to know that every morning you wake up you're going to go to sleep in a different city has probably been my favorite thing."

It hasn't been perfect. There's the constant concern over whether they can stretch the $8,000 they budgeted -- "Most of that's for gas money," noted Matt -- for the whole five-month trip.

There's also the occasional plan gone awry, such as when the concession stand selling the "Funnel Dog" that Matt had heard so much about at Northwest Arkansas closed before he could buy one.

They also don't share the same level of passion passion for every aspect of the sport, as they artfully wrote on their website -- www.aminorleagueseason.com -- in an article titled "The Art of Keeping Score."

Wrote Carolyn as she waited out a rain delay in Tacoma, Wash., before scoring her first game: "Why bother [keeping score] when there are so many other things to do during a game, like eat a hot dog? Or drink a beer? Or talk to friends?"

Countered Matt: "Why bother? Are you really asking that question? We bother because keeping score helps you keep track of the game, it allows entry into the rhythms of nine innings...without a card and at least some rudimentary marks in front of you, what unfolds on the field is just chaos."

Yet by the end of the night, Carolyn admitted: "I gained a deeper appreciation for the game and its details."

Added a softened Matt: "I finally learned that, so long as you have a card and a pencil -- or a pen -- in front of you, there is no wrong way to score a game. Call it tolerance, progress."

Maybe riding around for five months in a Honda Element on $8,000 is as much a road map to a healthy, happy marriage as a road trip through the minors.

Indeed, when a writer asked Carolyn a few weeks ago what most people's reaction has been, she said, "They're jealous."

Not that they aren't hoping to build on that original $8,000, which is why they've begun selling T-shirts for $20 each (plus tax) that feature a large, tasteful "A Minor League Season" logo on the front with the names of all 119 cities they're visiting on the back.

"We'll have them with us in Chattanooga," said Matt. "We should be easy to find. We'll probably be the only 2004 orange Honda Element with Ohio tags in the parking lot."

At least the only one destined to make people jealous.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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