It started one summer by accident. I was in Denver to see a coaching friend, Mike Power. He was the coach at Metro State University. It just happened to be walking distance to Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies.
Sam was too young to even remember it. It was probably the summer of 2001. The stadium is on Blake Street. The team was known as the Blake Street Bombers. A group of us, including Sam, bought tickets in the general admission section called the Rock Pound. The cost of the ticket was $7.
Things got a little out of hand over the years. The next summer we visited Camp Snoopy. It is located inside the air-conditioned Mall of America. Someone suggested it was a short walk to the train. The train would take us right to the front of the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Twins.
There were trips to Chicago, St. Louis, back to the Denver and in 2008 Sam requested we go to Tampa, Florida to watch the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became just the Tampa Bay Rays.
I had found a great package to fly to Tampa, rent a car, stay at a beachfront hotel on St. Pete Beach, and found five tickets behind home plate. Apparently, the seats behind home plate weren’t in great demand when we bought the tickets. Later that year, they would become a lot more valuable.
It was only a 10- minute drive from the hotel on St. Pete’s Beach to Topicana Field, the dome stadium of the Tampa Rays. Even though Sam was only seven years old, he wanted to get to the stadium early.
We arrived about 45 minutes before game time and went right to our seats. I had spotted a concession stand selling turkey legs and I couldn’t resist. Sam wanted to watch batting practice, so he stayed in the seat. How much trouble can a seven-year old get into in a virtually empty stadium?
When I got back, Sam was in a deep conversation with a man that looked about 60 years old. He was sitting in the row in front of us. He introduced himself to me as John. He commented on how much baseball knowledge Sam had as a seven-year old.
Pretty soon a married couple came and sat beside John. Their names were Dick and Debbie. They were physical therapists in St. Petersburg. Dick, Debbie and John were season ticket holders with seats beside each other.
That was the start of a great relationship that goes on to today. John was the most mysterious. One day, John missed the game. Dick and Debbie told me he was a retired government worker that had a secretive job that took him to the Middle East.
I found out John had been career military and had attended the Army Academy. Sometime after our visit, John wrote a book called The Supe. It’s a novel about the lack of leadership at the Academy.
The second day at the Trop, Dick and Debbie show up at the game with a heavy garbage bag stuffed full of Tampa Ray memorabilia. They told us it was all the things give to the season ticket holders. They apologized that some things were missing.
When the season was over, Sam got a box of the missing memorabilia and a personal letter from one of the two owners of the Rays. I kid you not, it was a personal letter and signed by the owner. I put it in a frame.
A lot of great things happened during that trip to Tampa. During the five games we attended, we became very good friends with John, Dick and Debbie. Sitting close to us was Don Zimmer.
Don Zimmer was a senior advisor for the Rays. He would sit behind home plate and take notes for six or seven innings. He would leave his seat and join the team in the dugout. He would talk about what he had seen to Joe Madden, the Rays manager. Just a few years after our trips to Tampa, Don Zimmer passed away at age 83 from a heart problem.
During one of the games, I spotted Dick Vitale. Dick, an ESPN color analysis known for his line, “That’s awesome baby,” lives in the area and is a huge Tampa Ray fan.
Dick and Debbie gave Sam ideas on how to get baseballs. They knew when the bat boys would hand them over to young fans, when third baseman Evan Longoria would throw a ball in the crowd just before the start of the game or where the umpires gave their last game balls to kids after the game.
After the Rays won the American League pennant, Dick and Debbie sent Sam a giant ring. It was a duplicate of what the team gave the players for winning the pennant. That did it. We were headed back to Tampa in 2009.
We renewed our friendship with John, Dick and Debbie. Dick and Debbie even invited us over to their house for dinner. They had a swimming pool and Sam had a dip. There were new friends, too.
Sam seemed to just fall into good luck at the Trop. Before the start of one of the games, a team personnel of the Rays came to three boys sitting right behind us. It was a tradition that year to invite some youths to the press box to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh inning stretch. Sam watched the three boys accept. Then the boys asked Sam to join them.
The four boys were in the press box for the stretch leading the crowd in the song while being filmed on the big screen. I’m sure Sam was singled out for the big screen five or six times that second year.
It was that same game I met an older man sitting behind me. He introduced himself and told me he was a veteran of the Korean War. He had even written a book about that conflict. Of course, I got his address and sent for the book.
There were other great stops. My two favorites were Seattle and Baltimore. It was just a year after our Baltimore trip that one of the first riots over the death of a black man in police custody. The riot was around the stadium. I wondered about the man selling hats for $5.
Sam is now a senior. Last year, we were in Houston. In most our stops, the team Sam choses to see either makes the playoffs or World Series. I think he’s a good luck charm. I should try to sell that for free tickets.
I’m not sure how many years Sam will want to take this trip. I do know this year he wants a return trip to Tampa. That nine-year old kid is grown up, but he never forgot those baseball trips to Tampa.