In the bigs, players stay in the fast lane
'Only way' to travel helps outweigh long season's demands
For Major League Baseball players, getting the call to The Show means an end to the days of lugging their own bags and sucking down fast food on lengthy interstate highway treks, ignoring snoring teammates and spotty air conditioning.
When a big league team needs to get somewhere, it's strictly life in the fast lane.
These traveling parties crisscross the nation for six months out of the year and through a grueling 162-game schedule, staying in some of the country's best hotels. With a plane always fueled and ready on the runway, they can be secure knowing that they'll never miss a flight because some pitcher served up a homer and sent the game into extra innings.
It may sound wonderful. Are you ready to bid farewell to that cramped middle seat, the long lines at the security checkpoint and -- in some cases -- traffic getting to and from your destination, with a police escort waiting on duty to clear the way?
Not so fast. The perks of baseball travel soon diminish for many players just because of the season's routine and repetitiveness. As the endless stream of hotel rooms blurs together, almost everyone traveling can identify with the panic of waking up and rushing to look out the window, just to remember what city they're visiting.
"By the end of the road trip, your body is worn out from sleeping in different beds, eating at different times of the night," said the Cleveland Indians' David Dellucci. "It takes a strain on you. Guys lose a lot of weight during the season, and sleeping in different beds is difficult for guys with back issues."
With all of those bleary-eyed check-ins comes a new emphasis on certain amenities. Suddenly, the fully stocked mini-bar, that Olympic-sized indoor pool or the expansive workout facility take a back seat to simple touches -- design aspects like that all-important thick curtain, the one that keeps the sunrise out after a team checks in around the 5 a.m. hour.
"The late night flights aren't fun -- when you're coming in at 3 and 4 a.m., you don't sleep well," said New York Mets right-hander Aaron Heilman. "I don't think it's as glamorous as everyone thinks."
A room of their own
Give most players a mattress without lumps and an air conditioner that actually cools the room, and they're satisfied. It's not like they'll be spending much time in the hotel anyway, but that doesn't mean players don't keep their own personal preferences, just like the rest of the traveling public.
"In a good hotel, you've got to have 24-hour room services, and you've got to have good hamburgers," said Baltimore Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar. "With our schedule, we don't know if we're going to be back by 1 in the morning.
"There are rain delays, and it can take you a while to get out of the clubhouse. There's nothing worse than getting back to the hotel and hearing that room service is closed. Also, I'm a big fan of serving breakfast after 11 a.m. Sometimes it's nice to get eggs and bacon at 12:45."
From the first day of Spring Training to -- if a team is lucky -- the last out of the World Series, this much is true: every player in the room will likely spend more time living out of a suitcase along with his teammates than he will be able to share the season with his own family.
"From that standpoint, it is a nightmare," said New York Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte. "Over the years, with the success we had early, I think it was real easy for us to be able to go out and have lunch on the road and just enjoy a nice day of walking around. It's really tough to do that now, because a lot of people follow us now on the road."
The more popular teams in the Major Leagues, particularly those perpetual "good draws," like the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, always have a faithful contingent traveling close behind them. Many hotel lobbies display signs that warn against autograph seeking and picture taking, but some fans tend to regard that more as a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule.
"If you can at least walk down to the lobby and not be swarmed by people, that's really what you're looking for in a hotel," Pettitte said. "At least you can get out of your room for a minute and walk downstairs and get a cup of coffee.
"Over the last few years, we've done a lot better job of that. Earlier in our careers, when we started winning championships, we'd go down to the lobby and there'd be 200 or 300 people waiting for us. It was kind of crazy."
Teams do not reveal their hotel information in official publications, but the Internet has helped to make that less of a stumbling point. In response, many teams have switched their accommodation plans, while some players -- like Pettitte -- will refuse to sign autographs at the hotel, instead telling seekers to ask again at the ballpark.
The routine starts up every three days or so, almost always on the "getaway day" of a series in a road city. From the moment players come off the field, clubhouse personnel are scrambling to clear out lockers and stack equipment bags on dollies and into a truck, where they'll be rushed ahead to the airport.
Players always dress their finest on a travel day, swapping out shredded jeans and T-shirts for sharp blazers and ties, so as to adhere to the individual club's dress code. Two buses will be parked and ready to roll just outside the stadium gates, with the manager and coaches riding the first bus with certain members of the media -- for example, television broadcasters. The players all file into the second bus.
"Everyone, even the rookies, pretty much ride on the same bus, because we're all part of the team," said the Seattle Mariners' Willie Bloomquist. "On the plane, guys can sit pretty much where they want, although it is kind of an unwritten rule that the older veterans are in the back of the plane."
The drivers are issued clearance to pull up onto the runway. Aside from convenience, there's also one other very important benefit -- there's no chance of the Mets showing up in Cincinnati, for example, and forfeiting a game because their bats and jerseys were sent to Minneapolis by mistake.
"We never have problems with lost baggage," Heilman said. "The truck pulls up right next to the plane, and we load it right onto the truck. There's no chance of having it go through the table and having somebody else pick it up."
A changed world
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, players and coaches could simply board from the runway, but now transportation regulations require that they individually go through the same security procedures as all passengers.
"Travel was definitely a lot better before 9/11," said Millar. "People don't realize it, but we still go through security and we still get screened. Before 9/11, it was just drive the bus to the stairs and jump on the plane -- 'Free Willie.' I remember guys being able to smoke in the back of the plane. Now, we've got to follow the rules and regulations."
The process of getting on board can include, on occasion, being pulled aside for extra screening to determine why a shoe or belt buckle may be setting off detectors. It happens, but the complete experience is still a step up over flying commercial -- and much quicker.
"You still have to go through security at the airport, but it's not like a herd of sheep like it is when you're taking your family on vacation," said Bloomquist."We go through a security line, but we all know each other."
The Mariners chartered a plush Boeing 757 plane from Paul Allen's Vulcan Airlines from 2003 until halfway through last season. It had all-leather first-class seats with TV monitors over every row of seats, tables for card games and the same flight attendants for most flights.
It was such a good plane that former manager Mike Hargrove said it would be shown as part of the "recruiting" process for potential free-agent signings.
"That spoiled us a little bit," Bloomquist said. "It spoiled, but for how many miles we travel and how many hours we spend in the air, it helped keep us from getting too tired."
The Mariners charter planes from Alaska Air for west-of-the-Mississippi flights and larger planes from Delta on longer, cross-country flights. The team will travel a franchise-record 55,000 miles this season.
'The way we travel is the only way'
With teams spending so much time in the air, technology has played a large role in eradicating some of the tediousness that early baseball travelers experienced.
The Reds became the first team to travel by airplane in 1934, when 19 players flew to Chicago for a series with the Cubs. A dozen years later, the Yankees would become the first team to take to the skies on a regular basis, chartering a Douglas DC-4 during the 1946 season.
Decades ago, some players would huddle on trains and discuss baseball strategy. But none of those players had the toys available to their modern-day counterparts, who can easily become lost in their iPods, laptops or personal video game systems.
"In the big picture, traveling the way we travel is the only way," Millar said. "You can be standing up during takeoff -- a lot of card-playing. A lot of DJing with the Bose system, and just a lot of hanging out. I think that's the time when the team has a lot of camaraderie. If you're traveling from Baltimore to Seattle, you're with each other for five or six hours."
It's not always civil -- certain flights have become the stuff of legend, like the 1986 Mets' trip back from Houston following the National League Championship Series. The party-hard Amazin's were hit with a $7,500 United Airlines bill for damages to the DC-10, along with a note saying that the Mets' business was no longer welcome.
Even as recently as the mid '90s, Jason Giambi referred to the Oakland A's flights as "frat parties in the sky," before swapping those wild travels for the more corporate atmosphere found on Yankees flights. Now, the bonding experience takes place over movies and computer trivia games, which are installed on many flights and can at least help to pass the time.
Then again, there's always that old stand-by for an aching body and a weary mind -- sleep. Not everyone can pull it off, even spread across three seats and with a fluffy pillow, and those who are able to fall into a restful slumber before takeoff garner playfully jealous admiration from those who cannot.
"Your body adapts to it, and you get used to being in the air," Pettitte said. "It seems like whenever I walk up and down the aisles, a lot of guys are able to sleep. I really can't. Early in the year, I tried to, because we had such a horrible schedule and we were getting in at five in the morning. I was trying to get some kind of rest, but I'm so big that I really don't feel like I fit in those seats.
"As soon as Joba [Chamberlain] puts his head down, he's out. He's unbelievable. I've seen some veteran players be able to do that, but for a young fella, that's pretty impressive. Sometimes we have to wake him up when we land."
Though a postgame meal is always provided at the ballpark, players also have to ward off temptation on board the plane, where an accommodating flight crew is almost always ready to fill up that lowered tray table.
"They're constantly coming by with different things to eat -- fruits, sandwiches, dessert, ice cream -- whatever you want," Astros outfielder Hunter Pence said. "You have to be careful with some of those things while you're playing."
It sure beats the bus rides from the Minor Leagues, when a team might have one designated stop for food on the entire journey. There's little wonder that once a player enjoys the perks of big league travel, all other transportation pales in comparison.
"We are taken care of very nicely," Dellucci admits.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.