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Biking for baseball: Five friends go to bat for kids

They biked to every major-league park in the country, holding clinics for children along the way. After 11,000 miles of adventures, it’s the kids they remember the most.

Biking for Baseball's Steve Lunn, Adam Kremers and Rex Roberts.

Chase Higgins and his Biking for Baseball team spent six months on the road traveling to all 30 Major League Baseball parks. Higgins, who is from Shawnee, gives us his take on the views, the ballparks, the people and the challenges of living on the road.

Favorite ballpark?

Chase Higgins: “I can give you top three: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Kauffman and Target Field. Wrigley and Fenway are cool, but I can’t compare them to any other parks because it’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

Favorite city ?

Higgins: “Toronto. I’d never been to Canada before, but Toronto was really cool. Surprising how much fun we had there. It’s a huge city. There are nice neighborhoods throughout the whole city, so you can be in the middle of Toronto, but you feel like you’re just in a neighborhood. It doesn’t feel as big as New York City. It’s not overwhelming. I think it would be very livable, and a lot of people bike around there so I can live in Toronto.”

Best fans ?

Higgins: “It pains me to say this, but St. Louis. They call themselves the best fans in baseball and they kind of are.”

Nicest people?

Higgins: “Toronto. At our clinic in Toronto, all the kids were so polite. Just really, nice polite kids and really encouraging. It’s not to say in all our other clinics there were bad kids because there weren’t at all, but you can’t compare them to the Canadian kids.”

Best view?

Higgins: “My favorite ride was definitely going through the redwoods in Northern California. I’d never been to that part of the country, and all the hills and the cool coastline and the huge trees. It was definitely my favorite part of the ride.”

How often did you shower?

Higgins: “Probably every third day. There would be times when we were on the road and didn’t have access to any shower. When we would be in a city, we’d be normal people and shower.”

Did you ever think, ‘Man, I smell awful?’

Higgins: “Yeah, most of the time. But you get over that.”

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to ride across the country?

Higgins: “Probably the most difficult part is the mental part and any physical pain goes away. Preparing mentally. Don’t let your mind tell you to quit, because it wants to tell you to stop, but don’t let it stop you.”

Special to Ink

The journey started where most dreams go to die. At a bar. Old childhood buddies Chase Higgins and Adam Kremers sharing a cold one and a wouldn’t it be cool moment.

The dream: Take in a game at each major-league ballpark in one season.

“You know what,” Higgins said in between drinks, a crazy idea materializing in his head. “We should bike to every stadium. That would be awesome.”

Thirty cities across the United States and into Canada, through the desert in Arizona, up and over the Rocky Mountains, through the blistering Midwestern humidity, the Florida heat, the busy East Coast streets. All on a bicycle.

“Yeah, we could actually do that,” Kremers said.

Higgins and Kremers are two buddies from Shawnee who grew up loving the Royals and constantly playing something . Sports were a big part of their friendship. In high school at Shawnee Mission Northwest, they would go to almost every UMKC basketball home game. They called themselves the “Roo crew.”

Kremers, who had moved to Denver, was in Minnesota visiting Higgins at the time this crazy idea entered their universe. He had come up to see the Royals play the Twins. Zack Greinke was pitching. It was October 2009.

Typically a magical season brings buddies together. Your hometown team makes the playoffs. You beg, borrow and steal to go to a game. For two Royals fans born in 1984 and 1985, this was as close as it gets: seeing Greinke in his final start of a Cy Young season.

“That weekend was a very prideful Royals weekend,” Kremers said. “I don’t think I’ve ever made a sign for a game, much less a sign that we spent a whole afternoon on the day before. I never buy tickets to sit 10 rows behind home plate, and we did for Greinke.”

The talk continued that night at the ballpark. No one scored a run for five innings — remember, Greinke was pitching — and the two friends talked about where they were in their lives.

Higgins wasn’t happy with his job working in fraud investigation at a bank. He needed to do something different.

“A quarter-life crisis,” he said.

Kremers was always up for an adventure.

The next day Kremers headed back to Denver, but they parted ways convinced they were going to make this dream happen.

The next year it started to take shape. Kremers became a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Denver, part of the Sports Buddies program, where you take a little brother to a ballgame.

In the beginning of 2011, they applied to become a nonprofit. They convinced two buddies to join them. They decided 2012 was the year to do it, the year the baseball world would turn its attention to Kansas City for a few days during the All-Star break. That’s when they would come through Kansas City.

“I think a majority of people didn’t really believe me,” Higgins said. “I know my parents didn’t. They were like, ‘OK Chase, sure.’ And then it got to a point where we were for sure doing this no matter what people would say. I think that’s when they started to take it seriously.”

“Biking for Baseball” was going to happen.

On April 13, 2012, Higgins, Kremers and three friends arrived in Seattle in a 1984 lime green Pace Arrow motor home with “Biking for Baseball” painted on the side in huge yellow letters.

Five bikes. Five suitcases. Five bros.

They had all quit their jobs. Higgins left the bank. Kremers was an engineer. Rex Roberts, Kremer’s friend and roommate in Denver, was a Web designer. Another college buddy, Steve Lunn, had been teaching English in South Korea. He arrived back in the States a little less than two months before they left for Seattle. Tim Sherman called himself a nomad. He heard about the trip from some of Higgins’ friends — both had gone to school at Kansas State — and asked if he could join.

Higgins and Kremers planned the trip for nearly three years. They raised money. All the extra, they decided, would go to the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs they visited along the way. They had an advisory board. And instead of just taking kids to games, they wanted to hold a baseball clinic in every city.

They set dates. They mapped out their trip. They made it happen.

After taking in Seattle’s Safeco Park on a Friday, they held their first clinic of the trip on Saturday and then spent a couple of days hanging out with some family friends.

On Tuesday, they started their ride from Seattle to Oakland, Calif.

900 miles in nine days.

In the year that led up to the trip, Higgins, Kremers and Roberts each set up training bikes in their living rooms. Higgins and Kremers watched basketball most nights during the winter and pedaled. Roberts pedaled while he played X-box.

Those first 900 miles were the toughest. They rotated who drove the motor home each day. The driver drove ahead to the next city where they were going to camp for the night. He set up camp, went grocery shopping and worked on the laptop, coordinating with the organizers at future events.

Sherman, the nomad, wasn’t into the biking part of it as much as the others, so most days he rode in the motor home.

The weather was bad. They had snow in Astoria, Ore. They woke up to icy mornings. They had not packed warm enough clothes, so they wore almost everything they had packed at night, layer upon layer, with knit hats pulled over their ears, huddled together, trying to keep warm.

And their knees ached.

“The only way you can prepare to ride 100 miles every day is to ride 100 miles every day,” Roberts said. “And you don’t have time to ride 100 miles every day because you have a job.”

One night they were so tired that they fell asleep with plates of spaghetti resting on their laps. This wasn’t exactly the experience they had envisioned.

But it was awesome at the same time. Riding along the coastline of Oregon, through the redwoods in Northern California and up and over the Ridgewood Summit, ascending to 1,956 feet.

“The biking piece for me was to be able to see the country on a bike,” Kremers said. “I really wasn’t too keen on riding 100 miles a day all the time. I knew that was going to be tough. But you could see everything on a bike.”

Relief was supposed to come in San Francisco. Since San Francisco and Oakland are so close, they planned to stay in the area for five days, a nice break from a difficult (and hilly) start.

As they pulled into San Francisco, the engine went out of the Pace Arrow. Dropped like their stomachs when it happened. Broken beyond repair. They had nearly $8,500 in the motor home. More importantly, it was how they transported all their clothes and baseball equipment.

The next day Kremers, Higgins and Roberts biked to the Giants game. Kremers had arranged for them to go on the field after the game. AT&T Park had a gated area to park bikes, but it closed minutes after the game, so the guys parked their bikes just outside the gate. Typically, they would have locked their bikes up in the trailer that the motor home pulled.

About three hours later, when they came out of the stadium, Kremers and Roberts’ bikes were gone.

No motor home. Down two bikes. Only 900 miles in.

“When my bike was gone, I thought I was done,” Kremers said. “I had spent so much time and money on that bike. It was a big investment for me in a lot of ways. Because I bought the bike for this trip and had spent time building it up, getting it ready. And when it was gone, it was like, ‘Everything I have put into this has now been taken.’

“I took my bonus from the job I had just left and bought the RV. Both of the things I had invested my time and money into had just been taken away from me, and there was nothing I could do.”

Roberts convinced a friend in Denver to drive Roberts’ Toyota Tacoma pickup truck from Denver to San Francisco so they could continue their ride. Roberts’ dad later purchased and donated a Suburban to help them transport the trailer. Kremers and Roberts bought new bikes. Their knees quit hurting.

They hit the road again on April 30, heading to Los Angeles.

“We had obligations,” Kremers said. “I was thinking ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I had nothing left. And then the thing that pushed us on was we had set up all these contacts across the country, and we had events planned at that point through Texas.

They had also talked a “big game” about riding, Adam said. They knew they could not give up just because they hit a little adversity.

“If we hadn’t seen the impact the clinic in Seattle had,” Roberts said, “and the people we talked with in San Francisco and Oakland and the kids there, we wouldn’t have pushed through it. We wouldn’t have had that motivation.”

It was enough for Sherman. He decided the trip wasn’t for him. When they arrived in Denver, their eighth city, he headed back to his hometown of McPherson, Kan.

“With a smaller vehicle, it just was more and more problematic for everybody,” Sherman said. “Five people in a cramped situation, we just weren’t being as efficient as we wanted to be. Too many people. Too little space. When we got back to Denver, it only made sense me being the last one on to be the first one to step out.”

The other guys saw it as having different agendas.

“We knew from the beginning, for us to be successful that means we change the lives of people in a positive way,” Roberts said. “We leave an impact. We help kids. We show people that you can be a positive impact. For him to be successful, he thought it’d be, ‘We’re going to meet a bunch of girls, see all these great places and write a story about it at the end.’ That was his threshold for success. It didn’t match up.”

“We didn’t see that before it started,” Kremers said.

What the Biking for Baseball guys quickly figured out was the trip wasn’t a six-month vacation. This was a job.

Sure, it was awesome to see the country. To see the ballparks. To meet the players. In Kansas City, they got on the field to watch batting practice and talked to Ned Yost, Jeff Francoeur, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer. Francoeur gave them a bat.

In Cleveland, Kremers got to throw out the first pitch.

“It was pretty cool,” Kremers said. “My goal was to not hit the ground.”

Eventually, the ballparks all ran together. They still enjoyed going to the games, but it was no longer the draw. Spend a few hours with these guys, listen to their stories, and you’ll hear about what mattered.

They give you goose bumps when they talk about the kids, like Alex in Minneapolis.

“She comes up and she’s like this,” Kremers said, scrunching his face with a sour look. “She’s so transparent. She doesn’t want to be there.”

Kremers fluctuates his voice as he tells the story.

“You want to come out and play baseball?”

“I don’t like baseball. I like volleyball.”

“Maybe play with us and maybe you’ll like it.”

“I’m scared of the ball. I might get hurt. I’m not playing.”

As Kremers starts to round everyone up, he asks one last time: “You sure you don’t want to come out?”

OK,” Alex answers, reluctantly.

“She comes out. We go over the clinic. We do everything, and she’s having more and more fun as we’re going on,” Kremers said. “She’s smiling. She’s loving it. Hitting home runs. Making catches.”

Kremers voice continues to rise. He talks faster and faster.

“And she’s giving high-fives and has the biggest smile on her face. Then we play the game, and she gets her first hit. She’s running all over the field, and then at the end of it, she says, ‘I don’t even like volleyball anymore. Baseball’s my favorite sport.’ ”

“We had a camera guy from Minnesota news come up,” Lunn said, “and she (Alex) says that, and he said, ‘You just made my job so easy for me. I didn’t have to coach you.’ ”

Kremers interrupts, again in his Alex voice: “Baseball’s my favorite. These guys do such a good job making it fun for me.”

“It sounded scripted even though she said it,” Lunn said.

Jon Hile, the chief operating officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Kansas City, witnessed similar results.

“It’s a very nurturing, safe way to be introduced to the game,” Hile said.

One thing is certain. You don’t ride your bike 11,000 miles across 36 states and into Canada without meeting some characters and the best this world has to offer.

In Fort Supply, Okla., they camped next to four “good, genuine hillbillies,” as Roberts tells it. Instead of bringing firewood, these dudes took their truck, hooked a chain to a tree, pulled it out of the ground and threw it in the fire.

The guys tell the locals they’re heading to Oklahoma City the next day.

“How far is that?” one asks.

“About 150 miles.”

For the next few minutes, the four locals contemplate how long that would take in a semi — not a bike.

“Depends on the load.”

“What if you’re loading ‘dozers?”

“Are you driving at night?”

And minutes later, “You guys ever eat a huckleberry?”

They have now.

In the middle of Texas, they had a flat tire on Highway 114 and another on Highway 81. Both times someone stopped.

“We were on the side of the highway and this pickup pulls over to ask if we’re OK,” Kremers said.

“Jumps the curb, up on the grass behind us,” Lunn added.

At a Texas gas station, a man came over to ask what they were doing. When he left, he handed them a $100 bill.

In Miami, they got an email from Philadelphian Andrew Aerenson, who had learned about the guys when he was vacationing in Frisco, Colo., and read a story about them in the Vail Daily.

“When you’re in Philadelphia, we want you to stay with us,” Aerenson wrote.

The Aerensons welcomed four guys they’d never met into their home, which included two high school children of their own and a foreign exchange student from Finland. During their stay, the Aerensons took the guys to their lake house in Delaware to go skiing and to eat scrapple, a treat of leftover breakfast meat served with cornmeal.

On the guys’ way to Toronto, they had no idea where they were going to stay. A day out, they sent out the tweet: “ATTN B4Bers: Does anybody have friends/family in Toronto who would be willing to let us crash on their floor for a night this week? Thanks!”

Dan Edwards, who had interviewed the guys in Minnesota, replied and told them to contact a guy on Twitter who went by the name John Sharkman. They did and Sharkman, who had been a radio personality in Minneapolis, took the guys in no questions asked to stay with him, his wife and their two young children.

Sharkman took them out for beers. He told them his life story. He was a quarterback at St. John’s, a Division III powerhouse in Minnesota, and former Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy wrote a book about Sharkman’s team when he was in school.

He told them everything … but his real name.

“I don’t actually know his real name,” Kremers said. “I don’t think he wanted us to know.”

In Michigan, they got a tweet from Twitter follower Dave Hampton. He wanted to ride with the guys when they went through Detroit. Hampton showed up in a Phillies T-Shirt.

“Philly?” Adam questioned. “Dude, we’re in Detroit.”

“And he was like, ‘No, Sweeney’ and pointed to the back of his shirt.”

It was a Mike Sweeney jersey. Hampton knew that Kremers and Higgins were from Kansas City.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” Adam said. “He has a Phillies’ Sweeney shirt.”

“It was people with awesome stories who tended to put us up,” Lunn said. “Part of it was so they could tell us their story.”

The Biking for Baseball story is now complete (sort of). They finished their ride on Sept. 22 in Boston. They rode 11,000 miles. Kremers’ parents flew in from Kansas City to see them finish their last leg and go to Fenway with the guys. They took Roberts’ 87-year-old grandpa, George Ward, to his first game at Fenway. Ward, a lifelong Red Sox fan, grew up nearby in Maine.

“It was absolutely terrible he’d never been to Fenway,” Roberts said. “He would listen to Red Sox games on the telegraph when he was growing up in Downeast Maine, because they couldn’t get live games on the radio. So they would get games the day after. They would get a telegraph game to the radio office and they would read the play-by-play like it was a live game the day after.”

That’s Roberts’ favorite story from the trip. They all have their favorites. Usually it’s about the kids and the clinics.

They know this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. They know they’ll have stories to tell for years. They know they need to return to their lives, but they want to keep the organization going.

So what’s next?

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Kremers said.

They’re considering hosting shorter rides between parks that anyone could take part in that would include baseball clinics at each stop.

“We have all these contacts all over the country,” Kremers said.

One of those contacts is Max Scherzer, former University of Missouri pitcher and current Detroit Tiger. Scherzer’s girlfriend contacted the guys before their Detroit clinic and asked if they could help.

“Uh, yeah,” Kremers said.

“After the clinic, he started teaching this one kid about pitching,” Kremers said. “They were going through all the motions, and that was his dream, he wanted to do one-on-one pitching clinics. He was like, ‘I have to leave,’ and then he stopped and he worked with this kid for like 15 more minutes after he had to leave to go to his baseball game.

“Now he’s teaching that kid on his own on the side. He just brought a bunch of kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters to come on the field and he hung out with them during batting practice for one of the Tigers’ games.”

Scherzer and his girlfriend are also considering becoming mentors. They’re just two of the people the Biking for Baseball guys impacted along the way.

They say they want everyone to know how easy it is to be part of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Just two hours a month,” Kremers said.

He has his pitch down. At some point along the way, they became marketers. And everyone wanted to hear their story, why four guys would bike across the country.

And to think, it all started at a bar. Just a crazy idea tossed around between two friends.

“We could die happy men,” Kremers told Higgins that weekend, “after we do something like this.”

C.J. Moore is a blogger at CBSSports.com and freelance writer who lives in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

Comments

  1. 1 year, 10 months ago

    Thanks for doing the story, CJ. Loved that we got some Roo Krew references in there.

  2. 1 year, 10 months ago

    Great article and the pictures turned out good. B4B stories will live for a long time. I loved reading them along the trip. Love that Kremers Boy—and congrats to the other bikers

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