MLB

Ballpark tours a tradition for Ill. family

Bobby Caballo, 10, and his grandfather Jim Zuehlke.
Bobby Caballo, 10, and his grandfather Jim Zuehlke. (Photo courtesy of Jim Zuehlke.)
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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At 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 2, 55-year-old Jim Zuehlke and his 10-year-old grandson, Bobby Caballo, got in Zuehlke’s 2003 Toyota Camry and headed east on an 8-hour trek to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.

Nine days, 3,144 miles, eight Major League Baseball stadiums, and one pit stop in Cooperstown later, Zuehlke and Bobby returned to Crest Hill, Ill., with a heck of a story to tell.

The epic baseball journey — dubbed the “Papa & Me Tour 2013” on a handmade sign Bobby carried with him into each stadium — took the pair across the East Coast to each of the region’s ballparks.

Boston’s Fenway Park followed the duo’s night in Pittsburgh — PNC was Jim’s favorite stadium on the trip; Fenway was Bobby’s — and then came Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Washington’s Nationals Park and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.

Image courtesy of Jim Zuehlke

After watching Bobby’s beloved Cubs in Philly, the team hit both New York City parks — the Mets’ Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, with a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in between — and made one final stop at Cleveland’s Progressive Field Saturday before Sunday’s finale at U.S. Cellular Field.

If it sounds like an overwhelming trip, that’s because it should have been one — especially for a 10-year-old. But Bobby isn’t your average 10-year-old. He’s a straight-A student, an All-Star second baseman, and an avid collector of MLB hats. To hear his grandfather tell it, Bobby just couldn’t get enough.

“I thought he’d be a little more homesick than he is,” Zuehlke told me by phone from a rest stop along New York’s Interstate 87 on Friday. “This morning at breakfast, I told him we’d be home in two more wake-ups. He kind of smiled, and I asked him, ‘Are you ready to go home?’

“He gave me a look and I said, ‘Well we can give Mom a quick kiss and then head out to Colorado if you want to do that.’ And he said, ‘Sure, let’s go!’”

Image courtesy of Jim Zuehlke

Of course, by now, Bobby is used to these baseball road trips — this is the third that he and his grandfather have taken in the last four seasons.

The first came three years ago, when Zuehlke helped a then 7-year-old Bobby fulfill a dream of seeing Target Field in Minnesota. Zuehlke always wanted to visit Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, so he added that to the docket. Then after making a stop in St. Louis for a Cardinals game on the way home, Zuehlke squeezed a day game in Milwaukee into the itinerary. Thus, a tradition was born.

The following year, Jim and Bobby visited Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit on their voyage. The expedition was put on pause last year when Jim, an employee at ComEd in Chicago, helped Bobby’s mom buy a house. This year, Zuehlke decided to go full bore, and the 2013 trip is their biggest undertaking to date.

“This is definitely the best one yet,” said Bobby, who will enter fifth grade this year. “We got to see more baseball teams, and we got to see baseball fields that I probably won’t ever be able to see again.”

Image courtesy of Jim Zuehlke

As the trip dragged on, word of Jim and Bobby’s excursion began to spread. The Pirates and White Sox both congratulated the duo on Twitter, and fans lined up to take pictures when they spotted Jim and Bobby in the stadium.

"One common thread with all the stadiums was the fans — every fan out there was fantastic," Zuehlke said. "We met a lot of great people who talked with us, gave us a thumbs up and wished us a safe trip. ... People were talking pictures of us, with us, group shots with the family. We felt a little like celebrities."

Some of the best memories of the tour, however, weren’t made within the confines of a baseball stadium. A few of the drives between parks were long, others were late at night, and several of them were rain-soaked. But, Jim and Bobby had no trouble passing the time and keeping each other company talking about — what else? — baseball.

“He’ll talk your ear off about it,” Zuehlke said. “He knows all the players and stats, and he loves the game. He kept me awake after the games. We’d drive a couple hours, and we’d talk about everything from that night’s game all the way to who’s the best center fielder of all time and just go from there. He had a good old time, he was laughing, and I enjoyed it just as much as he did.”

And it was that time together to bond away from the parks that, perhaps, meant more to Jim and Bobby than any stadium experience.

“When we had time to kill, we’d find a park and just go out and play some catch, and he said that was one of the best parts of the whole trip,” Zuehlke said Monday.

“I was overwhelmed by what he said. ... He liked the way I announced. He’d tell me the lineups, and I’d throw him ground balls and say, ‘Hit to third base, over to his left, the throw to first, and he’s out!’ He just got the biggest kick out of it.”

Image courtesy of Jim Zuehlke

Bobby’s grandma, Chris, his mom, Tracy, his 9-year-old sister, Kate, and his best friend Aaron surprised him at Sunday’s denouement. After a post-game autograph session on the field, the family received a surprise dinner and visit from White Sox old timers Bill Melton and Tom Paciorek at Cafe Bionda in the city’s Near South Side.

Then finally, Sunday night, Jim and Bobby’s Papa & Me Tour came to a close — but not for long.

”It was a little bittersweet,” Zuehlke said. “It’s good to be home sleeping in my own comfortable bed, and it’s good to see my wife and my granddaughter, who I missed. But at the same time, we had such a good time, we probably could have hit a couple more cities.

“I really get a kick out of Bobby enjoying the parks — the smile on his face when we’d get there and walk in. That’s worth it right there. It’s fun for him and it’s fun for me, and we will be planning more trips in the coming years."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

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