The roar of a fast-approaching 18-wheeler greeted me on the other end of the phone before I had a chance to say hello.
“Hi, Al, it’s Matt returning your call … excuse the noise … I’m calling from the road.”
More accurately, the side of the road. On his bicycle. About to make a 10,500-foot Rocky Mountain climb before coasting downhill into Denver to take in the Rockies/Phillies game.
“Matt” is recent Univeristy of Wisconsin graduate Matt Stoltz, and Coors Field will be the eighth Major League ballpark he’s pedaled to since opening day at Seattle’s Safeco Field in April.
Only 22 ballparks to go. And about 9,000 more miles. All before the summer’s out. And all by bike.
Representing an organization called Biking for Baseball, the 22-year-old is in this for more than just the adventure.
Matt’s cross-country ballpark tour isn’t unlike the usual sort of wild-eyed adventure many not-quite-adults create for themselves during that short window where possibilities are endless and real world responsibilities are nowhere to be found.
I have no job, no kids, no mortgage … maybe I’ll bike to every single MLB ballpark this summer. Sure, why not?
The difference between, say, the new graduate backpacking across Europe with his or her last few student loan checks and Matt’s trip is motivation. His is more than just a vague mission to “find himself” (though he’s doing plenty of that: “It’s just me, myself, and I out there … a great way to get to know yourself.”). At an age where most of us are as self-centered as we’ll ever be, this Wisconsin native’s “summer lark” is fueled by a sense of responsibility. A responsibility to use the good fortune he’s been awarded in life to help those who haven’t been quite as lucky.
And do it for the game he loves.
Matt outside The Ballpark at Arlington in Texas. Image: Matt Stoltz/Biking for Baseball
“Before this trip, I had only biked over 100 miles in a day twice,” says Stoltz between breaths that seem like they should be more labored than they are. “I’ve done that in four of the last five days now.”
As I ask him how his body is responding to the first quarter of his 11,155-mile journey, another big rig rumbles past, threatening, it seems, to come right through the phone and run me down.
In all honesty, the traffic was starting to make me a little nervous for the guy.
“Plenty of times, you think you can’t go further,” Matt explains, seemingly unflustered by the 10 tons of steel speeding past. “But the pain is temporary. It’s seems cliche, but I just think about the kids we’re helping who have things going on that aren’t as temporary.”
Those kids are the members of the Greater Milwaukee Boys and Girls Club and the youngsters that attend the baseball clinics Biking for Baseball organizes across the country. That’s who Matt is riding for.
“We set a $100,000 goal at the start of the trip,” says Stoltz. “But, really, you can’t assign a value to altering a kid’s life for the better – or raising awareness that adults can change a kid’s life with just a few hours a month.”
Volunteers working on a little soft-toss at Biking for Baseball's Pittsburgh clinic. Image: Biking for Baseball
“A snow storm is forecasted for later in the day,” says Matt, explaining that his arrival in Denver might be delayed. Thankfully, a precarious trip through Santa Fe has already toughened him up a bit.
“I left most of my cold weather gear at home … I didn’t think I’d need it rolling through New Mexico.”
Turns out, he did. A wintry mix of misery pelted him throughout that vast Southwestern stretch of his 6-month journey.
“Hail, snow, rain … you name it.”
While Matt is riding (mostly) solo, he’s counting on the kindness of strangers to get him back to his home field – Milwaukee’s Miller Park – before the season is out.
“People have been generous in offering up their homes so far … I always welcome a warm bed and a warm meal,” he says. “Especially after rides like that.”
Other times he camps out, or gets a hotel room.
“But I’ve only had to pay for a place to stay a few times so far.”
Deep snow in Denver. Image: Matt Stoltz/Biking for Baseball
After our phone call, the snow that had been predicted for the Denver area came, cutting Matt’s last leg into the city short. With cars sliding off the road, Matt decided going on would be too dangerous. Luckily, he found a ride into town and a place to stay. Even better, he was able to get a ride the next morning, back to where he had to stop the day before – a half-hour outside of Denver.
Since then, Matt has traveled through the endless horizon of Kansas and Oklahoma, stubbornly pumping for hundreds of miles against massive headwinds, only to be rewarded with a slog through Texas floods. Certainly, plenty more adversity awaits in the months ahead, but again, he stresses this ride is not about him.
“More than anything, the message I want to promote with this trip … is whether it’s through baseball or whatever, I want [adults] to realize what a huge difference they can make as a mentor in a child’s life.”
After 11,732 miles, 29 ballparks and 6 months, Matt arrived (45 lbs. lighter) to his 30th and final stop, Miller Park, on October 3.
"It's great to know that you can take this enormous task and break it down, grind it out, overcome hurdle after hurdle, and in the end, finish it," reflects Matt in his (very insightful) post-ride interview.
More importantly, he inspired hundreds of people to sign up to become mentors to kids in their communities – exactly as he had hoped.
Check out the full interview and get inspired!
Encourage a young athlete with an inspiring message. Thank a coach, parent, or teammate who's made a difference in your life. Pass the flame for them to share and keep alive. Because one little spark is all it takes to ignite something great.
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