Chris Bethea decided to take his love for baseball to the next level.
The Myrtle Beach business owner wanted to attend a game at all 30 current Major League Baseball ballparks and it all started on a trip to an Atlanta Braves game in 2000.
Fifteen years later at a Minnesota Twins game, Bethea completed the feat and has kept a hat and ticket stub from each ballpark, which he proudly displays in the office of his Myrtle Beach home.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Bethea, who grew up in Latta and attended Latta High School. “If you see a hat on my wall, I’ve been to that team’s park. I always buy a hat at every stadium and I write in the hat who played, the score, what happened in the game and if someone went with me I write my name and theirs in the hat.”
And Bethea’s last hat came with perhaps the best story.
With 29 ballparks under his belt, Bethea’s last stop was Target Field in Minnesota. Bethea sent an email to Dave St. Peter – president of the Twins’ organization – telling his story. Bethea wasn’t anticipating a response and was planning a trip to Minnesota regardless.
St. Peter then decided to make Bethea’s trip to Target Field more meaningful.
“I knew this was going to be my last ballpark and I wanted [St. Peter] to know my story,” Bethea said. “He wrote me back, hooked me up with tickets [behind] the dugout. He was just the nicest guy.”
Bethea has met plenty of other friendly people during his journey, too. And while baseball is obviously a big part of the trips he takes, it’s not the only thing that draws him to the ballparks.
“The purpose of these trips is not only the athletics but the real purpose is the fellowship,” said Bethea, who brings family and friends with him on almost every trip. “You also meet a lot of nice people, you have stories that you’ll always remember and it’s just a great experience.”
Bethea’s godson, Brandon Brown, goes with him on a lot of the expeditions, and it’s a way of bonding for the two. Brown said Bethea has inspired him and he eventually wants to accomplish the same feat of attending a game at every MLB ballpark.
“He’s been on a lot of these trips; most of them. I’m kind of grooming Brandon to be the next Chris,” Bethea said. “He says he’s going to carry the torch.”
While he has a ways to go, Brown is confident he’ll finish his goal with the help of Bethea.
“You know when people compare LeBron [James] to Michael [Jordan]? it’s kind of like that,” Brown said.
The first game Bethea and Brown went to together was a Philadelphia Phillies game in 2005. But the trips they take aren’t exclusive to baseball. A lot of times, they’ll go to a few NFL, NBA, NHL and college basketball or football games if it’s possible from where they’re visiting.
‘Squeezing the washcloth’
Bethea said it makes it more fulfilling when you can visit multiple sites in one trip and tries to fit in as many games as possible.
“A few times we’d fly but we try to make it as affordable as possible,” he said. “A lot of times we’d load up a van and drive to, say, Boston and come down and catch the Phillies, Mets, Yankees, Orioles and Nationals; you can get them all if you schedule it properly. It’s just what we do. We try to get in as many games as possible when we go on trips.”
And when they take these trips, they take advantage of is seeing the ballparks and stadiums they visit from every angle possible.
They call it ‘squeezing the washcloth.’
“You know when you have a washcloth and it has some water and you squeeze it and it’s dry? Well, Chris has taught me to squeeze the washcloth,” Brown said. “What that means is when you go to a stadium and you only see it from one view then you’ve missed the whole stadium because the engineers design it with all these great views so we squeeze the washcloth. We go all around the stadiums and rarely ever stay in one spot. A lot of times people won’t go with us because they just can’t hang.”
While they visit all different kind of sports, Bethea said there’s still nothing like going to a baseball game.
“Going to a Major League Baseball game is the most affordable form of professional athleticism there is,” Bethea said. “Sometimes we would go buy a ticket on the street for less than 10 bucks and a few minutes later we have our feet on the back of the dugout. You can’t do that kind of stuff with the NFL. And when you go to a baseball game for the first time there’s something special about it and you kind of carry that with you when you go to all these places.”
Over the years, Bethea has seen a lot of exciting games. One that stands out to him was when then-Mariners slugger Mike Cameron hit four home runs against the White Sox on May 2, 2002, during his trip to Chicago. Only 16 players in MLB history have hit four homers in one game.
“I’ll always remember that game. It was just a regular baseball game and I wasn’t looking for anything special. It ended up being the best baseball game I’ve ever been to,” Bethea said. “This guy Mike Cameron comes up to the plate and hits four consecutive home runs and the last time at the plate he almost hit another one. He almost hit five home runs. I never would’ve thought a game like that would be the best I had seen but it was.”
Bethea has also been to games featuring future stars before they became household names. He saw Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson play for the Wisconsin Badgers, he watched New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. play in high school and witnessed Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel playing one of his first games in a Texas A&M uniform, before he was “Johnny Football.”
Bethea said he also met his childhood icon, Red Auerbach, and it was all a coincidence of sorts.
On a family trip to Boston in 1983, Bethea – a longtime Celtics fan – went to the Boston Garden looking to meet the legendary coach. It was the day after Auerbach famously shoved Sixers coach Billy Cunningham and ripped his blazer before they were separated.
Bethea was in the arena looking around and found a door open and wandered in. He made his way to the Celtics’ locker room and saw a secretary was sitting behind the desk.
“I went up to her and asked, ‘Is there any chance I could meet Red Auerbach today?’ She looked up and said, ‘Sir, did you read the papers this morning? Do you know what’s going on in his life? I’m not even sure he’ll be here today,’” Bethea said. “She told me I was welcome to look around at some of the things they had in there and I was just getting ready to leave and just as I made a move for the doors, they busted open and [Auerbach] with a cigar in his mouth walked by going straight to his office. My heart was beating and he just said, ‘How you doing?’ and just kept walking.”
Bethea had the secretary go ask Auerbach if he would come out and meet him. Sure enough, Auerbach obliged and even took a photograph with Bethea.
“It’s one of those things I’ll never forget,” Bethea said. “He was so nice and for that to happen with all the stuff going on in his life was amazing. We even talked about South Carolina and how he loved Myrtle Beach. That’s one of my greatest sports stories right there.”
Continuing the blessings
Instances like the one with Auerbach have Bethea convinced there’s a higher power involved in it all.
“Sometimes I think divine intervention enters into some of these trips we take,” Bethea said. “Some incredible things go on that you couldn’t even dream would happen.”
So what’s next?
“I want to start taking on the classics like rivalry games,” he said. “[Football] games like Harvard-Yale, Army-Navy, Texas-Oklahoma, Southen Cal-Notre Dame, Michigan-Ohio State and stuff like that. But I’ve done a lot and I’ve seen a lot of things during my journey. It’s been really fun.”
Contact MAX McKINNON at 626-0302 or on Twitter @mmckinnonTSN.
Other notable experiences
▪ Darlington Raceway
▪ Indianapolis Motor Speedway
▪ NASCAR Hall of Fame (then-Daytona Beach, Fla.)
▪ ACC basketball tournament
▪ Chicago Bulls’ United Center
▪ Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium
▪ Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame
▪ New York Knicks’ Madison Square Garden
▪ North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center
▪ SEC basketball tournament
▪ Final stage of Tour de France in Paris
▪ Chicago Bear’s Soldier Field
▪ College Football Hall of Fame
▪ Dallas’ Cowboy Stadium
▪ Georgia’ Sanford Stadium
▪ Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field
▪ LSU’s Tiger Stadium
▪ Miami’s Sun Life Stadium
▪ New Orleans Saints’ Superdome
▪ Penn State’s Beaver Stadium
▪ Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field
▪ Pro Football Hall of Fame
▪ Southern California’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
▪ Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium
▪ PGA Championship at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
▪ The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club
▪ U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2
▪ U.S. Open