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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Joe Price's star-spangled baseball odyssey

A Whittier College professor is traveling to dozens of minor league ballparks in 40 states to lead the crowd in the national anthem

April 27, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Whittier professor Joe Price sings at the opening game of the Brevard County (Florida) Manatees, one of 100 performances he'll make this spring and summer at minor league parks.
Whittier professor Joe Price sings at the opening game of the Brevard County… (Greg Sapp )

Easy to call what Joe Price is doing some sort of quixotic quest, to attach religious significance to a pilgrimage bursting with symbolism and ritual. But really all he hopes to do is follow his passion for the sport of baseball while penning his own unique love story. O, say can you see ...

Price is a religious studies professor at Whittier College with an interest in sports, an ear for song and an astounding wife who has agreed to accompany him this summer to 100 minor league ballparks in 40 states — just so Joe can lead the crowd in "The Star-Spangled Banner." After each performance, he and his wife, Bonnie, will take in the game, and then be on their way to the next town in an old RV named Arby.

I guess if a wife can handle 38 years of marriage, almost anything else a guy throws at you looks like high cheese.

The professor started his trip (sans RV) two weeks ago in Florida, hitting 11 ballparks, from Port St. Lucie to Lakeland. He returns to Southern California on Thursday night, when he will perform at the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game, then Friday for the High Desert Mavericks near Victorville, before heading off across America with Bonnie and their 16-year-old RV.

All the world's a stage, sure, but there are certain corners of it you'd do best to avoid. For instance, in most minor league ballparks, there is no place to warm up. Every time you inhale, there's a gnat in your gnose. And if you turn into the wind, it can change the pitch of what you're singing in an unintended Doppler moment.

One hundred ballparks, 100 buzzy sound systems. One hundred destinations ... 100 different things that can go wrong on the way.

"Actually, I was more worried about the RV holding out than about my voice," says Price, a baritone/bass. "Then I got a cold."

"But even after singing the anthem four times with a cold, I'm still more concerned about the RV."

This whole idea started a few years ago. A colleague at Whittier, Fred Bergerson, mentioned a USA Today article about some fan's plan to visit 189 professional ballparks.

"He said, 'Joe, you should do that and sing the anthem,' " recalls Price, who had already anthemed in a wide range of Major League Baseball venues.

"I thought minor league parks might be a great way to discover America," Price says. "I set up all sort of maps, charts and parameters to plan it out."

"I said, 'Look, this is not a great use of family money,' " Bonnie says. "He said, 'Where else are you going to get a write-off for four months of vacation?'

"And I said: 'Where's the vacation?' "

But the timing could hardly have been better. The couple's two sons were grown and on their own. Bonnie was finally done with teaching after an award-winning 35-year career.

Even so, the logistics were mind-boggling, even for a University of Chicago-trained professor. Step one: sending out letters with a link to an audition video.

"The Hudson Valley Renegades called two hours later," he says.

Once you've got the Renegades in your back pocket, I guess almost anything is possible. So after Price persuaded 50 minor league parks to say yes, he set his sights on 100. When he hit 100, he added nine more in case of rainouts and RV problems.

"The only words we had over it were on why he had scheduled so much," Bonnie remembers.

In the meantime, he and Bonnie had acquired a used RV for $15,000, fixed it up, took it for some runs to test the vehicle and their almost nonexistent RV skills. Before you could say Steinbeck or Kuralt, they were ready to roll.

Ah, the life of a vagabond entertainer.

"Most of the ballparks don't even offer you a bottle of water," Price says of his first round of performances, mostly in Florida. "The thing that is more difficult than I anticipated is that, like a player, you need to stretch and warm up before a game.

"I've discovered that the family restroom is the best place to warm up."

So now, his initial tour of Florida behind him, he is back to claim Bonnie and Arby (RB, for the "rattle-bang" the vehicle makes when it hits a pothole) and they're off to see America.

Sure, there'll be a book (or two) by Price, who has already written and lectured extensively on sports and religion.

But it is this 15,000-mile adventure that lights up his world — the Hickory Crawdads, June 7; the Lynchburg Hillcats, June 15.

"It basically is wanderlust with a new twist, plus the baseball," he explains

"The biggest appeal is to see his dream come true," Bonnie says. "It makes him happy on a very deep level. And it's great to be around happy people.

"Joe has a quality that I would advise any young woman looking for a husband to look for, and that's a great sense of devotion ... an interest in the world."

See? I told you it was a love story.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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