Kristen A. Graham

is an Inquirer staff writer

For the last 11 years, I have made a pilgrimage to Florida.

No matter what, I hit pause in mid-March, and hop on a plane with my father and aunt for a week in the bleachers. I have made this trip when the team was terrible and when it was great. I have journeyed in the middle of massive projects at work, with a terrible cold, even when I was six months pregnant.

This year, I made it with a toddler.

Baseball is my large extended family's shared language, the Phillies our mutual passion. That week in the sun, watching our beloved heroes ready themselves for the coming season, is a highlight of the year.

Ours is a strictly baseball vacation. There are no beach days or amusement parks. We pack our schedule with games, zigzagging the state to visit as many parks as possible.

A new twist cropped up this year.

I adore my husband, but he is not a baseball fan. He didn't grow up the way I did, with Phillies games the sound track to my summers. Last year, Garrick was happy to watch our son, not yet a year old, while I slipped away for a few days in Florida.

But when we compared calendars after my father bought game tickets this year, I gasped - Garrick would be out of the country on a business trip when I was supposed to be sizing up the Phils along the first baseline at Bright House Field in Clearwater.

I figured I would have to sit out this year: no child care, no quick baseball getaway, right?

Not exactly.

A dear friend who lives close to where the Phillies train made a suggestion: What if I made the trip and brought Kieran? Nora has a son the same age as mine, and she would help with the gear and logistics necessary for traveling with a toddler.

My little guy is a pretty mellow kid, and I am a sucker for a streak, so I decided to risk it.

The early signs were good - Kieran has a few flights under his belt, and the man who sat next to us on our plane ride down was so charmed by my son that our seatmate was singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to Kieran by the time we landed.

When we got to our first ballpark - McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates - the sun was shining, Kieran shouted with joy when he saw his Pop and Aunt Kathleen, and he thought the crowd very considerate to break out into one of his favorite songs in the middle of the seventh inning.

Let me be clear: relaxing is not the adjective I would use to describe this vacation. In a previous life, I kept score at every game I attended, paying close attention to each play. On this trip, I hardly touched my score book.

I spent very little time leisurely taking in games and instead made endless loops around the various concourses of Florida ballparks. I am grateful to the people who built a playground at Bright House Field, and I would certainly think twice before again attempting a baseball game in the hot sun followed by a meal out with a toddler.

(If you happened to be at Crabby Bill's in St. Pete Beach that night, yes, that was me hightailing it out with a squirming, protesting little boy under my arm, and I offer my deepest apologies.)

I guarantee, though, that the things I will remember most about this trip are the bright spots - fireworks over Steinbrenner Field, the perfect nightcap to a 7-3 Phillies win over the Yankees; Kieran peering over the outfield fence in a too-big Phils cap; a loud and joyful reunion with family and friends.

Loosening the "baseball only" rule proved freeing. On previous spring-training excursions, I had never heard my son shout, "Whee, Mama, whee!" as I pushed him on the swings with Tampa Bay in the background. That was lovely.

Perhaps Kieran won't fall for baseball the way his mother has, and once he's older, he won't want to join me on my March pilgrimage. That's OK.

But maybe he will, and the love of the game will have been inspired on this trip, when he sat on his Poppy's lap and shouted, "Go Phils!" on a warm March day, smiling because all the people around him were shouting it too.

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