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2021 Atlanta Braves MLB draft preview: DII baseball players to watch

It began innocently enough in 2007 when a trio of Chicago-based dads and their preteen sons decided to drive to Cincinnati to watch the beloved Cubs clinch what was then an exceedingly rare playoff berth.

Somewhere along Interstate 65, an idea was born: They should do this every year. And then it expanded: Why not try to hit every major-league ballpark?

And so they did, a couple of cities each summer, experiencing adventure, fun and an occasional travail (which were often even more fun). In the process, they came away with a treasure trove of stories to tell and memories to savor. Sometimes wives came along, sometimes it was just the guys, but the intent was always the same: baseball and bonding.

And on Friday, the group will complete its 14-year mission (a year late because of COVID-19) when taking upper-deck seats at T-Mobile Park to watch the Mariners face the Angels.

It was decided long ago that Seattle would be the final stop. They wanted to culminate in a cool place where no one had been, far away with lots of activities to partake and areas to explore outside baseball.

“As the trips have gone on, it’s been less about actually the stadiums, and more just having the boys see different parts of the country and do fun things,” said Chuck Williams, CEO of a financial planning firm in Schaumburg, Illinois, and father of three sons: Duncan, 22; Connor, 20; and Grant, 18.

The other core members of this horsehide road show are Bill Deegan, who is in IT sales, and his son, Clarke, 22; and Marty O’Brien, recently retired from corporate finance, and his sons, Shawn, 22, and Will, 20. On this trip, Chuck’s wife, Heather, and Bill’s wife, Mary, will be along, too.

They will hit Pike Place Market and Underground Seattle, go bike riding on Bainbridge Island and take in the Rubber Chicken Museum at Archie McPhee before heading off to Olympic National Park on Sunday. And everyone is excited to see the magic of Angels star Shohei Ohtani on Friday against the Mariners.

The plan all along was to hit the final ballpark by the time the boys — now men — graduated college and hit “the real world,” which might cramp their ability to attend. The empty ballparks of 2020 messed up the timetable, but no one was going to miss this one. That includes Clarke Deegan, who by coincidence just started a job in Portland two weeks ago and will drive up to Seattle.

The boys have remained buddies through the years, even after the Deegans moved to London and then New Jersey, and the kids took off to far-flung schools such as Miami of Ohio, Syracuse, Iowa, Missouri and the University of Illinois.

The annual baseball trip — dubbed “Christmas in July” by Heather Williams — always reunited them. They’d drive to ballparks close enough to do so, fly to the ones they couldn’t, working out the logistics to take in multiple parks when feasible. Over the years, the younger contingent began to take over more of the planning.

“They try to find fun, weird things to do in each city and try new foods they’ve never had,” Williams said. “Definitely, the game is a big part of it. But then we try to find really interesting things to do.”

Taking a trapeze class at a Circus Arts school in Oakland; firing shotguns in the backwoods of Georgia; waiting in a six-hour line at a famous barbecue joint in Austin, Texas; and finding an ice-skating rink in Phoenix to escape 110-degree heat.

In Boston, they discovered the hard way that the tickets they purchased from a broker were fraudulent, so they were booted from the stadium until they could hastily acquire replacements. They endured the mother of all storms driving back from Cleveland, and too many sunburns to mention.

The most pleasant surprise was Pittsburgh, where like most they found PNC Park to be a marvel and the city to be a delight. In many places, they met up with old friends or relatives to enhance the experience — and with 11 brothers and sisters, Williams has a lot of relatives to meet up with. In Seattle, he’ll visit with a cousin, Mike Kelly.

Recently, they were amused — or maybe more bemused — to realize they had one ballpark missing from their resume: Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. It was practically in their back yard, but as Cubs fans the oversight might have been subliminal.

“We said, ‘This is our last trip, and we never went to see the White Sox,’ ” Williams said. “We just forgot about it. So two weeks ago, we all went to the White Sox game.”

The adults, who now all live in Glen Ellyn, a western suburb of Chicago, are scheduled to fly to Seattle on Thursday for the hand-chosen final adventure.

“We wanted something spectacular,” Williams said.

But there is, of course, a bittersweet undertone to this trip, because it brings the quest to an end. No more Christmas in July. Or maybe it will just change motifs. The excursion to Olympic National Park gave Williams a brainstorm.

“I sort of like the idea of that being the start of a national parks trip every year,” he said. “This may be the kickoff for the next leg of the trip.”

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