IF CHEWING GUM COMPANY made baseball cards for fans as well as players, this is what the Ultimate Fan's card would say. Steve Ferber is 34 years old. He lives in Herndon, Va., and weighs 130 pounds. He's a father and businessman most of the time, but every two years he goes crazy flying around the country watching baseball.
Here's, his last trip: "Friday night we flew to Atlanta for a twinight doubleheader. Next morning we woke up early, flew to Houston. Another doubleheader. We missed the first five innings; I was mad. The next doubleheader was in Milwaukee but all flights were booked. We flew to Chicago. Friends drove us to Wisconsin. That was 54 innings of baseball in 48 hours. Monday I was back at work."
The baseball safaris cost several thousand dollars. Ferber thought them up 10 years ago and he generally takes a couple of friends from New York along. He doesn't follow any particular team; his love of baseball extends beyond mere partisanship. Only the game matters.
"It's freedom," he says. It's old friends. "It's letting go."
While prowling the ballparks of a continent with writer friends Joe Brancatelli and Fred Abatemarco, the Ultimate Fan acquires wisdom: "Detroit has the best hot dogs."
He masters regional dialects: "I bought a hero sandwich in New York and when I got to Philadelphia the guard called it a hoagie."
He meets people: "In Milwaukee the fans got mad at us. We were rooting for the Brewers when they were up, but then we cheered for the Indians when they were up. We were betting on accumulated runs."
Like most men, the Ultimate Fan realized early his future was not in professional ball. "I was the smallest person, man or woman, in high school." He made the tennis team at the University of Massachusetts and was voted all-around best athlete, but he was forced to fix his sights on more practical goals.
The Ultimate Fan got married and started a family and worked hard as a newsletter reporter. He started his own business. He moved with his wife out of their cramped apartment to a town house, and from a town house to a new Colonial. As his earnings increased, his baseball weekends grew more glamorous. Car transportation gave way to planes, friends' homes to hotels. Theme trips started. The Ultimate Fan saw Pete Rose break Ty Cobb's all-time home run record last year by buying blocks of tickets and being there until Rose came through.
A T 8 P.M. on a weekday night Steve Ferber is standing in his huge kitchen telling stories. Outside the bay window is a sandbox, swing set and new deck. Ferber is burping his 6-month-old daughter Olivia. Two-and-a-half-year-old Natalie cries, "Don't WANNA go to bed!" Six-year-old Melissa is jumping on the couch. Wife Roe, back from tennis, has arrayed three kitchen floor samples near a wall. "Which do you like?" she says. "Nobody likes the one with the flowers."
"In the last three weeks," Ferber says. "I've had 30 minutes to myself."
At work the Ultimate Fan is a partner in and chief of promotion for a company that publishes newsletters with names like "Inside EPA," "Inside the Pentagon," and "Alcohol Week." Ferber's job is to anticipate change, spot the latest government trend worth covering for corporate or law firm subscribers.
"The baseball weekend," he says, "is so different from the rest of my life."
It isn't that Ferber doesn't like his life. "I love my wife, and after you have kids, well, nothing ever seems that important again."
But throughout Ferber's transition to adulthood the baseball has remained inside. "The other guys try to say they have conflicts sometimes. They go on about jobs. They say they can't go. I push 'em.
"In the beginning I did all the planning. I got copies of the schedules. I ordered tickets through friends. Now I get the tickets. Fred gets hotels. Joe does schedules, we consult every few days. The tricky part is the Saturday day and night games. You're hoping the day game will end by 4:30. You're hoping the next city is close enough so you can get there by the night game, at 7:30. We dread extra-inning afternoon games."
Last year Roe argued that Ferber should spend the baseball weekend money on "more professional-looking clothes." She lost. She says, "The first time he came back looking like a bum. Now I think he's crazy, but he comes back refreshed about everything."
"I'd feel terrible if I couldn't go," says Ferber. "The older I get, the more valuable it becomes."
There are practical benefits too. Coming back from trips, Ferber often finds himself doing things he otherwise might think twice about, like calling the president of the company that built his house to complain about an easement problem. "The baseball weekend shows you how possible everything is. At 4 p.m. I'm in my office. At 7 I'm in Fenway Park in Boston. Most people would never do it. They'd never call the president of the company, either. They'd think they wouldn't get through. Well, I got through."
This spring the Ultimate Fan plans a West Coast weekend. Dodgers. Giants. Angels. Mariners. "Planning it," Ferber says, "I'm in my glory." He estimates the cost at roughly $2,000 a man.
It is almost 11 now, and the lights are off in all the other houses in the neighborhood. "Everyone goes to bed early around here," laments the Ultimate Fan. The lingering light in his home seems like a fantasy beacon. Steve Ferber has found that how you integrate a childhood dream into your life is important. And he's found something else: In baseball, you can always go home again.