With a bulky book bag strapped to his back and a camera hanging from his neck, Ray Whitehouse sauntered up to the ticket booth outside of Tropicana Field on a steamy Sunday.
"What's the cheapest seat you have today?" he asked the lady behind the glass.
She sold him a $21 ticket to the game, an American League East matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. Whitehouse, 24, is assigned to Section 311, Row M, Seat 20, but he didn't plan on sitting there.
He didn't plan on sitting at all.
Whitehouse, a graduate school-bound photographer, was on day 59 of an 85-day journey across the country, during which he's photographing a game at all 30 Major League Baseball parks. It's a project he calls the American Baseball Journal.
When he's done, Whitehouse hopes to sell prints and donate the money to MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, a program which he took part in as a child.
So far, he's taken planes, trains and buses to 17 ballparks. He's slept on the couches of strangers in cities far away from his Chicago home for the sake of the project. And though it's his love for the game that sparked his initial interest in the trip, its purpose reaches further than his own curiosity.
"Part of what I want to do with this project is give someone who's in a different city a taste of what it's like to see a game there," he said. "I try to keep that on my mind as something I'm shooting for all the time."
After clearing security, Whitehouse meets a mother with an infant strapped to her, an oversized Rays cap covering his face. Whitehouse stops the woman to photograph her and baby Michael.
First pitch was still a half hour away. For Whitehouse, the game had already started.
Whitehouse's first baseball memory isn't even something he can remember. The story has been told to him so many times, though, that the occasion is clear in his mind.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Whitehouse was just an infant when he attended a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field with his father. "Somebody hit a grand slam in the fourth inning," he said. "The crowd was going crazy, and my dad was flipping out because he brought his 4-month-old baby to a baseball game."
Whitehouse -- who proudly displays a scar on his left ankle sustained after breaking the bone sliding into home as a teenager -- began playing baseball at age 5. He remembers playing catch with his father for hours after school in the alley near their home. He went on to play infield and pitcher for four years on the varsity team at Whitney Young High School and on the club team as an undergraduate at Northwestern.
But perhaps the most influential experience he had with the sport was during the three years he played for an MLB RBI team.
Whitehouse participated in the program, which brings youth baseball to diverse communities all over the nation, for three years. When he was 15, his RBI team made it to the league championship game played at Wrigley Field. In his only at-bat of the game, Whitehouse hit a ground ball single down the third-base line.
At 21, Whitehouse stopped playing baseball, but his love for the game kept going.
Whitehouse, who had a 9-to-5 job as a multimedia specialist at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, will attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill come August on a scholarship. So with graduate school paid for and one final summer of free time on his hands, Whitehouse decided to go back to his pastime. And America's.
"I wasn't trying to make any money on this project," he said about his planned donation to the RBI program. "It was a good marriage of trying to pay it forward to an organization that helped me out when I was younger."
Having now photographed games at more than half of the 30 ballparks, Whitehouse sticks to the same game-day routine.
He'll arrive two hours before a game, spending one hour outside the park capturing photographs of each stadium's unique architecture before spending the next hour taking in the pre-game scenes. Whitehouse especially enjoys capturing players signing autographs for kids.
"Because I had those experiences when I was younger," he said, "trying to shag balls and getting players to sign them."
Once the games begin, Whitehouse walks around the stadium, searching for the things that makes each one unique. He takes his unofficial job seriously, so much so that he's been known to sprint through the stadium to catch a moment on camera -- just like he did while taking in a game at Camden Yards with his girlfriend and fellow photographer, Carolyn Van Houten.
"He just started running," she said, "in the middle of our conversation."
Though he's raised nearly $3,000 from online donations, Whitehouse is financing the majority of his trip through the money he's saved at his job. So that means doing everything he can to spare a nickel.
Whitehouse has stayed in just one hotel along the way -- in Minneapolis after a Twins game on May 16 -- spending every other night at a friend's house or with people he's met through a couch-surfing website. Through the first 17 games of his trip, Whitehouse hasn't paid more than $25 for a ticket, thanks to savvy shopping on StubHub.com -- and even the kindness of a stranger.
"I explained to him the project, and he was like, 'Oh, you can just have it,'" Whitehouse said about his interaction with a Kansas City scalper. "He gave me a $61 ticket for free."
Whitehouse photographed the man and emailed him the picture after the game.
After taking photos of Rays outfielder Matt Joyce signing autographs and standing at attention for the national anthem, Whitehouse took a seat just behind the home team's dugout as Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes stepped up to the plate to begin the game.
Though he usually finds himself moving around the stadiums too much to actually watch the games, Whitehouse has one rule of thumb.
"I like to watch the first at-bat," he said. "After that, it gets a little less focused on the game."
The section's usher, who asked to see Whitehouse's ticket, had a different idea.
"You're a long way off," he said, looking at Whitehouse's seat assignment. "Have a good day."
Whitehouse didn't see much action from the Rays' 3-0 victory that day. Instead, he met and photographed 4-year-old Evan -- named after Tampa Bay's longtime third baseman Evan Longoria -- watching as he, flanked by his grandparents, munched on blue cotton candy.
In the Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar, MLB's one and only, Whitehouse took photos of Dave, a hobby photographer who watched the game while smoking a Brickhouse Might Mighty Maduro.
"He can't smoke in the house at home, so this way he gets a nice leather seat and a cigar," Dave's wife, Diane, said.
As the Rays took a lead early, some fans flocked to the tank of live rays in the outfield, where Whitehouse photographed 7-year-old Evan petting the animals.
He, too, Whitehouse discovered, was also named for the much-adored third baseman.
"Did I even have to ask?" Whitehouse questioned the boy's mother, laughing.
It's hard for Whitehouse to pick a favorite ballpark.
He fell in love with the views in Pittsburgh (below), with the way the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the downtown skyline are framed by the walls of PNC Park. He appreciated the memorial to Jackie Robinson within the rotunda at the Mets' Citi Field.
The walk-off Red Sox win he saw at Fenway Park, though, gave the historic park a leg up.
"I feel like that atmosphere, even though they're below .500," he said. "It was still just amazing."
Whitehouse will visit the Marlins, Braves and Yankees in the next week before completing the East Coast portion of his trip. He'll finish the tour with a Seattle Mariners game at Safeco Field on Aug. 8, a day he hasn't even thought about quite yet.
"At this point I'm just going," he said. "I love this game and this project so much, I can be really tired, but once I'm at the stadium, it's another gear you get into."
So until then, it's back to the same routine. Seventeen down, 13 to go.