By Carter Cromwell
When telling Connie Van Putten’s story, the challenge is not in finding a starting point but in choosing from a plethora of candidates:
- Her 55-year career in law enforcement, which contains a number of firsts and honors.
- Her love of baseball and many trips to ballparks around the country in a Volkswagen beetle that looks like a baseball.
- The motorcycle road trips she embarks on – either solo or with her husband.
- The regular cruises Connie and her husband take – to the Northern Lights, navigating the Northwest Passage or the passage from San Francisco to Sydney, just to name a few.
All excellent choices. For now, though, let’s go with her background as an early JapanBall alum and inspiration for the JapanBall Hall of Fame.
JapanBall began in 1999 as the brainchild of Bob Bavasi, son of former Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager and San Diego Padres President Buzzie Bavasi. Bob had traveled several times to Japan in his capacity as board member of a community college, which eventually led to his idea of coordinating baseball-related tours there.
Fast forward five years, and Van Putten was at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium late in the 2004 season – the Expos’ last, before the franchise moved to Washington, D.C. She was simultaneously celebrating the fact that she had accomplished her goal of visiting all the major league ballparks and bemoaning the fact that (at the time) there were no more to see.
“I was sitting next to a Japanese gentleman and his son-in-law at the Montreal ballpark and saying that it was too bad that I had no more parks to go to,” Connie recalled. “He said to me: ‘You should come to Japan!’. I immediately started researching, found JapanBall right off the bat, and set up a trip for 2005.”
Well, it’s actually more interesting than that.
“I got a call from Connie, and it was a great conversation,” Bavasi said. “I was amazed at all the places she’d traveled to see baseball. At the time, [our tours] only went to five of the twelve ballparks, and she asked if there was a way she could see all the ones in Japan – something we hadn’t thought of before. I told her, ‘You know, if we had a Hall of Fame, you’d be the first one in it.’”
And so it was. The Hall of Fame – for JapanBallers who have seen games in every Japanese ballpark or been on three separate tours – was established not long afterward, with Van Putten the first inductee. Since then, 59 others have gained admission.
But there’s still more to the story. During the course of that conversation, the two realized they had crossed paths long before.
“After a while, it came up that I had been in law enforcement. Then he asked if I was tall and if I was blond,” Connie said with a laugh. That’s when the realization hit.
“I said, ‘I know you – you’re Connie!’” Bavasi exclaimed.
It turned out that Bavasi, then a high-schooler, had participated in a San Diego police department program aimed at getting youngsters interested in police work, and Van Putten had been a leader of the program.
“Small world,” Bavasi said.
“Small, indeed,” Van Putten agreed.
So she signed up for the 2005 JapanBall trip, also toured in 2009 when Hiroshima opened a new ballpark, and again in 2019 – Bavasi’s last before relinquishing the JapanBall reins. All the while, she’s managed to go on many other baseball-related trips while continuing to excel in her long law-enforcement career.
Both interests were nurtured early on. Her father was a detective in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and he encouraged her to consider police work, though that almost didn’t happen.
“I was interested in being a nurse and had applied to nursing school but got turned down,” she said. “But the same day I got the rejection, I also got a letter from the San Diego Police Department saying that I was eligible to take the test. I did, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Van Putten was there for 22 years, eventually becoming the department’s first female patrol officer, first sergeant, and first lieutenant. She was also in charge of security one year at Jack Murphy (Later Qualcomm) Stadium – the former home of the San Diego Padres and the now-Los Angeles (then San Diego) Chargers of the NFL.
“My time there was very satisfying because I think it helped change some attitudes and pave the way for other women,” she said. “Eventually, they had a female chief.”
After her husband’s job with the General Services Administration moved to the San Francisco area, she transferred to the Union City, CA, department in 1988, becoming its first female captain and first female command officer.
Van Putten officially retired in December 2000, but didn’t really retire. She’s since been a volunteer member of the Hercules, CA, police department—first serving in patrol, then as a detective and now in administration and public relations – with an occasional stint directing traffic, too. She managed to put in more than 1,000 hours in 2020, despite being furloughed for three months because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Along the way, she’s earned a lot of recognition. To name just a few awards and accolades:
- The National Council of the Boy Scouts of America honored her for her work with youths.
- Upon her retirement, former Congressman Pete Stark read a tribute to her on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
- In 2018, Congressman Mike Thompson named her Contra Costa County’s Woman of the Year.
- The Hercules department established a volunteer-of-the-year award in her name.
In addition, she is active with Prevent Blindness in California, which performs vision screening of preschool children. She has also spent fifteen years with the Navy League as liaison to the United States Coast Guard Vessel Tern.
And she’s been just as active in nourishing her rabid interest in baseball, which began when she became official scorekeeper for her brother’s Little League team as a young girl.
“Girls weren’t allowed in Little League then, and softball wasn’t a big thing for girls then, either,” Van Putten said. “But they made me the scorekeeper for the team and, later, for the league. They paid me a dollar a game. To this day, I can’t watch a game without a scorecard in my hand. It keeps me focused.”
Her trips to ballparks began in 2001, sparked in part by a television commercial in which some friends were traveling around the country in an old Volkswagen bus with the objective of seeing games in every major league stadium.
“I told my husband – I have a VW bus, I love to travel, and I love baseball,” she said. “But the bus had been my father’s and was about 40 years old, and my husband was concerned about me going around the country in that old a vehicle. So, I went in a newer vehicle, and took the 10- and 15-year-old children of a friend. We spent two weeks going down the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. We saw six games and had a ball.”
On another trip to the Midwest, she saw 13 games in 12 days. Another time, she covered 10,000 miles on a trip that went to Florida, up to New York and back. In May 2019, she went on a 7,000-mile trip that included Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Norfolk, VA, Scranton, PA, Allentown/Lehigh Valley, PA, Pawtucket, RI, Syracuse and Buffalo – 24 states in 23 days. Of course, she’s also been to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. One of her favorite baseball events is the World Baseball Classic. In 2006, she saw all of the elimination games in Arizona, Anaheim, and San Diego, and even sat right behind Japan’s dugout for their title-clinching game! In 2013, she attended all of the WBC games in Arizona and San Francisco.
So far, Van Putten has seen games in 94 ballparks – her rule is that simply visiting a park doesn’t count – and put about 80,000 baseball-related miles on her venerable baseball-themed Volkswagen Beetle. On a tour of minor league venues, she might schedule as many as 15 games – “I’m not there to see the sights.”
Due to its unique baseball motif, the VW “bug” can’t help but get noticed. Once, she was in El Paso, TX, and drove up to a hotel that was across the street from the stadium.
“Just as I got there, a woman asked me about my car. I gave her the background, and she went to her car where there was a man who was the sports director of an El Paso television station. He got someone to come over and interview me for a story.”
But it’s not just her car that stands out. At games, she dons a one-of-a-kind vest that weighs seven pounds and is adorned with approximately 130 pins from various places she’s been. It’s one of her treasures.
Once, she was at a game of the Orix Buffaloes Osaka and was sitting near a young boy wearing a hat with a lot of pins. She gave him a San Francisco Giants pin, and he gave her a pin from the Kintetsu Buffaloes – a precursor of the Orix club. Another time, she was on a train in Japan, and a woman told her she liked the vest. Just before exiting the train, the woman dug into her purse and handed a small bell for Van Putten to affix to her vest.
“Each pin has some sort of history,” she said. “When I lose one, it’s like losing a member of the family.”
Most of Connie’s baseball trips have been solo, since husband Pete – to whom she’s been married since 1974 – loves to travel, but is not a baseball fan.
“I’d rather watch grass grow,” Pete said with a laugh. “Actually, while growing up in Wisconsin, I was a big fan of the Milwaukee Braves, but I felt really betrayed when they bolted for Atlanta [in 1966], so I got away from baseball.”
Connie adds, “Pete helps me with logistical support, especially before GPS and Google Maps. Once, I got turned around in Miami and called and asked him to check MapQuest and get me out of there. Another time, I was walking the mile or so from the ballpark back to my hotel after a game and realized that I was the only person on the street in kind of an industrial area. So I called him and said ‘OK, walk me home.’”
On another occasion, she was in Philadelphia and trying to make it to New York in time for an afternoon Mets game, so she called him and had him map the route.
“The route took her right through Manhattan. She made it for the start, but just barely. Sometimes, local knowledge is more important than Google Maps,” Pete said with a laugh.
Pete, a Navy veteran, included sailing and sports cars among his passions. He added riding motorcycles to the list in the late ‘90s, and Connie took it up, too.
“I’d been a bicyclist, but had never thought about motorcycles until I took the safety course,” Pete said. “Connie then said if she was going to ride on the back of the thing, she should take the course, too. It was a mid-life thing for both of us.”
The two belong to a motorcycle club and have done a number of trips together. Pete has a new Harley-Davidson UltraClassic, while Connie has a Honda Gold Wing model and has done a number of solo trips, including a three-week, 6,000-mile trip through Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah.
There were no travels in 2020, of course, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Van Putten is hoping to rev up again in 2021.
“I try to get to all the new parks in their inaugural years,” she said. “I would have gone to the new one in Texas in 2020, had it not been for Covid. If we’re able to travel this season, I’ll go there, and to the ballpark in Rochester (NY). I’m also working on getting to all the AAA parks and all the ones in California. After that, I’ll start on the AA ballparks.
“There’s a lot left!”