Proprietor Note: To avoid confusion on this very special Great Baseball Road Trip week, the use of the royal “we” will temporarily be suspended in favor of the more controversial “I” to describe “me” or “myself.” Those who find this unusually jarring can probably paste the body of the text into a different program and execute a search/replace.

This baseball trip has been an annual event since 2000, but in many ways this year’s trip is different. First off, the cast of characters has changed. Three of the regulars over the years are missing – two due to the fact that their wives are extremely pregnant, and one because he now lives in Alaska. Instead, the crew consists of me, Rocket and P-Money. The three of us have been friends since junior high, which should produce many a fine story as this trip goes along. Second, there are exactly zero Major League Baseball games on the docket. Instead, it is a tour of six minor league ballparks solely confined within North Carolina. Because if there’s a time to visit North Carolina, it’s late July when it’s almost exactly like stepping outside into a bowl of soup. Third, because of this geographical confinement, there is far less car travel than in past years. P-Money and I flew to North Carolina, where Rocket now lives. From there, we will maybe spend 9 total hours in the car. Half of those came Monday. A little over an hour of that was completely unnecessary as far as baseball is concerned.

But that brings things to what has stayed the same on this trip for the past several years: An element of gambling. I think it started in 2004, when the GBRT took the group to Las Vegas (I still remember rolling into town in a cream-colored Chrysler 300, blaring “Must Be the Money”). From that point on, one night of gambling has become a mandate on each trip. Usually, it’s been easy enough to find a casino in or very near one of the places we were going for a baseball game. We’ve been to Atlantic City (Phillies game). We’ve gambled near Kansas City (Royals), Omaha (College World Series), etc. Bottom line, though: We always plan a route that includes some sort of gambling element. This year, we had to try extra hard. North Carolina only has one casino, from what I’m told, in the entire state. It’s in the far Western part – about 75 minutes west of the furthest point, Asheville, that we will see a game (Tuesday). Naturally, then, this casino was our first stop on the trip.

I love to gamble. Specifically, I love to play cards. Specifically beyond that, I love to play poker in casinos. I don’t let myself do it very often – generally once a year on the GBRT, once a year on a trip with my dad, and generally that’s it unless a bachelor party or some other event takes me to Vegas. I’m not a great poker player, but I’m hardly terrible – so it’s not like I’m just throwing money at the table. Last night, as a matter of fact, wound up pretty decent.

But poker is not primarily about winning or losing for me at this point. I don’t gamble quantities that I can’t afford to lose, and I don’t win life-changing amounts. I set limits, tell myself when it’s time to walk away from a table, and I generally stick to them. Yet I also understand the power gambling can have over people. Because when you are in the thick of it, poker is seductive.

The casino in North Carolina has an electronic dealer. You don’t get real cards, nor do you get real chips. Ten people crowd around a normal poker table, only it has flashing lights that show you the house cards (Texas Hold ‘Em) and when you create contact on the screen over your face-down hole cards, they become visible to you. I didn’t think I would like this very much compared to the traditional dealer/cards/chips routine, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It wouldn’t be my preference, but the games move fast, the money is stored easily and conveniently, and at the end of the day it’s still poker. As everyone agreed at the table, it’s better than nothing. “You could be home watching ‘Jeopardy,’” one wise old owl said to another at the table. So true.

I knew it was still the same when the familiar adrenaline rush came back. My heart beats fast when watching particularly tense sporting events, but there is no match for what happens when you go deep in a big hand. For me, it pounds hard when I win (such as early last night when I backed into an ace-high flush), but it really starts motoring when I lose (like when I was almost certain my three queens were going to take down the pot, only to have a straight on the river knock me off).

At a 3-6 no limit table, your total commitment to go all the way in a pot – if there is a normal round of betting each time through, with no raises or checks all around – is $18. A good-size pot last night reached maybe $90, though most of them were closer to $40 or so. Like I said before, none of this is life-changing money at this point. While it’s still far preferable to win or lose, my life isn't altered much at the end of the night if I’m down a little or up a little.

The seduction, then, is in the unknown, the competition, the calculation, the study, the me vs. him, and even in looking up to see that three hours have passed when it felt like 45 minutes. It’s in this ridiculous thing I do, where I squint to blur my eyes as the community cards are being turned over, believing in some way that this will influence them to become what I want them to become. It’s the rush when your card comes up. It’s in the frustration or embarrassment when you didn’t see the other guy’s flush coming.

I am not challenged that way in real life very often. And the seduction, for me, is in that moment.