Ah Spring, when a young man’s heart turns to thoughts of… baseball. In late February thousands of athletes descend upon Florida and Arizona for the annual rite of Grapefruit and Cactus League baseball – Spring Training.
Finding ourselves in Fort Myers, Florida, naturally we had to “say hey” and make our way to the old ball yard. The city of Fort Myers plays host to two major league training camps, The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. Just twenty miles north, Port Charlotte is home to the Tampa Bay Rays, so we could get our fill of Grapefruit Baseball without much travel time.
On a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon we caught a game between The Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies at City of Palms Park. These spring games are a completely different animal than the regular season variety.
Everything about spring training is as close as an inside fastball. Spectators have up-close-and-personal access to the players – the famous and those fighting for a roster spot. Both stars and rookies walk right up to the railing after warm-ups to sign autographs or just shoot the breeze with fans.
For well under half the price of a regular season ticket, we sat within a few feet of the field. Considering it’s nearly impossible to get a seat at Fenway Park in Boston for any price, we rated this beyond a bargain. We got to see BoSox stars like Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron, J. D. Drew, and Carl Crawford play about half a game, and a bunch of guys more likely to spend this summer in Pawtucket than Beantown finish up. A rare chance to see a future All Star in the making.
The Phillies used fewer of their everyday players, but Cole Hamels took the mound and brought the mustard, while starters Shane Victorino and John Mayberry patrolled the outfield. The Philadelphia squad won the day – two to nothing – on one-hit pitching, but even the Red Sox partisans didn’t seem to mind too much. It was more-than-good enough to spend a beautiful day basking in the sun enjoying the great American pastime.
For an even closer experience, we stopped by the Twins training complex the next morning. At these camps, fans are welcome to wander through the facilities while the up-and-comers fight to get noticed and the vets work out the off-season kinks. During the workouts, players, coaches, front office staff and scouts mix and mingle while evaluating strengths and needs for the upcoming season.
We listened in while Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire shared his thoughts on the early season games and the Twins new stadium with some hard core fans from up north. Once Ron finished up, we wandered over to the batting practice field to watch a few balls get scalded.
Minutes later, buses full of Tampa Bay Rays pulled up and, lucky for us, the teams had a full practice game just before the real game. On an unadorned diamond next to The Twins’ Hammond Stadium, the squads squared off – complete with umpires and in full uniform. It was as if we stumbled upon a local little league sandlot where a major league game broke out. Just across a chain-link fence (there’s a lot of chain-link fence at a training camp) these guys were playing to win, just like they all have since they were kids.
Since the starters were being saved for the later game, the scrimmage squads were made up mostly of backups fighting for roster spots. Still, Twins middle infielders Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert were in the lineup, hoping to get a few chances to turn two and were quite impressive with their bats. They both got solid hits off of one of the Rays top starters, Jeff Niemann.
It was just like being on the bench with the players. We could almost taste the Gatorade and easily eavesdrop on everything they said to each other, as well as what the coaches had to say. When Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey worked with Niemann after he got roughed up a bit, we were standing right next to them. It really is amazing access.
Fans thrive on this access – the die-hard fanatics, kids and groupies alike. Diehards get a few extra weeks of season and can chew some fat with an All Star. Kids blissfully rub elbows and snag autographs from their heroes. And gussied-up young ladies hover near the plate like a hanging curve ball, hoping to get their mitts on a cute ballplayer.
Even for casual fans like us, being this close to larger-than-life athletes is a grand slam.
Spring has sprung.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com