Let There Be Box Scores
The snow has shut down pretty much everything today, but there are box scores pouring forth on electron beams originating in Florida and Arizona and the weatherman says the outlook is for continuing box scores for at least seven months.
The Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles played their first exhibition games over the weekend in Florida where the temperatures were a balmy 72 degrees by the seventh inning. For the past seven years I have made the pilgrimage to Florida for exhibition baseball and I recommend it heartily to any serious fan. One risks their credentials as a “serious” fan if one has never ventured to warmer climes to take in Grapefruit League games, never watched the Osprey nest atop the light standards high above the outfield wall, never watched them float on the thermals above the stadium, never seen the onshore winds off the Atlantic Ocean blow a high fly ball back into the infield.
The highlight of any spring trip is the visit to the minor league complex, the aggregation of four regulation minor league fields arrayed there like a four-leaf clover and more likely to bring luck to the fan. Sit on the aluminum seating behind home plate with the parents of the minor league ball players. Listen to the stories about how their son parlayed his youthful dreams into this once-in-a-lifetime chance to realize them. Tune your ear carefully and you can hear the baseball lifers express their resentments about the recent first round draft pick warming up whose Nuke LaLoosh self-absorption seems to invite the criticism.
Walk along the batting cage complex and listen to the sound of the ball coming off the bat as half a dozen minor leaguers get in their cuts, or next to the pitchers popping leather as they warm up, getting in their throwing for the day as Spin Williams, the roving pitching instructor, watches intently. As the players walk back and forth from their clubhouse to the practice fields, their cleats clattering against the concrete, ask them for an autograph or offer them encouragement. They are game and always appreciate their fans.
For the dedicated souls there is the Starbucks out near the interstate next to the La Quinta Inn. Try getting your coffee there well before 7 a.m. I recommend getting there when it opens and setting up shop behind a newspaper so that you can watch the players come and go. One spring several years ago Jim Riggleman and his coaching staff sat in the corner for thirty minutes talking about the team until Devon White came in and starting talking to the Nats entourage about old times. And keep your eyes peeled in the hotel elevators for the Nationals front office staff.
No, there is nothing like spring training for getting an earful of baseball blarney. My favorite stadium is the Kissimmee complex where the Houston Astros train. It is the closest Spring Training stadium to Viera, Fl where the Nationals ready for the season and well worth the trip to take in a game there. I recommend buying the scalped tickets out in the parking lot. The last time I did, I ended up sitting behind home plate in the row directly behind Mark Lerner and Mike Rizzo. All for $20.
But even better was standing along the right field rail and watching batting practice. Several seasons back we caught a Toronto Blue Jays game there against the Stros. Cito Gaston was the Toronto manager at the time and he was watching his charges in the cage and talking to Houston coach Jose Cruz. A crowd of Hispanic fans began to shout at Cruz in their native tongue. A slow smile spread across Cruz’s face and he finally gave in and walked over to talk to his detractors. A melee of baseball talk ensued in a language I could not follow and soon Cito joined in as well. It was fun to watch even if we never knew a word that was said. Afterwards Cito came down and tried to explain the nature of the conversation to us, but we did not trust his translation for a second.
The Kissimmee stadium is located in the midst of a vast Hispanic neighborhood and all along Highway 92 outside the ball park there are Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants thick enough for any aficionado of that particular gastronomic specialty. We always prefer the diners. Central Florida is appended onto the vast redneck country of North Florida so there are numerous diners where you can get real food that puts to shame the faux cuisine at the Paneras and the mall chains. Looking for off-the-beaten-path diners is half of the fun.
I will miss all of it this spring and will have to allow the memories to suffice. There are so, so many of them though: like when my youngest daughter and I went on our pilgrimage through central Florida to find Mark McGwire after he hit 70 home runs. There is so much to cherish, so do not let the ides of March come and go without making the trip. Pack your bags and make some baseball memories down in Florida. You will be glad you did.