When I started this Spring Training series, I had my Top 5 list ready to go.
But, my editor/husband insisted that the Spring Training I attended should be included.
So, apologies Limestone League – the World War II-era years when teams held Spring Training north of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi. French Lick and Terre Haute. Bloomington and Muncie.
You’re off the list. (Maybe next year.)
Number 2 on my list of amazing Spring Trainings is the one I attended in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Many people believe that attending Spring Training is the mark of a true baseball fan.
To be a true baseball fan is to watch a 17-inning game, start to finish … and then watch it again when the local sports network replays it on Thanksgiving Day. (It will take six hours and seven minutes, in case you’re wondering. And, yes, we won.)
To be a true baseball fan is to watch your beloved team lose more often than it wins and still love them. To watch them lose 100 games in a single season. To watch them lose 21 in a row. And, still love them.
To be a true baseball fan is to say, “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow,” no matter the odds. And, mean it.
Spring Training, on the other hand, is just a lovely way to spend a vacation in Florida (or Arizona) during the chilly, waning days of winter. Sandwiching ballgames with a little beach time or tee time or margarita time.
For a few years in the 1990s, the St. Louis Cardinals shared St. Petersburg, Florida and Al Lang Stadium with the Baltimore Orioles.
So, in 1992, I went to Spring Training by myself. I was much younger of course (12 would be a good guess, but since I was driving a rental car and drinking beer, though not at the same time, perhaps I was a bit older).
While Spring Training is a great vacation for fans, it isn’t really baseball.
Oh, they play games and all. But, they don’t count. The players are there to warm up or to earn a place in the real season.
1970s-era reliever Sparky Lyle admitted he would avoid signing his contract until Spring Training was nearly over so he wouldn’t have to go so early. Once he arrived, he used the games merely as an opportunity to heat up his fast ball. He didn’t care how many home runs the opponents scored. It wasn’t the point.
Baseball history is littered with players holding out, not showing up, or simply disappearing when Spring Training arrived.
In 1943, New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell was so unhappy that his team was forced (by restrictions imposed during World War II) to hold their Spring Training in icy New Jersey, that he refused to go outside and spent the entire month playing ping-pong, according to Charles Fountain in his wonderful book “Under the March Sun”.
Spring Training is an important time for players, especially for those young rookies and aging veterans who are working hard just to make the team. For some regulars, it’s about getting back into the groove. For others, it’s about golfing in the afternoon.
Spring Training for fans is a time to put on sun screen and talk to the people around you about how cold it was back home the day you left.
Sometimes I think we fans are simply intruding. We’re trying to make Spring Training into an “experience”. Cities in Florida and Arizona spend multi-millions of taxpayer dollars to attract teams. For them, Spring Training is a huge tourist draw.
But, Spring Training at its core is just a warm-up, a rehearsal.
Sure, it’s wonderful to see the players again, and Spring Training can get you much closer than you’ve ever been before.
And, just stepping out and having the warm sun on your face and a lush green outfield spread out before you is an awesome rite of spring no matter where it is.
It’s not about the games. It’s just about feeling baseball in your bones again.
I can’t remember much about the games that spring, although I went to plenty. And, I watched the Orioles work out at their practice field every morning.
My trip to Spring Training is one of my fondest memories, not because of the games, but because of the people I met along the way.
I met a ton of Canadians one night who came to watch the Blue Jays. A ton. They are a very friendly – and chatty – country. One afternoon, I met a bunch of St. Louis Cardinals fans who were overjoyed that Al Lang Stadium played the Budweiser jingle during the 7th inning stretch, just like back home. That day, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson threw out the first pitches of spring.
I met an old retired Baltimore bartender who told me about players from the 1950s and ’60s who came to his bar after games.
I met a couple who were certain that I was a scout, because they saw me at several games and I was always taking notes. When I assured them I wasn’t, they just nodded knowingly in that “it’s ok, your secret’s safe with me” sort of way.
I met a little kid with an autograph book who didn’t know whose autographs to get. His dad was no help at all. So I would point out players so he could run over and ask them by name.
And, I met an Oriole.
I was at a game early (of course) and taking notes, when I heard someone say, “You’re here every day.” And, I looked up and it was Elrod Hendricks, one of Baltimore’s most beloved Orioles.
He was the bullpen coach at the time. But, he had been a catcher back in the day. Even hit a home run in the 1970 World Series. He was a member of the Oriole family, well known for his charity work and outreach in the community.
Every day after that, at every workout and game, he would come over to chat. He showed me what to look for in pitchers. How to really get the most out of Spring Training. How to see it from a player’s and a coach’s perspective.
And, he told me about himself and his life in baseball. How he came up in the minors when the game was integrated, but the world was still segregated. About singing. And, The Platters.
So my fondest Spring Training memory isn’t about baseball at all. It’s about people who love baseball.
Spring Training might not make you a “real” baseball fan, but it’s certainly a nice way to spend a vacation. And, so I deem MY vacation at Baltimore Orioles Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Florida #2 on my list of amazing Spring Training locations. There’s still one spot left …
The Baltimore Orioles left St. Petersburg after the 1995 season for Ft. Lauderdale. In 2010, they moved to luxurious new digs in Sarasota. They will win the World Series this year.
The Tampa Bay Rays actually play in St. Petersburg, so there’s less of an interest in Spring Training there today. But, pretty Al Lang Stadium is still down by the waterfront, near the Salvador Dali Museum. This month, the stadium hosted a handful of games played by “prospects” of several teams, including the Orioles.
Elrod Hendricks wore a Baltimore Orioles uniform (#44), as both player and coach, for 37 years, an Orioles record. He passed away in 2005. He’s the only Oriole I’ve ever spoken to.
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