Sunburn and an unexpected Big Papi sighting

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Even though I am middle aged, I still get excited when I go to ball games.

I love going to ballparks I haven't visited before. I look forward to seeing the starting lineups, particularly the pitchers. In my opinion, nothing beats the atmosphere of a major or minor league game. I came to terms with this bit of silliness several years ago.

Based on what I've experienced down here in Florida, though, I can say happily that I'm not alone. I've had several conversations with other fans who have been doing the Grapefruit League circuit . One Twins fan I sat next to at a game at the Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers has been here since the last week of February! And I thought my six-day, seven-game trip was pushing it. Another fellow from the Twin Cities has been camping his way through spring training. That's dedication. Me? I'll take a hotel bed, thanks.

But I digress.

Before leaving on this trip, I read a book of some of Roger Kahn's best essays on baseball, a gift from my brother-in-law Bill. It seemed appropriate. Kahn may be the game's bard and I thought reading him would certainly put me in the right frame of mind, not that I would need much help.

It isn't difficult leaving 30 degree weather for 70 degrees and virtually non-stop sun to watch baseball games. As I said, I look forward to the posting of the lineups, even knowing that the likelihood of seeing a club's 'A' lineup for a spring game is slim. This is particularly so for the visiting team. Only a few of a team's regular position players are required to go on a road trip, which means fans will see second-tier players and prospects. Typically, the veteran stars rarely take a trip.

Which brings me to how I saw Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at the Twins camp before a game even though the Sox weren't playing.

I got to the site early to watch the minor leaguers practice on the auxiliary fields. I was watching several dozen players loosening when they started to look in my direction. A yellow Lamborghini occupied by a large man and a boy had pulled up. The large man was talking to a member of the Twins' staff. It was Big Papi himself! Turns out the Red Sox, who also train and play in Fort Myers, were playing the O's in Fort Lauderdale, and I guess Papi didn't have to make the trip. He used to play for the Twins so I suppose he decided to spin over to see some of his old boys. I mean everything stopped. Even a couple players who had yet to take the field dashed out of a nearby building to see who was in the car. So, for you fans who saw the game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and wondered where Ortiz was, well, now you know.

One of the most popular spots at a park, other than the watering holes, are the gift stores. I should know. I collect hats and T-shirts and have far more than I can put into the rotation to wear, though I still continue to collect. Again, I am happy to report that I am not alone in this pursuit.

Because St. Patrick's Day occurs during spring training, it is celebrated with a bit of flair by a few teams. Bases are colored green for the game. Some teams wear green hats and Boston even wears green uniform shirts. The green hats with team logos on them and green T-shirts are extremely popular with fans. As I said, I do my share and even bought my step-son, Daniel, a Devil Rays shirt. He's a bright, 13- year-old now but they were his favorite team when he was younger. There was nothing I could do about it. I certainly couldn't tell him then that the Rays were bad -- very, very bad. On the other hand, watching a game at Progress Energy Park, home of the Rays, offers one of the signature views in the Grapefruit League -- St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.

The Phillies' new park, Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, is as nice a facility as I've been in. Yet, older parks such as Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium and McKechnie Field in Bradenton, should not be missed.

The games, though, are what brought me here. Other than the short rain delay prior to the Tigers game in Lakeland, it's been gorgeous and the sun has been relentless. I came here a pale white; now I'm a cooked-lobster red. It's a small price to pay, though, to see players like reigning AL MVP Justin Morneau go deep or to watch AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana work the opposition. The Tigers' Mike Maroth and young Indians prospect Fausto Carmona were sharp in the games where I saw them pitch. And though it's only spring, the Pirates have hit all day long the three times I've seen them and their defense has been sharp. The NL Central seems to be wide open. The Bucs might fare well if they get some pitching. The Phillies have appeared a bit listless in their three losses that I've seen, but it's only March.

Tomorrow is my last day in Florida and I have a ticket to see the Red Sox play the Twins in a night game at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. Since I have the afternoon free, I was considering checking out one of the beaches. Then I noticed in the paper that the Pirates are playing the Tigers in Bradenton. Going to the game would give me an opportunity to not only to work on my burn -- which I could do at the beach -- but also watch Jack Wilson, one of my favorite players. I can't do that at a beach. Adios.

Throughout spring training, will publish reports by Orioles fans that made the trip to Florida for baseball's preseason. From Grapefruit League games to minor league camps, our crew of fan correspondents will weigh in with their spring training insights and experiences -- your source for a healthy dose of spring fever.

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