There are two phrases that strike fear in this baseball fan: "rained out" and "sold out."
I had dodged a bullet in Lakeland when the Tigers-Phillies game I attended was delayed by 40 minutes due to rain. However, that game was played, and the afternoon turned out to be so gorgeous that I spent the last third of the contest watching from the grassy outfield berm.
All the other days during my trip were beautiful. I had one remaining game to see on my last full day in Florida, a night contest between the Red Sox and the Twins at the BoSox's home field of City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. Because that game was scheduled for 7 p.m., I had time to do other things during the day.
I thought briefly of going to a beach, but that thought went away when I saw that the Pirates were playing at home against the Tigers in Bradenton at 1 p.m. I had purchased tickets in advance online for all the other games I had seen during my trip, but I didn't have one for the Pirates-Tigers game.
I usually buy tickets in advance when I go out of town to see a game. I've come to realize that this desire to plan ahead (some call it obsessiveness, others call it something else less charitable) must have something to do with the trauma I suffered as a kid when my dad and a neighborhood father drove me and my friend to Philadelphia to see a doubleheader at Connie Mack Stadium on a summer Sunday in the 1960s. The Phillies were playing the New York Mets.
As I recall, the streets around the decaying old park were teeming with people when we arrived. The Phillies had slugger and future American League MVP Dick Allen, outfield favorite Johnny Callison and future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning on the roster.
The woeful Mets had no one worth noting. The locals must have smelled a sweep because they were out en masse, and we didn't have tickets. Obtaining them in advance was never in my father's game plan, it didn't matter if we were going to Philly or New York to see a game. He always figured that he was resourceful enough to get ducats somehow; regardless of the odds, he preferred to roll the dice. That dark day they came up snake eyes. The two men tried their best to get anything they could find but struck out even with scalpers.
I've come to realize that my dad probably ached far more about not being able get a ticket for his son than I did, but I was inconsolable.
The loathsome alternative? Going to the Philadelphia Zoo. So, an indelible mark was left on me that day.
Fast forward to Bradenton 2007 where I casually assumed that I would have no problem getting a single ticket for a Tuesday afternoon game. My intention was to get to McKechnie Field early enough to buy the ticket and then head over to Pirate City, the team's minor league complex located a few miles away, to watch practice. What I saw stopped me cold: signs that read GAME SOLD OUT.
I didn't understand how this could be even though McKechnie has one of the smaller seating capacities (about 6,500) in the Grapefruit League. Nevertheless, the game was sold out. If you've ever seen "The Great Escape," there is a scene at a train station where some of those who escaped the prison but had missed a train are hanging out on the train platform looking weary and forlorn. That's how the dozen or so ticket-less fans looked outside the ballpark. That's how I felt.
But, I noticed a fellow in constant motion, slender, chain smoking and with a cell phone affixed to his ear. I asked him if he had anything. He said "no," but that within an hour or so he'd have tickets, "no problem." I told him I needed one. He called himself 'Johnny from Boston,' proceeded to type his phone number into my cell, then advised me to relax for an hour or so, maybe grab a bite at the nearby diner and then call him.
I knew that this was going to cost me money. The question was how much. So, I drove over to Pirate City and watched the minor leaguers practice. I met a couple guys from Northern Virginia who were in Florida to see a few games and chatted with a former Nationals coach, now with the Bucs.
The time came to call Johnny from Boston.
"Whaddaya got?" I asked.
"How much do you want to spend?"
I told him what I was willing to shell out, an amount far, far less than the $180 a Red Sox fan I spoke to upon boarding the plane for the trip to Florida spent for one from a so-called ticket broker online.
We settled on fifty bucks, so he and his partner could make $10 from the guy they bought it from.
Fifty dollars for a exhibition game?
Well, someone once said you only go around once so I gulped and did it. It turned out to be a good seat. The original owner of the ticket sat next to me. After I told him what I paid, he told me that he sold it for a couple bucks less than the face value of $12. What is it that P.T. Barnum is alleged to have said?
Brad, a casino employee from Biloxi, Miss., and I watched the Pirates win while shooting the breeze. The highlight was Pittsburgh's Adam Laroche turning on a Justin Verlander fastball and crushing it into the teeth of a fairly strong wind blowing in from right for a homer.
I had one more game to go, this one in Fort Myers where, coincidently, my parents were married during World War II.
City of Palms Park is worthy of its name, a pretty field that is located on palm tree-lined streets with palm trees beyond the outfield fence. It's nice. The only problem, as I saw it, was the place was crawling with Red Sox fans. I had a standing room only ticket but actually found a terrific spot to watch the game, between home and third. Josh Beckett started for the Sox and young prospect Glenn Perkins for the Twins. In his second at-bat, Big Papi hit a rope to right for a single. After the next batter hit safely, Ortiz tried to go from first to third, a big puffing locomotive churning toward the bag. He was out by several feet. The Red Sox fans booed the ump. And new Sox shortstop Julio Lugo hugged the big guy for his effort as he approached the dugout. The Sox won a close one.
I was exhausted. Six days, eight games, seven ball parks.
It was time to go home.
Throughout spring training, baltimoresun.com 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.