Our odyssey began when my son Michael suggested in January that we go to spring training to celebrate my 60th birthday. We'd taken the trip together several years earlier and I jumped at the second chance. I told him to set it up and gave him my credit card.
Being a lifelong baseball fan, I was really excited to escape the cold and share this annual rite of spring with my son. Michael did a great job of setting up our itinerary -- we planned to see not only the Orioles, but also all of the Orioles' American League East opponents.
We kicked off the trip with a flight to Orlando, then a short drive to Tampa to see the dreaded Yankees at Legends Field on Friday. Eager to experience the real flavor of spring training, we arrived several hours before game time and checked out the practice fields and concession stands.
Although impressive, my first impression of Legends Field was that it lacked the friendly atmosphere I remembered from my earlier trip to the O's complex in Fort Lauderdale. We took our seats behind home plate after the Yankees' batting practice and watched the visiting Tampa Bay Devil Rays warm up. Eager to see current and past Yankees stars, we kept our eyes glued on their dugout. When the Yankees finally appeared about 20 minutes before game time, most didn't seem very happy to be there -- just a bunch of highly-paid, unfriendly prima donnas. I realized that this wasn't the atmosphere I was looking for when all of the people sitting around us started talking about how they got these great seats through someone who knew someone that knew George Steinbrenner.
After hearing Robert Merrill and the New York Philharmonic sing the national anthem, it was time to "play ball." On this day, the Yankee superstars were no match for the lowly Devil Rays, and although it was nice to see a live game after so many months, the only real satisfaction that I got out of the experience was getting the chance to spend time with my son in the beautiful weather and knowing that the Orioles will surely finish the season ahead of Tampa Bay.
On Saturday morning, we headed to Kissimmee to see the Atlanta Braves play the Blue Jays. We arrived at Disney's Wide World of Sports several hours before the game and were really impressed with the entire complex. We watched high school teams playing every type of sport and savored the family atmosphere. The Braves' stadium was very "Disney," a yellow, stucco structure in a gorgeous setting. Watching the Braves and Blue Jays warm up reminded me of the atmosphere that I always enjoyed about minor league baseball from watching the Hagerstown Suns and Frederick Keys -- warm and friendly -- just a bunch of guys playing a game.
The game was exciting even though the Blue Jays didn't bring their "A" team. The highlight of the day was four guys dressed in vintage Braves uniforms playing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" on saxophones as the crowd sang along. We watched the entire game and left with that wonderful feeling that I believe spring training is all about.
Sunday we traveled to Fort Myers to see the Red Sox play our beloved O's. We arrived at City of Palms Park, an older, less fancy but stately ballpark that just seemed to be what I always dreamed that spring training would look like and feel like. Michael and I really enjoyed seeing the O's take batting and fielding practice, but couldn't figure out what the media frenzy was all about. We soon realized that the Red Sox's starting pitcher was their new Japanese star "Dice-K" Matsuzaka.
The Boston fans were friendly and all of the players seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere. I felt a little strange when I seemed to be the only one in the stadium to ring out "O" during the national anthem, but hey, Boston was the home team. The Japanese media swarmed the field as Matsuzaka warmed up in front of the dugout before the first inning. Dice-K seemed unhittable in the first inning, fooling several Orioles with his breaking ball. But the Orioles soon figured him out and rocked him for two home runs in four innings. After the regulars were taken out later in the game, Michael and I relaxed and downed some beers atop the right field fence, very reminiscent of the new seats above the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
As we left Fort Myers, I realized what spring training means to me -- relaxing in beautiful weather, watching professional athletes prepare for the long, hard season ahead, and being able to share good times with my son. It's the time of the year when all Orioles fans have the right to dream and expect their favorite team to win a championship. We'll be back again.
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.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun