Welcome to paradise.
Well, welcome to a baseball fan's version of it. I am on Florida's Gulf Coast on a tour of several spring training venues, known informally as the Grapefruit League. I've been to spring training in Florida twice before and to Arizona's Cactus League twice. As it's sometimes said today, it's all good.
The first game my dad took me to was at Yankee Stadium in the mid-1960s. Whitey Ford beat the White Sox 3-1 and struck out 10. I've been going to major league and minor league games ever since. I was fortunate enough to see Tom Seaver win his 300th game. He pitched for the White Sox at the time and beat the Yankees in New York. I saw Cal Ripken Jr. tie Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak and attended the last game at Memorial Stadium and the first at Camden Yards. It's only recently that I've been taking excursions to spring training and I can't imagine why I waited so long.
I was in my rental car and over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge south toward Bradenton within 20 minutes of arriving in Tampa. Carry-ons did the trick.
The Pirates and Reds were playing games against each other -- in the afternoon at Pittsburgh's winter home, McKechnie Field in Bradenton, and in the evening at the Reds' field, Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. I had tickets for both games and the ballparks are only about twelve miles apart. That's why spring training is so much fun. The parks are so close that fans can hopscotch from one to the next to follow the Orioles or see other teams. And it's great to watch big league games in minor league parks. That's what I'm doing.
Although I didn't plan on seeing the O's play this time, it seemed like "old home week" at the two games. Former Orioles were all over the place, primarily with the Pirates. Jeff Manto and John Shelby are coaches for Pittsburgh. I couldn't help but watch T-Bone as he made his way down the first base line toward the dugout before the game. He very much took his time -- sauntered actually -- especially as fans who remembered his playing days, which seem so long ago, came to the fence in homage. The guy still looks like he could run them down.
Luis Matos is trying to hook on with the Pirates as an extra outfielder, a 'non-roster invitee' wearing number 80. Having a number that high generally is not a good sign for a player. Those numbers typically are given to young minor league players who are being given an opportunity to acquire some precious experience against major leaguers and to veterans who have bounced around a bit from club to club with the hope that they will catch lightning in a bottle and help the team. Matos fits the latter category. Remember when he was the Orioles' center fielder of the future?
He made weak outs both times to the plate. No lightning today. Finally, Jeff Conine played first base for the Reds.
He's played better.
The home teams won both games but that didn't matter to me. Watching 20-year-old center fielder Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates steal the show defensively in the nightcap and hit safely a couple times to boot was thrilling. I can't help but think he's going to be an All-Star some day.
On the other hand, watching 245-pound catcher Ronny Paulino leg out a triple was almost humorous. But the guy can move! Actually, it was funny.
Another part of spring training I really enjoy is just chatting with the other fans. Baseball fans come to these games. I mean, they know the game. They follow their teams closely and wear their colors. They aren't here because it's something to do or a place to be seen as regular-season games tend to be for many people.
Exchanging itineraries is common. It goes something like, "After today's game I got the Tigers in Lakeland, the Indians in Winter Haven on Sunday and back here on Monday." I've traded tickets with other fans who couldn't use them. I ran into two fans today at Lakeland that I met yesterday at Bradenton.
Speaking of Lakeland, I learned today that the Tigers haven't been rained out there since 2003. I say that because they came close today. Joker Marchant Stadium is one of the true gems of the Grapefruit League. Although it recently received a bit of a facelift, the Mission-style park, built in the 1940s, still retains its charm and unique character.
I got to examine a lot of it today as I waited under cover as the forecasted rain did its thing. It poured. Apparently, Florida needs the precipitation. Timing is everything.
I walked around, ate, bought some souvenirs, ate some more, and saw some young guys wearing Penn State uniform shirts and an adult wearing a Penn State t-shirt.
I am from Northeastern Pennsylvania originally so I decided to chat up the adult. Turns out he was a coach and the kids were members of the Penn State-Scranton baseball team. They were in Florida for a tournament and were taking in the game before playing a doubleheader in the evening.
That's what it's about.
And the game? It was delayed for only 40 minutes. The sun came out, just as in the song, and the Tigers clobbered the Phillies. Seeing the Phillies fans upset was an added bonus. Oh, yeah. I got sunburned.
Adios for now.
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 © 2015, The Baltimore Sun