To spring forward, teams go extra mile


COCOA, Fla. -- Two hundred miles north of the Orioles' Grapefruit League home in Fort Lauderdale, another baseball team from Maryland is going through the sunny, sweaty paces of spring training.

The Mustangs of Bishop McNamara High School, a Catholic school in Forestville, are spending spring break immersed in a rigorous schedule of practices and games against high school teams from other states.

They practice for three hours in the morning, play games in the afternoon and work in a batting cage at night, then make an 11 p.m. curfew, sleep for seven or eight hours, get up and do it all over again.

More than 300 high school and college teams from 26 states are making similar spring break excursions this year to the Cocoa Expo Sports Center, a multi-sport facility housed at the Houston Astros' former spring training site some 40 miles southeast of Disney World.

With 30 to 40 high school teams on hand each week, the day begins with morning dew dappling the Expo's six fields, builds to a crescendo of baseball sights and sounds on steamy afternoons, then tails away into languid tropical evenings.

"You feel like you're in the pros; baseball is all we think about, all we talk about, our entire focus," said senior Eric Rohan, an infielder from Upper Marlboro.

High school teams from Maryland are also traveling to Hawaii, New Orleans, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and elsewhere in Florida this year, hoping to get the jump on teams back home still dealing with muddy fields in the wake of a snowy winter.

The idea of high school baseball teams traveling to warmer climes for spring training might strike some as professionalism seeping ever deeper into sports' amateur bedrock, but it's become a common practice in the past two decades.

From the Mid-Atlantic to New England and throughout the Midwest, high school teams start their seasons practicing in gyms. For the more affluent, an early trip to Florida -- or anywhere warm -- makes sense.

"We get more done in five days in Cocoa than in three weeks up north," said Bishop McNamara coach George Mercier, who has brought his team to the Cocoa Expo for six straight years.

High school teams in other sports take trips at other times of the year; many top basketball teams are on the road throughout the winter. And, of course, high school music groups are known to travel extensively.

But baseball teams are the unchallenged kings of the road over spring break.

Dave Norton, the baseball coach at Mount St. Joseph in West Baltimore, said he has taken his team "all over the country" through the years, playing in such states as California, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. The Gaels won a tournament in New Orleans earlier this month.

"It does give us an advantage," Norton said. "Teams back here at home couldn't get on the field, and we were playing games."

The St. Paul's School varsity, winners of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association's A Conference title last year, took the biggest trip of all, traveling to Hawaii last week to practice every morning and play five games.

"I've done Cocoa seven times; I was ready for something else," said Paul Bernsdorf, baseball coach at St. Paul's, which shares a campus in Brooklandville with St. Paul's School for Girls.

The private schools' boys and girls lacrosse teams also made the trip after Bernsdorf found a travel agency that specialized in taking sports teams to Hawaii, lowering the cost to $1,000 per player.

"Some people will think that's a ridiculous amount of money for a spring break trip," Bernsdorf said. "But we have a great group of [baseball] kids this year, primarily seniors, who had done a great job. We were struggling when they got here, and we won the MIAA last year. So this was a special trip for them that they had kind of earned."

The planning for any baseball team's spring training trip typically begins from six months to a year ahead of time. In most cases, the players raise money to help cover some of the travel expenses, either selling concessions at basketball and football games, selling ads for a program or holding a raffle. Parents pick up the rest of the tab; everyone helps out whenever there is a family that can't afford it.

The cost for Bishop McNamara's five-day trip to Cocoa this year was $638 per player.

"There is some cost involved, but it's just understood by everyone that if you want to play baseball here, this is part of what you do," Rohan said. "It's a great tradition we have going. We have our best practices of the year down here, and we come together as a team. We come out of here fired up for the season."

The players travel by plane to and from Florida, stay at a motel near the Cocoa Expo facility, eat three meals a day at the complex and "basically live and breathe baseball," said Jonathan Jones, a senior from Cheverly.

The Expo has a 6,000-seat stadium field as well as dorms and a dining hall. The city of Cocoa owned the facility until the Astros moved to a new spring training home in nearby Kissimmee in the 1980s. The city then sold the property to a businessman who has turned it into a year-round sports facility that recruits softball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse teams from throughout the country, offering great weather, quality officiating, credible opposition and well-tended fields.

"They take care of everything; all you have to do is show up and play," Bishop McNamara coach Mercier said.

The umpires are recent graduates of two nearby professional umpiring schools, mostly rookies waiting to be assigned to their first jobs somewhere in the low minors.

Another link to the pro game is the sight of scouts on hand, hardly a surprise given the volume of talent passing through the Expo.

"We had the best team in Canada come through earlier his month, and there were 16 scouts out to watch one of their games," said Expo athletic director Jeff Biddle.

Mercier had a similar experience when the Mustangs played a top team from Texas a few years ago.

"I got to the field, and there were a dozen radar guns lined up behind the backstop," he said. "I knew we were in trouble." His team lost, 6-0.

Soon after their arrival last week, the Mustangs waited out an afternoon rain delay at their motel along with teams from Tennessee, Minnesota, New York and New Jersey. The boys played cards and watched television in their rooms, eager to get back on the field.

"Some of the other teams get a day off and go to the beach and stuff like that, but the way we see it, we have the rest of our lives to take vacations," said Rohan, who is one of the Mustangs' co-captains. "You only have so much time to become the best baseball player you can be. That's why we're here."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad