Every spring save maybe seven of my 24 years at The Sun, I have spent part of February and March in some city around Florida, where the Orioles were holding spring training. It first started for me in Miami, where the camp was in a very bad section of the town, so it was always protected by throngs of Miami's "finest."
The Orioles then moved to a very peaceful camp on the outskirts of Sarasota, where former pitcher Ben McDonald spent his off-time wrestling alligators, which inhabited a swamp near the camp. For a number of recent years, the camp has been in Fort Lauderdale, where behind the "back" fields (used for workouts but not games) is a runway for a very busy "jet park." So the uneasiness of Miami and the serenity of Sarasota are now replaced by Lear Jets taking off every few minutes at a distance so close you can smell the fumes and see the faces of the pilots. The noise of these planes is at such a level you cannot even hear an outfielder yell, "I got it."
While the locations change, there are some constants that always cheer even the cynical heart of a soon-to-be-mid-50ish journalist, which is not easy to do. Spring baseball camp always brings the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the very young ballplayers who study the mannerisms of the veterans, to make sure they have it just right, if they ever make the "show," which of course most will not; and the kids, always the kids.
Not the kids on the field but the kids in the stands, who come to life as if a Norman Rockwell painting had just been finished. Freckle-faced, with just the right cap and jersey, screaming at the players as they walk by to sign some card, bat or scrap of paper their grandparents gave them. Whether it's a "hey mister" or a "hey Miguel," in Spanish or English, the routine is the same and it's known well by both participants.
Over the years I have witnessed the endless autographs signed by the likes of Cal Ripken Jr. (who I don't think ever turned down a request) and the brushing off of the ritual by former Orioles who shall remain nameless.
I have seen the smiles, shouts and glee on the young faces after their "hero" granted them a signature and the sadness, as some players just pass on by. However, the one thing that I will never forget happened 22 years ago in the stands of the field in Miami, when a young boy rushed up to a former Oriole who had been on the '83 championship team, and asked politely if he was "somebody" and if he could sign. The former player replied, "Son, I used to be somebody." It stuck with me then and will be with me until I am gone, what the game of baseball means to the young, the old, the players and the former players and to those who cover the sport because they just love the game.