Spring Training Tour 2016: My Day at Mini-Fenway

POSTED ON MARCH 5, 2016

Fort Myers, Fl — Yesterday, nbjays wrote that his bucket list is a Spring Training Tour of either Florida or Arizona. Apparently, I am touching upon the zeitgeist.

As a child, Spring Training was my dream vacation. Not Disney World, not Hawaii, not Paris. Spring Training. I was an odd little girl. Going to see my New York Mets in spring training was it. It seemed liked this magical Shangri-la, where fans could interact with their favorite baseball players against a palm tree backdrop. I could meet Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, and Darryl Strawberry! I subscribed to the Daily News for the sports section with my allowance, and in the Sunday paper, I would check for the coupons in the winter. You see, I forget the company, but one would always run a promotion: “Win a Trip to See Your Favorite Team in Spring Training.” I would zealously fill out 3×5 cards to enter more submissions every year like their rules said. I never won, of course, and I never got to go.

Now, I get to live that dream every single spring. My team allegiances may have changed from the Mets to the Tampa Bay Rays, but my passion for the game has not.

Every year, I cross a new facility off my list. Yesterday was Jet Blue Park’s turn, also known as Mini-Fenway, the spring home of the Boston Red Sox. The facility is located in Fort Myers, Florida, about a two hour drive south of my home in Clearwater, Florida. The weather was absolutely perfect, if 70 degrees, low humidity, and sunny is your sort of thing.

The park is very new, built in 2011. The roof is white, slanted, and canopy style, giving it a distinct Florida feel. It is a very useful feature, I realized later, for keeping the sun and foul balls from our heads. Right outside of the park, they have a monument park with retired numbers, including Jackie Robinson’s. I loved that. I had never seen that at a spring training facility before.

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They also had a statue of Ted Williams playfully touching a young boy’s baseball cap. I liked that too.

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As soon as you walk inside, surrounding the stadium, there were tents full of food, craft beers, and even a live band playing. The smell of food was intoxicating. This is not the normal spring training experience. It felt like a carnival. They were playing The Outfield’s “Your Love” as I explored the tents. I sang along–I love that song. I complimented the beer lady on the park. “This place is absolutely gorgeous.”

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A few Red Sox fans razzed my Rays gear. One of them was wearing a pink Boston hat. I smiled at her and bit my tongue before I said, “Whatever, Pink Hat.” It’s Spring Training. Be nice. I complimented her on her lovely Rays blue colored shirt. She looked confused.

We arrived early to see batting practice, but apparently, since the Rays won 10-3 the day before, Kevin Cash didn’t think the Rays needed batting practice, I suppose. Still we got there early enough to see Chris Archer warm up. Besides at Tropicana Field, this is the closest I have ever been to a pitcher warming up. IT WAS AWESOME!!! Enjoy.

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Standing next to me is another uber-fan I’ve never met before. She apparently sells “Got Stripes” t-shirts to benefit Chris Archer’s Archway Foundation. He does a lot for youth organizations, not only in the Tampa Bay area, but pretty much every major league city he visits. One day, she saw his friend and mentor Ron Walker wearing one of his shirts. She had no idea how he got one. She and I start talking baseball. Baseball–bringing people together. I gave her Twitter account (@Archer22FanClub) a follow and told her I would buy her tank top, and I will. We’ve been messaging each other this morning. Very cool baseball chick.

I bought tickets 12 rows behind the Rays dugout off of Stubhub for $35. Not too bad. I don’t do this every day. JetBlue Park has some very cool features, one of which is an exact replica of Fenway’s Green Monster. The dimensions of the park are identical. No Pesky Pole though. I looked. The scoreboard is also manual, just like Fenway’s.  Someone comes out with a ladder and updates everything manually. You can see in the ENEOS Motor Oil advertising where the door is. My seats afforded me a perfect look:

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That was pretty freaking cool. Here is a close-up of the scoreboard:

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As for the game itself, Archer looked sharp against the Red Sox’s “A line-up”, with the change-up already looking like it is in season form. He didn’t pitch long, of course. The Rays had a slim lead most of the game but lost eventually, 7-2; it was basically Pawtucket beating Durham. It was the later innings when the regulars were out when they faltered. This is the point in Spring Training when you can’t put too much stake in the results. It’s basically a lot of white noise. You go for the ambiance and camaraderie. For example, the older gentleman sitting next to me was a Yankees fan visiting from Connecticut. He asked me about the Rays stadium situation. He’s an expert on the situation now. He may have regretted asking the question. 🙂

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A few game notes: Pablo Sandoval looked big as a cow, but the man can move. He was agile and his reflexes were fast. He ran down that first base line with a speed that I could not believe for a man his size. He reached first on a Longoria error, and he hustled fast. He also moved laterally well. Of course, that also made me wonder, if he did lose just a bit of girth, how much faster could he be? There was another time when he needed to leap just a tiny bit in the air for a ball, and he couldn’t, presumably because of his size. It cost his team a hit.

Hanley looked like shit playing first and made a costly error at first. That’s going to be an interesting experiment. It looks to me like the Red Sox may have three DHs at the moment.

The only mildly sour spot: yes, they played Sweet Fackin’ Caroline. These people. I survived.

Right now, the song going through my head is Bill Wither’s Lovely Day. It was a lovely day. The beer even tasted colder and better yesterday.

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Today, I visit the Twin’s spring training facility, Century Link Sports Complex, also in Fort Myers, for the first time. Orioles v. Twins, this time, bern seating. I can’t wait.

Spring Training 2016 Day 2: Twins, Orioles, and Rays, Oh my

Originally posted on 3/16/16:

On Saturday afernoon, I visited Hammond Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins, and then decided at the last minute to go to Ed Smith Stadium to see the Baltimore Orioles’ spring home, since they were playing the Rays and it was on the way home. For those keeping count, that’s three games in two days with ease. Suck it, Arizona and @longfootlefty. Road trips are fun, and they also give me lots of time to sing loudly in the car.

It’s funny, I don’t normally think of Fort Myers as the spring training home of the Twins. The Red Sox take ownership of the town. I’ll never make that mistake again. Hammond Stadium at the Century Link Sports Complex holds its own against JetBlue Park.

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The stadium was built in 1991 and was renovated recently in 2014. It had a decidedly different look than Jetblue Park. It had a plantation, almost Churchill Downs feel. There was no mistaking we were in the South. I also felt like I was walking into a cathedral of baseball. You can even see what looks like a cross as you entered. It is an eminently photogenic stadium–that’s a waterfall fountain in the front–and I am starting to get a little jealous. Even spring training homes are prettier than my team’s real stadium. Okay, a baboon’s taint is prettier than my team’s stadium, but I have digressed.

The parking lot has rows named after past and present notable Twins.

Another key significance between Jetblue Park and Hammond is that Hammond had bern seating. My seats today were economy bern seating as the Twins were playing the split squad Orioles, and I had no vested interest in either team. For those unfamiliar with bern seating, those are grassy areas in the park where you can pop a squat and watch the game. Hammond also encourages the fans to walk around the stadium itself. The park is set up such that you can walk the entire perimeter, which is different than JetBlue. I did not mention that JetBlue did not want fans without tickets atop the “Green Monster.”

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20160305_133118The only place to get the line-up was on this whiteboard in the walkway:

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The Orioles did not have a good afternoon.

While there, I enjoyed what I was told is a rare delicacy, only available in a few rare corners of the world:

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Game notes: The Orioles made count ’em, five errors in this game in a 13-2 laugher. I expected the mercy rule to take effect as their B-squad made their best Bad News Bears impersonation. Quite honestly, it was six errors but the official scorer took mercy on them. Third basemen Steve Tolleson was responsible for three of them. It was ugly. The Twins collected 16 hits, but it’s difficult to gauge how well they did since the Orioles only brought their AAA squad with them. Their pitching was as bad as their defense, allowing three home runs. OF Hyun soon Kim, signed out of Korea, is 0 for the spring, but it is still early. On the Twins side, Ervin Santana pitched well, and Buxton is very, very, very fast.

Berm seating was relaxing. With the score ridiculous, I laid down the last couple of innings and caught some sun.

I then pointed my compass north and headed towards Sarasota, the last leg of my tour, Ed Smith Stadium. These are some beautiful quaint stadiums. None of these stadiums are behemoths. They are intimate showcases. I like this stadium because it is ensconced in a neighborhood. It is not gated and separated from the environment like the others. You walk, and all of a sudden, look at what we have here. It also gives good face.

20160305_181258.jpgThis one has a Spanish tile roof and stucco walls. The rotunda:

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Game time is 7pm, but I arrived in plenty of time to do my favorite thing, watch my starting pitcher warm up for the night. The weather again could not be more perfect. Drew Smyly is our man tonight.

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The bullpen area was cool, and they had seats, so there I decided to stay the whole game. LHP Enny Romero was milling about the bullpen. He smiled at me and asked me, “Hablas espanol?” I said, “Si, seguro. Es de Santo Domingo?” He nodded and said, “Si.” I said, “Mi mama es de alla.” He nodded and smiled and went back to work. Not long after, a deep line drive foul ball came into my area. I lost the ball in the lights and it bounced next to me. I didn’t see where it went, but it bounced into the bullpen. Romero gave it back to me. The usher came to make sure I was okay. Other than embarrassed I didn’t catch the ball, yes, I was okay. This stuff does not happen to me normally. The ball is very cool. It is stamped with the FL Spring Training insignia.

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Again, the Orioles did not look good in a 10-6 loss. They are 0 for Spring Training (0-5-1). It is very early, so there is no cause for alarm, but the fans were definitely restless. RHP Kevin Gausman looked good, so that is one bright spot, striking out 3 while pitching two scoreless frames. Most of the Rays’ damage came off of Todd Redmond and some minor leaguer. In total, they allowed the Rays 17 hits. Their spring training ERA is 8.31, solid 30 of 30. Again, early in spring training, this is a lot of white noise, but patterns will start to develop in the coming weeks that will be cause for concern if things do not start to straighten out.

Smyly was sharp also, throwing two perfect innings, and striking out Davis, Trumbo, and Wieters. The Rays’ defense again, left me less than impressed. Three errors. It is early, but one thing I was concerned about with some of their off-season moves is that they sacrificed defense for offense. Momma is not happy with that. Poor defense will ultimately hurt their pitching, their core strength, and I hate sloppy baseball. Most of the Orioles’ six runs were gifts thanks to woeful defense. They have to work on that. But back to pictures…

It was Fireworks Night, so the weekend was topped with fireworks. I don’t think I could have picked a more perfect ending.

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I took one last picture on the way out. It shone bright like a diamond.

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Can you tell I did not want this weekend to end?

This was by far the most diverse fan base of the three stadiums we visited. White, blacks, Latinos. I notice these things because a lot of times I notice I am different. I can’t help noticing. I am alone. I am conspicuous, the token. (I played a game at mini-Fenway: spot the black person. There was one darker than me.) It has been that way most of my life because I overachieved a little, so I know how to navigate, but my preference was last night. A beautiful pastiche, a swirl of color. It felt so good to see so many different beautiful faces. Very cool, Orioles.

I also really enjoy talking to my fellow fans. I meet so many great fans. I spoke to this wonderful Orioles fan from Maryland most of the game yesterday. Really nice man, knew his stuff. In Hammond Stadium, same thing. Spoke to this great woman from Minnesota, enjoying the game. This is the great part of Spring Training, shooting the breeze with people on a lazy day in a meaningless game. Baseball means so much to them that they traveled all the way here just to experience a meaningless game, and I was honored to share it with them. I wish you could all had been there with me. I had the best time.

(I went to the gift shop and I thought @scoutsayswietersisabust might want to buy this for some special lady friend… bowchickabowwow…)

Spring Training 2016 Part 3: Yankees v. Phillies, Glutton for Punishment

POSTED ON MARCH 7, 2016

I thought I was done with my little Spring Training tour for now, but I woke up Sunday feeling malaise that it would be a day without baseball in person. Kevin S. to the rescue! He helpfully reminded me that the Yankees would be playing the Phillies but a stone’s throw from me at Brighthouse Field. Bah, the Yankees. He sweetened the pot by mentioning Tanaka would be the starting pitcher. Now, my interest was piqued. Since it doesn’t take much more convincing than “Do it!” for me to do something, I was sold. This game, however, would require family involvement–the children.

We arrived at Brighthouse Field early to see Tanaka warm up. I have been to Brighthouse Field more times than I can count. I have always thought it an attractive Spring Training and minor league facility, but now that I had the memory of Ed Smith Stadium, Ed Hammond, and JetBlue Park so fresh in my mind, I found it lacking somehow. Familiarity in this case has bred contempt, although I know objectively, there is nothing wrong with it. I noticed its flaws–the power lines you can see in the distance–instead of its beauty, or maybe it was because it was jam packed with Yankees and Phillies fans. No, seriously, the moment I saw it from the distance, it was like an old annoying boyfriend. I wanted the shiny new exciting stadium I met last night that seemed flawless with its perfect sunset. I know I was being unfair.

The exterior is similar to Ed Smith’s–Spanish Mediterranean stucco with tile roofs and arched entrances. Outside the main entrance is a fountain with a statue of Steve Carlton. (Picture taking had a degree of difficult today of 10,000 because I had to play mommy–if it’s not my picture, I’ll credit the source.)

 

There is definitely a party vibe at Brighthouse Field. The thatched roofed tiki bar in left field run by Frenchy’s, a popular local bar/restaurant chain helps to nourish that feel. A lot of people get SRO tickets and just hang out there for the whole game. You can get your foofoo drinks here. It’s very crowded to navigate and the air is rich with cigarette smoke. Now, I don’t mind the smell of pot–it’s like incense–but cigarette smoke irritates the hell out of me. I avoid this area.

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There is a playground area, much to my chagrin, where you can’t even watch the game. If the kids want to go play, the parents can’t see any of the game. A nice amenity would be a television in that area. Yes, I suppose they want you to watch your kids, but I am at a baseball game. I suppose I am here because I want to watch the game. Guess where I spent a couple of innings?

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You might be aware that Hooters girls are the ball girls at Brighthouse Field. Clearwater is the home of the original Hooters, so naturally, the Phillies want to honor this historical landmark. If you are ever visiting locally and you must have boobs with your wings, I would recommend Wing House over Hooters. The wings are much, much better, and the girls are just as pretty (actually they are dressed in black shorts and tops, which is much more flattering than that ugly orange). Or, just hire a hooker and eat wings with her. Why get sexually frustrated? Have your wings and eat them too. Wow, I have really gone on a tangent here. Back to baseball.

The vibe was definitely not as laid back as it had been for the past three spring training games. I heard a Yankees fan yell, “Phillies suck!” One, yes, we know. Thanks, Captain Obvious. Two, no one yells that at a Spring Training game. No one heckles. (Unless it is Jim Norton heckling Alex Rodriguez at a Spring Training game and posting it live on Twitter. Did anyone else see that last year? It was hilarious.)

Watching Tanaka warm-up, Yankees fans were harassing him for an autograph. I have been to a lot of Spring Training games. I have been to a lot of games at Tropicana Field. I have never seen anyone harass a starting pitcher while he is warming up. I said to one fan, “He’s working; he can’t sign your autograph right now.” Don’t you want your pitcher properly warmed up and focused? Would you want him thinking about anything else? I know this is just Spring Training, but this is prep work for the season. There’s etiquette. My god, New Yorkers can be so annoying. I’m a New Yorker. Thanks for reminding me why I left. They were making Phillies fans look so good.

I picked a great spot in the berm that was nicely positioned next to the bullpen. The field has a strange set up for the bullpen–the two teams are parallel to each other so there are no secrets here. I got great shots of Tanaka. I could practically whisper sweet nothings in his ear, but I didn’t, because I have manners. And I don’t speak Japanese.

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Tanaka looked freaking awesome. That’s my scouting report. His control is a fucking dream. Catcher said here. Here it went. There. There it went. Amazing pinpoint control. Could probably thread a needle with a baseball. All 10,000 of his pitches looked like they were working to me.

It wasn’t all bad Yankees fan though. On the berm, I was sitting next to this dad and his two young daughters, age 9 and 6, who hit it off with my kids, age 7 and 4. This dad is a Yankees fan, but somehow was still nice. His wife was at home with their two year daughter, and they were expecting their fourth daughter. “Kept trying for that boy?” I asked. “Yep.” he replied. “Gonna keep trying?” I asked. “Nope.” he laughed.

#41 started warming up in their bullpen. I asked pregnant dad if he knew he who he was. “Nope.” Since the Yankees still insist on no names on the back of their uniforms because it is 1957 and free agency doesn’t exist and players never shuffle around, I had to look him up. The reason I was curious is because a big burly Yankees fan had saddled up to the bullpen and yelled, “You know who else wore #41? Tom Seavah! (sic).” I want you to hear his accent. “You gonna be just like you him. You got great stuff! Look at you, hitting your spots! Whatta fastball! Tom Seavah! Don’t you forget!” If my eyes rolled any harder, they would have popped out of their sockets. You heard it hear first. Non-roster invitee Anthony Swarzak is the next Tom Seaver according to big burly Yankees fan. Pick him up for your dynasty leagues.

The “You suck” Phillies won 6-5 and I was happy, because seriously, Yankees fans. You made me root against your team even during a Spring Training game, and nobody cares who wins a Spring Training game.