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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Family Trip to Spring Training

About 30+ years ago, my family vacationed on the west coast of Florida. My father and I traveled to Bradenton, to McKechnie Field. I vaguely recall that it resembled a high school field and that we sat on the third-base line on bleachers. The game wasn't that crowded, and we watched Juan Pizarro try to resurrect his career with the Pirates. Pizarro, showing a gut that would have made Ray King proud, threw fifteen straight balls. When he threw a strike on the next pitch, the crowd roared, and Pizarro seized the moment by tipping his cap. I think that he got out of the inning. Overall, it was a cool experience, and it really had an intimate feeling.

Last Wednesday, the family and I traveled to Clearwater Beach, Florida, with tickets in hand to see 2 Phillies' games in Clearwater and a Tigers-Indians game at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, about an hour and fifteen minutes away.

Here are some observations:

1. Brighthouse Networks Field, where the Phillies play their spring training games, is just first-rate. The Phillies' high Class A team, the Clearwater Threshers, plays its games there, and it has to be one of the nicest Class A parks in the minors. Becuase of its relatively small size, there's not a bad seat in the house. (Apparently, the new ballpark, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which will host the Iron Pigs, the Phillies' AAA team, could claim the title of the best minor-leage park in the country).

2. We saw the Phillies beat the Pirates, 3-0, last Thursday. Kyle Kendrick pitched 6 solid innings, but Phillies' fans need to remember that he pitched against roughly a AAA lineup. The Pirates' regulars, for the most part, stayed home. Nyjer Morgan, who might get the nod in CF for the Buccos, started in center, and Doug Mientkiewicz, primarily known for his glove at first base, batted third and played right. Clay Condrey and J.D. Durbin pitched well in relief. Tom Gordon finished up, and he was wild high.

3. We saw 3 homers, a prototypical Ryan Howard bomb to left center, a Pedro Feliz liner over the left-field wall, and a Geoff Jenkins fly ball to right that heavy winds kept on blowing and blowing until the ball sailed over the right-field wall. There were no extra-base hits in the game other than the homers.

4. Phillies' back-up catcher Chris Coste is a class act. Unfortunately, because it rained the night before, the Phillies' kept the tarp on the field. That meant no batting practice, and that meant that there were no players on the field early to sign autographs. The team came out late, and it looked like only Jamie Moyer and his protege, Cole Hamels, were signing before the game. That had to frustrate the fans, who line up along the left-field line to get autographs, but who are chased from that area at about 12:20 to enable those who sit in that area to take their seats. Do the math: game starts at 1:05, fans are chased at 12:20, no BP, and few players are on the field before 12:20. Why do I care? Because I have young kids, and they care.

So why is Coste a class act? Well, he caught the whole game. The regulars for the Phils got their 3 at-bats and then headed to the locker room afterwards, walking down the left-field line but not stopping to sign (hard to blame them, the game had to continue). After the game, most of the players walked down the left-field line, away from the fans, and opted not to sign. Coste, who caught the whole game, was one of the last to leave the field. It was a relatively hot day, he was carrying his gear in a bag, yet he stopped to sign for a while. About four other players who were walking near him and looked ambivalent about signing, stopped to sign. It was fun to see -- and you can tell that Chris Coste commands respect in the clubhouse. The man has worked for everything he's got. (We didn't get the autographs, as we were in line to shop at the store at the stadium for t-shirts).

5. Jamie Moyer is another class act. According to some fans who were standing near me while I was overseeing my kids' attempts to get signatures, Moyer signs all the time and chats up the fans. He knows that he's very fortunate to have this type of a career, and his humility and friendliness is refreshing (that's not to indict the other players -- look, it's their working environment, and there are dozens of approaches to the game, but it's nice to see Moyer in action).

6. Rainouts are frustrating. After seeing the Phils on Thursday, we were looking forward to the Phils-Tigers at the same park on Saturday. Unfortunately, it poured. The game was called after 3 innings. Among the frustrations: the kids had a great spot for signatures before the game, in the first row along the left-field line, but we had no rain gear whatsoever, so when it poured we went to our seats, which are under cover. When it stopped, it was closer to game time, and, wouldn't you know it, they relaxed the 12:20 "rousting of the autograph seekers" deadline and let people stay in place. And who signed right near where the kids had been standing? None other than Ryan Howard. My son, of course, wears a Ryan Howard jersey. Oh well, we can't always get lucky.

Doubly frustrating is the rainout policy. We paid $22 apiece for four tickets, and the policy is that we can redeem these for a) a certificate for tickets for next year's games, which only may be redeemed in person or b) Clearwater Threshers tickets. What a joke/ripoff. How many people perenially travel to spring training? How many people will be able to redeem their rainchecks in person? Most people were traveling back to the Philadelphia area, so the Threshers/Phillies could end up with a windfall. Our solution, so far, is to mail in the tix, get the certificate, and then sell it on ebay next year. If you have any suggestions for me on this point, let me know.

Then we spent $18 for a Clearwater Threshers umbrella, so that we didn't get totally soaked walking back to our car. Somehow, the very nice, complimentary shuttle that the stadium provided for a lift from the parking area to the field disappeared for the return trip, and the drainage wasn't great. Our seats were under cover, so we didn't get wet during the rain delay, but it was a frustrating day.

7. Does anyone know how the Tigers' field got the name Joker Marchant Stadium?

8. We sat in the sun for the Indians-Tigers game Sunday in Lakeland, where there was an impressive array of medical practices and treatment centers of all sorts right near the stadium. It was a long drive from Clearwater Beach, but we made it there with about 10 minutes to spare. Fausto Carmona started for Cleveland, and he brought the heat, with his fastball routinely at 95 m.p.h. Gary Sheffield hit a 2-run shot early in the game after a Jhonny Peralta miscue at short, and later Travis Hafner turned on a fastball and hit a frozen rope out to right -- that shot was one of the fastest to leave a park that I'd ever seen.

9. The fans are interesting. On Thursday, we had a family sitting behind us, including a middle-aged mom who thought she was sounding cool in front of her teenage kids by yelling things such as "we want a pitcher, not a glass of water." What she forgot -- and her husband reminded her -- was that she was yelling this at Kyle Kendrick, and they were Phillies' fans. Sitting down the row behind us (thankfully) was their college-aged nephew, one of those types who has to speak several decibels louder than anyone and tries to start cheers to draw attention to himself. Thankfully (for us), he suffered from the "America generally has too much girth" syndrome and spent a good amount of time at the concession stand (he liked the four-pack of sliders -- perhaps more than once). On Saturday, we sat in the very last row under cover, and there's the new phenomenon of "standing room" tickets to deal with. The people standing behind us were reasonable, given the circumstances, but we did hear perhaps four too many cell-phone conversations with other family members about whether Matt or John had extra tickets for the upcoming game against the Yankees.

None of that, though, was major. The Indians-Tigers game was interesting because we wore gear for neither team and because the Tiger fans are more laid back than the Philadelphia fans. Most of the fans around us were nice, although there was a third-grader with perhaps undiagnosed ADD sitting in front of us who kept swinging one of those small souvenir bats (his mother either didn't notice or is blind in her right eye) a little bit too wildly. That was nothing next to the high school boy next to me, who had a frustrating conversation with his girlfriend (who, after what I'm about to write, should wonder what she sees in him and ditch him unceremoniously). On three occasions during the first six innings, he bent his head toward the ground, opened his mouth, and spit, right there, right on the concrete, right between his feet, only about a few feet from me. The third time, well, I had to say something.

Me: "You know, you shouldn't be spitting there. You're not supposed to do that. It's unsanitary."

Him (not angry, not incredulous, but puzzled): "I can't spit. You mean, I can't spit?"

Me: "You shouldn't spit."

He then got up and went to the concession stand.

I felt like George Costanza at that point. Why me? What I should have said was "Well, there's no sign that says you cannot spit, but there's also no sign that says that you can't urinate there, either, and why would you want to do either?" I mean, where are these people being raised? Where is the class, the etiquette, the manners, the, well, sanitary behavior? Imagine if all 8,000 people were to spit during the seventh-inning stretch? It was pretty disgusting. I let it go a few times, but the third time was the charm.

Small stuff, to be sure, but I wanted to point this out to share my fandom experiences with you so that if you've suffered goofballs near you, well, you're not alone.

Overall, it was warm weather, and we were watching baseball in short sleeves in March, once on a weekday afternoon. The family was together, we enjoyed some good play, and the peanuts down there were excellent. Talking baseball, cracking open some peanut shells, shopping for souvenir shirts after the game, it was all pretty wonderful.

Now if you can tell me how to salvage my $88 investment in a rained out game in Clearwater . . .

Because right now, it looks as though the home team has told me to go spit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: Joker Marchant

"Joker" Marchant was the popular director of Lakeland's Park and Recreational Department. Starting as a city employee in 1939 with a job at a local swimming pool, Marchant was named Parks and Rec. director in 1946. He worked with Tigers management to establish the Tigertown complex at the former Lodwick Airport, and later worked with the team and the city to maximize the bond between the two with shared facilities and a commitment to keeping the stadium's field one of the best-kept in the majors.
The personable, unassuming Marchant was thrilled by the honor, and so on March 12,1966 before a capacity crowd, the new stadium was officially dedicated as Joker Marchant Stadium. Taking pride in the appearance of "his" stadium with his usual humor Marchant told the crowd," Y'all put the peanut shells in your pockets and don't be messing up my new stadium!"


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