Friday, April 02, 2010

Spring Training Memories

My first spring training trip came about on the spur of the moment. Spring training '95 was pushed into April due to the recently-settled baseball strike, and maybe it was due to that odd circumstance that my father suggested that we head down to Florida to catch some baseball. Since we couldn't go during March Break, I simply skipped a week of school in April. Hey, it was the last semester of eighth grade, we were all just running out the clock anyway. The only thing of consequence I missed was our class speech competition, or 'oral presentation' competition thanks to a rule change that allowed us to suddenly recite poetry, do sketches or anything else that helped the class dullards get over the fact that they couldn't speak in public. With my being away, my buddy Trev and I didn't have a chance to reprise our legendary recitation of Who's On First that should've (in a just world) earned us a slot in the city-wide competition, but NOOOO, instead we were beaten out by a pair from the other grade seven class who did the EXACT SAME routine except FAR inferior and...

....I probably shouldn't still be dwelling on this 16 years later. So anyway, my dad and I went down to Dunedin to see the Blue Jays get ready for the season. This was still in the era when I had hopes that the Jays would be competitive. After all, thanks to the strike, they were still the defending World Series champions, and that 55-60 record in 1994 was just an aberration. (Final record for the Jays in 1995: 56-88. Eeep.) But really, seeing my favourite team was just the icing on the cake of the spring training experiment in and of itself. I implore any baseball fan to head down to Florida or Arizona at least once in their lives to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of spring baseball. Imagine the grassroots splendor of minor league baseball, except with major league players. Imagine being 13 and seeing your baseball heroes literally just a couple of feet away from you. Imagine seeing your team's TV broadcaster sitting shirtless behind home plate...well, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The drive to Dunedin was planned by out by me, or at least was "planned" in the sense of my father humouring me and pretending to closely follow my road directions. This was in the days before Google Maps, so I felt like quite the big-shot upon discovering that this I-75 highway went ALL the way down to Florida! Our trip would be just that simple! *dusts off hands triumphantly* My route broke our trip up over two days, with an overnight stopover in Kentucky. The thing I hadn't taken into consideration is that my father is a not a man, but a remorseless driving machine. We made it from London to Macon, Georgia in about 13 hours, bypassing Kentucky like it wasn't even there. We were entertained on the drive down by the inimitable sounds of Cleveland's all-sports station WKNR, which had a surprisingly wide-ranging signal and a great lead host by the name of Geoff Sindelar (who, I was sad to learn, just passed away). WKNR split its time with about 48 percent Browns chat, 48 percent Indians chat and a small sliver devoted to everything else in sports. That includes the Cavaliers, if you ever wondered just how much of a non-entity this team was before the Lebron era. Our stopover in Macon was notable from a pop-culture standpoint in my life, since it marked the first time I'd ever watch an episode of 'Friends.' (I think it was the one where Chandler goes on a blind date with Janice.) My dad's reaction to the episode was that there didn't seem to be much to the show and he didn't think it'd last long. Good call, Pops.

We made it down to Dunedin by the next afternoon, just in time to catch the last couple of innings of a Jays-Phillies matchup* that the stadium ticket guy was kind enough to let us in to see for free. See? There's some of that laid-back spring training vibe for you. Thanks again, random ticket guy! Dunedin Stadium, if you've never been, is pretty nice by spring training standards. I believe it's undergone a renovation since 1995, but even back then it was a good place to catch a game. The only downside was that the overhang above the seats were too short, so only the last five rows were in constant shade. This is a big deal when you're dealing with the Florida sun. You could go to a game and see a grandstand dotted with fans, but the last five rows were packed to the gills. We quickly learned that the only bit of intensity needed during spring training was to get the park early enough to get one of those last-row seats.

* = I'm pretty sure the Jays played the Phillies roughly 64 times during spring training. Aside from one game against Baltimore that I'll discuss later, my on-field memories of the trip are just one huge blur of Toronto-Philadelphia games. The Phillies played in nearby Clearwater so it made for easy scheduling, but still, I presumed the Phils were still upset over the 1993 Series and had challenged the Jays to a best-of-41 spring series to settle the matter once and for all. So, since my memory can't prove otherwise, I'll just say that every spring game we attended was against the Phillies.

We didn't book a hotel room in advance, figuring we could just find something down there given that the whole area is a spate of beachfront hotels. And sure enough, we found a little motel less than five minutes away from the stadium and just a road crossing away from the ocean. My dad negotiated a rate of $20 per week, which would've been a great bargain were it not for the fact that the rooms were, well, the kind of rooms that you would expect for under three dollars a day. The bathroom was tiny, the hot plate was a fire hazard, we were visited by more than a few bugs and the carpets, oh my lord, the carpets. If you stood at the front door wearing a fresh pair of white socks straight from the package, by the time you walked from the entrance to the bed, your socks would be darker than Batman's boots. It was that trip that began my lifelong love affair with moccasins. That motel room ruined my stocking-footed innocence, much in the way that the innocence of many a Dunedin high school kid was probably ruined in that very motel on prom night.

In our week in Dunedin, our time was filled with baseball, going to see the Blue Jays whenever they were playing at home. It worked out to be an even split of four home games and four away games, and on the four days without a game, Dad and I played some golf, drove around a few of greater Dunedin's malls and gorged ourselves at the trough of freedom that was a local Italian restaurant that offered two all-you-can-eat pasta nights per week. Glorious. Also glorious was how we targeted our drives in the van to coincide with the Fabulous Sports Babe's radio show. You might wonder why sports talk shows stick in my mind after all of these years, but keep in mind that back in London, the only radio sports talk we got was 95-percent hockey-centric. It was a rare breath of fresh air to hear people discussing baseball, or football or topics other than Felix Potvin's five-hole.

But really, back to baseball. That was the main event. Whether it was seeing Cal Ripken stand in the blazing heat for an hour signing autographs or seeing a shirtless Buck Martinez lounging in the fourth row behind home plate,* spring training was outstanding. But to a young ball fan, it was all about the autographs and the ease with which one could acquire said autographs. My autograph book picked up many a notable Blue Jay, none more notable than that of Domingo Cedeno. That's right, little-used utility infielder Domingo Cedeno. Not that he was big name or anything, but for his autograph itself. He didn't even pretend to go through the half-assed motions of signing anything resembling his name. Imagine two capital L's written in cursive and laid on their side; that was the Cedeno signature. It was more like he was monogramming one of Laverne's sweaters than giving a kid an autograph. It was just weak.

* = I'm half-Ukrainian and thus know a thing or do about body hair, but even I was desperately looking around for a tarp to throw over Buck. Maybe this is how he eventually got the job as Toronto's manager. "Well, I dunno Buck, I'm not sure if you're really quali...ARGH! Button your shirt up! For the love of god! Fine, fine, you can have the job, just keep that thicket under cover!"

So that was the Dunedin adventure in a nutshell. Also of note was the ride home, when my dad decided to drive the whole 23 hours straight and by the end, thought he was some sort of a hummingbird. I kept him awake through Cleveland by listening to the NFL draft on the radio and discussing each pick with the intensity of a young Mel Kiper Jr. Jr. It may have been the only time in recorded history that discussing NFL draft picks was used to prevent insomnia, rather than cause it.

Postscript: during a spring break trip to Florida in 2003, my pals and I tried to recreate a bit of the spring training vibe by driving to Lakeland for a Tigers/Dodgers matchup. The Tigers had just opened their lovely new spring facility and the mayor of Lakeland himself (and, oh yeah, Hall of Famer Al Kaline) were on hand, and our group all settled in for a nice afternoon of mercilessly heckling Bobby Higginson and getting into a subsequent arguing war with the woman in front of us who was, inexplicably, a huge Higgy booster. Unfortunately, our day was cut short by a downpour in the second inning that canceled the game. We were so upset that my buddy Trev loudly exclaimed that he was putting a curse on the Tigers, and sure enough, they went on to lose 119 games that season. Trevor, of course, went on to become world-renowned curser and voodoo master Papa Shango. You can acquire his services at the rate of $10 and/or one goat's heart per hour.

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