Spring Training 2004
Since television and linear regression have robbed us of most of the innocence and wonder with which we once approached the world, I decided to spend part of my spring break taking in one of America’s few remaining pure pleasures: baseball’s spring training. I figured that this kind of excursion would be enjoyable for a hardcore baseball fan (I’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan for almost my entire life), but I had no idea what was in store for me.
On Tuesday, March 9, I arrived at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium at 10:30, about two and a half hours before game time, and I found my way to the practice fields behind the stadium, where the Cards were going through various drills. There were over a hundred fans at these practice fields, just taking in anything (and I mean anything) that went on. Since most of the regulars were practicing on a distant field, the fans were forced to settle for some of the more mundane goings on at the three fields adjacent to the fan area. We saw a lot of jersey numbers in the seventies and eighties, which meant that these were players we would probably never see again. And we couldn’t have cared less.
On one of the fields, Cardinals pitchers were throwing to a catcher who raised some eyebrows among the fans, a youngster bearing the number 83 and the surname “Pagnozzi”. Tom Pagnozzi had been an above average major league catcher for a number of years, so fans were naturally curious about his relation to the soon-to-be-former Cardinal. When it was discovered that this Pagnozzi was actually the nephew of his major league namesake, the news spread pretty quickly across our little society. On another field, we watched pitchers, the lightest hitters on the team, take batting practice. These are the things people pay attention to at training camp.
Once the action on the practice fields subsided, I wandered back to the stadium. I joined a number of fans along the right field line waiting for the players to arrive from the clubhouse. I was expecting to see autograph seekers when I got here, but I was totally unprepared for what I found. There were plenty of children, even more than I expected. The children were great because they had a genuine interest in their favorite players, and they were very appreciative when they received an autograph. There was also a handful of adults for whom the autograph session was a chance to enhance a collection. Some had bats or balls with ten or more autographs already on them, and others had catalogs of pictures and cards, often indexed by last name so that they could be pulled out when a certain player came by. And then there were the veterans, those who had been to numerous spring trainings and, though they got their fair share of autographs, cared less about the autograph than the knowledge they had of the game and of the players themselves. One older fan in my area specialized in arcane Cardinals trivia, and he gave the younger fans tips on how to get the autographs of their favorite players.
I discovered that the game was secondary to everything else that goes on at spring training, but the Tuesday’s game was still very enjoyable—I can’t complain about any game that features a player scoring from second on an infield hit and the final runs coming on a tenth inning walk-off home run. I also enjoyed the stories told by an usher who sat by me, who also happened to be a former Kansas City Royal.
Wednesday’s game was against the Boston Red Sox, and it had sold out in January. I decided to get to the stadium at 8:30 to get one of the 200 tickets that went on sale at 9:00 for the grass-covered berm in the outfield. Little did I know that people started arriving at 6:00, and by the time I arrived the line snaked a couple hundred feet across the front of the stadium. I was a couple people too far back in line to get these tickets, but thankfully some others opened up just in time.
Today’s practice field highlight was a B-team game between the Cardinals and the Mets that featured players who were not guaranteed a roster spot. I found a spot along the chain link fence about thirty feet behind home plate, easily the closest I’ve ever seen major leaguers in action. And though I had no idea who most of these people were, I did recognize a few of them. Players like Todd Zeile, John Mabry, Shane Spencer, and Greg Vaughn, major league regulars just a few years ago, all were relegated to a game in which the real stars would cut across the outfield to get from their practice field back to the clubhouse.
I watched the game with an older couple from Illinois, who said they don’t like the games as much anymore with all the prolonged breaks, so they attend only thirty a year. It’s tough to blame them, though—they live about a hundred miles from St. Louis. Talking with this pleasant couple taught me again that the ability to talk baseball at a bar or even in a major league ballpark doesn’t translate to spring training. When one batter came to the plate, the woman commented that he had had a lot of trouble yesterday with the knuckleballer. I replied, “That’s right, what was his name?”, not wanting to let on that I had no idea who she was talking about. The woman opened up a notebook she had been keeping, which appeared to be her own way of keeping score. It contained a number of scrawlings and symbols that presumably added up to a narrative of what she found important during the game. She found the name “Julioos” (spelled phonetically, so she could remember how to pronounce it) in an isolated spot on the page, and she apologized to me because, despite her efforts, she still wasn’t sure she was pronouncing it correctly.
The scene at the practice fields today was spring training at its best: fans had their choice between evaluating players they may never see again and participating in a conversation with popular relief pitchers Steve Kline and Jason Isringhausen, who held court along a nearby fence. One woman, who seemed to consider herself a close personal friend of Kline’s, recounted that he talked about wanting to perform well so that he can stay in St. Louis, which is the thing Cardinals fans look forward to hearing more than anything else.
Along the rail inside the stadium today I met a pair of boys, the younger of whom seemed to be on a constant sugar high. In between repeatedly stealing his brother’s hat and trying to write on me with his Sharpie, he talked about all the autographs he had collected and what he knew about the team. When an usher came by to distribute free baseball cards, this kid was practically falling over the rail trying to grab at them.
Unbridled optimism has long been the staple of spring training, and it seems to be most pronounced in the youngest and oldest baseball fans. After I had finished talking with my Little League friends, who spoke as if anyone wearing the “birds on a bat” jersey was a superhero, I talked with two retired women, one from Florida and one from St. Louis. They were both Cardinals fans, but their love of the ballclub came from having experienced so many ups and downs with the team. Whereas the children awed at the Cardinals from a distance, these women, as well as many similar people I met, exuded a closeness to the team and the city that fed positive predictions for the upcoming season. Having experienced my fair share of jaded sports fans, it was heartening to be reminded that prolonged exposure to a sports culture can have the opposite effect as well.
There was one common thread that ran through everyone I met at spring training, apart from the fact that they were all huge baseball fans: they all kept coming back to spring training multiple times. And based on my experience this week, I have to say that the same will be true of me soon enough.
© 2004 Daniel Lauve