Why A Trip To Spring Training Should Be On Your Bucket List
Here's a little tip for you.
No, it's not about politics. First of all, I have no tips about politics; and, secondly, you probably wouldn't pay any attention to them if I did.
This is a tip you can take to the bank.
This is a tip about baseball, which most people around town will tell you is a subject I know quite a bit about.
Whether or not you are a casual or hardcore fan a half-step from complete obsession like me, you must do this at least once in your life.
Shuffle it up to the top of your bucket list:
You must take a trip someday to Florida or Arizona for baseball's spring training.
I've been to spring training about 30 times since 1982, mostly in Florida at the Reds' spring training camps at Tampa, Plant City, Sarasota, and, now, Goodyear, Ariz.
I must confess – I much prefer Florida and its Grapefruit League baseball to Arizona and the Cactus League. Desert versus Gulf of Mexico. I'll take the Gulf any day.
But that's just me.
There is no better vacation for the baseball fan.
So many good memories.
Spring of 1985. Al Lopez Field in Tampa, home of the Reds. I caught my first foul ball off the bat of Reds' journeyman outfielder Max Venable. That's so long ago that Max's son Will has had his own long major league career and is now a coach with the Cubs.
Springtime at Al Lopez Field. Every once in a while, I would be lucky enough to sit with a Reds legend, Johnny Vander Meer, who threw no-hitters in back-to-back starts in 1938. Johnny was retired in Tampa and spent nearly every day at the ball park, and I would often sit and soak up the sunshine and his wisdom on the art and science of pitching.
And there was one glorious day in the spring of 2008 when I went to Clearwater and bought a ticket behind home plate for a game between the Phillies and the Reds.
After a while, a silver-haired gentleman, a big fellow, sat down next to me. I did a double-take – it was none other than Dallas Green, the former Phillies manager who led the Phils to their first World Series championship in 1980.
The Reds had a young Dominican pitching phenom on the mound that day; a kid named Johnny Cueto. I sat there through Cueto's four innings on the mound, talking to Dallas, who has since passed away, about this kid the Reds were about to bring up.
Mark my word, Dallas said. This kid's got it. Going to be a star.
You can bet I marked his word.
One of my best memories of Al Lopez Field came on one of my early jaunts to Florida. I showed up at the ball park early in the morning, while minor leaguers and major leaguers were both working out on the practice fields.
One of the Reds' true legends, Ted Kluszewski, the powerful slugger of the 1950s, was in camp, helping with hitting instruction.
Klu was working with a bunch of minor leaguers at a batting cage; I stood around and watched.
The pitching machine was acting badly – it went crazy and started throwing balls way inside on right-handed hitters and way outside on lefties. It was totally unhittable.
Klu saw the problem – the mechanical arm was bent. He looked around and saw me standing there.
"Hey buddy, do me a favor; come here for a minute," Klu hollered.
I was stunned. The Mighty Klu was talking to me!
I came over and he let me in the cage. We walked over to the pitching machine.
Now, I want you to get down and hold this thing down for me, Klu said. Hold it down good and tight.
I knelt down and held the machine steady with all my might. As I did, I looked up and I saw those massive Klu biceps – the biceps that had intimidated many a major league pitcher – as he grabbed the mechanical arm and began pushing it in his huge fists.
He actually bent the metal back into the proper position. With his bare hands.
Thanks, buddy, Klu said, and the pitching machine worked perfectly fine after that.
Then there was the day in 1986 when the Reds left Tampa for a road trip to the Atlantic Coast.
I stayed behind and decided to go to Al Lang Stadium, a beautiful little ballpark on the bay in St. Petersburg. It was then the spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and they were playing the Houston Astros that day.
I got to the ball park early (of course) and was sitting there soaking up the Florida sunshine, watching the Astros take batting and field practice.
There, on the other side of the field, was the legendary Hall of Famer, the master of malaprops, Yogi Berra, wearing an Astros uniform and hitting fungos to the outfielders.
The former Yankees catcher and manager was beginning his first and only season as an Astros coach.
Yogi, of course, was famous for his mixed-up phrases, such as the time someone asked him what time it was. "You mean now?" Yogi said. Or his famous, "Nobody comes here anymore because it’s too crowded."
I don't ordinarily go chasing ballplayers around the ball park for autographs.
But I make an exception for Hall of Famers.
I walked over to the other side of the field and positioned myself by the steps into the Astros dugout. After waiting for a while, Yogi called in the fielders and started loping off the field toward the dugout.
Hey Yogi, I yelled, would you sign my scorecard?
Yeah, sure, Yogi said. I reached down and handed him the scorecard and a pen.
While he was scribbling, I tried to make some conversation.
Yogi, it seems strange seeing you not wearing pinstripes, I said.
Yogi tugged at the rainbow Astros jersey.
Yeah, it fits good, but it's too tight.
I had actually elicited a Yogi-ism. And there was no one else there to hear it!
But, for me, it was the high point of a lifetime of baseball fandom.
And the best memory of a meaningless spring training game on a March afternoon I could ever have.
Take a trip to spring training next year. You might have one of those moments too.
Maybe even better.