It had been several years, too many in fact, since my last journey to Florida for a weekend of spring training.
I’d been to most of the longtime haunts for preseason baseball — Clearwater, Fort Myers, West Palm (when it had the Braves), Fort Lauderdale, Winter Haven (where a buddy still gives me flak for not seeing Mark McGwire launch a home run into the parking lot because I was too busy keeping score) — but I hadn’t been to Lakeland or Vero Beach. This year, I made amends.
I got to witness Dontrelle Willis vs. C.C. Sabathia at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, home of the Detroit Tigers for more than 70 years. I saw a Detroit lineup that has no outs. When Ivan Rodriguez is batting leadoff, you know your batting order packs a punch. Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera were the 4 and 5 hitters. Ouch.
There were a whole lot of Michigan plates, and a few Ohio ones, in the parking lot, making our Georgia tag kinda stick out. Those folks were so pasty and pale, we looked like George Hamilton by comparison. And talk about accents. That sharp, upper Midwestern accent can be a little harsh on the ears at first, if you hadn’t heard it in a while.
But I enjoyed Joker Marchant and Lakeland — which has a beautiful downtown area that we discovered quite by accident since we didn’t know where we were going — and made me wonder why I had waited so long to go there. Gotta admit I didn’t enjoy the drive down I-4 past what seemed to be the never-ending horizon of Orlando, its hotels and theme parks. Thankfully, it was already midnight as we zipped through. Can’t imagine what that place would be like during rush hour.
The drive from west central Florida to the Space Coast/Treasure Coast reminded me that Florida has a whole lot of empty room. It was cattle farms, orange groves and sod farms for miles. And lots of bad radio stations.
The trip to Vero enabled me to catch up with some very dear friends of the family who have lived there for three decades. Talk about a wild time — nothing like a 1-year-old’s birthday party for a hot Saturday night in Vero. But it was reassuring to see my friends and most of their kids and grandkids.
Vero has long been regarded as the premier spring training stop, and after last Sunday, I saw why. The players sit in the baking sun, just like the fans, and the Dodgers had “Meet the Dodgers Day” before the game, with players lined up down both base lines to meet fans, sign autographs and have pictures taken. By the way, Andruw Jones looks pretty thick around the middle. Looks more like a fullback than a center fielder.
It’s the Dodgers’ last year in Vero. They’ve been there for 60 years, and they’re pulling out for Arizona. They’re pulling out early, too, since they have preseason games in China to play, so the generations of fans who have gone to Holman Stadium and the former Navy air training center turned into spring training paradise only have about a week left of watching the team.
It’s too bad. You can really feel and sense the connection between the team, the fans and the community there.
Both games were sellouts. We remembered how when we first went down to spring training, it was easy to get tickets. It was still a fairly lightly attended event, aside from the locals and a few hardcore fans who took a winter vacation in Florida. Now? Good luck finding a ticket for any Red Sox preseason game, home or away. And ticket prices are rapidly approaching those of regular season games.
But if you get there early enough, or go to the right spots, you can see a minor league workout or one of the “B” games with major leaguers who didn’t make a trip to an away game.
The biggest complaint had to do with Florida’s roads. I’m on I-95 enough to know that if there is a slow car in front of me in the left lane, nine times out of 10, it has a Florida tag. And if someone is doing their best Bill Elliott imitation in the middle or right lanes, it’s the same odds they sport a Florida license plate. Plus, on our way out of Vero, we followed the signs back to 95 — right to a utility easement road that allowed us to see the interstate but gave us no way to get back on it. Then, on 95 in Jacksonville, they closed the right lane. Then they closed the left lane, a few feet after they reopened the right lane. Brilliant.
I won’t have the time to head back to the Sunshine State for any more spring training, but roads, drivers and urban sprawl aside, I’m not waiting 10 years again to go back down there.