Spring training’s annual blessings and warm memories
In West Virginia and Maryland spring can be called to the calendar by the happy songs of the first robins.
It’s a different group of birds that bring the annual rites of spring to places in Florida and Arizona . . . places where the Grapefruit League and the Cactus League nurture the month’s worth of baseball games known as Spring Training.
“Snow Birds” from New York state and the upper midwest where they’ve fled the ravages of wind, snow, and slate gray skies to see major league baseball and feel air that doesn’t numb their senses. And sea gulls, crows and sparrows that find the left-over hot dog buns, scattered remains of a child’s popcorn and crumbs from potato chips all over Florida. And pigeons and starlings that dominate the just-emptied stands where 15 more teams stand in Arizona.
It’s spring training all over again. Spring training for the masses . . . for the amusement of the masses.
Each team has its formal traditions. Pitchers and catchers report before the outfielders, infielders, designated hitters and those with minor league contracts.
Fans with long memories come to the games. The senior citizens come in all sizes and shapes . . . wearing Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and their team’s baseball cap. They smell of coconut oil and have their tickets to the 4:30 p.m. early-bird, blue plate special at their favorite eateries.
The women in attendance generally know more than the men about their favorite teams. Players’ ages, marital status, children’s names and where they attended college. To nearly everybody, the games are more important than what is happening to Jack Abbott, Victor Newman and Nickie on “All My Children,” a soap opera sometimes as wild as the Red Sox clubhouse.
Injuries will crop up and toward the middle of March trades are generally made. Rookies can make impressions that are often clothed in smoke, mirrors and rose-colored glasses. Old timers (ages 34-to-37) grasp after the 25th place on any team’s Opening Day roster.
Any team’s new faces are scrutinized more than are the seven-year starters. Pitchers find themselves with ERA’s of 18.75 while they were “working on new pitches.”
All the focus is on being ready when “the bell rings” in early April and getting wins when “the games count”.
It wasn’t too long ago that there weren’t any teams in Arizona. Now there are 15 . . . the same number that call Florida “The spring home of the Orioles or Nationals or Yankees or Red Sox.”
Dodgertown was famous in Vero Beach. The Brooklyn Dodgers once had 23 minor league teams and supplanting the likes of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and Sandy Koufax wasn’t going to happen.
Teams didn’t always bring their caravans to Florida.
During World War II and even earlier there were baseball training bases in Wilmington, Delaware, Dawson Springs, Kentucky, Atlantic City, San Francisco, Houston and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Birmingham’s legendary Rickwood Field was the spring home of the Phillies in 1920 and the Pirates in 1919. Hot Springs in Arkansas, Evansville and Muncie in Indiana hosted spring pilgrimages as well the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana that housed the Dodgers in 1947 and the Pirates in 1953.
Spring training has its special meaning to millions.
Bare feet in the stands. Unscheduled naps after a couple hot dogs and a cold soda. Shirtless to get some sun. And off in the distance can be heard the still-faint sound of “play ball” coming from the first week in April when some games will be stung by snow showers and brutal winds that never attacked in Fort Myers, Tempe or Sarasota.