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Baseball Mon Mar 28 2011

Spring Training: What a Wonderful World

city of palms park crop.PNG

City of Palms Park, Fort Myers, Fla.

My annual spring training trips began by accident.

Five years ago, I took a spring break trip to south Florida to decompress after midterms. A family friend offered a spare ticket for a Minnesota Twins game and off I went to a baseball game in February, which seemed unnatural. The ice and snow were still thick up north, but I was sitting in a stadium chair with the warm sun beating on my face.

Baseball in spring was wonderful.

Every year since, while my peers saved up to seek trouble and skirt the law at spring break hot spots, I saved for a plane ticket to spring training. My accidental baseball vacation became a rite of passage that this year blossomed into a full month at Grapefruit League spring training.

You might not understand my love for spring training unless you've experienced it yourself. It's hard to explain; it's definitely different than regular season baseball.

For one, the ballparks are more intimate. I've earned plenty of kinks in my neck from upper level seats at major league stadiums, but the spring isn't like that. Seats are close enough to hear the chatter on the field, the crack of the bat, the calls of the umpires.

There are no T-shirt cannons, walk-up songs or million-dollar scoreboards with McGriddles races. Instead of pep squads, the ushers enthusiastically lead the fans through the seventh inning stretch, with geriatric gestures in time with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

It's baseball the way my grandparents watched it: in small ballparks where the game itself -- or maybe the pastoral Americana atmosphere -- is the spectacle everyone is there to see.

The players sign autographs before and after games and even interact with the fans during the game, something that would never be permitted when the games really count. Children get the chance to run the bases following the games, and front-office staffers walk around the stadium interacting with the fans, shaking hands and kissing babies like politicians.

The game itself can be frustrating, since winning is not the focus. Pitchers have rough outings, but remain in the game to "get their work in." Closers give up eight runs because they're working on fixing their mechanics or trying out a new pitch and no one panics. Prospects get the opportunity to make a name for themselves, hoping to leave an impression on the coaches and fans before the season begins. The biggest competition of spring training is making the roster, not winning games.

Perhaps the best part of spring training is the people I've met.

Usually at games I sit quietly, alone with my scorebook and a cold beer, occasionally engaging in conversation about the weather, where I'm from or players most fans don't know. ("Who is Rich Hill, and where did he come from?")

One game this spring was different.

An older woman was seated next to me with her adult son. I said hello when I took their seats next to me, then continued to fill out the lineups on my scorecard.

Once the game had started, the lady tapped me on the arm to make sure I had put on sunscreen. I noticed her accent immediately -- German, but she spoke English beautifully.

Throughout the game, she told me about her life (she had just turned 76 and was a retired seamstress) and her children (three sons she had brought to America from Germany in 1963).

As I kept score, she told me that she had always wanted to learn, but her husband had never taught her. I spent the game intently marking up my sheet with strikeouts and base hits, and explained the notations I used for each. She asked about my love of baseball, and I inquired about hers.

She told me she first heard baseball on the radio when she moved to America and every night she would sit with her husband and children in their sitting room and listen to the nightly broadcasts. The games were more than just baseball for her family. They were a way to learn English as they settled in a foreign land.

When she got up to stretch her legs in the fifth inning, her son thanked me for my patience with his mother, somewhat embarrassed that she had talked my ear off. I assured him that she reminded me of my own grandmother, who passed away a few years ago, and I was very interested in her stories.

As the game ended, I thanked her for the company and for sharing her stories with me. She apologized that my team had lost the game. As she stood to leave, I handed her the scorecard from the game that we had worked on together. She thanked me profusely for what she considered such a kind gift, and showed it to her son.

She smiled. We said our goodbyes as we left Section 104.

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min. / March 29, 2011 5:12 PM

Way to go Cee. I'm sure you made her day, if not her trip. Grandma-type ladies are the best.

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