Homers, Homeboys, and Freezing in Florida: A Spring Training Odyssey
It’s early March 1993. The place is Lakeland, Florida and the temperature is hovering around 40 with 25 MPH winds around 5PM.
I’m 13-years-old, in an 80’s-era shopping mall Dillard’s, looking for a jacket and long pants. I have far better prospects than my father, who would like to look like a man of 47 at the end of this adventure, which he is, versus a teenager, which his cold-weather wardrobe options might suggest.
The shopping was essential, because I had to see the game that night. It was essential I see the creaking edifice that was the Tiger’s spring training home in Lakeland. Not because I was a huge fan – although their uniforms were then and remain my favorite in all of baseball. Not because it was a great game – just wait for this one. But because I had to see that game for the same reason Edmund Hillary had to climb Everest – it was there. I had never been. Thus, it was another stadium to check off a list that would, per my 13-year-old mind, include every major and minor league stadium in America. Ah, youth.
We ended up with some very stylish early 90’s colors going on, as I remember, while we watched the Detroit Tigers D-squad take on a local college squad. Memory says it was Central Florida, but my brain was pickled in watered down sodas and unseasonably frigid temperatures. There were – literally, because I counted – 23 fans in the stadium. The tickets were the same kind you get at a carnival, with the notch at each end and serrated edges, marked with 50 cents on one side, I believe. The ticket takers sat bundled up against the unseasonable gale, in lawn chairs, next to the single open gate at home plate. Their cash register was a small fireproof metal box. Combined, they had to be at least 150 years old.
I carry only mental snapshots from that game, as there were no cell phones, and the only portable cameras were bought at drug stores and would never have captured a shot in that putrid light, anyways. I remember Chad Kreuter, former Ranger, was the only name I knew, and despite my efforts, I’ve still not managed to find a box score to see if any future Tigers from the desolate mid-90’s squads might have played that day. I remember the odd contrast of the college ping and the major league crack of dueling aluminum and wood bats. I remember having to almost whisper to my dad; see, in an entirely empty minor league stadium, with gale force winds, sound carries a long ways, and at 13, you don’t want to risk interrupting major leaguers while they play their trade.
I remember the cold. I’d swear it was 18 degrees, although I know from research it was in the low 40’s, with a colder wind chill, and I was bundled well against it – style notwithstanding. Still, and amazingly, it was the coldest I’ve ever been watching big league players. Including the October World Series in 2010 and the LCS games in 2011 in Arlington. Including late summer games with the wind off the lake at Wrigley. And even including late August in San Francisco.
It was Florida. In March. Mother Nature was belly laughing.
A few days (and many degrees) later, we are in Plant City, Florida. The Reds are hosting damned-if-I-can-remember, and it really doesn’t matter. The show wasn’t on the field.
In the stands – a far cry from Lakeland, for these were half full – Dad and I sat with a group of 60-something men. These were clearly spring training regulars, but weren’t “kitted out” in Reds gear; they just knew to keep a steady flow of beer and dogs between them, and chatted as if they’d been doing this for decades together. This trio was great, and by the time the game was a couple innings in, we’d bonded over baseball – baseball, and a common fatigue of Batting Helmet Man.
You see, behind us – literally, one row behind us – sat Batting Helmet Man. His moniker would be earned in about the 6th inning, when he returned to his seat from yet ANOTHER beer run wearing a kids plastic Reds batting helmet backwards on his big head.
His name was of the moment; his legend will live forever.
Batting Helmet Man, you see, has the kind of foghorn voice that would make Hilda Chester proud (Google her, if you don’t get me, as I know the Dodgers left Brooklyn a lifetime ago). Batting Helmet Man also has beer. Oh, dear God in heaven, has he got beer. One of two things had to have happened. Either he roamed from vendor to vendor, or he sent a myriad of lackeys to buy his suds; barring those explanations, he was knowingly over-served by – estimating conservatively here – at least four plastic cups worth of Bud. The man didn’t have decreased inhibitions; by this time, his inhibitions had left the parking lot and were at least halfway of Orlando.
And so, with foghorn voice and sodden brain, Batting Helmet Man proceeded to entertain us.
I can’t remember half of what he said, but I remember for at least five innings, we did nothing but crack up. My 13-year-old self only understood half of what he said – blue would be a fair way of putting the jokes, although he managed to reel it in enough to keep from getting tossed.
Somewhere in the middle innings, Batting Helmet Man had his moment.
Reggie Sanders, who had hit some epic shots out in batting practice, came up.
Now, well beyond Plant City Stadium, but within view from behind home plate, ran the interstate, with a prominent overpass where the street that led to the stadium bisected the highway. That mental image matters here. For as Reggie Sanders stepped up in what I believe was the fifth or sixth inning, and as the crowds subtle applause died down, the foghorn voice of Batting Helmet Man echoed down the rows and across home plate.
“TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE, HOMEBOY!” This echoed, you have to understand, throughout the entire stadium. You’d have had to have been under a running diesel not to hear it.
Now, we could read racism into this – Mr. Sanders is African American, and Batting Helmet Man, as would befit someone who wears a plastic mini batting helmet and drinks gallons of ballpark beer, was Florida sunburned but definitely of a whiter persuasion. But I choose not to, because Mr. Sanders did not, and because there’s no room for black and white in colorful memories.
Instead, Reggie did what every other person who could hear the cry did: widen his eyes, then laugh. Hard. And proceed, as one is not wanting to do when facing a major league pitcher with tears of laughter in his eyes, to strike out. Sadly, the bridge was safe from a Sanders bomb, and no one threatened it that day. Not even, to my knowledge, Batting Helmet Man, who disappeared around the 7th inning. We assume he didn’t drive, because others left with him, and because walking was barely within his mechanical capabilities by then.
But this exchange opened my Dad up for an epic moment, one which I remember to this day. It happened only because of the close-knit nature of spring training, with stadiums dozens, rather than hundreds, of miles apart.
And so it was, at a Red Sox game in Fort Myers, that Dad’s epic moment arrived. Because those three 60-something men had also made their way to Ft. Myers, and were waiting at a concession stand for food when Dad spotted them. As I sat, probably watching Jose Canseco and the Rangers warm up, my Dad found his opening. Creeping up behind our three Plant City bleacher buddies, he dropped his voice to an octave only they might hear. And he whisper-shouted:
“TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE, HOMEBOY!”
As he tells it – and my father never exaggerates, let alone fibs – one of the men all but clutched the left side of his chest and yelled, “Oh Dear God, HE’S BACK.”
Laughter and back slaps ensued. Canseco hit an epic bomb into the parking lot beyond left. Mo Vaughn peppered our section with fouls, but I never came up with one. And Andre Dawson, then on his last legs and one of his last teams, the Sox – hit one of the longest home runs I have ever seen, over the batters eye in center.
Doubtlessly, it was off someone who would be serving McDonalds instead of gopher balls in three months, but in that moment, a hero transformed from twilight to highlight.
Welcome to the rites of Spring Training—baseball nirvana, be it citrus- or cactus-laden.
Spring training presents an epic opportunity to see greatness de-stressed and geographically compressed; if you have a chance to go, don’t think, just do it. I’ll recommend Arizona over Florida, only because the teams are so close within metro Phoenix, but even in Florida, the worst you do is drive a few hours across the state. Come to think of it, now that the Dodgers have left Vero Beach, you can largely reside on the gulf coast side and never have to go further east than Orlando to see all the teams you could want in the Sunshine state.
Within the span of two separate weeks across two Florida springs in 1992 and 1993, and another week in Arizona in 2011, I saw all of the above, plus:
- Pre-steroids Barry Bonds ranging across the outfield in one of the truly quaint spring training destinations – McKechnie Field in Bradenton, which opened 90 years ago and feels every bit its age.
- Nolan Ryan throw a bullpen before the game.
It was amazing. The man worked incredibly hard and showed amazing focus, even warming up. It was like watching a conductor preparing a symphony for a rock opera. That short step back and long leg kick were somehow graceful, then the tall-and-fall explosion towards the plate held an incredible fury.
And the ball didn’t spin as much as hiss towards the plate; it literally sounded mean. From where we were – about 15-20 feet above Nolan, on the ramp near the pen heading into Port Charlotte stadium – you could get a sense of what the batter had to feel: fear.
- Pete Incaviglia take one of the most cacophonous batting practice sessions I’ve ever seen, in St. Petersburg before a Phillies game. He was well past the mid-80s masher that terrorized Stillwater and broke holes in the old stadium fence at the Rangers spring complex his rookie year.
But he was still gargantuan when it came to 5 O’clock lightning. For pure power in a vacuum, even the past-his-prime Inky was epic that day. Against the backdrop of an empty ballpark, he had to have hit 12 bombs across three BP rounds, and at least one threatened the landing pattern of the local municipal airport on Tampa Bay.
- A Rangers-Padres game with a team destined for a second World Series trip, in 2011, highlighted by the incredibly nice fans and game staff in Surprise – who recommended an epic Italian place for my postgame dinner – and a mammoth homer by Josh Hamilton (the shot below is the moment just before the shot took off).
- The most beautiful spring training complex I’ve yet to see – Salt River Fields at Talking Stick – and the incredible in-game presentation of the Rockies.
I loved walking around that stadium before the game. It has a walking path through the desert area, leading down to the training and minor league fields, and there’s an almost meditative feel.
One of the truly good men in baseball, Keli McGregor – one of the faceless heroes who keeps the game running, day in and day out – was honored here with various spots bearing his initials and quotes about him.
I remember being struck by the utter goodness of an organization that deemed to pay tribute in such a permanent way to a man who never took the field for the team, never made a headline – indeed, who was unknown but for his untimely young death.
And from that moment, I’ve never forgotten Keli’s name. For that simple yet tremendously deep and decent tribute, the Rockies will always be my second-favorite team.
That St. Pete moment is my favorite, across all those springs. The echoing sounds of the ballpark. The quiet lapping of the waves in the bay. The mosquito hum of planes landing out past foul territory in left. The sun-drenched contrast of the field against the shadows of the bench seats behind home plate.
It’s a memory that will always mean spring – that staccato crack of Inky’s bat breaking the sunny Florida mid-day tranquility and, somehow, adding to my mind’s painting of perfection.