Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cathcing the Boys of Summer in the Spring

While the NFL owners and players haggle over television revenue and the length of the regular season, I temporarily traded in my Saints hat for a Houston Astros cap to catch a bit of Major League Baseball spring training.

Spring Training takes place in two of the country’s outstanding vacation destinations, Florida and Arizona. Now for the uninitiated, the latter might conjure images of a coyote on rocket skates chasing a swift blue bird though the Grand Canyon State has more to offer than just…the Grand Canyon (though that alone is a pretty big deal- pun intended).

In addition to having year-round warm weather, southern Arizona has some of the best golf courses in the country and is home to a number of swanky spa resorts. Another added bonus is that the spring training camps are closer to each other in the Cactus League (the sobriquet for the Arizona-based facilities) than they are in the Grapefruit League (Florida).

After leaving my 9 to 5 (technically 8:30 to 4:30) two weeks ago, I jumped in my truck and was east bound and down to the Astros training facility in Kississimmee, which is just southeast of Orlando, about a 10 hour and $5 toll drive from New Orleans.

Having never been to a Spring Training game, I didn’t know what to expect.

One way to describe it as watching major league players hit and field at minor league prices…with a few exceptions.

The Astros facility charged $7 to park out in an open field and while walking up to the stadium, a scalper (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call him a “knee skinner” since there’s only so much profit that can generated on this scale) warned me that my section 200 ticket was “far away” from the field.

Despite that pitch, I kept my cheap ticket and my money, since the best way to enjoy spring training is standing up.

Upon entering the stadium I saw that the “nosebleed” $15 tickets were a mere dozen steps from the main concourse. After looking at the chair, I walked towards the concourse adjacent to left field.

One of best aspects about the Spring Training experience is the close degree of interacting fans can have with the players and staff, though I’m not talking about the Susan Sarandon-type from Bull Durham, though the baseball groupies are most conspicuous.

The smaller stadium provides accessibility between the fans and the pros that’s unthinkable in a major league stadium. The crowds are less than 10% of a regular season game. For instance, there were 3,442 in attendance at Saturday’s game and 4,117 on Sunday.

The dugout is only marginally removed from the stands and the bullpen consists of a narrow strip of dirt between the meter-high stadium wall and the first and third base lines. The coaches, catchers and relief pitchers warm up only a few feet away from the fans, allowing for banter.

And because the starters generally don’t play a full game, unless they’re just coming back from injury, they typically retire to the clubhouse early down a path where fans can talk to them and score autographs.

Granted the Astros facility is probably fan friendlier (and emptier- half of those in attendance on the Saturday and Sunday games were sporting the opposing teams’ gear) than the New York Yankees training camp in Tampa, I saw practically every starter who are still part of the team from last season’s line-up interact with the fans over the two day period.

One notable exception was retired first baseman Jeff Bagwell who told fans he would accommodate their autograph requests shortly after a visit to the clubhouse though the maybe-future-hall of famer never returned.

The most accessible person in uniform was team manager Brad Mills. Despite being on the losing end of two big losses, Mills exhibited the patience of Job and talked with everyone lined up near the clubhouse, signing every baseball, baseball card and poster until every fan, collector and eBay seller got his or her fill.

For die-hard baseball fans, a weekend visit to either the Grapefruit League or the Cactus League should find its way to a “life list” along with pilgrimages to Cooperstown, Wrigley, Fenway and Chavez Ravine.

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