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There aren’t many words that can immediately make me think of bright sunshine on a dreary, rainy Sunday morning.
But there they were on the schedule of today's sporting events: “Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, FL, 1:05 PM.”
That's the site of the Washington Nationals’ first spring training game of the year today against the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was only two years ago in a world that feels like it's now thousands of miles away that my cell phone rang. “Hey,” said the voice of my oldest friend Doug from the high temps and humidity of Southern Mississippi, “have you ever wanted to go to spring training?”
Of course I did, as every kid who has ever thrown a baseball or swung a bat wanted to back in the day. But on the spur of the moment, you drive to a fast food joint or head to the grocery store. You don’t just pack up one day and head to West Palm Beach.
But Doug was ready. “I’ve booked the hotel, I’ve gotten a rental car and I’ve got a plane reservation in front of me from Dulles to Charlotte where we can meet, then we’ll fly the rest of the way together,” he said. “All you have to do is say yes.”
He had, in the words of The Godfather, made me an offer I could not refuse.
A few days later we arrived late at night in West Palm. The next morning we went to the The Ballpark Of The Palm Beaches (the home park of the Nationals) to buy tickets for the rest of the week, then headed up the road about 30 minutes to Jupiter to see the Nats play the Florida Marlins.
It was as relaxing and peaceful a day as I had experienced in many years. The Florida sun was bright, but versus the snow I had left in Ashburn, was the perfect temperature. People were friendly, the pace of life was casual, and you might as well have owned the facility as your private stadium. As the usher told us when we entered his section, “the Marlins don’t draw many for their regular-season games in their big ball park. I seriously doubt they’ll be showing up here for a spring training game.”
We ended up spread out in seats near the field but under a canopy to protect us from the sun. It was like a little league game of your youth, where you could hear every crack of the bat, every conversation between coaches and players, and feel like a kid again. If I could have written a script for what I thought being at spring training would be like, this would have been it.
It was one perfect afternoon.
We would stay the week, see the Nationals many times, eat some good and not so good meals, and drive all over that section of Florida to see what else was there. At one point we passed a rather large entrance of a huge estate, realizing we were driving into the entrance of Mar-a-Lago, and when we got on our plane to go home, I looked out the window and recognized off in the distance a distinctive aircraft that was Air Force One.
I would only go to games twice that year. The first was those spring training games, and to be honest, I flew home thoroughly unimpressed with the Nationals. I loved the experience of being there, I didn’t love what I saw on the field. The Nats then started the season in similar fashion, going 19-31 in their first 50 games.
Things changed. The skies cleared. Miracles happened. The only other game I would attend would be as good or better a memory: Game 3 of The World Series, the first time the Nationals would appear on such a stage at home in their history. Like the spring training performance, it was a clunker, as all three home games would be.
But on the final night Major League Baseball would be played for the year, the season that started with one perfect afternoon ended with one perfect clang off the foul pole by Howie Kendrick, and Nationals fans knew in their hearts as he rounded the bases that this was the winning hit. The Nats would be World Champions.
Compared to then, not a lot has been normal in this world since. But seeing the name of Roger Dean Stadium takes me back to that warm, peaceful afternoon in Jupiter, FL, when a wonderful story with a miracle ending started without any of us even noticing.
It’s really the magic of spring training and baseball. Hope starts anew.
And continues to rekindle memories that warm an old man’s heart.
You checked off a bucket list item with that adventure that I suspect is near the top of every sports fan's list. To do it it with an old friend is the only way. I really envy you about that trip.
Let's just say memories were recalled, lies were told, and at least for a few days in the Florida sun, we were college kids again....