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I just finished a week in West Palm Beach, FL watching spring training. Great weather, good baseball, wonderful people, and as close to having days where you don’t have a care in the world as you will probably ever experience.
But if you look closer, you may see more. Like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” I think I also got to see my past, present and future.
The under-rated aspect of spring training is the people. All are bonded by one common interest – baseball – and one of the greatest aspects of following sports are great stories and great memories. Sit next to someone in spring training and ask a question about baseball, and in a matter of minutes you’re like family. You have shared experiences through the sport, in both good times and heartbreak.
There are exceptions – I’m looking at you Boston Red Sox fans – but by and large, the rest of us fans who haven’t enjoyed something like 137 titles in three sports over the last 15 years don’t speak with a spirit of superiority. This leads to some great conversations.
The spirit of baseball past started for us from the very first game. My oldest and best friend Doug and I drove to Jupiter to see the Nats play the Marlins. I learned if you want to have great seats, go to a game involving your favorite team and the Marlins. They don’t show up for regular season games, so they show up even less for spring training games. Buy the cheapest ticket to get in, and then you can have your pick of any seat in the stadium.
We sat under the covered area that was even with third base. A few innings into the game, a young man named Codey took a seat right behind us. He was a student at Ball State and he was a sportswriter, writing for the student newspaper. A group of students from Ball State had headed down to spring training for the experience of it, and he was looking for story angles.
As I also worked my way through my final two years at Virginia Tech as a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper called the Blacksburg Sun, I couldn’t help but think “this kid is me 40-plus years ago.” As a result, the first thing we did was feed him. They had come down to Florida from Indiana with as many crammed into a car as possible, sleeping four to a cheap hotel room, and I was pretty sure the simple pleasure of a $6 hot dog was not in his budget. I know 1977 Dave would have appreciated it.
We spoke of baseball in the 60s and 70s, as Doug and I talked of following Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and many more that were probably ancient history to him. We talked about Bryce Harper going to the Phillies. I talked with him about sportswriting as a career, gave him all the advice I could without sounding like his Dad (my own father’s advice had been to give up sportswriting, come home, drive a truck and make more money), and because he’s a Ball State alum, even talked about David Letterman.
After a few innings, he left to pursue other conversations. Two sportswriting baseball fans of different generations, passing in the bright Florida sun.
Baseball present appeared the next two days. Tuesday, the Nats played the Boston Red Sox as their fans packed the stadium beyond capacity, and the next day we watched the Houston Astros play the Marlins again on a day so cold by Florida standards, it reminded me of watching a game at San Francisco's old Candlestick Park in July.
But it was that cold that allowed me to experience a moment I’ve always wanted to be part of at a baseball game. I’ve been to a thousand games…but never caught a foul ball. Because it was so cold, I went to the Stadium store and bought a long sleeve Nats T-shirt as another layer against the conditions. It was easily worth about $12, but the Nats graciously sold it to me for $50.
Walking out of the store onto the concourse, I heard the sound of a baseball hitting concrete. A father and young son were chasing it, but as it caromed off the store, it landed in my hands. As I looked at the ball, I could also see the disappointed look of a young man with a glove who immediately turned to run away. I called out to him to come back. “Don’t you want this?” I asked.
It’s the law if you’re a Dad. All foul balls go to the nearest kid with a glove. No exceptions. After then seeing that disappointed look turn to a smile, I went back into the team store, where they graciously sold me a brand new ball. For $10. Now we each had one.
Baseball past and future came on Thursday, our final day before flying home Friday. The Nats played the Mets and our seats were in the middle of a group of elderly Mets fans who appeared to be in their 80s. Before the first pitch, I made conversation with the fan next to me, and we struck up an instant friendship.
Turns out this was a group of friends who grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. They all grew up together, went to high school together, probably moved down to Florida together. And the men in the group were big baseball fans.
That they were from Bay Ridge had particular significance to me. While many know the place because of the movie “Saturday Night Fever” in the 70s, my mother and her family immigrated from Norway to Brooklyn and lived in….Bay Ridge. They lived in a small brownstone there, and as it turned out, the two guys I was talking to grew up only a few streets over. They could have very well crossed paths with my mother or her family many years ago.
They talked of the Mets’ first year in 1962 and how bad they were. But what they really remembered was why the Mets existed in the first place: they were Brooklyn Dodger fans and all these years later, it still ignites emotion talking about them leaving for Los Angeles. I mentioned my mother was not a baseball or sports fan, but had great memories of the Dodgers and Ebbets Field as a child, was sorely disappointed when they left, and has and always will hate the Yankees.
They laughed while agreeing with all of that, then started telling stories of the Dodgers. How they all lived in the neighborhood, and Gil Hodges lived just a few doors down from one. How it was easy to sneak in a game as a kid if you climbed the shorter fence just behind left field. How they could name all the starters even to this day and spoke of them as if they were family.
The script had been flipped. Just as I talked with Codey about baseball memories long gone, these guys were doing the same to me. Now I was the kid. And enjoying every minute.
As the game ended, I saw baseball future. My new friends slowly got up, and their battle with time and old age was apparent. They were the Boys of Summer, well into autumn. I winced as I watched them experience every ache and pain trying to make it up the steps to the concourse.
But as they were leaving, they reminded each other of getting together next Wednesday at the driving range to hit some golf balls. They struggled to walk, but they were living life like a baseball game: there is no clock in the sport. You keep playing until they get you out.
I can only hope their future, as well as mine, goes many extra innings.
All while remembering to enjoy every pitch along the way.