When my husband, two adult sons and I travel to Dunedin, Florida, the spring home of the Toronto Blue Jays every March, we come home improved.
We read, we sit around, we drink beer and we watch baseball. It is the spiritual and culinary highlight of the year, a place where our family can experience baseball as a kind of faith and spring training as a pilgrimage.
I start every day with a bowl of Raisin Bran and skim milk in the Holiday Inn breakfast room with the other guests, many from Canada and New York. This year a delightful Toronto-area family of five — parents, two kids and their grandmother — held the room captive. The son was the kind of talkative 10-year old boy who knows a lot of excellent jokes about flatulence. As he encountered the breakfast bar he paused by the tray of condiments to ask his mother, “Did you know that if you put ketchup packets in the freezer they will explode?”
At the table with his parents, and 14-year old sister, he tucked into a pastry completely coated in some kind of thick, white icing. “Cinnamon buns are my favorite unhealthy thing,” he said. “If you were dying, what would your final meal be? My final meal would be a giant hamburger, sausage and bacon.”
His sister took the bait: “Mine would be baby food because that’s what I started with.”
Mom corrected her, “Actually you started with breast milk, so that would have to be your final meal.”
“Gross,” said Dad, changing the subject.
A coach of his son’s team back home, he led a review of the play they witnessed at a Jays game the previous day that began with a base-running error by Dwight Smith and led to two Blue Jays standing on second base, followed by a rundown and a double play that would have been a triple if the Jays hadn’t already had one out, to end the game. Follow?
Never mind. Dad said, “By that point the whole team was laughing.” As were we.
My husband reminded me that Dwight Smith hit a home run off one of our sons at a tournament in Cobb County, Georgia, back in the days when we saw base-running errors and run downs every day in Little League play.
This year, baseball talk in the breakfast room was sometimes derailed by events of the day. In the corner, near the heated box holding the cinnamon buns, three guys in Phillies T-shirts were consulting Google Maps to devise a strategy for driving to Lakeland while avoiding the worst of the spring break and Disney traffic. The guy with the gray goatee asked his Google-Mapping buddy, “What do you think of the Yankee starters?”
Engrossed in his phone, his companion gasped: “Oh my gosh, he just fired Rex Tillerson.”
Our first game was the Yankees away at the Oriole’s Ed Smith Park in Sarasota. We were delighted to see Aaron Judge had also made the trip, something marquee players rarely do in spring training. It’s said that the great Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera never even had a travel jersey for spring games. But there was Judge, a few yards away in right field, making plays and studying the replay on the Jumbotron, looking to get better, as good as he is.
His agility was even more incredible when I took in his kayak-like feet.
On Friday, we traveled along with the Blue Jays a couple of miles to the Phillies Spectrum field. Jays shortstop Gift Ngoepe, was working hard for his spot on the roster. Ngoepe is the first black African player in Major League Baseball.
He played a brilliant shortstop, making several dazzling plays. After the game, fans gathered to observe an alligator floating in a fenced-in storm drain outside the stadium on the way to the parking lot.
By Saturday morning, a new front opened in the Holiday Inn breakfast battle of the bulge when the toaster, mounted on a steep angle to make it easier to grasp and remove the bread, began to pop like a fly ball, with toast landing on the floor several feet away.
“Whose toast is that?” said the breakfast room supervisor.
“Why does it jump like that?” asked the gentleman from Quebec.
Dad from Toronto chimed in, “You have to stand by the toaster and catch it, or it just flies right out.”
The matriarch of the family of five from Arkansas suggested, “You should hand out fielder’s gloves so we can get some practice shagging toast.”
Saturday at Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin was the Jays annual game with the Canadian National team, a chance for the most promising 16-to-18-year old Canadian players to brush up against the majors. The Jays starter against the junior team was Marcus Stroman, a Long Island native who identifies home as “Medford, LIE exit 65.” The Jays catcher, Russell Martin a former Yankee, came up through the Canadian National team.
The Jays reached into their roster of young legacy talent to make it a day for fathers and sons. Kacy Clemens (son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger) started at first, Cavan Biggio (son of Hall of Famer, Craig) at second, Bo Bichette, (son of Dante) at shortstop and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at third.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s father was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in January, a notorious bad-ball hitter who would swing at anything, so when Vladimir Jr. walked his first time up, his patience prompted a fan to remark that he must have gotten his plate discipline from his mother.
Braden Halladay, son of legendary pitcher Roy Halladay, pitched a perfect 8th inning for the Canadian Junior Team. His impossibly long and elegant pitching stance evoked his father’s, who threw the second no hitter in postseason history and died last year in an airplane crash. Halladay’s performance was an emotional link to his family history, as well as baseball history.
Like spring training, it was beautiful, and all too-brief.