As osprey’s migrate north to the Island this time of year, my family instinctively flies the opposite route.
We have traveled every March for the past 12 years to Florida to watch spring training baseball.
Just a few weeks after the pitchers and catchers flock to Florida, so do we, for our particular family rituals, for the love of the game and for those moments that prove that this sport is beautiful.
My husband, two sons, 21 and 24, and I watch a lot of baseball through the summer, but spring training is different from the long march of 162 regular season games. Everyone playing now is trying to get better, working to shake off the winter cobwebs and getting ready for the games that will count, starting in April. There’s drama in seeing veterans on the down slope of their careers hoping to catch on with a team or young players looking to impress managers and fill a spot on a major league roster.
We head for the same nest every year, a chain hotel in Dunedin, Florida near enough to the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring home called — really — Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, that we can walk to one or two games.
This year, our sons joined us a few days late, but made up for lost time once they arrived, playing catch in the hotel parking lot and leaving sweaty garments in every corner of the room. After a couple of days, our shared room — with sleeper-sofa and rollaway — developed a fragrance that brought me back to the travel team motel rooms of their middle school years.
Watching spring training baseball helps me hold on to some of what is great about the game. The emotional connection between players-in-training and those who have already achieved baseball immortality, the satisfactions that come from getting better at something really difficult and the joy of playing outdoors in fine weather are all part of that beauty.
Like every year, there were many great moments during our week long trip. The walk-off double hit by a career minor leaguer to end the March 20 Pirates vs. Phillies game in the bottom of the ninth was impressive, but the best part was seeing the 205 pound, 24-year old player laughing and high-fiving his teammates like a Little Leaguer.
We were glad to see our beloved Yankees win against the Astros with another walk-off double in the bottom of the ninth on the first day of spring. But for me the emotional center of that game was when an Astros hitter lost his grip on the bat and off it flew, like a pelican landing on the beach, narrowly missing a woman in the stands. She immediately handed it to the kid sitting next to her.
Somehow, every year, my favorite baseball moments happen in Dunedin and not New York.
At this year’s Blue Jays game, attendance was light in every way. A total of 1,688 pasty Canadians and a handful of similarly pale New Yorkers watched the Jays play the Canadian Junior Nationals, a team of 16 to 18 year olds.
In my experience, Canadian and New York fans share a reverence for warm weather unique to people from frozen places and a streak of wry pessimism in their sense of humor.
“I’m from Mississauga, where you from? “
“Is that right? My brother’s from Winnipeg. He says they’ve got ten months of winter and two months of poor skiing.”
The moment in the second inning when 16-year-old Andy Yerzy, the junior Canadian catcher, stepped to the plate to face former Met and 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey was pure magic. Crouched behind Yerzy was the Jays catcher, former Yankee Russell Martin, himself a former Canadian junior and now hard at work trying to catch Dickey’s dancing knuckleball. Yerzy doubled off one of the best pitchers in baseball to start the young Canadians off.
Sitting near me was a family from the Toronto suburbs with three boys in the 8-12 year-old range wearing Jays jerseys, but rooting hard for the junior Canadians.
Mom poked a finger at a colorful plug embedded in the bottom of her beer cup — the latest innovation in stadium food service technology. The plug was a magnet meant to activate the mechanism that had filled her cup, but when she dislodged it, the entire drink emptied into her lap as if she had pulled the plug in a sink.
“Oh, well,” she laughed. “ I think beer is good for your skin.”
Toronto’s major league squad already had 7 runs when shortstop Koby Hyland scored the junior Canadians first run in the fourth inning. As the umpire yelled, “Score that run!” his body English gave lie to his impartiality.
The boys from Mississauga went crazy, jumping and cheering when the Juniors player crossed the plate.
“Today,” their Dad said, “nobody loses.”