Featured Story

The Reporter goes to Spring Training

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO When collecting signed major league baseballs, it helps to be short and cute. The children of the Mead Family of Niagara Falls, Ontario were experts.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | When collecting signed major league baseballs, it helps to be short and cute. The children of the Mead Family of Niagara Falls, Ontario were experts.

When my husband and I arrived in Dunedin, Florida last week, it was our 14th consecutive excursion to the Grapefruit League for a week of spring-cleaning. The items to be cleaned? Ourselves. The cleansers? Baseball, bicycle and barbecue.

When we arrived, our eyes were darty; we squinted in the sun. We answered phone calls and responded twitchily to texts. We watched our devices for messages from the office.

The transition began as we watched the Toronto Blue Jays play the Baltimore Orioles in Dunedin. The joyous crowd was mainly people from northerly climes, Canadians and New Yorkers (a.k.a. Southern Canada), whose delight owed as much to the sunshine, green grass and ready availability of beer as it did to the quality of play.

“Free Sunscreen,” blared the announcement at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, “Free sunscreen from customer service!”
Seated next to me was a dark-bearded boulder of a man from Windsor, Ontario. He laughed when I marveled at the sell-out crowd.

“The Jays are a hot ticket now, we got to the AL championship series,” he said.

He bragged that three Canadians would play for the Jays that day, catcher Russell Martin of East York, Ontario, right fielder Michael Saunders of Victoria, British Columbia, and center fielder Dalton Pompey, a 23-year- old switch-hitter from Mississauga, Ontario, who started at center field for the Jays in 2015, hit well in the AL play-offs, and who carries much hope for their future.

It was a close game. The crowd erupted when Pompey tied it up in the bottom of the ninth with a home run to left field. With no extra innings in spring training games, Pompey’s bat had the last word and the final score was 6-6.

As the stadium emptied, Pompey lingered at the fence just beyond the dugout and signed an endless supply of hats, balls and programs for fans, especially the short ones. He even signed the pale (and surprisingly flat) back of one fan’s neck at her request.

She was very grateful. Someone looked around to see the stadium completely empty, except for the fans waiting for Pompey and thanked him for his generosity.

“I’ve got nowhere better to go,” he said.

That’s known as Canadian Nice.

The next day, across the bay at Steinbrenner Field, Pompey hit a triple in the ninth against the Yankees. But before the week was out he was sent down to play for the Buffalo Bills, the Jay’s farm team. In an interview with the Toronto Star, he spoke of the encouragement he had from the coaches who like what they are seeing from him.

“There’s going to be another opportunity some time soon,” he said, “I’m looking forward to that day.”

Most mornings I went for a bike ride after a stop at the Holiday Inn bar, actually more of a TV lounge, where an extensive and complimentary breakfast was served buffet-style.

A TV hung in the corner tuned to Bay News 9 and a state-of-the-art weather report brand-named Klystron 9. This is no Farmers’ Almanac, finger-in-the-wind weather prediction. Klystron 9 includes “Water Vapor Radar” and a pollen report that lists levels of oak, cedar and nettle respectively, information that would be more helpful if I knew which of these pollens is causing me to weep on the bike trail. Still, Klystron 9 seems to offer a level of meteorological sophistication we can only dream of up North.

At the Holiday Inn breakfast, I observed heroic moments in child rearing, such as the steely reaction of a New York-area Mom when a mound of bacon was put out on the buffet, fresh from the microwave.

Two elementary school-age children ferried their breakfast from the buffet in bowls, cups and plates to a small table in the corner where New York Mom sat nursing a coffee.

“Kyle,” she said, “Don’t do the pile thing. Just take one or two slices.” Kyle turned on his heel and went back to the bar, returning cheerfully to his seat with two strips of bacon.

“Thank you for being reasonable,” said NYM.

On St. Patrick’s Day, we headed to Bradenton to see the Pirates play the Yankees at McKechnie Field, a place William Zinsser in his classic 2004 book, “Spring Training,” called, “the ideal of what a spring training park ought to look like and feel like.” McKechnie has been renovated since Zinsser wrote about it, but the addition of the Kona Bar to the boardwalk straddling the outfield only adds to the ambiance.

Our destination was 47 miles due south, on the other side of Tampa Bay, so we fired up the GPS and were shocked when it instructed us to head inland, avoiding the Skyway, a very high, and very long bridge that looks like a giant pair of shark fins with eight lanes of highway hanging from them. The detour would have cost us 45 minutes, we’d have missed the first innings, and the Yankee’s ace Tanaka was the starting pitcher.

My husband turned off the GPS and we drove south anyway, although we could not ignore the impressive bank of clouds ahead and were seeing reports that the bridge was impassable due to fog. When we rolled up to the toll gate, I asked the friendly retiree who took my $1.25 (exact change) if the bridge had been closed. He said it had opened 15 minutes earlier, after being closed since 5 a.m.

We’re not Irish, but this was clearly some spooky luck and when Pirate center fielder Andrew McCutcheon hit Tanaka’s first pitch to him, the resulting home run landed about 20 feet from where we stood on the left-field boardwalk. Tanaka stayed in for two innings and the Yankees won, 7-2.

After an hour or so in our assigned standing-room section, we slid into a couple of empty seats in the shade. I began to chat with the usher of section 10, Don McKie, who has worked at McKechnie Field since 1987. Don is from Wheaton, Illinois and travels south for spring training every year. He told me that he’s actually a Cubs fan, “But keep that on the lowdown, at McKechnie I’m a Pirates fan.”

Back in Dunedin the next day, the Jays game against the Phillies was rained out. Many of our fellow Holiday Inn guests had settled in the breakfast room to watch TV and check out the local movie schedule. We walked 50 yards across the hotel parking lot to stand in line at the beloved Eli’s Bar B Que, conveniently located within easy sight and smell of our room.

Since the dining room at Eli’s consists of six picnic tables under the branches of two enormous live oaks, and it was raining sheets, we grabbed a table in the hotel breakfast room where the scent of our barbecued chicken and pulled pork drew passersby.

A woman marched up to us and said, “Where did you get that?” pointing to our Styrofoam containers of tender spicy meat. We pointed across the parking lot to Eli’s shack and a screened-in building behind it with a plume of blue smoke rising in spite of the rain.

“Good!” she said, “I’ve been out for a walk in the rain and I’m a bit peckish.”

Soon the room was full of barbecue-eaters and a game of poker broke out.

Florida and the three Bs (baseball, bicycle and barbecue) worked the usual magic. In spite of the fact that a key presidential primary election took place on the third day of our visit, we saw no signs of electoral mayhem, unless you count a discreet Trump poster in the window of a barbershop and a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker.

Somewhere past mid-week, my husband sat by the pool for two hours and read a book. He made no discernible moves to the phone or other devices. Occasionally he laughed out loud at something he’d read.

I’d been looking forward to that day. I had nowhere better to go.