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A Shelter Island family bids adieu to a beloved baseball stadium

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO The seats were narrow and worn, but the vibe behind home plate at the Jays old stadium was so good.

Christopher Bohn is a stadium usher at the Toronto Blue Jays spring training park in Dunedin, Florida. On the concourse behind home plate, as the final game in that venerable old diamond went into the 6th inning, Mr. Bohn was getting a little misty.

“You’ll never get closer to a batter than this in a baseball stadium. I feel terrible about it,” he said. “You’ll never get closer than this to the game.”

Mr. Bohn grew up in Patchogue but has been living in Florida and working at the Jays stadium long enough to remember when this wasn’t the only intimate venue for spring baseball. When the Phillies played at nearby Jack Russell stadium, the players were so close to the fans that when our son Isaac was 8 and wanted a game ball, he could just stand by the first base line for a few minutes and eventually be handed one by a soft-hearted player.

Up until the Jays Dunedin Stadium closed for renovations last Saturday, the same could be said for it.

“This,” Mr. Bohn said, “is the last stadium of this size in the Grapefruit League.”

My family picked out Dunedin, Florida as a place to spend a week in March largely because of the stadium, both the size and scale of it, and the fact that you can walk to it from anywhere in town. This year was our 16th visit, and for the first time, we were joined by a new member of the family, Isaac’s fiancée. Getting to see Martha take part in our family’s spring training rituals was almost as moving to me as saying good-bye to the old stadium, and I had to put on my sunglasses once or twice when it wasn’t sunny and dab at my eyes.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO It looks like somebody’s first baseball game.

The upcoming renovation of the stadium was much on the minds of the morning breakfasters at the Dunedin Holiday Inn, where another renovation had taken place since last year — the replacement of the automatic pancake maker with a lamp-heated Cinnabon tray, each pastry wrapped in trademarked Cinnabon paper and topped with the signature sour cream frosting that takes the sting out of airport layovers.

Six-year-old Trent Game was getting some advice from a seasoned baseball fan about where to stand on the third base side to get a close look at Bryce Harper, the Phillies newly-signed right fielder, when the Phillies played the Jays.

Often the major leaguers show off their supernatural skills during spring training, but this year most of the surprises on the field were of the forehead-slapping kind. In a game against the Atlanta Braves, the Jays came back from a steep deficit to get the tying and winning runs aboard with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

When the Jays batter walked to load the bases, the runner at third, possibly dreaming of postgame Cinnabons, strayed too far off the base and was picked off, ending the game in an 8-7 Jays loss.

“It was a boneheaded play,” said a kid to his dad, and fans all around shook their heads as they streamed out of the stadium.

On Thursday, we traveled with the Jays two miles to Spectrum Field, the Phillies spring training stadium, where we got a taste of what the Jays newly-renovated spring digs will be like, with two Tiki-bars in the outfield, room for 1,500 on the berm and a wide swath of concession stands surrounding the field in a 360-degree mall of popcorn, souvenirs and sausages.

The Phillies finally beat the Jays, with home runs flying out of the stadium like popcorn from a hot pan — six for the Phillies and four for the Jays. One of Bryce Harper’s two dingers had two guys in shorts and sandals searching through the thick, swampy brush in back of the stadium for the ball, and by the time they found it, a dozen fans stood along the outfield concourse telling them where to look, and keeping an eye out for alligators.

Just then another shot came in just below the berm, this one a home run for the Jays, which was nabbed by a 10-year-old.

On our last day in Dunedin, at the top of the seventh inning, Mr. Bohn led the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the last time in the little stadium that had made baseball magic in Dunedin since 1977. We sang along, my husband, our grown-up sons and our new daughter, and I put on sunglasses and went through a few more tissues.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Allie Kroeker with a foul ball she chased down at the Jays stadium. She’s a catcher in her home town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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