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Baseball in the Florida sunshine: The Reporter goes to Spring Training

Our family home in Florida is a Holiday Inn on Route 19 in Dunedin, a 15-minute walk from the Toronto Blue Jays spring training ballpark.

We’ve spent a week there almost every March since the George W. Bush administration. The motel is strategically located between an excellent BBQ joint and an equally fine craft brewery, and has all the comforts of home without distractions like making the bed or wondering whose turn it is to brew the coffee.

March is a time of adjustment, and not just for baseball players trying to wrap their bats around the new pitch clock. We quickly adjusted to temps in the 70s and bougainvillea hanging over every fence, and when the advent of Daylight Savings Time took an hour from us on the first day of our vacation, all our clocks reset themselves sometime in the night, and on Sunday morning, there was no place we had to be.

To fortify myself for a day of bike-riding and baseball, I spent the morning in the Holiday Inn breakfast room hanging out with Penny, who runs it, who was joined this year by Angela.

Together, they restocked the yogurt cups, filled the cereal silos, and kept the kids from pouring too much batter into the pancake machine. Penny is as bright and shiny as her name, while Angela was sterner, which I discovered when we met at the oatmeal bar.

“How nice that you have hot oatmeal this year instead of instant,” I said.

Angela was taken aback. “We couldn’t offer cooked oatmeal because of COVID,” she said, stirring so vigorously I decided to check on the fruit selection.

“Did someone leave an English Muffin in the toaster?” Angela’s announcement had a decidedly accusatory tone, and thank goodness it wasn’t me.

She made a genuine effort to get to know the customers, asking one group of guys in pinstripes if they were Yankees fans. They were, and all from Staten Island.

“Staten Island!” she said. “I almost moved there once.”

Of the many adjustments under way in Dunedin, the players were dealing with that new pitch clock. That, and the new infield shift rules and bigger bases have changed the game for fans as well as players.

When the Blue Jays ace Alek Manoah started against the Red Sox on March 13, he seemed to be using the clock to squeeze the batters, often waiting until the last second to release a pitch. Whatever he was doing, it worked.

Plus, the Jays unleashed an explosion of hits, including two home runs from Bo Bichette, and the game was so action-packed that a distracted osprey headed for her nest atop the home plate lights, dropped a big hunk of nesting material into Section 214. Toronto beat the Red Sox 16-3.

As the score became hopelessly lopsided, I found Luis Zavala dressed in a Red Sox jersey and sporting the most elegant and skillfully trimmed beard I have ever seen. He and his brother Sergio were waiting for Sergio’s daughters Rio and Maya to come out of the restrooms, having seen enough baseball for one day.

Boston fan Luis Zavala (in red), with his nieces Rio, left, and Maya, and brother Sergio. Luis had the best beard in the stadium, but that was no help for his beloved Red Sox, who lost to the Jays 16-3. (Credit: Charity Robey)

Over the years, they all relocated from Boston to Tampa, and Sergio and Luis have been coming to Red Sox spring training games for decades. They were philosophical about the loss to Toronto. “It’s about the experience,” said Sergio.

The next morning, the breakfast room was in the thrall of 8-year old Canadian Kirin Onokata, holding forth on the World Baseball Classic, expertly recapping the perfect game that the Puerto Rico team had played the night before against Israel. His rapt audience was three spring training veterans eating scrambled eggs. When Kirin critiqued a report from mlb.com, the grizzled fans seemed a little lost.

“MLB what?”  

“Israel has baseball?

Kirin asked his Dad if the Israeli team is any good. Darcy Onokata drew on his best Canada Nice. “Yeah … it’s growing.”

The big excitement at Wednesday’s game was the return of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the Toronto lineup a few days after he participated in the World Baseball Classic. The Pirates traveled to Dunedin on another perfect day for baseball; just cool enough to make you want to sit in the sun. 

Guerrero played five innings, stooping before each at-bat to draw ‘Dios” in the dirt beside the batter’s box. He got to first on a throwing error, doubled with an RBI, and flied out.

In front of us was Janet from Ontario, who could easily be elected mayor of Dunedin, seated in the catbird seat with a dead-on view of home plate above the Jays dugout.

Janet seemed to know everyone in the stadium by name, including an announcer headed up to the broadcast booth, the woman emptying the garbage can at the end of the section, and the usher at the bottom of the stairs, who kept fans out of her line of sight if they lingered during play.

Janet likes the new pace of the game, “The clock is good,” she said; and as for the new infield shift rule? “I don’t really notice it.”

In the seventh inning, Yerry De Los Santos, came in to pitch for the Pirates, and faced his brother Luis De Los Santos, who went in for Jays hotshot Bo Bichette. Hit by his own brother’s pitch, Luis walked, and scored the 6th run. Toronto went on to win 7-1, prompting one fan to imagine the conversation at the next De Los Santos family gathering.

Toronto’s old-school handshake lineup after the victory over Pittsburgh on March 15, 2023. (Credit: Charity Robey)

After the game, Steward Berroa an infielder who signed with the Blue Jays back in 2016, and has bounced around the Toronto farm system since, signed an endless stream of balls and hats for fans, stopping to talk with a young fan and her mom.

Steward Berroa, a Blue Jays prospect, signed autographs for young fans. (Credit: Charity Robey)

When someone on the walkway above the field asked Berroa for an autograph, a game of catch-sign-toss broke out.

The sun was warm, the grass was green, and everyone’s timing was good.