Yesterday I did what I have wanted to do for years. I spent the morning hanging out at Red Sox spring training camp. For years I would read about or see on television everyday people like myself leisurely leaning on the fence and chatting with others while my heroes went about their business getting ready for the upcoming season. The players would seem to stop and say a few words with their fans and maybe even sign a hat or a baseball.
All of this activity occurred in the bright, warm sunshine while I watched or read while hiding from cold temperatures and miserable weather. I wanted to be there among the warm people with sun on their faces having a brief conversation with Yaz or Dewey.
As I began to approach retirement age a few years ago the thought began to creep in that maybe this lingering dream might actually become reality. Eileen and I began talking about our post-working life and the thought of being in Florida for the winters just might be a part of the plan. As the discussion started to take shape I shared that we needed to be in the Fort Myers area. It really seemed to meet all of the criteria. It is warm enough that we would not ever have to see snow or ice, there were enough interesting things to see and do, the beaches are great, and it has the Red Sox.
We came down to scope out the area a few years ago in February during the worst Connecticut winter in my adult memory. That winter I felt like I should just get a pillow and blanket and sleep by the snow blower. Fenway South or Jet Blue Park had only one season under its belt. We were too early for spring training, but we visited the park and hung out for part of the day. We actually did get to meet Rusney Castillo in the elevator of our hotel and found out that some of the invitees to camp were staying in the same hotel. The escape from Connecticut weather, and a taste of Jet Blue Park, were enough to solidify the Fort Myers area for us – for me anyway.
As the next few years unfolded the plan developed a little differently. Many had said that we needed to rent in the area to see how we liked it before buying a permanent home of any kind. In addition, we felt that we should see America before settling down in any place more permanently. Hence the purchase of the fifth wheel. This first winter we decided that we would explore the Fort Myers area for the winter before heading out on a more sustained cross-country venture.
I was excited when I read about “Truck Day” in Boston. That is the day when the trucks full of Red Sox equipment leave Fenway bound for Florida. The fact that people show up there to say bon farewell to the trucks is a little much even for me. I just like the idea that they have left.
I decided that on Tuesday I would show up at Jet Blue without any specific knowledge of the process. I arrived around 9 am hoping to beat the crowds which I did to a certain extent. It was very organized with several workers, most of which we much older than me, directing parking and manning the entrance tent. I was required to empty my pockets of all metal and pass through – a sign of the times.
My first stop was a side door of the expansive indoor batting cages. I watched Mookie Betts and Brock Holt taking early batting practice. The sound of a wooden bat hitting a ball in the middle of February is very satisfying.\
The practice grounds which sit behind the left and center field stands of the stadium, consist of five finely manicured fields intersected by a wide sidewalk that allows access for spectators. Fans are allowed to walk around the complex and go to whatever field has activity and draws their interest. Occasionally workers will create a pathway for players to move from one field to another.
When I arrived to the area of the practice fields there were several people hanging out by fences making a path from one field to a back field. I hung out there awhile with the others thinking that the players would soon pass. As I waited I made a conscious decision that I would not being asking for autographs this day. I just wanted to hang out and soak in the atmosphere. I heard a worker go over the schedule and realized where and when the players would be coming out. It was not happening there for at least forty-five minutes.
Fans Awaiting Autographs
After a team meeting the players left the building and gathered on the warm-up field that oddly resembled a football practice field lined in ten-yard segments. They were loosely run through a series of warm up drills by a strength coach.
Players are Put Through Their Paces
The roster at this point is made up of the forty players on the major league roster as well as sixteen minor league invitees to camp. Most of the major league everyday players wore blue warm-up jackets with their names on the back while the rest wore red uniform jerseys. Pitchers all wore red jerseys and warm-ups.
After warm-up the major league players made their way to one field and the minor league players went to the back field. I was struck by the simplicity of the drills they were put through. There was absolutely no difference between the base running drills that they used and the drills that we use to do with our players in little league and high school. The only real difference was the intensity. These millionaires apparently make too much money to run full speed and risk a nagging hamstring issue.
New Manager Alex Cora
After running bases the outfielders went to another field and the infielders remained to do a some leisurely fielding practice. When they were done with fielding all of the infielders and pitchers, who had been doing long throw in the outfield, made their way to the back field. By this time the gauntlet of people by the pathway fences had grown considerably. As the players made their way through kids yelled out names and tried to get a high five or fist bump. Others held out items in hopes of an autograph. Very few players eve acknowledged the fans. To his credit Brock Holt gave a few high fives. He was virtually alone. The biggest reaction was when Pedro Martinez, obviously there to work with Eduardo Rodriguez, walked the gauntlet.
The large group on the back field including the pitchers went through defensive base running drills or “pickle” drills. Again, these drills are not any different at this level. One thing that struck me was how much bigger the pitchers are as whole. As a group they are at least three-four inches taller.
2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell
The last part of practice was spent in the batting cages. Players hit in position groups; infielders and outfielders. While players are hitting kids stand outside the left-field fence hoping for balls that have been jacked. Unfortunately, they did not enjoy too may souvenirs.
Infielders Hit in the Cage
All in all I enjoyed the visit and the atmosphere. Despite the laid-back approach, it is still impressive to witness up close the physical skills of professional players; the arm strength, bat speed and power. It was also interesting to see many of the game day personalities from NESN hanging out as well.
We have tickets to three games and I will probably go back for a couple of days and hang out even if it is just minor leaguers going through their paces. You never know when you might see the next great players at the beginning of his journey. It takes me back to the days when you could watch the New Britain Red Sox and see the likes of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn at the dawn of their careers.
I will enjoy the rest of our stay. It is likely that we will be back in this area when we have stopped traveling. Until then I have enjoyed one of my visions of retirement. More to come.