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March 27, 2012

Out of Left Field

Spring Training With No Sleep

by Matthew Kory

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This bar was a dive bar before dive bars became cool. In fact, this bar skipped the whole "being cool" thing entirely, jumping from "pre-cool dive" straight to "dump." Pat orders a plate of nachos and when it arrives I notice more than a passing resemblance to dog food. A man, the bar’s owner, hands Pat the nachos and says, and I swear I’m not making this up, “Sorry if that looks too much like dog food.” It was that kind of bar. That kind of night.

***

Every year I go to spring training. I am not a scout, so I don’t go to the back fields with my radar gun and talk to other scouts about the intricacies of some 18-year-old’s delivery.

I go to spring training for the same reason most men go: to get away from my family. Who wants to hang around people who love you above all else when you could be buying $2 beers for $8, getting sunburned, and watching games that don’t matter wherein the best players are taken out seconds after you get out of the beer line? Sign me up!

After years of talking about how much fun it would be, four years ago two friends from college and I finally went down to Clearwater, Fla. for a long weekend. We ended up painfully red, badly hung over, and incredibly sick of the traffic. We stayed in a roadside garden-style motel where the toilet clogs up upon first usage, the sheets are like toilet paper, the toilet paper is like a figment of your imagination, and where I once saw a very muscular man remove his swimming trunks before entering a hot tub full of women. We’ve been back every year since.

The plan is simple: watch baseball. We squeeze as many games into two-and-a-half days as humanly possible. Despite being less than a mile from the beach each of the past three years, none of us could tell you what color the sand is. I’m not sure we even know in which direction it is. We’re on a mission, not a vacation.

Usually we can get four games in, though the geography of the Grapefruit League being what it is, that often requires long drives in our rental car. Last year we attended games in Fort Myers, Lakeland, Tampa and Clearwater. Google Maps tells me those towns are a cumulative round-trip distance of 211 miles from our motel, and that it should take us roughly eight hours of total road time. Google Maps knows Florida travel times like I know scouting.

 * * *

Thursday night.

Each year I make the same mistake. Each year I think that if I fly overnight, I won’t have to burn a day traveling. That will leave more time for baseball. All I have to do is sleep on the plane. Except, I can’t sleep on the plane. I can only think about spring training on the plane, and try to avoid thinking about planes plummeting to earth on the plane. When planning the trip I should think, “You know, I might not be able to attend two different games with seven hours of driving immediately after taking two overnight flights across the country on no sleep.” But what I actually think is, “Whoopee! I’m going to spring training! BLEARG!!”

My flight left Portland at 8 p.m. Waiting for the plane to board I noticed several people wearing baseball uniforms and hats. That is something of a rarity as there is no baseball team in Portland. There were people wearing Mariners jerseys (the predominant baseballing choice of local fans), a Diamondbacks hat, and an older couple in Cubs hats. They’re all going to spring training in Phoenix, which is where my connecting flight is.

The Cubs fan noticed my Red Sox hat and jacket and half-said, half-shouted at me, “No way it’s gonna happen for you this year. Get used to disappointment.” The words look combative on paper, but were delivered with a knowing smile, as if we were both members of the same club. I took them as he had intended them and said, “After last year I’m working on it.” We discussed our boarding zones, the number the airlines assign you so the bum-rushing of the gate is more orderly. His was zone two but his wife’s was zone three. I told them mine was 18.

They called his zone and while he boarded she stayed and chatted. She had been a single mom of three kids, she told me. Her kids were friends with two kids a few blocks away whose dad was also single. After some prompting, he called her. “He was a big dork,” she told me. “But if you have a sense of humor, well, nothing else matters.” I hope you’re right, I said. “We’ve been married for 10 years and I’ve never been happier,” she said. “So I am right.” She winked.

***

I arrived in Tampa at 6 a.m. Friday, feeling like you feel when you’ve had a half-hour of bad sleep in a cramped, seated position. I quickly locate the first coffee in the terminal and order a large. When I say “quickly” I mean “very slowly” and when I say “first” I mean “the one directly in front of me because turning was too difficult” and when I say “ordered” I mean “pointed and grunted” and when I say “large” I mean “large.”

Two very hungover men who used to be my friends pick me up at the airport, with scowls because of the hour. We stop at a local breakfast place where I buy breakfast and my friends' good graces back. The place is called Lenny’s and it is owned by an ex-Philadelphian who moved down to Clearwater decades ago but never stopped rooting for his teams. As such, the place is coated with Phillies memorabilia. On weekend mornings when the Phillies have a game scheduled, the wait can be hours. There are seats outside from old Veterans Stadium where you can wait and listen for your group’s name over the loudspeaker. This being a bunch of Phillies fans, a few years ago I heard the following announcement while waiting outside for a table: “Sir, please stop shouting and put your shirt back on.” It was 9 a.m.

 * * *

Satiated, we head to our first game, a Rays/Orioles match in Port Charlotte. It isn’t my intention to provide park reviews here, so I’ll just call everything nice and leave it at that. The Rays’ park is nice.

Walking around the park, we pass the bullpens, just below the main walkway beyond right field. We stop to watch one of the Rays pitchers warming up.

 I’ll let my friend Brian take it from here:

You can hear the ball moving through the air as it makes its way from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. It sounds like a giant angry bee buzzing through the air. Terrifying. When normal people talk about whether or not they could hit major league pitching, I don't think they realize the ball makes a sound when it comes towards you. The question isn't whether a normal person could hit major league pitching or not, the question is whether a normal person would have the balls to remain standing in the batter's box without screaming, "A giant bee!" and running away. Personally, I think my knees would lock from shock or fright, and I'd forget to swing the bat.

Once in our seats at the Rays game, I notice the following three things:

1) The women in their 60s who are seated directly in front of us are statheads, talking about the OPSes of the Rays players and such.
2) Brian, Pat and I, all in our mid-30s, collectively bring the average age in the stadium down 20 years.
3) I’m really tired.

The women are at the game because, as they tell us, their husbands had no interest in seeing the Orioles. "They begged us to take the tickets," says one. “But it’s baseball so they didn’t have to beg too much.” “Well, a little bit, “ says another. “It is the Orioles.” Later, they ask for our ticket stubs because they’re worth a free post-game beer at a local bar. “They are for our husbands,” they say. “Of course,” we say.

Now it’s the second inning and I’m exhausted. I’m doing that thing where you almost fall forward out of your chair but catch yourself at the last second. "OK, I’m awake now. I won’t do that again." Then, 15 seconds later, I do it again. After coming very close to collapsing into the lap of the nice lady in front of me, I decide I should get up and walk around. Pat joins me.

While walking around the park to take in its essence—OK, looking for decent beer—we happen across two Mets fans. This was somewhat odd in that the Mets weren’t involved in the game, though to be fair neither were the Red Sox (my team) or the Phillies (Pat’s and Brian’s team). One of the Mets fans sees Pat’s Phillies gear and says he lives in Philadelphia, and repeatedly says how much he hates the city. Upon closer inspection, we discover he lives well outside the city, so I point out that his suburb isn’t Philadelphia. I spent 10 years in Philadelphia and, while there are things I detest about it, it’s actually a great place to live and he might be aware of that if he actually, you know, lived there. If I’d had four hours of sleep instead of 40 minutes, I could have let it slide, but I didn’t, so I couldn’t.

Both Mets fans have kids and one of them is raising his kids to be Mets fans. The other is married to a Phillies fan, and his wife is winning that battle. “When I bring home Mets stuff for the kids they don’t want it,” he says. “They act like I’m bringing home garbage.” The temptation to agree with his kids is too strong and we part ways quickly before punches are thrown.

* * *

I don’t remember much of the Rays game after that. I remember thinking crazy thoughts along the lines of, “Is there enough room to curl up underneath this seat?” and “Would anyone notice if I quietly hopped the fence and went to sleep in that soft-looking area next to the foul pole?” and “Is there enough room to curl up underneath this seat?” I know the Rays won. Or the Orioles did. They might have tied. One way or another I made it through the game and fell asleep in the back seat of the rented Volkswagen. It’s a 40-minute drive to jetBlue Park in Fort Meyers.

***

The clouds above jetBlue Park are … wait for it … jet black. I ask the ticket taker if it is supposed to rain. "Don't think the hard stuff will be coming down for quite some time," he said. Thirty seconds later it starts to pour.

We are all exhausted and facing a three-hour drive back to Clearwater, so none of us want a delay. But there is an upside: the Red Sox grounds crew. After precious minutes spent waving each other around, they finally pull the tarp over the infield. It rains. A lull. They rush back and drag the tarp halfway off, while crew members run over and under and around the tarp. Once it is placed where they want it—covering most of right-center field and second base—they lift it, inadvertently dumping all the water in a torrent back onto the infield. All the water, all on the infield. They race around and cover the field, and the water, with tarp.

During this Keystone Kops routine a rainbow appears over jetBlue Park, proving that, contrary to popular opinion, sunlight can be refracted through droplets of moisture in the Earth's atmosphere creating a spectrum of light in the sky over a Red Sox ball park. The grounds crew would remove, then replace the tarp about eight more times.

Despite the best efforts of the grounds crew, the game eventually resumes and we amble around jetBlue Park. It’s nice. We leave after the sixth inning, just after I pose for this picture:

I thought I’d sleep in the car again, but we end up talking baseball the whole way back. We talk about Daniel Bard moving to the rotation, about the Phillies’ insane starting pitching staff, about the mystery of Roy Oswalt, and about how crazy lucky I am to write here at Baseball Prospectus. Looking back, that drive was the highlight of the trip.

 * * *

Traveling with friends puts me in situations that maybe I wouldn’t find myself had the family come along. For example, the dog food/nachos bar. We arrive and there is one man already passed out. Literally his entire upper body lying face down on the bar. He looks permanent, like a tacky decoration, something the bar owner picked up at a flea market the weekend he was inspired to add character to his place. Nobody pays any attention to the man. A woman who proudly claims to be his wife has the following conversation with Brian.

Random Woman At the Bar Whose Name We Later Find Out is Stephanie: Where are you from?
Brian: Washington, D.C.
Stephanie: You’re a northerner!
Brian: D.C. is below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Stephanie: No it isn’t.
Brian: Yes it is.
Stephanie: Not below my Mason-Dixon Line.
Brian: You have your own Mason-Dixon Line?

The loudest drunk at the bar sees my Red Sox cap.

Large Inebriated Fellow At Bar: HEY! YOU!
Me: [pretends to not hear him]
Large Inebriated Fellow At Bar: HEY! YOU! Red Sox fan!
Me: [gulp] Yes?
Large Inebriated Fellow At Bar: [walks over; puts hand on my shoulder] So… the Red Sox? Are you SERIOUS??
Me: [double gulp] I suppose I am, yes.
Large Inebriated Fellow At Bar: [looks menacing] [long pause] I LOVE THE RED SOX!
Me: [to myself] oh thank God…

His name is George. Periodically he sits up straight and shouts “AHHH!” for no discernable reason other than drunkenness. His night ends when he asks the bartender where the bathroom is. She points. He says “THANK YOU!” and goes in the other direction. Stephanie later tells us George has wandered off into the woods. “I guess he does that,” she says. Truer words have never been spoken.

 * * *

It is 1:30 a.m. Other than 40 minutes in a Volkwagen, I haven’t slept since I woke up in my bed in Portland almost two days earlier. In going to sleep I miss the part where Brian convinces everyone at the bar that Pat is actually Kris Versteeg of the Florida Panthers, the part where they shoot spitballs at the guy passed out on the bar, and the part where the bartender severely undercharges Pat while severely overcharging Brian. That’s OK though. There’s always next year.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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