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Jim Baker offered an offbeat spring training tutorial in the piece reprinted below, which was originally published as a "Prospectus Matchups" column on March 1, 2005.
Do you know why I love this gig? (I mean, apart from the non-stop flow of lingerie-clad women dying to have someone come over and explain VORP to them in person.) I'll tell you why: it's because I get to help people. That's right, help them. Make their lives better. How so? Well, take this letter:
I am thinking about going to spring training for the first time. I would love some pointers as to how to do it right. I thought the topic might make for a nice column.
Noah, you have come to the right place–and not a moment too soon, I might add, as I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about until I got your note. So, you helped me with a column idea, and I will now help you with a handy guide to proper spring training travel.
Because spring training games don't "count"–whatever that means–tickets cost pennies on the dollar compared to their regular season counterparts. What's more, teams are only too happy to have fans come visit so that players won't be able to goof off because nobody's looking. It is best to announce to a team that you intend to come to spring training to watch the squad get ready. Use the following letter as a guideline:
Dear (team General Manager name here):
Will be arriving Fla. Thurs. Mar. 10. Party of three. Will attend practices and games of 10th, 11th and, weather permitting, 12th. Would prefer to sit in shade as one of our party is an albino. Would also like to hire local boys to fan us during games at the going rate of 25 cents per inning. Please advise.
(your name here)
Recent government studies show that hitchhiking is still the safest way to travel–just as it has been since the invention of the automobile. A catchy sign is recommended: "Cactus League or Bust" is sure to get you plenty of rides from fellow fans who would like nothing better than talk baseball as you while away the miles. Offer to pay for your ride by way of entertainment value, like reciting the "Who's on First?" routine in Mandarin. People love that sort of thing. You can also regale your driver with tales of your days on the prison baseball team.
The great thing about both spring locales–but especially Florida–is that there are plenty of elderly people in the area. Now, some elderly people are sharp as tacks and can and will recite their report cards from the first grade back in 1935. Others aren't so with it, and it is this latter group upon which we'll be relying for your lodging needs. This is all you have to do: identify someone who is of the same race as you and knock on their door. When they open it, shout "Grandpa!" or "Grandma!" They will be overwhelmed and invite you in. Soon, they will be offering you lemon cookies and a place to stay. If you are too old to have living grandparents, just announce "Uncle, it is I" when they open the door. That should be good enough.
If being around doilies and old, fuzzy-looking televisions forever tuned to Lawrence Welk reruns is not your speed, why not ask one of the players on your favorite team to put you up for a couple of days? Modern ballplayers now make enough money that they no longer have to live in dormitories or sleep in tents next to the field, as was once the custom. Now they rent condos for the duration of their spring stay and would be more than happy to accommodate you and your buddies or loved ones for a couple of nights. An offer to wash the breakfast dishes will be welcomed, but is not required.
There are so many players on spring rosters that nobody will notice if you slip into line at the players' buffet table–unless you weigh 350 pounds and you don't look like
Interacting with players
Spring training is far more relaxed than the regular season. Because of this, you will be allowed a lot more access to the players. It is also understood that you are there to help them get ready for the season. Players love it when fans offer hitting, fielding and pitching tips. You may even be called upon to explain your tip right there on the field. Players often hand their bats over to helpful fans who give on-the-spot demonstrations of technique. It's a wonderful chance to bond with your favorite players.
Other baseball-related attractions
Why concentrate only on games? Florida and Arizona both have their fair share of things to do and see. Since you're in the area anyway, why not drop in on some of these places? (note: fee paid for placement)
- Caverns of Lost Tomorrows
75 miles SW of Tempe
Did Native Americans play a form of baseball hundreds of years before the coming of the Europeans? Cave drawings seem to indicate so. Are they authentic ancient scrawlings, or were they done more recently with Crayola sidewalk chalk? The management of Caverns of Lost Tomorrows challenges you to "play archeological detective" and figure it out for yourself–but no touching!
- The Home for Retired Baseball Personages
You can either visit here and hang out with the regulars (whose names the management keeps confidential), or you can get a cheap theatrical makeup kit and do yourself up like a codger and crash there for free (see Accomodations, above). If the latter is your course of action, you'll want to act like you belong. Just remember these handy phrases: "In my day…" or "The trouble with the players of today is…" and "If I were playing now, they'd have to give me a piece of the team…."
- "20,000 Leagues of Their Own"
Howie Frankel's Mermaid Show Palace, Orange Bottoms, 75 miles SW of Orlando
Featuring the beautiful Diverettes–some of whom have been with Howie since the early '60s–playing actual three-inning baseball games completely underwater. Howie says: "Visit our snack bar, or don't — it's a free country."
- Seminole Alligator Baseball Farm
Conveniently located within two swamp boat rides of the winter home of the Washington Nationals
Ever seen alligators run the bases? Now you will, as they light out after staff members and lucky tourists drawn from the crowd at random in contrived games of "pickle." Get your picture snapped with famous gator guide, Stumpy Smith.
- Monkey Island
One mile of north of St. Petersburg
What would a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters do? Why, screech and pick nits off each other, of course! Unless they hear the bullwhip crack of Colonel Nigel Leach, that is–then they know it's time to "play ball!" See a mandril with a nasty spitter. See the Amazing Steroid Monkey drive balls hundreds of feet with his oversized arms. Watch an orangutan keep score–with his feet! The fun doesn't stop until you run out of money.