The day dawns cloudy and cool and rain is in the forecast, but who cares, it’s spring training in Florida and I’m going to the game! The Baltimore Orioles are facing the Tampa Bay Rays in Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. I have no affection or affiliation with either team, but who cares, it’s baseball! I’ve waited out those long months after the World Series last October and now ball is back.
What am I doing in Sarasota? Aunt-sitting. I am staying with my wife’s aunt Anna in a part of Sarasota called Pinecraft. It’s a community of Amish and Mennonites, mainly from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana, who spend the winter months here, since there’s very little farming to do up north. Anna appears as Hannah in my Rebecca Zook Amish novels, but today I am on assignment for my novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson.
My friends Jim and Barb pick me up and we park in the CVS lot four long blocks from the stadium to save the $10 parking fee. Yes, you can actually park next to a baseball stadium for $10 down here. Upon arriving at the gate, I am surprised to learn that one is not allowed to take an umbrella into the stadium. I thought it might be because umbrellas block the view of others, but the ticket-taker tells me it is because an umbrella is considered a “weapon.” Such is the world we live in. (I learned later they made another customer tear off the nail file part of his small nail clipper. Amazing.). “Let’s hide them in the bushes,” I say to Barb. “I didn’t hear that,” the ticket-taker says. So we do, and enter the stadium.
“Thank you for coming!” a greeter says as we enter. That’s not the greeting one gets at, say, Yankee Stadium, but that’s what’s so wonderful about a baseball game in a minor-league park: everything is so easy and friendly. We make our way past the lemonade stands and the beer stands and stop at a table for some free stuff: sunscreen and lip balm, and I restrain myself from taking more than one pen. On past the charity pitching event, where you can throw 3 balls into a catcher’s mitt for $5.00, then up the ramp into the seats.
And there it is: a baseball diamond, one of the sacred sights of fandom. Grass so green it looks painted. The outfield fence bedecked with colorful signs. The American flag happily flapping behind the centerfield wall. The mathematical symmetry of it all: bases 90 feet apart, the pitcher’s mound 60 feet 6 inches from home plate, the coach’s boxes outlined in perfect rectangular white. At the moment, a strapping youth is painting the foul lines, carefully rolling a small box with a white paint can along the dirt from home plate to the outfield. This is not a job I could handle, I realize. No way I could roll that in a straight line.
Being in a baseball park allows such whimsical, random thoughts. People complain that a game of baseball takes too long, but in this always-on society of ours, there is a blessed slowness to everything I see around me. We are an hour before game time, so the players have completed their warmups and are back in the locker room, but there is still plenty to distract the eye– and the brain. I watch the four-man crew carefully water the infield dirt with a long hose sprouting from a tap behind the pitcher’s mound. I watch another crew roll back the tarp covering the pitcher’s mound. Fans stand around chatting with each other or with the ushers that graciously show patrons to their seats. Everything is so relaxed, as if all of us collectively are engaged in one long sigh of contentment.
A Baltimore Oriole player wanders onto the field, followed by another, then a group of four amiably chatting with each other. I am struck by the immaculate white of their uniform pants, dazzling in the sunshine. How can the laundry possibly get them that white each night? Or do they buy new ones every few days? Given the fact that baseball owners pay players millions of dollars each season, an astronomical clothing bill would not seem out of the ordinary.
Fans stand along the edge of the stadium and players obligingly stroll over to sign autographs. Some of the fans offer baseballs to sign, but others are handing over a small piece of cardboard which I take to be the ticket. But when I get up to get a closer look, I am delighted to see that they are offering baseball cards to be signed. Yes, baseball cards still exist and people still collect them. In fact, there is a woman who has an entire photo album and she has numerous players sign the various cards. There is a wonderful intimacy between fans and players in spring training. They actually talk to each other. “Where’re you from?” “Southern California.” “How’s the weather?” “’Bout like this.” “Nice!” And the players are invariably polite. For each “Thank you” offered by a fan, there is always a “You’re welcome.” This casual camaraderie is one of the singular delights of spring training baseball.
Behind the autograph signers, players begin to loosen up. One does a kind of dance step across the outfield grass, crossing one leg over the other and then that leg back over the lead leg, on and on in a nimble display of athleticism. Another player sits on his backside, stretches one leg in front of him and the other behind and all I can think is “How can he possibly do that?” Others stretch or do squats or jumping jacks or run sprints. Still others begin to play catch with each other, though I doubt “catch” is what they call it. That’s what my father and I or my brother and I used to call it: “Hey, wanna play catch?” I enjoy the “thwack” of the baseball as it snaps into a glove, such a satisfying sound, so firm and final. And how easy it is for professional ball players to throw the ball hard. If I threw as hard as I could, I couldn’t match the speed of their casual tosses.
The manager ambles across the field. At least my guess is that he’s the manager from his pot-belly slouch and air of authority. He’s wearing the number 20 in a circle near his left shoulder. Then I notice all the Orioles are wearing that number. Jim informs me that it is in honor of Frank Robinson, the Cincinnati and Oriole star who recently passed away. Besides his all-star career as a player, Robinson was the first black manager in baseball, knocking down an important barrier. My favorite quote about him is that when all-star pitcher Jim Bouton was asked how he would pitch to Robinson, he answered “reluctantly.”
“Hot dogs, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, cold water!” The cry of one of the numerous refreshment peddlers (I’m sure that’s not the word, probably something mundane like “vendors”) startles me out of my Robinson reverie. I note the prices: $5.25 for Cracker Jacks and $6.00 for a hot dog. I think about buying Cracker Jacks purely from a nostalgia point of view, because I really don’t want to eat all that sugar. And can I go to a baseball game and not buy a dog? But I resist, promising myself I’ll buy a beer later in honor of my day at the ball park.
“Ice cold beer! Bud, Coors, Miller Light, ice cold beer!” The voice is so loud in my ear that I jump. It belongs to a large African-American man sporting a big green one-foot high crown on his head with two large ears on it. He’s wearing a tee-shirt that says “Play hard, drink well.” And he’s a natural-born entertainer, laughing and talking with everyone. When he sells a beer, he says “Don’t forget to tip the bartender!” And sell beer he does and tip the bartender people do. He has an impressive wad of bills in his hand as he makes change, though he usually cajoles folks into letting him keep the change. I can’t for the life of me figure out what that large foam hat on his head is. Then he answers my question. “Anytime you need more beer, look for the Elephant Man,” he says as he shoulders his cooler and moves to the next aisle. The Elephant Man, of course. Every baseball park should have one.
The announcer comes on the P.A. system to tell us that the temperature in Baltimore is 46 degrees and in Sarasota it’s 77. This elicits a loud cheer from the assembled, and I, too, offer a prayer of gratitude that I’m aunt-sitting here and not ensconced in my lonely office in Connecticut, where it is no doubt much colder. The players on each team stand at the top of the dugout stairs, as if anticipating the action to come. I find this a charming sight. These are not jaded professionals sitting in the dugout looking at their cell phones. These men are excited to be on the verge of playing a game of baseball.
The announcer commands “All rise for our national anthem.” A pretty blonde comes onto the video screen in right field and sings quite professionally. I stare at the flag and give thanks for America’s pastime. Standing here, having enjoyed all the pre-game activities with the few thousand fans who clearly are happy to be here, it is possible to feel that perhaps baseball is not past its time after all. Then everyone in the stadium shouts “O!” at the moment “O say does that star-spangled banner…” comes along. “O” for the O’s, the nickname of the Baltimore Orioles. I laugh out-loud at this humorous tradition. Baseball fans enjoy not only the game but making high spirits of every aspect of it they can. And now it’s time to “Play ball!”
Granville Wyche Burgess is an Emmy-nominated playwright and novelist. He is the author of The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe, a novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, to be published by Chickadee Prince in May, and which is available for pre-order on Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore.