Spring training games finally started last week in both Florida and Arizona. This is a magical time of the year in either of those two locations for serious baseball fans. The only time of the year when you can wander into a major league facility, sit down in the seats and watch your heroes and a bunch of other guys you never heard of work out the kinks and get ready for the real thing which starts on April 5 this year and not even have to pay to get in.

At most training facilities, most of the fields that are used for workouts and practicing are located around the stadiums where the games are played and are open to the public free of charge or you can watch from behind the fence. If you are a real baseball nut, you don’t care if you are watching one of the minor league teams that share the camp with the big guys or watching the real thing, it’s baseball, the sun is out, winter is over and all you can look forward to baseball, baseball, and more baseball for the next six or seven months.

On March 23, the van carrying the Johnson team and all its equipment starts south from Sanford, Maine. This is our year to visit the Grapefruit League in Florida as we alternate years between Arizona and Florida so we won’t have to de-ice the car before we start. The last week or two of spring training is the best for me. The regulars are starting and playing most of the games by then and, even though the games mean nothing, the jockeying for starting positions and roster spots is getting down to the real thing.

We always leave for Florida with our winter clothes on hoping we will not need them when we get there. Two years ago, we sat with winter jackets on and blankets wrapped around us at two night games in Steinbrenner Field.

Whereas in Arizona, the spring training stadiums are uniformly relatively new and well kept, there is a bit of a contrast in Florida. Steinbrenner Field is a state of the art facility that looks like a new, smaller, regular major league stadium and seats over 11,000 and of course the Red Sox Jet Blue Park is almost new and the Orioles Ed Smith Stadium is a beautiful facility which has been refurbished recently. Then there are fields like the Blue Jays facility, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, in Dunedin which is an older facility, built in 1990, with a capacity of 5,500 fans, which was showing its wear when we were there two years ago.

But even in the older ball parks, the atmosphere is conducive to having a good time. You can park in the VFW lot across the street, somebody’s yard or a similar facility and sit at large picnic tables inside the park while waiting for the game to start with a dozen of your new best friends. We actually sat at a table in Dunedin one time with 14 people we had never seen before and found we were all from Maine, two from Shapleigh.

Even with the season getting close, the players are more relaxed and willing to spend time with fans, young and old. Before and after games, a lot of kids get the thrill of their lives having a picture taken with or getting an autograph from a real major leaguer. Corey Hart, the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder, became one of my favorite players when he was with the Milwaukee Brewers, when I watched him, game after game, sign autographs for kids until he had to race to get to his position when the game was about to start.

Being Red Sox and Yankee fans, we will see them play three times each and will also concentrate on the rest of the American League East. We will see a night game at Jet Blue between the Twins and Red Sox on March 30 after having a book signing for my book ‘From Beer To Beards, Boston Baseball’s 2011-2013 Roller Coaster Ride’ at Lee County Library in Estero at 4:00 that afternoon. If you’re in the area, stop in and say hello, we promise no high pressure to sell the book.

We’re also staying for opening day at Tropicana Field on April 6 to see the American League East Champion Orioles play the Rays. This will be the third time in the last five years we have seen the Rays open against the O’s and it will be different without Joe Maddon in the Rays dugout, Ben Zobrist at short or second for the Rays and Nick Markakis in right field for the O’s.

We always make it a point to visit the Ted Williams Museum on the first floor of the Trop, which is a great place to watch a game, and always leave after the game with a slight headache as there are more cow bells per capita in that ballpark than anywhere else in the world. There is no other experience in sports like a major league opening day and I am one of those people that think opening day should be a national holiday.

Spring training is a wonderful experience for any baseball fan either casual or rabid and leaving New England at the end of a winter like we have experienced makes it even more special. It seems like it’s been forever since the 2014 season ended but the 2015 season will be well worth the wait.

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