SPRING TRAINING IS SPECIAL

After the drama and excitement of the Playoffs and World Series of 2016, it seemed like it took forever for baseball to come back but it’s back. Spring Training games started this week and the Red Sox are co-favorites with the Chicago Cubs, at 9-2, to win the World Series.

It doesn’t get any better than that in New England, especially after the excitement of the Patriots fifth Super Bowl win. Fans can’t wait to get into Fenway Park and see their heroes back at work. People have written for years about the special experience of coming up out of the tunnel at Fenway and seeing the green grass and that magnificent old Ballpark. I have been in 23 Major League Ballparks and the feeling when you first see the field is always awesome but none as special as Fenway.

The season opens on April 2 and the Red Sox open their season at Fenway against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 3 at 2:05 p. m.

I saw a video of a player on Facebook today playing catch with a youngster in the stands during a Spring Training workout and was reminded that, even though watching a Major League game in person is one of life’s special thrills, going to a Spring Training game can be even more special, in some ways.

If you have never gone to Spring Training and enjoy baseball as much as I do, you have missed a great experience. The Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays, the entire American League East, the most powerful division in baseball, all do their Spring Training in Florida, along with 11 other teams.

The pictures of the player playing catch with the kid in the stands is typical of the Spring Training experience. Spring Training is a time for fans to get an opportunity to interact with players in a relaxed atmosphere while getting away from the cold of the northeast. Getting away from the snow is wonderful in itself but when you add in the opportunity to watch the greatest baseball players in the world get ready for another season, you are as close to baseball heaven as you can get.

Just watching the players interact with the fans before the pressure of the season is worth the trip. I recall one year, at Spring Training in Arizona, watching Cory Hart, who at the time was with the Milwaukee Brewers, signing autographs for kids on the first base line before a game and they had to physically pull him away and get him to right field so they could start the game. Often, before a game, a player or coach will climb over the railing and sit and talk with people in the stands for a few minutes.

There are 13 ball parks in Florida hosting Spring Training for 15 teams. The St. Louis Cardinals share a field for home games with the Florida Marlins and the Houston Astros with the Washington Nationals. The Red Sox, of course, play at Jet Blue Park, also known as Fenway South, a modern stadium, in Fort Myers, that seats 11,000 fans. Outside the park there are picnic benches, food tents and music and, before the game starts, people gather for a social event. Inside, of course, you have the replica of the Green Monster and all the joys and comforts of an exceptionally fan friendly ball park.

To top it all off, admission is relatively cheap compared to a regular season game. For example, tickets to see the Sox host the Tampa Bay Rays next week are $10-$28. depending upon the type seat and you can stand or sit on the grass berm for $5. One thing never changes, whether it’s Spring Training or regular season, you’ll still pay an arm and a leg for a beer or hot dog, but getting into the game is more than reasonable.

Up the road in Tampa, where the Yankees play at George M. Steinbrenner Field, you park in a lot shared with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football field, Raymond James Stadium, and walk up a ramp over the highway to get to this beautiful stadium which seats 10,000. The park has all the amenities of the new Major League Parks, including souvenir shops, pubs, hot dog stands and other places to spend your money. Over the last two off seasons, the park underwent $40. million dollars in renovations and now is better than ever.

The crowds always have a large percentage of older fans but there are many young people and children as well and the atmosphere is always relaxed. All the ball parks have more than enough volunteers, usually retirees, which there are always plenty of in Florida, to help you with seating, directions or anything else you need to make your visit comfortable. Those retirees are happy to help of course, what could be better than answering a few questions and helping a few people to get to see a game free and hob nob with the players.

Most of the fields are on or near the west coast so within fairly reasonable driving distance of each other and sometimes, if you are a real baseball nut, like I am, you can get to see two games in one day, one in the afternoon and one at night.

Another unique characteristic of Spring Training that appeals to the truly dedicated fan is the opportunity to visit the training complex outside the Stadium. Most of the teams have practice fields adjacent to the stadiums where you can watch your favorite players and even the players of the future take infield, batting practice or other drills.

The Spring Training experience is something every baseball fan should do at least once, but Spring Training is like potato chips, you can’t eat just one. If you go to one, you’ll be hooked and will be back.

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