Back For More - 2002 Spring Recap

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McKechnie Field - Bradenton

Editors note: This is my fourth trip to Spring Training. The first was in 1989 as a 13-year old, then while in college my friend Joe and I embarked on a trip in 1997. Since then Joe has left Peachtree City, Georgia for Bradenton, Florida and has hosted my back-to-back excursions in 2001 & 2002.

Another Spring Training trip has come and gone and although it was difficult to top the previous year’s tale, my 2002 version had its share of memorable moments, and one surprising low that threatened the sanctity of what is turning into an annual pilgrimage.

Much like last year, the vacation was scheduled to last two weeks but stretched to three, courtesy of unforeseen circumstances. In 2001 it was a loss of my job, as I was laid off within minutes of my first destination in Melbourne. With no compelling reason to return, I spent an extra week in Florida to contemplate my misfortunate.

The sequel to the previous year’s disaster occurred on a Sunday morning in route to this year’s most eagerly anticipated spring venue in Vero Beach. On an otherwise forgettable stretch of I-75 just north of the Bradenton exit, the only car I’d ever known suffered a sudden blow that lead to its untimely demise.

After passing the 125,000 mile benchmark on my triumphant return to the Sunshine State, my 1991 Dodge Shadow convertible blew its motor six days later, although I didn’t realize the severity of the damage until an hour later when the tow truck operator alerted my attention to the leaked oil and anti freeze fluid on the pavement underneath the car.

Until that point I thought that maybe I had a minor mechanical problem or a flat tire, or that the small trifle of smoke that had billowed from the back of the car as I pulled over signaled nothing more than the need for a new muffler.

7 years of memories
Shadow at Twins Spring Training
May 14, 1995 - March 10, 2002
Besides, the car had never run better than in the previous week, as I followed up the lengthy Peachtree City to Bradenton run with a trip to Ft. Myers and the previous day’s visit to Dunedin, which turned out to be my final trip in the Shadow.

The irony of the situation was compounded by my belief that everything was going so well that something was probably going to go wrong soon – and it did a day later. All this happened just two days after Joe’s Maxima finally went kaput, leaving the two of us without a mode of transportation.

And which meant I had finally finished off the not-so-good trifecta of being unemployed, living at home, and not owning a car.

Well, technically I wasn’t at home when this happened, and I’ve traveled so much in the past year that I’ve never really settled into the nest. And then there’s all of the work I’ve done with the Baseball Tips website, so I haven’t exactly been abstinent from contributing to a company’s bottom line.

But mere technicalities no longer gave way to the fact I didn’t have a car.

So we rented a car, Joe and I, for a week and trips to Jupiter, Kissimmee, and Sanibel Island went on without a hitch.

For my second straight trip to Florida I found myself in a rented Ford Escort, making the most of the unlimited mileage. And once again, it didn’t take the full week to top 1,000 miles.

But before the week’s rental expired another miracle occurred, this one of the ear-to-ear smile variety.

A new beginning
Me and my Miata
March 16 - Clearwater
While looking to replace the Black Sheep of the Joemobile line, I happened to stumble upon the original car of my dreams, the Mazda Miata, on a warm Thursday evening at a CarMax in Clearwater.

A day later, on March 15th, I was once again back on the road – in style, no less – in my new ride, as they sun shone down on my 1997 black convertible.

In reality, the purchase was such a surprise that I had already arranged to fly back to Atlanta on March 16 by having a buddy pass sent to me. But the new car meant that the fun must go on, and so it did.

The first trip in my Miata was to Port Charlotte, where a split-squad of Red Sox defeated the Rangers and their starting pitcher, John Rocker.

Unlike Spring Training’s past, I focused primarily on attending games involving only the Red Sox in 2002, the reason being that I had already been to almost every ballpark in previous visits.

So it was at a leisurely pace that I consumed 10 games in 9 ballparks over my 20-day duration in Florida.

Since the trip to Vero Beach never materialized, only one new ballpark was added to my lifetime list of baseball pilgrimages.

Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium is the newest, and perhaps nicest, ballpark on the Grapefruit League circuit. It also has the distinction of being the only facility to host two teams, the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals, during Spring Training. That distinction will probably come to an end with Montreal’s impending extinction.

It was on March 13, a Wednesday afternoon, in one of our two day-night spring doubleheaders, that I was able to pry Joe away from Chili’s stranglehold and make my debut at Jupiter for an Expos-Red Sox game.

Among the memories and nuances of the afternoon was vegetarian Joe’s insistence that we not eat at McDonald’s, which turned out to be the only restaurant within a five-mile radius of the ballpark.

The end result was subs at Publix, although we still made the first pitch with time to spare. The stadium itself was located in the maze of roads that lead to the campus of Florida Atlantic University, and right behind it was a movie theatre and a shopping center.

Another spring first was our placement in the berm section, located down the right field line and directly behind the Red Sox bullpen. This section quickly became known as autograph haven for the few who actually had the tickets to sit in it. Ushers wouldn’t let those without the $7 stubs in, so not only did we pay the least amount of admission available, we were also in the one section of the stadium that appeared to be elusive to everyone else.

But we left our place in the grass when the love bug invasion came in the third inning, and spent the next few innings closer to the action.

From our experience in Jupiter, we dubbed it the city of young hot moms, which needs no explaining.

Also, since the Expos were playing the public address announcements were in both French and English.

The nightcap didn’t have quite as much excitement or eye candy, as we drove the rental northward to Kissimmee’s Osceola Stadium where we watched the Marlins edge the Astros 4-3.

Kissimmee was where the Graham & Joe Spring Training Trips got their start in 1997, and it was the first time either of us had returned to where it all began. The nearby Ballpark Inn & Suites, host to our first night in ’97, still existed under the same name, somewhat to our surprise.

The cool evening provided us with a pair of memorable moments, the first involving “The Slinger,” an older gentlemen usher whose attempt to take our picture went awry when he accidentally hurled Joe’s new digital camera to the concrete floor. Although the camera appeared to shatter on impact, it was just the four batteries dislodging themselves that made the crash a spectacular site to behold.

Fortunately, Joe’s camera survived the sudden impact. Unfortunately, none of his night pictures turned out very well, as the camera is a bit on the cheap side.

The other moment of zen occurred near the end of the game as we were standing in the concourse near home plate. It came to our attention that the Marlins’ starting pitcher, Claudio Vargas, was standing next to us in his street clothes. It turned out he pitched better than he spoke English and no attempt at a conversation was made.

The remaining two games in one day trip marked the debut of the Joemobile Maxima part deux, also purchased in Clearwater, albeit at a “buy here, pay here” lot. An upgrade from the original Maxima, and POS, the ’91 version is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye courtesy of its sportier design, and the automatic transmission was a departure from the stick shift of Maxima number one.

I’ll give Joe credit as a shrewd negotiator for working the price down from the original $4,900 to a more modest $3,800. Unlike the previous lemon, which Joe spent $5,500 on repairs during its three-year reign, Joe hopes for better luck with Maxima II.

Of course a car doesn’t become a Joemobie without a few quirks or two, and Maxima II comes fully equipped with those: a sunroof that doesn’t work quite right and break signals that come on when the breaks aren’t depressed and don’t when they are.

Be it as it may, we arrived in Winter Haven on Friday, March 22 to watch the Indians and Braves at Chain of Lakes Park, which marked my return to the stadium 13 years after seeing my first Spring Training game here.

A lot has changed since then, most notably the tenants: the Indians replaced the Red Sox in 1993.

I personally gave Winter Haven high marks, and the ability to stand directly behind the outfield fence received rave reviews on our part. Chain of Lakes Park is the closest stadium to being fully enclosed that I’ve encountered, as metal bleachers sprout away from the grandstand toward each foul line, and continue in left field.

The nightcap continued the tradition of seeing at least one “shivering after sunset” game, as the temperatures dropped steadily into the Lakeland night.

The Tigers’ Joker Marchant Stadium was just as I had remembered it in our previous visit in 1997 and thanks to a buy one get one ticket promotion Joe and I had grandstand seats for a mere total of $10.

As usual, Lakeland provided its memorable follies. The souvenir soda cup listed the evening’s opponents as the Kansas City Chiefs, not the Royals.

And then there were the fools who parked too close to the stadium behind the gigantic metal bleacher left field grandstand. I personally witnessed two cars struck by foul balls and leaving the game we were able to see the damage: a Cadillac with its window cracked and another auto that had its bumper bruised by a scorching line drive.

With the exception of the Winter Haven/Lakeland double dip, every other day of baseball involved the Red Sox, including two trips to City of Palms Park in Ft. Myers, the aforementioned Miata debut in Port Charlotte, the afternoon in Jupiter, and games at Bradenton’s charming McKechnie Field and St. Petersburg’s scenic Al Lang Field, located yards from the bay.

Despite Bradenton being ground zero for five weeks of Spring Training departures over the previous two years, it was the first game Joe and I had seen here since 1997. Ditto for St. Pete, sans Joe (at work, of course), which had been renamed Florida Power Park at Al Lang Field in the interim.

Since most of the games I saw involved the Red Sox the crowds were large and I mixed with New Englanders at each ballpark, where Red Sox fans outnumbered opposing team fans at each Spring venue I attended, and numerous Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, & New Hampshire license plates were littered through the grass parking lots.

Unlike 2001, I intended to make an earnest effort to regain steady employment and I thought I might have found such a job in the online division of the local Tampa ABC affiliate. Unfortunately, the job had been gobbled up about the time I heard about it.

Whether or not I’ll make a return visit to many of the ballparks in 2003 as a visitor or Florida resident remains to be seen. If I return as a tourist the Hotel Joe, or HoJoe, needs to utilize its air conditioner.

Never one to arise early, the oppressive indoor heat made sleeping past eight a virtual impossibility. The price of a cup of coffee would have afforded me a comfortable nights rest, but Joe would hear none of it.

My innkeeper was also the beneficiary of what I deemed jet lag, since I was up a couple hours earlier than normal, yet tired and in bed often before the clock turned midnight, a feat I’m unaccustomed to.

Since Maxima I died before the Shadow, I was running a shuttle service between the HoJoe and Chili’s on a daily basis around 7:30 am. Later splitting a rental car meant more of the same, and since it was too warm in the apartment to go back to sleep I got an early start to most days.

As for the final postscripts to the cars that were intact when I arrived, we each sold them for fractions of what we originally paid for: the Shadow for $125 and Maxima for $100. Let it be known, noted Joe, that I had just put in a full tank of gas the evening before the Shadow’s doomsday.

And so it was that the Spring Training journey of 2002 became the backdrop to yet another moment of frustration, one that was wiped away a half-dozen days later by the signature event of the trip, as I left Florida on March 24 with something unexpected: a new car.

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