Where Spring Begins

baseballWe paid ten dollars to the lady wearing a Home Depot apron and neon traffic vest for the honor of parking at the Good Earth Crematory, right next to Bradenton Propane, across the street from Top Gun Towing. We piled out of the car and followed one of the golf carts driven by a security member (as denoted by his red collared shirt with the yellow “P” embroidered over his heart) to the oasis of tall palm trees poking out from the surrounding yards of rusty chain-link fence.

This was my last night in Florida. The next day, I would fly back to Jackson, Tennessee. The day I left, it was 48-degrees with fierce winds blowing across a landscape of brown grass and gray skies. Growing up in the Sunshine State, I struggle to understand why it still feels like the dead of winter in March, but that isn’t what prevented it from feeling like spring; it was the sense of not honoring one of our beloved traditions: spring training.

Outside McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training field, one man holds up helmets with Pirates’ and Tampa Bay Rays’ logos, calling out, “Ten dollars! Ten dollars!” Two men hold fistfuls of tickets in the air and cry with raspy voices, “Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!” They stare us down with dollar signs dancing in their vulture-like eyes even though we’re holding our large, pre-printed entry passes to scare them off.

It’s only 15 minutes until game time and a sizable crowd is meandering into the stadium, a mob of black and yellow Pirate jerseys, blue and white Rays jerseys, and gaudy Hawaiian prints. The crowd narrows into four lines, passing by security guards who scan passes and glance into bags for contraband (weapons, drugs, and opened water bottles).

We finally squeeze through. Even though I’ve been coming to ballparks for as long as I can remember, I am still hopelessly incapable of finding seats. Trusting my dad’s confident stride, I follow my parents around the back of the grandstand.

The tops of palm trees reach higher than any of the bleachers. Green, perfectly manicured grass grows around the trunks of the trees, like small squares of the perfectly manicured lawns of the expensive houses by the bay. People recline in plastic lawn chairs, sipping large cups of lemonade in the shade.

Fried foods, grilled onions and peppers, hotdogs, and ketchup scent the open-air stadium. Smoke rises from some of the food vendor stalls, not black smoke, but a delicate, whitish smoke that promises something delicious and fattening is about to come off the grill. Although the food vendors wear black caps with yellow “P” on them, branding them for Pittsburgh, their tanned arms and easy-going smiles have a distinctly Floridian vibe.

I used to have a system for eating at the ballpark. After the third inning, while the groundkeepers tidied the field, I would get a foot-long hot dog, ketchup oozing over the meat and a thin line of mustard down one side. I never added mustard when I ate a hot dog at home, but the baseball diamond seemed to require a special touch, like trying to dress up an old t-shirt with a statement necklace. After the sixth inning, when the groundkeepers again magically re-emerged, pulling their rakes, I would slowly consume a pretzel larger than my fist, cholesterol levels flaring as I bit into the chewy dough wrapped in a chrysalis of salt. My gluten allergy and health consciousness (read: calorie counting) prevent me from eating those foods now, but the smell still makes my mouth water and heart beat a little faster.

It’s almost 6 p.m. on the last Saturday of March and the Florida sun, while not oppressive, shines brightly. My dad and I are wearing shorts and a Rays shirt, but Mom wore jeans, an elbow-length Tampa Bay Lightning shirt over a camisole, and a baseball cap with the logo of the company my dad works for.

“I didn’t realize we were playing the Pirates,” she says regretfully, adjusting the black and yellow hat. Dad reminds her that this is their stadium.

Mom removes the Lightning shirt soon after sitting down. I pull down the brim of my hot pink Rays cap just over my eyebrows so I could see home base without squinting. Over the course of the game, the sun slowly dropped out of sight, warming the left side of my face. This is probably the only spring training game I’ve been to that I won’t get a sunburn.

The players are still warming up, rolling on the ground with resistance bands, throwing a ball back and forth, and running with strange, skipping steps, kicking their knees high and wringing their waists like a wet towel. A few jerseys don’t have names on them, signifying their minor league status.

Mom nudges me and points to kids crowding the fences, holding balls, notebooks, and Sharpies high in the air. “Remember when that was Ryan?”

We used to come to games three hours early so that my cousin Ryan could collect autographs. However, now that he’s 6’4” and captain of the high school football team, players overlook him (or look under him) in favor of younger fans.

We’re sitting in the grandstand near the Pirates’ dugout, surrounded by black and yellow shirts. We’re less than an hour away from Tampa Bay, home of the Rays, but these interlopers have acclimated themselves nicely to their sunny environment, growing like an exotic plant, trying to choke out the native flora.

I don’t actually have anything against the Pirates or their fans (unlike the Red Sox or Yankees). Nevertheless, I feel a mother-bear protectiveness whenever my team is playing.

I’m too far away to hear the sounds of the game: the taunting whistle of the ball as it jauntily flies over home plate at over 90 mph; the desperate whoosh of the bat as a nameless jersey wildly beats the air; the low, satisfying thump as a fly ball securely nestles itself in an outfielder’s outstretched glove; the scuffle of cleats as a player slides onto a base; the emphatic, guttural declarations of the umpire.

The noise surrounding me drowns out what is happening on the field. My ears hum with cheers when a beloved player steps up to bat. The child behind me tries to intelligently discuss the game. (“Can he steal the base now, dad?”) A couple can’t figure out where they’re supposed to sit and keep getting booted out from their seats complain complacently. The loudspeaker echoes with announcements. (“Now, stepping up to the mound, third baseman, Evan Longoria!”) The food vendors impressively extend monosyllabic words as they climb through the stands. (“Bee-eer! Get yer ice-cold bee-eer!”) Sometimes, I can’t see the ump’s sharp hand signals, but I almost always hear the response from the crowd, whether they’re applauding an excellent call (which, coincidentally, benefits their team) or demanding his head while waving torches and pitchforks (i.e., hot dogs and soda bottles).

There’s no Jumbo Tron, no cameras scanning the crowd, no boisterous fans in heavy face paint, no walk up music to rev up the crowd as players swagger to the plate. Seagulls glide over the field, extending their wings and emitting small cries, as though they’re gunning for the best view of the game and cheering on players. In the spaces between the stands on the other side of the stadium, I can see an automotive building and cars driving past. In the seventh inning, a drunk man jumped onto the field and threw beer cans at the Rays dugout. There’s a distinct lack of the extravagant glamour and sleek intensity that we’ve come to expect while watching professional sports.

The only thing that doesn’t change from preseason to regular season is the people: the little leaguers with major league dreams; the men whose faded caps cover balding heads filled with the stats of every player on the field; the families raising their kids to love the sport and know who to root for (“Not the Yankees, Ali”); the people who don’t seem to know what’s happening or even who is playing, like the woman sitting in front of me wearing a Yankees shirt, Yankees cap, and Yankees headband. (Just…why?)

The famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams holds true: if you build it, they will come. Whether you build a multimillion dollar stadium or build it in a city neighborhood beside a crematory and a towing company, we always come. Because the red dirt of the infield spells out something more valuable than most things written in Expo marker on a classroom whiteboard. Because here we find friends and nemeses (here’s looking at you, Yankee Doodle lady). Because spring doesn’t enter like a lion or a lamb or with a balmy breeze and kaleidoscopes of flowers. Spring begins here. With the thump of a leather glove.

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