Tales from Spring Training: Mets and Nats

Palm trees swaying in the breeze. Baseballs thudding into catcher’s mitts. The distinctive “crack” echoing over green expanses.

These are the images that kept me going through the cold, dark months of December and January as I counted down the days to Spring Training, my first visit in three years.

As in my previous two visits, I would be chronicling my travels for SCD, though my modus operandi would be different.
What happened was, my wife Maria and I had racked up a lot of “points” on our credit card and were in danger of losing them. So, although she couldn’t get time off from work (and my high school-aged daughter was “too busy”) during President’s Week, I was given her blessing to use the points for a free round-trip ticket to the Sunshine State to spend five glorious days with my parents, who each year winter in Vero Beach, Fla., home of Dodgertown and centrally located on Florida’s Treasure (East) Coast.

The problem was that I would be without Maria, who had proven to be invaluable as my “lab rat” in her efforts to acquire autographs and get her picture taken with various baseball personalities while I observed, took notes, handled the photography and got some sound bites. Now I would have to do it all, which necessitated some careful planning.

Because I only had five days this time, I had to pare down my visits from four clubs to three, one being the Dodgers, whom I’d see twice since it would be their last year at historic Dodgertown. I then decided on the Mets and Nationals because they were within an hour drive and have historically offered markedly different collecting experiences. Also, the fourth club I’d visited previously, the Marlins, had the same basic makeup as the Nationals (low-budget, low-profile roster) and presented a possible highway traffic nightmare.

Next, I would have to come fully prepared with baseballs, pens, rosters, two functioning cameras (in case one failed), my pocket tape recorder and notebook, all of which I’d have to juggle in my shoulder bag.

Unfortunately, I’d have to forego photo-ops with players, one of Maria’s specialties. During our past visits I’d snapped her picture with guys such as Jeff Torborg, Frank Robinson, Milton Bradley, Tommy John, Maury Wills and ABC News anchor Charles Gibson. (By the way, the only one who didn’t return a signed 8-by-10 of the photo, which was mailed with a friendly request letter and SASE, was Robinson). I’d also have to get out of my comfort zone and actually try to obtain autographs (thereby foregoing any use of a press pass). It seems I lack the natural talents for this endeavor, as I am not large, aggressive and/or pushy; nor am I sweet and/or somewhat attractive, as I’ve observed from successful female collectors such as my wife.
Finally, I was further limited by the fact that, unlike my previous full-family visits, I had to watch my pennies and wouldn’t be renting a car. Do you know what it’s like to be 50 years old and have to ask Dad to borrow the wheels for half a day? Good thing I set aside golf and fishing time in the afternoon to make it up to him.

Below, I will describe my experiences at the two camps I visited: the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals. This would be the first week of full workouts for the clubs, with most, if not all, players in attendance.

Port St. Lucie: Desperately
Seeking Santana

As I tooled down I-95 with my shades on and the Beach Boys blaring on the stereo, I went over what I’d learned during previous visits to Tradition Field, home of the Mets in Port St. Lucie.

To begin, this town has grown steadily over the past decade (though the players still decry its lack of nightlife), and it’s even more dramatic when you drop in every few years. Once you leave the highway and begin your approach to the Mets complex, more office buildings, condos and restaurants line the route.

The transformation in this town since the beginning of the Mets’ tenancy is dramatic.
I also recalled that the actual ballpark where the Metropolitans play their spring games, Tradition Field (formerly Thomas J. White Stadium), is not accessible to fans during practice, which is a shame because the team takes a lot of batting practice there.

The parking was the same (free, in a grassy lot), and I entered through the familiar tent where security staff took a quick peek in my unwieldy shoulder bag, handed me a cardboard diagram of the complex and team roster (which included an area for autographs) and told me to have a nice day. Admission was free, but I was told later that the club started charging $2, with the proceeds going to charity.

Let’s pause here to talk about the fine people who work at the majority of Spring Training camps as greeters, security and what have you. Many are local senior citizens who are employed by the clubs on a temporary basis, and some have been back year after year. Their typical “uniform” is a team-issued golf or Hawaiian shirt, a team hat, an ID tag and a smile. They are some of the friendliest, most accommodating people you’ll ever meet. They are extremely patient and knowledgeable, whether it’s finding out the best places to wait for players or whom might be a good bet to offer an autograph. Most Spring Training practices (before the games start) begin around 9:45 a.m. and can stretch to 1:30 p.m. or later, and that’s a lot of standing around in the hot sun for these folks. So, I always try to make small talk and have even brought one a bottle of water on occasion.

OK, back to Port St. Lucie. I arrived around a half hour before practice and was treated to a small group of players, including Mets stars David Wright and Jose Reyes, being tested by the team’s conditioning coach in a variety of agility drills. Since they went one at a time, the other players lounged on the grass in T-shirts and shorts and generally ragged on whomever was running. Reyes got on Wright so badly that as soon as he finished his shuttle run, he playfully dove on his teammate and they wrestled on the grass. However, when they were done they executed a quick exit, disappointing the hundred or so fans pleading for autographs.

That’s the problem with Port St. Lucie. There are really only two specific areas for fans to obtain autographs. One is a long, 6-foot-high chain-link fence which borders the main practice diamond’s right field line. This field is where practice both begins and ends with stretching and running. What’s worse is that on the fans’ side, it drops away a bit, so unless you’re 6-foot, 5-inches, you’ll have a problem looking the player in the eye and/or handing things over. This fence is intersected at a right angle by a 4-foot fence that’s about half the length. Now, where do you think most of the players choose to sign?

In fact, if a player doesn’t feel like signing at Mets camp, there is almost no way to get his autograph. The fenced-off main field is adjacent, through a covered rear walkway, to the clubhouses and stadium. The only shot you’ll have is when the players, who are divided into smaller groups by position, break up and take to the six or seven smaller diamonds (all of which are fenced off), and rotate with the blast of an air horn every 15 minutes. When this occurs, a security guard or two man the gate entrances and clear a path, and the players jog (or bolt) the short distance across the paved paths to the next field. On the rare occasion that one slows to a stop, an autograph or two can be had.

So anyway, practice started and the team stretched and warmed up together on the main field, followed by the players dispersing to the far reaches of the complex. Now, for some, baseball drills are boring and repetitious. Pitchers practice covering first, infielders glide after grounders, catchers stagger under pop-ups fired from a jugs gun pointed skyward. During this time, I like to just wander around from field to field, taking in the sun and the ambiance. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that the groups were rotating clockwise, and if one was determined to track a specific ballplayer, he could position himself at the entrance to the next diamond and lay in wait.   

Of course, some people in the crowd, which grew steadily by the minute, just staked out a spot at the aforementioned chain-link fences of the main practice field and waited . . . and waited. I had to marvel at both their dogged determination and their priorities. I mean, they were missing the essence of the Spring Training experience – all those sights, sounds and smells – for a little patch of real estate that they’d have to vacate anyway, because the players who do sign at the fence tend to park themselves at one spot and not move.

Now, the Mets are a team loaded with big names, including Carlos Beltran, Reyes, Wright, Carlos Delgado and Pedro Martinez. But on this day, it seemed like 95 out of every 100 fans wanted a piece of superstar hurler Johan Santana, whom the Mets signed over the winter. It was Spring Training, the slate was wiped clean from a bad ending to 2007 and Mets fans wanted an autograph, a photo, something from their new savior. Indeed, many were wearing replica Santana jerseys in all sizes, though the guy hadn’t yet thrown a pitch for the club.

Which brings us to another topic – collectibles for sale at Spring Training. When I first started going to Spring Training in the ’80s, specifically to see the Yankees at Ft. Lauderdale Stadium (their former home before the move to what is now Steinbrenner Field in Tampa), there were virtually no collectibles to be had. I’d drive over to the ballpark, meander down to the front row among the 50-100 people there, put my feet up on the railing and take in the sun. If there was a souvenir stand, I missed it. Today, Spring Training is big business. In his fine coffee-table book on Spring Training, sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy notes that in 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that Spring Training had an economic impact of $600 million for the state of Florida. Lord knows what it’s up to now.

The Mets featured a mobile souvenir truck selling not only every type of Mets item, but a wide variety of stuff emblazoned with “Spring Training 2008.” And these were selling like hotcakes. There were also a few food concessions (hot dogs $3.50) and a few booths for fun kiddie activities, which is a good thing because it’s hard to hold a youngster’s attention for a few hours if he’s only watching guys practice. I mean, you’re not going to hear some 10-year-old say, “Gee, Wright’s swing looks a little slow, don’t you think?”

As the morning wore on, the crowd kept building, the clusters of fans around the different diamond entrances and exits became tighter and the players’ sprint from place to place took on a gauntlet feel.

This created some potentially dangerous situations, especially when an overzealous fan would suddenly block the path of a sprinting player. However, a few did stop and sign. Even the great Santana signed, or so it was rumored around mid-morning when a young man ran toward the front field holding a ball aloft and crying, “I got Johan, I got Johan!” At around 11:30 a.m., the people who were staked out at the short fence got an unexpected treat when Mets owner Fred Wilpon pulled up in his golf cart to schmooze and sign a few autographs. Most fans enthusiastically thanked him for shelling out the big bucks for Santana, and Wilpon, who hung out for around 15 minutes, seemed delighted with the turnout, which was, by my reckoning, coming up on a thousand.

As noontime passed and the players again gathered on the main field for post-practice stretching and sprints, the fans jockeyed for position along the fences, in most places three or four deep. Now, counting non-roster players, the Mets had around 60 guys (minus Beltran, who was re-habbing) on the field, and the fans buzzed with anticipation. Who would sign? Would Reyes? Pedro Martinez? Johan? On this day, (and remember, it was only one day out of an entire Spring Training) the answer would be no, no and no.

As I waded in, I could see that around 10 guys were signing, all but one at the 6-foot fence. Pitcher John Maine went about his task quietly and quickly, acknowledging thank-yous with a clipped “You’re welcome.” Same with pitcher Aaron Heilman. The older fans tended to be, for the most part, polite and patient, while others came off as your stereotypical pushy (and I mean that literally) New Yorkers.

Then you had your dealer-types toting backpacks or briefcases with perfectly arranged and pigeonholed balls or 500-card top-loading boxes. Some employed youngsters or attractive young ladies as gophers. Nothing new there. And some enterprising dads hoisted their little ones onto their shoulders for better access across the fence. My favorite fan was a guy, in full Mets regalia, who must’ve still been bummed out from the collapse of the previous September. Whomever was stepping up to get an autograph was treated to such comments as, “Don’t ask him to write his ERA on the ball, there isn’t enough room!” Or, “Ask him how many times he K’d with runners in scoring position!” Sheesh.
Which leaves us with these parting shots:

First, there was non-roster invitee Joselo Diaz, an outfielder from the Dominican Republic, who attacked his signing chores with good cheer. Anyway, this loud, middle-aged guy is handing him something to sign while on his cell phone back to New York. “Ya won’t believe what I’m doing!” he shouts into the phone, “I’m getting an autograph from a Mets player. No, I have no idea who he is! Really! I’m not kidding!” Then he says to Diaz, “Hey, would you mind talking to my daughter? She doesn’t believe I’m here getting your autograph!” Mr. Diaz, never skipping a beat, says, “Sure, hand it over,” props the phone on one shoulder and continues signing autographs while conducting a conversation with the young lady back home. You can’t make this stuff up.

However, the hero of the day was spare outfielder Juan Padilla, a tall, dark and handsome (I know this because the females were swooning) type who smiled, told jokes and posed for photos with any and all who requested. Here’s hoping both these players make the squad. (Editor’s note: they didn’t.)

I weaved my way in an out of each scrum and emerged with eight signatures. But, boy, the Mets make you work for it. Of course, it could have been worse. One fan late of the Detroit Tigers camp moaned, “I was there all day and only one guy would sign!”
Memo to Mr. Wilpon: Next year, lower the fence.

Viera: A Nationals holiday
The town of Viera, not too far from Cape Canaveral, is a flat-out great place for Spring Training. This place has undergone an even more extensive makeover since my first visit than Port St. Lucie. The once numerous surrounding fields of grazing cattle are being replaced with shopping malls, office buildings and golf courses. But the Washington Nationals’ base of operations, Space Coast Stadium, and the team practice fields about a half mile away (the players carpool over), were pretty much as I remembered them from ’05.

When Maria and I last dropped in, we must have been living right because in the same morning we met then-manager Frank Robinson, who at precisely 11:30 each morning would pull up in his golf cart and entertain fans with autos and photos, and Charlie Gibson, who happened to be filming a piece for Good Morning America in which he played out his fantasy of becoming a ballplayer for his hometown team.

This time there was no Robby and no Charlie. And, to paraphrase the old maxim, “You need a scorecard to tell who the players are.” Indeed, the Nats don’t have many big names on the roster. Even manager Manny Acta seemingly came from nowhere (actually, Willie Randolph’s Mets coaching staff). But, with no offense to Robinson, things seemed a bit tighter, with a little more attention to detail.

The layout at Viera is the same. You drive past Space Coast Stadium (not open to the public except for games) to an open grassy lot across the street from the high chain-link outfield fence of the main practice diamond to an entrance near the rest rooms and storage sheds where a security person hands you a somewhat faded, flimsy roster which seems to have 1,000 names on it. Then, you proceed into the heart of the complex down a beautiful paved walkway lined with perfectly symmetrical palm trees. (Yes, they were swaying.) You come to a two-story observation tower (the Mets have one, too) from which the diamonds radiate out like spokes on a wheel. Paved paths connect the diamonds and the specialized pitching and batting cage areas further afield. At the base of the tower is the Nationals’ mobile souvenir stand, much like the Mets’, containing virtually the same stuff, including the ubiquitous $15 official Rawlings baseballs to be used for autographs. It was here I finally broke down and bought a souvenir – a long-sleeved “Nationals Spring Training 2008” red, white and blue pullover for $38.
What I, and everyone else there, had no need to purchase was official balls. And that brings me to my favorite thing about Nationals camp. If you need a ball to get signed, no problem. All you have to do is exit the facility the way you came, proceed to the area beyond the outfield fence and wait. If squad members are taking BP, then it’s only a matter of time before a shiny new spheroid gets airmailed over the fence.
Now, on this fine February morning, there were maybe 75 fans (Players outnumbering fans? Incredible!) dispersed among the many fields. Since it was only around 10:30 a.m., and practice had another couple of hours to run before autograph time, I settled into an area spaced out from the other 10 or so ball hawkers, placed my overloaded shoulder bag near the fence and anticipated my first catch of the day. I didn’t have to wait long. After about 10 minutes, I heard a distinctive “crack” and started tracking the missile. It soared into the pale blue sky, cleared the fence and hurtled to earth into my waiting hands. Then I dropped it. I got booed by the other hawkers – and the Nats’ leftfielder! I laughed out loud. Could life get any better than this?

As the minutes went by, I struck up conversations with my “competitors.” One guy who was really cleaning up was Jim Stavropoulos, who’d moved to Florida a few years ago from Baltimore and relishes each Spring Training like it’s his first. Jim had racked up seven or eight balls and was now giving them out to other hawkers who hadn’t been as lucky. Nice guy.

I had already acquired two balls for autographs (and yes, I did catch the second one), when a third barely cleared the fence and landed at my feet. I turned around and spotted a kid standing shyly with his dad, walked over and handed him the ball. His smile of appreciation and awe (a major league ball!) made my day. I found out that this youngster, Tommy Hanley, had traveled down from frigid Rochester, N.Y., with his family to sunny Florida.

Armed with my new baseballs, I strolled from diamond to diamond, listening in on hurler Ray King being interviewed on local TV and stood just behind longtime coach Pat Corrales as he oversaw a line of pitchers and catchers at work. It was so relaxed, so laid back, so quiet – the anti-Port St. Lucie.

As noon rolled around, it became apparent that the players would be dismissed piecemeal from the various fields, though they would have to exit via the aforementioned palm tree-lined path. Among the first to approach was first baseman Nick Johnson, coming back from a horrific broken leg, and he was very accommodating. Just about everyone wished him well in his return. Following in short order were infielders Ronnie Belliard, Ryan Zimmerman and Pete Orr, all of whom signed. Also with the club is one-time Yankee hero Aaron Boone. While he signed with a smile, someone asked if a day goes by that he isn’t reminded of his dramatic walk-off homer against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. “Nope,” was the quick answer.
Other players followed, and it was hard to get them all because there were only 40 fans left, and the players were hardly slowed as they made their way out of the complex. Manager Manny Acta brought up the rear, signing for any who asked from the seat of his golf cart. When I counted up the signatures, which pretty much filled the two balls I’d hawked, the grand total was 25. Maria would have been proud.

So in two days, I’d seen the opposite ends of the collector’s Spring Training spectrum. Each was entertaining in its own way. It’s a lot of standing around and a lot of waiting, punctuated by flurries of activity and, hopefully, a dramatic finish. But if you do go next year, don’t get so locked into the autograph thing that you miss the full effect of the ritual called Spring Training.

Quotes about Spring Training featured in this story are from the book “Spring Training” by Dan Shaughnessy. Coming in a future issue: Part II – Dodgertown.
Collectors can write to Paul Ferrante at 23 Benedict Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825, or e-mail him at baseballjourney@sbcglobal.net.

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