Saturday, March 7, 2015


An Introduction:

After spending the last few years bouncing around and getting to all the places I could "comfortably" drive from my home and slowly trying to conquer the north-east while never quite being able to plan or commit to a trip to Australia, I decided to use my backed-up, soon-to-time-out vacation days from the previous year. The few options available involved Spring Training. I decided to start in the closer environs of Florida with the Grapefruit League, which had the added benefit of not having to worry about hotel rooms so much since I could spend a lot of the trip at my parents' winter condo. A lot of this reasoning, however, would get called into question during the course of the trip.

The thing to know about the Grapefruit League is that it is not nearly as buttoned up location-wise as its sister league out in Arizona. The Cactus League was centrally planned and controlled and managed to consolidate all its teams within an hour's drive of each other by this time, which makes things a bunch easier. The more historic Grapefruit League was... less so.

There were pockets of teams huddled around each other in the corners of the state (not counting the panhandle, which no one really does, anyway). There are a group of teams in the south-east, a group of teams in the southwest, a group of teams in the north-east, and a group of teams in the north-west. Now, those groupings are all well and good, but the fact remains that some of these groups are four hours away from each other. Proper planning is important to keep travel to a minimum, and I failed at that pretty hard. I screwed up my Orioles booking and had to swap them to first on my list to fix the problem, and that led to a lot more driving than there should have been from the very start.

This was also going to be the first time I would be going to a game a day for two weeks straight. I'm as big a baseball fan as I know, but even I was worried that a game a day, plus all that travel was going to break me. But, as it turned out, I even snuck in a double-header while I was down there.

As far as what I learned, there were a number of things:

- There are generally three types of Grapefruit League Parks:
  - Historic parks that had suburbs spring up around them in the intervening years
  - Somewhat newer parks that aren't old but aren't the newest anymore, but still have full, "modern" Spring training facilities
  - The newest Spring Training palaces built in recent years, with cutting-edge everything and an existence as much as an entertainment center as they are a ballpark
 - Nearly all the parks have a reservoir or lake of some kind. All of them have warning signs about alligators. Some even have resident gators that care so little about people that they hang out in full view.
- If there is anything hotter than watching a Grapefruit League afternoon game with no shade, I don't want to know it.
- It is interesting to try and dissect what portion of the crowds at each game are fans who made a special trip to come down to visit, fans that have permanently moved down to be near the Spring Training facility, and locals that are boosters of the team by proximity.
- The between-inning and pitch clocks started this year, so it was impossible to know if the relative dearth of between-inning entertainment as opposed to MLB or minor league games was because that is how it always was in Spring Training, or if it was because of the new rules they imposed.
- There is a lot of nothing in Florida. I mean, a lot of nothing. Especially in the middle. You really don't get that until you drive through it and across it a lot over a short period of time, coincidentally, just like I did.
- I knew that Spring Training worked under different rules, but I was witness to some of the most ungodly communist perversions of the sport that I ever saw.

With that in mind, let's get started, shall we?

On Getting Gone

Newark Liberty Bald-Eagle Apple Pie Baseball America International Airport
Friday, March 6, 2015
Punta Gorda, FL

Outside the Game:
As I once again teetered on the precipice of quitting my job, my vacation loomed large in my future. I had stayed the night previously at work until very late to get as much done as possible, but on Friday, frankly, I was halfway out the door most of the day.

My day began packing and returning the portable heater to my landlord (an unfortunate pipe-warming necessity from several weeks ago), and then dragging my luggage to work with me, sadly missing another "mandatory" training session that would have eaten up half of my last morning on the job before vacation.

I was mostly in back-to-back meetings all day, and I was sleep-walking through most of it. My entire day pivoted around 4:30 PM and leaving for the airport. So most of the day glided by amicably until that point, and eventually, off I went.

To say that there was stress about traveling that week would have been the greatest of understatements. Forecasts oscillated fiercely between a snow shower or two and another round of the Snowpocalpyse that had been plaguing the Northeast all winter. It eventually decided on a round of mild snow on Tuesday, rain and ice on Wednesday, and then six inches of packed winter goodness on Thursday.

But the snow stopped on schedule at 7 PM on Thursday, giving me a glimmer of hope for my 7:30 PM flight on Friday. I managed to get my boarding pass with no problem, and Friday went on without an urgent email informing me of a delay, although there was a point when the wireless connection at work died. When my iPad reconnected, I waited in terror for four or five flight updates that never quite did come pouring through.

So off to Penn Station I went, arriving just before a train to Newark Airport left at 5:03 PM. A concerned-looking French couple were on the tiny elevator down to the NJ Transit train tracks with me. They wanted to know if they were going to the right train, which I assured them they were. They were trying to catch a 6:30 PM flight, and I also assured them they were probably okay. And then I thought to ask if it was International or not, and they said it was, and then I tried to give them as much false hope as I could muster and tell them again that they would probably be "okay."

A half hour later, we were disgorged onto the monorail station, and a packed-car trip later had us in the terminal. As I arrived, they decided that peak of rush hour was a great time to close one of the three security stations at the airport, somehow doubling the lines at both the other checkpoints. As I had premier access, I got in the shorter one and waited as the central Asian businessman behind me spent the entire line wait bitching to someone on his cell phone about how New York was a "second-rate city" because his flight was cancelled yesterday, and New York can't "deal with snow." I can only wonder what his opinion would be if he was on the LaGuardia flight that went off the runway recently trying to fly in similar weather. "Here is a first-rate city willing to risk people's lives for travel itineraries." Jagoff.

Those who know me are aware that my personal phone technology is, grudgingly, at an early aughts level of flip phone. I am required to have something that makes and receives calls. Unfortunately, my current flip phone is aged, and it has a bunch of undocumented features. Sometimes I will accidentally turn on speaker phone, but there is literally no named command on the phone that will let you do that, just a series of arcane button presses in a specific order while vocalizing dark incantations. In a similar manner, I managed to unearth the command that just allows audio to come through the earphone jack. The phone worked perfectly, but it just won't play audio through the regular earpiece. Work keeping me occupied most of the day, I was not successful in tracking down a solution to the issue in the limited time I had, and I did not have time to go buy an earbud.

Having that time at the airport, I went to the gadget store and was next in line to a befuddled Britt who was considering buying an iPad on the spur of the moment, you know, just to have for the flight. He asked and had answered about five separate times of the availability of stock, and then kept disbelieving the sales staff, asking if this display box or that display box had a unit in it and being less politely told each time that they were, in fact, display boxes. After about ten minutes, he literally wandered off mid-sentence, which makes me wonder about people rich enough to by iPads on a whim at the airport.

The guy behind the counter was clearly eager to talk to anyone besides that guy, so when I confronted him with my technology problem from 2003, he was quite eager to comply. He went to his tiny storeroom and found a compatible headset, apologizing for not having an earbud, and then gave me a 50% discount on it. I walked away with a ridiculous-looking headset, but the ability to use my phone, so it was a win-win all around, more or less.

It was eventually time for boarding, and it went uneventfully. There were many moments of concern for me during the boarding, but thankfully nothing panned out. I was in front of a row of kids, but they were all well-behaved. I was next to some vapid sorority chicks, but they immediately went to sleep for the entire flight. The guy in front of me immediately reclined back into my knees, but quickly apologized and put the seat most of the way up. My yang was getting yinged all over the place.

My only real complaint is that I couldn't stay awake until takeoff and so was awakened as we left the ground and remained awake for most of the flight. I was so bored that I even bought on-board Internet and spend most of the trip skimming Reddit.

We touched down about ten minutes late, and the off-loading went without incident. I got to the rental counter just as they were shutting down and was directed to take the shuttle to the "main station." I caught the shuttle just before it left, spent a productive ten minutes getting my car set-up at the rental station, and then went out to retrieve a car. In this case, it was one of three remaining Chevy Sparks, which was a tiny thing that I can only imagine they named that particular way to try and trick people into thinking it was a hybrid or something. It was just a little box with wheels, and I threw my gear in the trunk and set off.

Rental car
Spring steed

The car came with a navigation system, which was unexpected. So used to that being an extra charge, I had brought my GPS unit from home as I normally do. I was planning to head from the airport across Florida and stay at a hotel somewhere so I would not have a 3.5 hour drive before the game the next day. Central Florida is at best barren, and at worst filled with alligators and perhaps swamp people. One important feature on the car's GPS that I would learn the next day was "use freeways," because the "objectively" quickest away across central Florida is apparently the biggest stretch of backroad, state road nightmares you ever did see.

A clever feature of said roads is that they quickly go from 65 MPH speed limit to 35 MPH speed limit when you get into towns along the way. As I was seeing this for the first time, I was trying to pull around a car so I could see where the speed limit sign was when flashing lights illuminated behind me. I pulled over and was greeted by a deputy who said he had me at 65 passing cars. I explained I couldn't have been going that fast because I was already slowing down to look for the signs, and I was passing the guy to see where the sign was. The officer clearly wasn't expecting to see a middle-aged white guy and asked me a bunch of questions about what I was doing. I told him I had just gotten the rental car within the hour and was trying to get to Sarasota. After taking my license for a walk back to his car (where he no doubt found out my completely clean driving record), he let me go with a warning and told me to watch out for the city speed limits along these kinds of roads. I thanked him for his time and went off again into the night.

The never-ending night. After two hours of driving, I was looking for someplace to pull over, but I was definitely not finding any on these stretch of murder roads. After another half hour, the car's GPS finally put me a major interstate, and I dove off about forty minutes south of my destination the next day into a clutch of hotels. I had a free pass for La Quinta, so I went there first and was told that every hotel in the area was sold out except for an expensive place ten minutes away. It being after 2 AM in the morning, I wasn't interested in price anymore and headed out with due haste.

I arrived at the aforementioned place while the teenaged counter boy was on the phone with another suitor for the room. He hung up, and I told him I wanted a room, and he shrugged and checked me in. I blearily signed papers, parked, and dragged my bags up.

After a cursory set-up for the next day, I fell onto the bed for, at best, six or so hours of sleep.

The Accommodations:
PG Waterfront Hotel
PG Waterfront Hotel

My incredible overpriced--especially considering how briefly I would be in it--room for that night was at the PG Waterfront Hotel in Punta Gorda. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have liked the hotel, but seeing as I overpaid by double for a room I'd be using for 6-7 hours at most, I was a little less than impressed.

It was a nice enough room. The large bathroom was just off the entrance to the right, with a small vanity and toilet and tub. A short hallway led to the bedroom, with a giant king-sized bed with ornamental headboard flanked by end tables and a reading chair and table on one side of the room and a wooden desk and dresser with TV on the other side. There was a sliding door to the balcony that overlooked the nice pool that I would never use.

Not that much would have stopped me at that point, but it was a quiet enough room that lasted me for whatever little sleep I got.

On Getting Started in Here

Ed Smith Stadium
Ed Smith Stadium, 2015
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Boston Red Sox vs Baltimore Orioles
Grapefruit League (Spring Training)
Ed Smith Stadium
Sarasota, FL
1:05 PM

Outside the Game:
I woke up far too early the next day, but in time to grab the weekend breakfast. Groggy and bitter, I started contemplating how many of my fellow breakfast-goers I'd be willing to kill for some more sleep as I half-heartedly shoveled food into my mouth.

I had until around 9:30 AM to leave to make it to the stadium to get outside photos before the gates opened, so I went back to my room, showered, packed up, and then set the alarm for 9:30 AM and lay back down to try and get some more sleep. I'm unsure if I succeeded, but I passed in and out of luciudity enough to count for a little more rest. I gathered my stuff, checked out, and bundled into the car.

I put in the Orioles' stadium into my GPS, and playing around with the controls some, I discovered the option to "keep to main roads" as a preference, which I checked on with great satisfaction, and then followed it up 75 to the stadium.

I got to the park and paid for my parking, and did my pre-game photography business under cloudy skies before lining up in a short line to get into the stadium as the gates opened.

After the game, I got back into the car, pulled myself together as much as possible, and then set off on the three-hour drive to my parents' condo in the old-age complex on the other side of the state, cursing my inability to properly schedule things all the way there. Even though I managed to drive through rush hour, most of it was spent on 70 crossing the state in the middle of nowhere, so I was able to complete the drive in just over three hours, with just a touch of backup upon reaching Boynton Beach proper.

I was greeted by my parents as I showed up, but I just needed to take a nap. I went into my parents' bedroom and passed out until dinner. Then I spent some time unpacking and finishing up my scorecard. My trip the next day was a no-brainer drive, so I at least didn't have to worry about that.

I watched some TV, and eventually kicked my parents' out of the living room so I could go to sleep on the pullout couch, and I was dead to the world until morning.

The Stadium & Fans:
Home to center, Ed Smith Stadium
Home plate to center field, Ed Smith Stadium

Ed Smith Stadium was my first stop on the Grapefruit League trip this year, but not my first Spring Training complex, having visited the Metropolitans in Port St. Lucie and the Marlins in Jupiter in previous years. Ed Smith Stadium is named for the local baseball luminary who helped get the park built when it was the home of the White Sox way back when, though it underwent extensive renovations in 2011. It was decked in Spanish Colonial, like many of the buildings and other Spring Training parks in Florida, with tile roofs, arched porticoes, extensive windows and turrets, and white walls ending in geometric gates and arches. The park was surrounded with sidewalks, with the minor league and training fields just beyond center field. The main entrance and facade was behind home plate, with smaller entrances in left and right fields near the parking lots.

The entrances all emptied out into an outer walkway that wrapped around the park from outfield to outfield. This walkway held most of the stores, concessions, and other stands in the park. At regular intervals, there were ramps into the main seating area from the outer walkway. There was a smaller walkway that ran in between the seating area, splitting the two rows of seats into the lower box seats and the upper seats. The grandstands, all with sun covers extending over most of the upper seats, ran from short outfield to short outfield, ending at the home and away bullpens in left and right field. The area behind home plate had the press box, along with some luxury boxes, and were the only areas of seats without a cover. A smaller walkway extended from the end of the seat walkway to circle the outfield. There was also a walkway at the top of the seating area that ran its length, with standing room tables and chairs along the top, the suite entrances behind the center building, and a lounge area overlooking the field at the top of third base.

The only seating in the outfield was a special deck in left field with chairs and small tables that ran into center field. In the base of the tower behind home plate were most of the amenities, including Fan Assistance, special concession Cafe 54, and the team store. There was a patio on the first base side with concessions and a picnic area in right field. The digital scoreboard sat in right-center, above a digital ball-and-strikes board and right next to the batter's eye, with mostly blue sky and palm trees providing the backdrop to the outfield. The new pitch-clocks for this season were installed on the TV tower.

The Orioles did the place up right. The main entrance had a pennant mobile for the big club, as well as being decorated with quotes from great Orioles. Retired numbers adorned the press box, and in addition to the stadium dedication plaques, the press box was dedicated to Red Ermish. The entrances to the suites had posters of great moments in Orioles history, and all the porticoes around the stadium were dedicated to evolution of Orioles' logos over the year, including Spring Training, the mascot, and the team logo. And the requisite sign-post to all the other Orioles' affiliates was to be found, as well.

The Bird is the word

The Oriole Bird made the trip down for the Spring, and he brought a crap-ton of fans with him. The place was packed for this afternoon game, and while some Boston fans did show up, they were grotesquely outnumbered by Bird-backers, who were quite into the game. There was not a lot of between-inning entertainment, but the staff did provide some levity. One beer guy went around the entire game in a day-glo orange wig, for example. There was also the usual crush for autographs before and after the game, which is one of the main appeals of Spring Training for most fans.

At the Game With Oogie:
Sunny Spring Scoring

I got in as the gates opened, and did my regular tour of the park, along with my picture parade, hitting the shops, and scoping out the food options. Still groggy from my lack of sleep, I grabbed an early hot dog and souvenir soda while I was still walking around, and later grabbed a brat before settling into the game.

Hot dog and souvenir soda

As I had ordered early and screwed everything up, I still managed to get a seat on the first-base side several rows up from the dugout in the crowded house.

Alternate scoring

There was nothing particularly interesting in the stands except for one older lady a row or so ahead of me on the aisle. She was keeping score, but without a scorecard. She seemed to be keeping it long form in a notebook. After each play, she wrote out a sentence or two about it, and then watched the game some more. It was the most interesting scoring method I think I ever saw. The place was a madhouse right after the last out, so I didn't get a chance to talk to her about it, but I would have liked to. Besides, I had a long drive ahead of me, too.

The Game:
First pitch, Red Sox vs. Orioles
First pitch, Red Sox vs. Orioles

My first completely meaningless Spring Training game pitted AL East rivals Boston Red Sox versus the home Baltimore Orioles, and a last-ditch rally fell short for the birds, giving the Sox their pointless victory.

The Red Sox jumped out early, getting four runs in the top of the first on a single, triple, walk, and homer to right, staking them to a 4-0 margin. Baltimore got one back in their half, with a leadoff two-base error by the third-baseman getting driven in with a subsequent single, cutting the early lead to 4-1. Both sides went in order in the second and third, the Red Sox doing so in the third despite a leadoff single thanks to a double-play that erased the runner.

Boston struck again in the top of the fourth with a one-out homer to center to increase the lead to 5-1, while the Orioles went in order. The Sox only had a walk to show for the top of the fifth, while Baltimore sat down in order again. The top of sixth saw Boston waste a single and a walk, while the Orioles finally got some more scoring together, with two runs based on a hit batsman and a walk, a double steal, a ground out, and a sacrifice fly to right, cutting the lead to 5-3.

The Red Sox got those runs back in the top of the seventh with a walk, double, and single, increasing their lead back to 7-3. Baltimore just had two walks in the bottom of the seventh to show for it. Boston went in order in the top of the eighth, while the Orioles stranded a single and walk in the bottom of the frame. The Red Sox again went in order in the ninth, but Baltimore staged their improbable last-licks almost comeback. A one-out walk was followed by a double, and a homer to left brought all three runs in. A walk and a single put the winning run on-base with two outs, but a new pitcher got a fly-out to right, ending the rally and securing Boston's unimportant 7-6 victory.

The Scorecard:
Red Sox vs. Orioles, 03-07-15. Red Sox "win," 7-6.
Red Sox vs. Orioles, 03/07/15. Red Sox "win," 7-6.

The scorecard was a separate $1 item from the program, a bi-fold cardstock number with the scorecard on the right side of inside spread, with the rosters on the left side, and the back taken up by an advertisement. Although on only one page, the scorecard took up the entirety of that page, and was a good enough size to be comfortable. Game stats were at the top of the card, and then visitors and home team on top of one another. Each batter line had space for a replacement (undesignated), each batting line ended with summary stats, and each inning column ended with inning stats. The pitching lines were under the batting lines for both teams, and to the left of the pitching lines were the team totals. The scoring boxes were plain white, but a little small, but it was okay to score. The background of the scorecard was a light gray, so there were still legible for notes. Overall, it was quite nice, except that the printing sometimes smudged with erasures or friction.

It was a pretty conventional game. The first batter in the bottom of the first originally was scored a double, but it was changed to a two-base E5 on review, which got a note. Otherwise, both teams swapped out most of their players between the seventh and eighth innings. Only the DH for the Orioles and the DH and the first baseman for the Red Sox played the entire game.

The Accommodations:
I was staying at my parents' condo in the over 50 community that they rented for the winter. It was only a one-bedroom, but the large living room had a pull-out couch, and that was where I was going to be resting my head for a good part of the trip.

The pull-out couch wasn't exactly comfortable, but I don't imagine any of them are particularly designed to be such. The real problem that I would find is that my father was as quiet as a drunk elephant in the morning when he left to go golfing, and inevitably woke me up super-early every day. Not surprisingly, this would begin to wear after a while...

2015 Grapefruit League

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