September 19, 2014

Diamond Dreaming

If this were to have been a perfect spring, the spring I've been dreaming of since late last fall, it would have started with me sitting in some primo box seats at City of Palms Park when the Red Sox played the Twins on March 3. Opening day of the Grapefruit League season; as pretty a little park as there is in all of baseball; the Gulfshore's hometown teams facing off against each other-man, what a place to be.

From there, I would have hit a few other games up the coast-Sarasota to see the Reds, Tampa and St. Pete for the Yankees and the Devil Rays. Then I would have looped back to Fort Myers, finishing off with the Twins at Hammond Stadium, which has its own special charms-even though I've never been able to figure out why it was designed to resemble that most famous of horseracing tracks, Churchill Downs.

Sadly, my perfect spring was not to be. By the time I got around to plotting my itinerary, it was already mid-January and tickets were long gone. Still, I called the Red Sox box office to plead my case.

"Well, you might still be able to get some standing-room-only tickets if you show up a few hours early on the day of the game," a nice lady told me.

"How much?"

"Ten dollars each," she said.

"To stand up for the whole game?"

"Well, we are the world champs," the nice lady said. "Have a nice day."

As for those primo box seats at City of Palms Park? They go for $44 a pop. These are the new "home-plate box seats" that put you on field level, just a few feet behind the catcher and the ump, prime territory for foul tips and close-up viewing of batters spitting, scratching and making cup adjustments. Forty-four bucks. To watch a game that doesn't really mean anything, too often played these days by guys who don't really care and who will probably be playing for some other team come next year.

Still, it's baseball. And not just baseball, but spring training in Florida, which comes about as close to sacredness as I'm willing to grant any sport-beyond, of course, Gator games at Florida Field.

I'm afraid I'm morphing into one those old coots who is always shaking his head and saying, "It didn't used to be like this." Because spring training down here didn't used to be like this. It didn't used to be like this at all.

When venerable old Connie Mack, progenitor of politicians, first brought the Philadelphia Athletics to Fort Myers' Terry Park in 1925, tickets went for a quarter; and as recently as 1987, when the Kansas City Royals beat the Texas Ranger 4-2 in the last spring training game played at Terry Park, the best seat in the house sold for nine dollars. As for Terry Park, well, it has seen its ups and downs in recent years. Minor league teams bailed out; and a couple years back, the grandstand was condemned. The good news: Lee County pumped a little money into the stadium. The grandstand seats a thousand people. And more renovations are on the way. Some folks are even talking about starting a spring training museum at the old park.

In the meantime, the month of March brings the annual Gene Cusic Classic, where college baseball and women's softball teams come to Fort Myers from all over the country to play. Last year, there were some 120 teams; and they will be playing every day.

"It's great to watch," says Pablo Adorno, senior supervisor for Lee County Parks and Recreation. "These kids play their hearts out."

"How much are tickets?" I asked him.

"Just a buck," he said. "But, you also get a program."

I'm there. And who knows? It might just turn out to be a perfect spring after all. 

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