Beloved spring training in the sun

Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 6:50 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 04, 2011, at 7:21 p.m.

It’s hard to believe it was back in 1993. That was the year the Red Sox bulldozed dozens of houses in funky Fort Myers, Fla., to build the City of Palms Park for their spring training pilgrimage.

I was having my annual cabin fever breakdown and just had to get out of Dodge and get away from the snow, ice and dripping icicles. There was a 10-day vacation from the Bangor Daily News so I grabbed a pair of shorts, two T-shirts and headed south, alone, at high speed.

I had to see the new stadium and go to spring training, which I had been reading about every winter since I was 7 years old.

Thank God, John Purcell had been exiled from South Thomaston to a lobster joint outside Tampa, Fla., and had a perfectly fine guest room and endless varieties of single malt scotches. After an overnight in Daytona where I actually lost my car and slept on a cellar floor with escaped murderers (well, they looked like it), I gratefully landed at Purcell’s.

At the ballpark Purcell was introduced as my photographer, I got press passes and we went out on the field for batting practice. Purcell, no dummy, remembered the first-base coach, Mickey Hatcher, who managed two home runs in the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers after hitting just one for the entire season. I had never heard of him.

I countered with my encyclopedic baseball knowledge, telling Purcell that Mo Vaughn, I think in his second year, was a “bum” who would never amount to anything. Naturally he hit a titanic home run on the first pitch. Purcell a patrician Yankee fan, just turned and said, “Riiight.” Vaughn hit another in a later inning, just to rub it in.

Unfortunately, it was the first year that free beer was eliminated from the press box. Figures.

It was three days to drive down and three more to drive back, leaving just four days for sun and baseball. I arrived home broke, dizzy and tired – and hooked for life.

There is no better antidote to winter than spring training, and I have gone virtually every year since. There have been a few years that I didn’t make it, but the siren song of Fort Myers continues unabated.

We have met an amazing group of people including the retired Rhode Island bus drivers who took over the dilapidated Royal Palm Motel, a short walk from the ballpark. One of the guys who came for the motel poker game was a press box aide when Babe Ruth played for the Red Sox.

We saw Michael Jordan take a vacation from basketball and play some baseball, poorly. We saw “Prime Time” Deion Sanders take a shot at the game. He could run, naturally, but he could not hit. We saw Alex Rodriguez break in with the Yankees (after he rejected the Red Sox) and booed him like he was Hitler.

We saw rookies such as Nomar Garciaparra take the field for the first time and scoop up every ball in the infield. He was born a major league hitter. Anyone could see that, even me.

We saw Pedro and Roger, Manny and Big Papi, at least for the first few innings.

Normally the major leaguers take a swing or three, then sit down and let the minor leaguers take over. But the ticket is $20, not $100 like at Fenway Park.

Sure, the games are a quiet affair with the audience largely composed of old, tired goats like me. But it is 80 degrees and it hardly ever snows. The vacation is half baseball, half Florida sun.

Funny, I can make the 1,500 miles to Florida each year, but Fenway Park is just too far and much too expensive. The last time I went, it was $180 for three seats behind third base. When I started going to Red Sox games, it was 50 cents for the bleachers. Honest to God.

Some people fly to Florida. I drive. It takes me three weeks to get there, thanks to very good friends with very good swimming pools.

As a poor and struggling retired newspaper reporter it gets more expensive (gas is more than $3 a gallon) every year. Some year, I will skip spring training. But not this year. It is the last year for the park.

Next year, the Red Sox will move across town to a new $80 million stadium fashioned after Fenway Park. That’s right. It will cost $80 million. I can imagine the ticket prices next year. This might be the last year.

I had to be there for the last year at City of Palms Park. I was there for the beginning.

The legendary Red Sox equipment truck leaves Fenway Park on Tuesday. I leave on Wednesday.

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