An ode to Spring Trainings past
Spring training isn’t what it used to be.
I remember 20-something years ago, just before the turn of the century, taking my sons, 12 and 10 at the time, to Port St. Lucie to see the Mets in spring training. It was an opportunity to get really close to the players, bantering with them over low fences as they took time out from their workouts. Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher, then phenoms of what was predicted to be the second coming of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, happily chewed the fat with fans, many who made visiting the complex part of their Presidents’ Week trek to see the grandparents in south Florida.
When the workouts ended, players walked through the crowd to get back to the clubhouse. Fans chased them to sign balls, not for resale, but for adoring placement on a bookcase in a child’s room. A fond memory of spring training that year was one of Turk Wendell, the quirky reliever known for brushing his teeth in the dugout between innings, refusing the requests for ball signings until someone – in this case, my son, Evan – added “please” to the request. That was all Wendell wanted to hear, and he spent the next 20 minutes signing anything put in front of him.
Fans left with a sense of truly getting close to their idols – not just close in a physical sense, but close in a personal way, just like the old days when players, earning salaries closer to the fans’ level than the owners’, mingled regularly off the field.
Fast forward to this week, when I dropped by Port St. Lucie again to take in spring training before Mark Rosenman and I took part in a live, remote Down on the Korner Facebook Live broadcast. The fences were higher. The big leaguers practiced in the stadium, closed to the fans, save for the few assigned that day for public batting practice. After batting practice, fans lined up at another fence, guarded by security, as the designated signer of the day – in this case, Starling Marte – fulfilled his obligation, after which he was whisked off to the clubhouse. It was hard to identify the lower-level prospects because they wore nameless, numberless practice jerseys. The overall experience was as impersonal as the late 1990s one was personal.
I get it. Times have changed. We live in a society where people in all walks of life who can be considered idols, where both the rich and the famous and those merely in the public eye or in positions of trust and power, can be considered targets for physical attacks. I accept the need for security. I understand that collectors and profiteers have both cheapened (in a physical, not monetary sense) and perverted the status of the autograph. And I understand that the purpose of spring training is to prepare players for the regular season, not provide a cheap day’s outing for parents and grandparents struggling to entertain kids on break.
But allow me a few wistful minutes walking down memory lane as I prepare what I will do once my grandchildren are old enough to entertain them when they visit during Presidents’ Week. I will probably still take them to spring training, though mindful that they will not be experiencing exactly what their father did a couple decades earlier.
Photo: Mark Rosenman