With pitchers and catchers celebrating our love of all things baseball by reporting to Spring Training on Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d share some reminiscences about Spring Trainings gone past.
First of all, this may come as a surprise to many of the Yankees younger fans, but the team didn’t always train in Tampa. Since the team’s founding as the New York Highlanders, they have trained in 19 locales. They spent a season in the Cactus League (1951). They trained in Atlantic City (1944 & 45). That was due to travel restrictions during World War II, but I can’t imagine the weather was much better in AC than it would have been in the Bronx. They even spent a season in Bermuda (1913).
But the period I remember from my youth is when the team trained in Ft. Lauderdale, from 1962 through 1995. In the early and mid-1970′s, I was lucky enough to make annual pilgrimages to south Florida. Ostensibly, my folks were sending me down to spend time with my grandparents. But I would invariably end up spending more time with my uncle at Ft. Lauderdale Stadium, watching my boyhood idols. Oh, and nabbing a few autographs; they were easier to get back then – I suppose because nobody had thought up the idea of holding events where people would pay $500 and up for one.
I remember in 1975 watching a tall, skinny kid routinely striking out some of the game’s better hitters. I didn’t know it then, but that was my first glimpse of the Gator. Then there was the time Bobby Bonds hit a ball that landed near the pitchers mound on one of the auxillary fields. I still think that’s the longest homer I’ve ever seen in person, and it brought everyone in attendance to their feet. In 1976, the Yankees debuted Mickey Rivers as their new center fielder – and his speed completely floored me.
There were other moments of baseball greatness that dazzled my preteen brain during those years, but they were my preteen years, after all. I wasn’t always as transfixed on the game as the happenings around me. One of the great things about those years was that not only did the Yankees invite back some of the former greats as guest coaches (a tradition they still follow today, thankfully), but you would often find others watching the games from the stands. Once we sat a row behind Moose Skowron, who was pretty much like any other fan. On another occassion, the guy next to me spilled his beer on me. My uncle was about to give him what-for – until he realized the guy he was getting ready to blast was none other than Tom Tresh. Mr. Tresh was a real gentleman about it. He got me a #15 jersey. At the time, I didn’t know it was his old number – I thought he got me a Thurman Munson jersey, who was (and still is) my favorite Yankee. As you might imagine, I was completely dumbfounded – and hoping to get more beer spilled on me by other former Yankees.
The memories from the halcyon days of my youth are a big reason why I’m such a huge fan today. It is why baseball, for me (and I suspect many of you) goes far beyond statistics, contracts and all of the other stuff we spend so much time talking about. It’s about great and not-so-great players, human beings not unlike us except for an incredible talent to play the game. In “Field of Dreams“, James Earl Jones‘ character Terrance Mann gives one of the best monologues about baseball ever written:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again”
So, with that…let’s play ball! Mission 28 is officially underway!