After leaving Daytona Beach, Fla., and the Daytona 500 every February, I’d stop at spring training on my way to Charlotte. There are always reasons to drive instead of fly, and spring training is one of them. Pitchers and catchers already have reported, full squads begin to report this weekend and games begin next week.
The divide between players and fans is never as small as it is in Florida or Arizona. But that changed when adults began to collect autographs not because they were fans but because they wanted to sell them.
One February in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the Atlanta Braves train, a group of men gathered before practice. They were a team unto themselves. They had Atlanta rosters, and the leader assigned his people to Atlanta’s players. The guy had boxes of new pearl-colored baseballs. He distributed the balls and his team spread out.
Players knew what was going on and began to sign fewer autographs. That’s one reason I would limit autographs to kids.
Daytona was always crowded, so I’d often seek teams that likely would not attract a lot of fans. Occasionally I’d swing by Tampa to catch the New York Yankees, and compared to the rest of the sites, Tampa was Manhattan. The Braves, at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, also drew a good crowd.
To get to the Braves’ locker room, you’d take an elevator and the door opened not far from the locker of Greg Maddux, the Hall of Fame pitcher with the dominating discipline and control. Maddux was a good interview as long as the topic wasn’t Greg Maddux.
About 20 miles south of Lake Buena Vista and 40 miles southwest of Orlando down evil I-4 is Davenport, Fla., where the Kansas City Royals trained. Some fans wanted baseball games. I merely wanted baseball. I liked watching players warm up, take grounders, catch fly balls and throw from the rubber to the plate. The sun would shine, the autograph teams would gather elsewhere and baseball was at its most elemental and its own reward.
Davenport, and Baseball City, was so devoid of fans that after the 2002 season the Royals took off for Surprise, Ariz. When I went to Davenport there were about than 10 fans in the bleachers. One man, impossibly tan, was standing on the grass, watching the team. I was standing nearby. The man looked like former Kansas City great George Brett.
He was George Brett. We started to talk, not in a who-what-where-when-why way but the way strangers sometimes do when they share an interest. He was great.
Baseball fan friends annually make the trip, or did, to Florida, and I never heard any of them complain. Spring training is as much a lifestyle as a sport. Winter, finally, is gone, and there is hope. In Florida and Arizona, it’s already spring.