From March 13-March 22, I was lucky enough to spend my vacation with my girlfriend, Meg, in Fort Myers. The last time we had visited the Fort was in 2011, the final year the Red Sox would make their spring home at the City of Palms Park. A year later, the Sox would move into a shiny new facility located near the airport in Fort Myers, fittingly dubbed JetBlue Park. They were also coming off a historical September collapse that the organization is still trying to recover from. Fast forward one year, and the Red Sox are determined to fix what is broken, to bring the fans back. On April 1, at Yankee Stadium, they will have their first official chance to “restore the faith.”
Unfortunately, I’m one of the suckers that, no matter what, will always keep coming back. Here’s what I saw in Southwest Florida:
Hammond Stadium is fine by me. The spring home of the Minnesota Twins opens its gates three hours before first pitch. That is exceptionally fan-friendly. Naturally, I made sure that we were at the park at 9:30 AM on March 14. I have to assume that Meg was thrilled.
WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford is a legitimately nice dude. Aside from a few interactions as a caller/tweeter, I don’t know Rob. I introduced myself to him at this past December’s Christmas at Fenway. WEEI was doing a radio show on-site that day. But again, I only know him as one of Boston’s better baseball scribes, and he only knows me as one of many Red Sox fans with an opinion. Despite all of that, I had the opportunity to chat with him while he was on the field at Hammond Stadium. He didn’t mind me bothering him to pick his brain about who has looked good in camp thus far. The next day, I found myself at the Red Sox minor league fields behind Jet Blue Park taking in some action when Rob approached me and offered to take me on an informal tour around the grounds at Fenway South. It was a cool, rare opportunity to get a peak at the complex and the park that the Red Sox occupy for much of the spring. Getting the chance to chat with someone who covers the team on a daily basis was pretty neat too. So thanks for that, Rob.
Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn’t run. He glides. Lost in the hoop-la surrounding the debate about whether or not the talented young outfielder should begin the season in Boston or Rhode Island has been how special JBJ really is. His approach at the plate is well-documented, but his defense may be even better. Bradley is not a burner by traditional standards, but he makes up for it by reading the ball off the bat, playing angles superbly. In short: He understands the game. If you’re interested in learning a little more about Bradley’s background, I can’t suggest this piece enough.
Minor league games at JetBlue Park are the absolute best. The best, Jerry. In all seriousness, it really is a phenomenal experience. Parking at Fenway South for a game costs $10, not bad at all considering the prices up north during the summer. For the minor league games? No cost. Admission is free as well. You are welcome to bring your own drinks, snacks, sunflower seeds. It’s essentially the opposite of any kind of sporting event you’ll ever attend when it comes to price and access.
At any one time, you have the ability to watch two, or sometimes, three minor league games going on simultaneously. The fields are extremely close to one another. I literally didn’t sit down during the two afternoons I spent at the complex. The players who are not scheduled to play or pitch that day occupy the small sets of bleachers located around the fields. Should you choose to sit, you will almost certainly be next to a flock of players in full uniform who will be playing up and down the Red Sox farm system in a matter of weeks. And these are not unknown guys. Blake Swihart, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Xander Bogaerts, and a plethora of other talented professional ballplayers are closer than you will probably ever get to them. You’re just as likely to stumble into a jewel from Red Sox’ past as you are the club’s future when taking in a few innings at the minor league games.
I had the chance to briefly chat with Frank Malzone who is one of the greatest third baseman in Red Sox history. Malzone is 83-years old and looks great. If anyone deserves the passenger seat of a golf cart at Fenway South, it’s him. Dwight Evans looks like he could still run down a well-hit ball to right field. I found it especially cool when I met him–a player who came just before my time, a guy who Bill James views as a Hall of Famer. I wouldn’t be telling the truth, however, if I said that the highlight of my trips to the ball field wasn’t meeting the great Pedro Martinez.
Pedro doesn’t adhere to anyone’s schedule. He never really did as a player and certainly doesn’t now. Serving in a part-time role as a special assistant to GM Ben Cherington is perfect for Pedro. He can sort of come and go as he pleases. I just happened to get lucky that he was roaming the minor league fields on my final day there. Flanked by two security guards — not that they were needed, as there are simply not many people who attend the games — Pedro was dressed in full uniform, leaning against a pole behind home plate of Field 3. I’m not being facetious when I say that I firmly believe he could go out and give you five strong frames tomorrow if you needed him in a pinch.
After the third out of an inning, I took a deep breath and approached one of the best pitchers the game of baseball has ever seen. I shook his hand and thanked him for everything he did for the Red Sox. I meant it too.
Given the circumstances, it was probably the most I could have done or said, even though I felt like giving him a Jason Varitek-after-the-last-out-in-Game 5-of-the-1999-ALDS-type embrace. But I can’t imagine that would’ve gone over too well.
Grown men seeking autographs is just plain weird. There’s something not right about it. Look, I’m a fan. I’m not above shouting to a player before a game and wishing him luck. It’s cool to be close to the game. I get it. But at some point, you have to stop chasing around guys your own age — or even younger — for a signature on a card or a baseball. If you’re someone who does this, it’s nothing personal. I don’t think you’re a bad dude. I just think you’re taking up the time of a ballplayer who could be signing something for, ya know, a ten year old.
(Full disclosure: I stood in line this past winter to get Terry Francona‘s signature on the cover page of his book. Yes, I think that’s different than the men who pester players who are trying to get their work in on the day of a game or practice.)
Dustin Pedroia and Brian Butterfield are probably a month or two away from being best friends. They both have a tremendous amount of personality. They both get to the yard extremely early. And most importantly, they both love the game. Here’s what Butterfield said about Pedroia back in November: “Dustin, the way he goes about his work, the way he competes and carries the torch and reacts to game situations, you can tell the Red Sox are his top priority. I’m so anxious to work with him.”
Before the Red Sox, Twins game on March 14 from just a few feet away, I watched Pedroia and Butterfield interacting on the top step of the visitor’s dugout of Hammond Stadium. They weren’t finalizing dinner plans either. Pedroia was wearing his helmet and batting gloves, leaning against the top of his bat. Butterfield stood to his right, leaning with his hand against the foam padding on the dugout rail. Their discussion was, at times, quite animated. It certainly appeared that the pair was talking about Pedroia’s approach to his first at-bat of the game. Both Butterfield and Pedroia are two guys cut from the same cloth.
Ryan Dempster is going to be a guy that fans will like watching. The two games we attended both featured Dempster as the starting pitcher. I had the chance to observe what it looks like when he is sharp and also when he is not so sharp. He is not going to blow hitters away, but he always seems like he is pitching with a plan. The Red Sox aren’t looking for Dempster to be the savior. If he stays healthy, expect to get a nice return on the righty. It also helps that signing him did not force the Sox to relinquish a draft pick.
Will Middlebrooks‘ wrist is just fine. It’s hard to believe that it was one month ago that Middlebrooks suffered, what appeared to be, a wince-worthy injury to his right wrist on an awkward check swing in a spring training game against the Orioles. At the time, I panicked. I’ll admit it. The young third baseman is such an integral part of this team. The Red Sox simply cannot afford to lose him. Thankfully, it only turned out to be a scare. Middlebrooks has gone on to tear up Grapefruit League pitching. This spring, he has hit at a 362/.400/.617 clip. Because of the work Jackie Bradley Jr. has done, Middlebrooks’ impressive camp has gone under the radar. In the two games I saw, even when he made outs, he struck the ball with authority. The kid’s going to be fun to watch over the course of a full season.
Spring Training often gets to be a monotonous time for fans, media, and players, but man, it is cool. The idea of watching baseball games when it is still basically winter in New England is an enticing thought in and of itself. If it were not for some convenient circumstances, I probably couldn’t afford to go on a nine-day vacation in Southwest Florida. Even without being as lucky as I have been, there are ways to do it relatively cheaply. You don’t need to stay near Fort Myers Beach to still spend a good amount of time getting
a tan burnt. Public transportation is less than ideal, but you can get to the airport, the beach, and the ballpark inexpensively.
I’m already looking forward to the next Spring Training trip because seeing Luis Tiant drive a golf cart while smoking a cigar never gets old. Ever.