CHARLOTTE, February 9, 2014 – It’s been a long cold winter complete with polar vortexes and more snow than many people can remember. But there are signs that spring is on the way.
Football season is officially over after a warmer than expected Super Bowl. Not only that you can forget Punxatawney Phil. Disregard the robins and the buds on the trees. You really know that spring is just around the corner when the Boston Red Sox equipment truck departs from FenwayPark and heads to Florida.
No other sport has anything that comes close to baseball’s Spring Training. Football begins during the dog days of summer and even the most avid fans don’t get excited until after Labor Day. Basketball is practically a year-round sport, but the entire season is played indoors.
Baseball, on the other hand, is an annual rite of spring. For six weeks, from mid-February until early April, Arizona and Florida come alive with the sounds of horsehide balls being smacked into the sky by bats made of northern white ash.
It is a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated. Games don’t mean a thing, but competition is keen. Aging veterans sometimes struggle to hang on to their careers for another season or two while youngsters in their teens and twenties try to unseat guys they once collected on bubble gum cards.
From the moment they lace up their cleats and hear the clickety-clack of their spikes upon the clubhouse floor, players feel a sense of renewal. But even that can’t replace the first magic step onto the field when the lush grass and soft earth crunches beneath their feet. This is where they belong. They are home. Diamonds are a guy’s best friend, and they know it.
For a truly unique holiday, there is nothing quite like Spring Training. Travelers can visit the Cactus League in Arizona or explore the Grapefruit League in Florida. Opt for tumbleweed or palm trees. Either way it’s a chance to get up close and personal with the stars and superstars of the game in a way no other sport can offer.
There are several ways for vacationers to experience Spring Training. In Arizona visitors can do day trips to the Grand Canyon or Sedona or play some golf before taking in a game.
Florida offers deep sea fishing, the Everglades, swimming, golf and even an opportunity to visit the mouse that ate Orlando at Walt Disney World.
Games are played in the afternoon or at night and distances between parks are relatively short. With a schedule in hand and a little planning, fans can take in two games a day and see four different teams play if they wish. It’s the ultimate doubleheader. Do that twice and you could see nearly one-fourth of the major league teams in just two days of baseball.
Whether you travel to Arizona or Florida, each state is home to 15 ball clubs and both leagues, the American and the National, have teams that train in each location. Logistically, Arizona is more compact, but Florida has the advantage of having most of its training camps along each of its coasts.
Spring is that time of year when players are most accessible. Autographs are easier to get than during the regular season. Most veterans only play four to six innings a game and, since Spring Training parks are small, it is convenient for fans to approach their favorite players.
In general, without the pressure of a regular season pennant race, most players are more relaxed and available during the spring, especially if fans are polite and respectful of the fact that players are, after all, working.
Baseball players are typically fun-loving people. The sport is designed that way. It suits the personalities of the men who play the game. Conscientious fans who understand their place and the player’s need for personal space will be far more successful at gaining the attention of their favorite athletes than those intent on being obnoxious.
For a ball player Spring Training is, in many ways, a return to his roots. Games are played in parks rather than stadiums, just as they were in the minor leagues. Capacity is just a few thousand seats. Fans are frequently closer to the action than they will ever be during the regular season.
For some, Spring Training is a perennial traveling adventure representing a new beginning. It is a time for short sleeves, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and hot dogs.
For others it can be a nostalgic link to the past. Baseball thrives on folklore and tradition like no other sport. In some ways, regardless of the generation, baseball is a time machine back to a simpler, less complicated, day when life seemed more carefree. A time when little boys dreamed of being the next big league star and dads remember their own youthful dreams.
Still others simply savor an early escape from winter’s final blustery surge. They follow the sun to bask in the green of the grass, the brown of the dirt, the blue of the sky and to hear the crack of the bat.
When April comes, the boys of summer head north with sun tanned faces that remind everyone else of what lies ahead.
Forget the robins. When you see Blue Jays, Cardinals and Orioles, that’s when you know it is spring.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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