Expos at Astros - March 26, 2004 (1:00 PM)
Indians at Braves - March 26, 2004 (7:00 PM)
Our objective for the final day in Florida was two games, the first at Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie and the second at Braves' camp right down the street from the condo.
We got a late start on this particular morning, however, and once we got stuck in traffic (again), it became clear that a two hour drive was probably not the best choice for that day. As we came to this conclusion, it just so happened we passed Osceola County Stadium, site of the previous night's game. The Astros were hosting the Expos in less than an hour, so we changed our plans and pulled into the parking lot.
Let me caution anyone planning on going to Florida this spring or summer: The Orlando-Kissimmee area and the "Florida Turnpike" are not conducive to speedy travel. There is construction all up and down the main road that goes to Disney World, and traffic is atrocious. Drives that should have taken 45 minutes were taking almost twice that amount of time. If you go to Florida during this, or presumably any, time of year, give
yourself extra time to get where you want to go.
Osceola County Stadium stands right off 192, but it is nestled back from the road and set off to itself. Given the amount of establishments packed on the road just a few hundred yards away, it is almost as if you have suddenly stepped into a different baseball dimension. The Astros have great facilities here and I hope they'll stay put for a number of years. Perhaps the remodeling they have done, right down to a fancy new
clubhouse, will ensure this. It manages to be modern enough without sacrificing that classic, fan-friendly feel.
Dan managed to use the fact that he is a professional umpire to our advantage and scored free tickets to the game. Between his getting free tickets and David's providing free lodging, I joked, "If we can just find someone who works for Exxon to go with us, the trip will be free."
The Astros lost a close game to the visiting Expos, but still managed to look strong. Having watched these guys two days in a row now, I think I may be ready to pick them in the NL Central. Expect to see Houston in the playoffs in 2004.
After the game, we headed back for the condo and started packing and getting ready for the long trip home. We managed to rest a bit, too, and then headed for another Florida favorite, a seafood restaurant that specializes in a casual dining atmosphere called Shells. The visit resulted in our being late for the game, but it was well worth it.
Our final stop this year featured the Indians visiting the Braves in
Cracker Jack Stadium. Located on the sprawling campus of Disney World at the Wide World of Sports, this camp is entirely different from any other I have seen in Florida.
The facade carries a "Hotel California" look that is enhanced by myriad palm trees growing in the area. The modern facility, completed in 1997, is almost twice as big as many of the other Florida parks. The place was full, with over 10,000 in attendance - an amazing number for a spring game.
The crowd was indicative of what Spring Training is becoming in both Florida and Arizona. Whereas up until the last few years, crowds were composed mainly of local die-hards and retired folks, the games are now well attended by those groups as well as vacationers, media outfits, spring breakers, and families.
There had actually been talk coming from Major League Baseball of cutting spring down. After all, pitchers and catchers spend over six weeks in camp. But the spring game has become so popular that teams would not be able to afford to shorten the schedule. (They really couldn't do so anyway. Players, especially pitchers, need the spring to prepare
themselves for the mentally and physically grueling six-month-long season ahead).
One thing fascinated me about Cracker Jack. To access the main entrance of the seating bowl, you have to go through the gift shop. Not by or near the gift shop. Through it. Sure, there are two other entrances, but they are located well down the lines. When you first enter the park, it seems the only way to get to your seats is through that gift shop.
"What do you expect," said Lizard. "It's Disney."
Right he is.
After the game, Dan, the Lizard, and I headed west. We left Orlando about 10:00PM Friday night and pulled into my driveway at 12:30PM the next day. If not for Dan, we would have been forced to stop. He took the wheel, mainlined coffee, spun his favorite tunes (Doobies, Seger, .38 Special, Aerosmith), and drove through most of the night. It was a brilliant performance, and one only a guy without a desk job could make twice in one week.
This year, we logged over 3200 miles, saw twelve different teams play nine games in eight different parks, interviewed ten players and coaches, met one legendary Hall of Famer, and brought my "total spring parks visited" to 20. We are now officially ready for the season.
Finally, a word of thanks to everyone who read the newspaper articles, followed our progress in OOB, and listened to the radio reports over on David Smoak's SportsTalk on KTBB 600 AM in Tyler and KEES 1430 AM in Longview. I have enjoyed bringing these reports to you, and the calls and e-mails I have received have been great - I appreciate your kind comments. Enjoy the season!