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Monday Morning March 12 - Days 3 & 4

St. Petersburg and Clearwater, FL – Saturday morning was particularly lazy, as we only had to go about 3 miles down the road for the game.  The Devil Rays train just a few blocks from their home ballpark (Tropicana Field) in a great little place on the bay.  Al Lang Field is a legendary spring park, as it has been home to spring training games since 1916.

Though rebuilt in 1976, it still has much of the charm of a classic old spring park, and we liked it immediately.  With the bay to our left and downtown to our right, we were surrounded by the sights and sounds of spring baseball.  It promised to be a great day.

Once again, we arrived late, but only by a few pitches this time (and having forsaken the infernal map, we can only blame our timing on our own laziness).  We missed the first pitch, which was thrown out by Supreme Court justice Sam Alito.  No surprise here: he’s a righty.

I acquired my first hot dog of the trip midway through a Phillies victory over the home team, a foot long masterpiece.  I never will get use to squeezing onions out of a packet, though. 

Everyone here was used to the spring training experience – even the seagulls.  As soon as the game was over, the birds immediately descended on the stands for the concession leavings.  The coverage became so dense that I wanted out of there immediately – they were swooping much to close to me, and my bald head was ripe for the soiling.

Following the game we went over to an area called the Bay Walk, an outdoor mall a few blocks away.  It was a great place and we spent the afternoon leisurely strolling the area.  Eventually, we ended up in a park area and threw the baseball until dusk.  It was a perfect spring day.

We headed back to the hotel and cleaned up for our evening out.  Two Philadelphia tourists consulted their guide when we approached them about a good place to eat sea food and suggested the Oyster Bar right there in downtown St. Pete.  It turned out to be a real winner, with some half shell, Oysters Rockefeller, crab cakes, and sea bass making an appearance on the table.  Buddha polished his off with some Key Lime Pie, while I opted for the Rutabaga Pie.  It was absolutely wonderful – a perfect day.

On Sunday, we returned to the city where I saw my very first spring training game five years ago.  Clearwater is right down the road from our hotel, so again we didn’t have to go far.  This experience would be quite different from the one in 2002, however, as a lot has changed here.

A couple of years ago, the Phillies moved out of Jack Russell Stadium, much to our chagrin.  That old place was so full of history, and it was a great place to see a ballgame.  Plus, as the first one I visited, it held a special place in OOB Spring Training lore.

We arrived at Brighthouse Network Field and were directed to a parking lot so far away from the park that we were convinced it would have been quicker to just walk from St. Petersburg.  I have been to a lot of ballparks across the country, but I don’t think I have ever walked this far to get from the car to the main gate – especially for a spring game.

We found pretty much what I expected there: a very nice facility with all the amenities a fan could want – and a cold, characterless place.  Sure, it’s a nice place, but there is just no charm at all.  It could be any one of a hundred minor parks constructed in the past 5-10 years.  They do still have a great, authentic cheesesteak sandwich – but it will now cost you $6.25.

The Phillies were hosting the reigning AL champs, and the Tigers were not to be denied, even though most of the regulars had the day off.  Curtis Granderson and Gary Sheffield were playing, but most of the damage was done by the kids and the Tigers came away 5-3 winners.

If this had been a regular season game, however, Detroit would never have made it out of the starting gate.  Jamie Moyer's rather unusually lengthy five inning stint was a masterpiece.  The crafty southpaw gave up just two hits and was sporting a curveball that was absolutely unhittable.  The most amazing thing?  Moyer turned 44 last November.

After the game, we watch some BP, another spring ritual that always entertains.  We were amazed at the ability of these hitters to place the ball, to hit it wherever they want.  Aaron Rowand was particularly impressive, driving out taters to all parts of the field.  I particularly enjoyed watching the hitting coach work with a young player on his swing, and noted how different the mechanics were from what so many people teach at the little league level today.  Watch those big leaguers, boys – they are pros for a reason!

It took us longer to get back to the car that it did to drive back to the hotel, where naps were in order for the Lizard and me, and a trip to the pool for the Buddha.  By Sunday evening, we were ready to roll and headed out to the legendary Press Box in Tampa,  Big screens abounded, and with one tuned to ESPN, we were ready to take in the Mavericks game.

Dallas beat the tar out of the Lakers, much to our collective delight, winning their 17th straight contest.  They have lost only twice since mid December and seem destined for greatness.  Some cheap food and a few odd looks from patrons wondering why we were carrying on so notwithstanding, we had a great time.

We also saw one of the most unusual arcade machines ever at the Press Box.  "The Lobster Zone" needs no introduction (see below).

Monday will be our long haul, as we travel down to Ft. Meyers to the Twins and the Red Sox camps.   Just a day and a half left now – it’s been a great trip.

Day 1 Growth
Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park, home of the Devil Rays
Just beyond the third base gate at Al Lang Field.
Buddha and Lizard at Al Lang Field
Buddha on the Bay Walk
Brighthouse Networks Field entrance, featuring an unnamed southpaw pitcher

Far Right Top:
44 year old Jamie Moyer made the spring kids look like little leaguers for five innings

Far Right Bottom:
Batting practice after a spring game, Clearwater, FL

"The Lobster Zone" - Put $2 in the slot and you too may have lobster for supper, if you can navigate that claw and capture one. No kidding!
Day 2 Growth
Day 3 Growth
Read about and see photos from Days 1-2 here
Read about and see photos from Days 1-2 here
Day 4 Growth
Tuesday Morning March 13 - Day 5

Ft. Myers, FL – Monday was our long day, but it didn’t compare with our long day the last time we were here.  That trip featured a haul from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale, while this year we only had to go about 120 miles down to Ft. Myers from St. Petersburg.

The drive time went by just fine; however we are growing tired of the Florida traffic again.  It doesn’t matter what time of day or what road you’re on, the traffic down here is terrible.  In fact, the only time it seems you can get a leisurely drive is in the middle of the night.

Hammond Stadium, spring home of the Minnesota Twins, seems to get a bad rap from folks who review spring parks.  This is presumably because it is not flashy and new, but we just loved it.  The exterior has a ton of character, with a palm tree lined walkway leading to the front gates and a huge fountain across the front of the facility.

Inside it is your standard small spring venue – we loved it for the same reasons so many others don’t.  No fancy restaurants, no tricked up features, nothing at all “modern” in its feel.  The setting is intimate for watching the game, and after all, that is why we were there.  The highway runs just outside the right field fence, and while it does not provide a view, it is an unusual change and added some character to the place.

Dontrelle Willis was on the hill for the Marlins as they took on the hometown Twins, who sent Boof Bonser to the hill.  You read that right, Boof.  The guy legally changed his name from John Paul to Boof in 2001, since that what everyone called him anyway.

Of course, he can call himself whatever he wants if he pitches like he did this day – four innings of no hit ball.  He was masterful.  Watch out for Bonser this season.  His first full big league year could be one to remember as he follows Johan Santana in the Minnesota rotation.

Dontrelle Willis was not so fortunate.  The Florida ace was rocked for three straight innings, surrendering six runs, much to the delight of the home crowd.  There would be no stunning comebacks by the bench bums on this day either, as the Twins defeated the Marlins 9-1.

Our major observation about the Marlins was that they are not well coached.  Twice the left fielder threw behind a runner to second, allowing one of them to advance.  Another time, both the shortstop and the second baseman were inexplicably out in short left to take the cutoff throw.  Second base was completely abandoned.  It was Uggla.  I mean, ugly.  Actually, it was both.

These kinds of mental blunders, which also included unnecessary throws and poor positioning, might be understandable coming from rookies and kids.  These mistakes came from the starters, though, and there is just no excuse for that.  All I can think is that a Joe Girardi-coached team would never be so Bush League.

Everyone seemed to be having fun at the game, except the kid behind us.  He was having A BLAST.  Wayyyyy too much fun (see photo, which I promise is completely unedited).

After the game, the Lizard and Buddha played catch on the parking lot outfield.  What’s a parking lot outfield, you ask?  That’s where they parked us on arrival – in the outfield of a practice field – a first even for well traveled spring vets like us.  I decided to skip out on the throwing since the hotel bed is doing everything it can to destroy my back and our last session left me crippled for several hours.  The first signs of being ready to go home had reared their heads.

That night, the Yankees were playing against Boston over at City of Palms Park (also in Ft. Myers).  They were not selling tickets on the Internet, so we headed for the box office to see what might be available.  We arrived before five for a 7:00 game and immediately learned that everyone here has completely lost their minds.

The parking lots were already filling up.  Every game we had been to had ample people selling tickets in the lots.  Not here.  They all wanted to buy tickets here.  It was a madhouse.  But it wasn’t until I entered the park that I found out how out of control the whole scene was.

The others dropped me at the corner to check out the ticket situation and make a quick gift shop run.  There were people everywhere – it had been sold out for hours.  In fact, an attendant told me that people had camped out overnight to get the remaining tickets.  CAMPED OUT FOR A SPRING TRAINING GAME! 

The madness only increased when I entered the gift shop.  Now, the Sox have the best gift shop in Florida and it is full of great, unique stuff.  But on this day, you could actually buy commemorative pins: Yankees vs. Red Sox – Ft. Myers, FL – March 12.  It was absolutely ridiculous.  Since we had all been to this facility before, and really had little choice, we headed back for St. Petersburg.

We thought this would work out ideally, as we could get a good night’s sleep before heading home Tuesday afternoon.  But we sat in the hotel and watched a movie and ended up at dinner at 10:45 local time.  The downtown Italian eatery was classy and excellent (unlike us), and the sidewalk seating great on a warm Florida night.  After some excellent food, we walked around downtown until well past midnight, just taking in the area.

Then, instead of doing the sensible thing, we headed back to the Press Box and played three full games of Silver Strike Bowling.  By the time we got back and finally settled down to go to sleep, it was pushing 4:00.  But hey, that is only 3:00 back in Texas, right?

Today we are heading to Blue Jays camp in Dundin, which is on our way back.  It has been a wonderful trip, but it will be great to get back home, see the family, and convalesce in our own beds.  My back will be especially happy.

One correction before I am out – the first day, I stated the Lizard had collected an assortment of snacks.  I should have said “an assortment of baked goods that he himself slaved away and prepared the day before our departure.”  At least, I think that’s what his wife was wanting me to let everyone know when she emailed me that the original statement was “not exactly correct.”

What's the legal limit in this state, anyway?  A local kid goofs off on the row behind us.  His shirt says: I'M JUST HERE FOR THE SIGNING BONUS
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