Scouts and assorted loafers 0
A SLUSHY AFTERNOON IN March of some other spring, stopped dead on the road into town, pickup window rolled down just enough to hear the country quiet, the loudest noise a chickadee.
Ignition switched off, motor silenced. Deer, one on each road side, a third right slap-dab in the middle. Three deer staring at The Brown Dog Jiggs, me staring back at them.
Then the sharp thunk of a bat hitting a baseball breaks the silence. It is enough. The deer are gone, and now, though my eyes are in Haliburton, my ears are in Florida.
The crowd roars, a voice proclaims a double play, and my mind is a thousand miles away in a Florida that exists only in my memory, that perhaps never existed at all except in my imagination.
For it is 35 years since I was paid by a newspaper to watch grown men play a child’s game in a Florida town, longer still since I wandered from ballpark to ballpark, from Fort Myers to Vero Beach, just for the fun of it.
Now it is one of the great contradictions of my existence that I have set aside one of the joys of my life for some other thing that means even more to me.
For it is my great misfortune that Mother Nature has so arranged her seasons that it’s “Batter up” in Florida about the same time the maple sap starts running in Haliburton.
In the early seventies, before the Blue Jays were even thought of, long before I was hired to write about them, I finally start making enough money that I can afford a Florida pilgrimage each March.
It isn’t Florida that attracts me, for it always seems to me like Mississauga with pelicans. It is baseball that draws me, baseball that fills 10 precious days each March.
Drive through Michigan and Ohio and on south, drive through winter turning into spring, through the blossoming of the Gulf Coast, dodge the logging trucks in the Florida Panhandle, and there you are.
Bradenton is the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was not a Pirate fan, not really a fan of anything but the game itself, but their old ballpark suits me.
What follows in what I remember, not necessarily how it was. I would not sully my reminiscences with research.
Once upon a time, every spring-training park must have been much like McKechnie Field. Plank bleachers, weathered grey with time, wrap the foul lines from first to third.
Birds chirp and so do players and you hear them both. Green grass and dirt, yesterday’s uniforms out of the clubhouse washer, draped over the outfield fence, drying in the sunshine.
You find two games a day to watch, sometimes three, within easy driving distance. The Chicago White Sox are just down the road in Sarasota.
Unadvertised, the Sox and Bucs might play a 10 a.m. game at Pirate City, the Pirates’ minor-league complex. Some of the big stars play in the morning and take the afternoon off. No tickets are required; you just show up.
You sit there right behind home plate, with scouts and other loafers, watch Roberto Clemente hit a line drive on his first pitch off the plane from Puerto Rico, watch World Series pitching hero Steve Blass lose the strike zone and his career.
Between innings, you eavesdrop on the old ballplayers around you telling tall tales, listen to Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh visit an old teammate sitting beside you.
You are in the village of baseball. If you plan it right, you spend the morning at Pirate City for free, pay to see the regular game at McKechnie that afternoon, drive over to Lakeland to watch the Tigers under the lights.
Spring was and is a desperate time for young men trying to make an impression, for grizzled veterans trying to hang on for just one more big-league season, one more year of pension credits.
But for the core of each team, the established regulars, it is more of a relaxed reunion. You get in your swings, maybe tinker with your mechanics, rehearse set plays, then go fishing after the fifth inning.
Playing matters, not winning. The game you played as a boy looks like a game again. Or so it does in my memory.