3 Days in Florida: What I Saw at Spring Training

Jacob deGrom’s first pitch of 2020

Ever since spring training began, my fancy has turned lightly to thoughts of baseball.

This past weekend, I attended three Grapefruit League games, two won my favorite team, the New York Mets:

  • Rays vs. Nationals this past Friday at FITTEAM Ballpark (the Washington/Houston home stadium in West Palm Beach, Florida)
  • Mets vs. Astros on Leap Day Saturday, also at FITTTEAM
  • Nationals vs. Mets on Sunday at Clover Park (the Mets home stadium in Port St. Lucie, Florida)

I’m posting these thoughts about my first-ever spring training visit on March 5 — the infamous day, 48 years ago, that Jim Fregosi broke his right thumb during a workout. The Mets had obtained Fregosi in an off-season trade that season for Nolan Ryan, and their careers subsequently took very different turns, with Ryan winding up in the Hall of Fame.

So the life of a Mets fan, like life in general, is not always easy or fair. Still, I am eager for the arrival of the 2020 season and happily took photos of FITTEAM field as soon as I arrived…

My wife gently nudged me and asked if it was a good idea to be seen in an Astros ballpark with a camera pointed toward the batter’s box.

One theme of the weekend was the Astros cheating scandal. Fans everywhere chatted constantly about it. During the Mets/Astros game, fans were especially vocal, chanting “Beat the Cheats!” to the tone and rhythm of “Let’s Go Mets!” It’s anyone’s guess how long this hostility will last, but I wonder whether it will demoralize or galvanize the Astros players as the season progresses.

Another weekend theme was how nice people are to you when you wear Mets gear. No matter where we were — at the ballpark, airport, hotel, in bars and restaurants, or walking the streets of West Palm Beach — people would nod, smile, wave, or say “Let’s Go Mets!”

One Rays fan, an older gentleman, saw my Mets cap and bemoaned how much he’ll miss Marcus Stroman, who left the Blue Jays to join the Mets last year. As he kept talking, he revealed a schoolboy crush on Nikki Huffman, Stroman’s personal trainer, who he will miss even more.

Watching the Mets players interact up close gave me a hopeful feeling for the future. The players seem to genuinely enjoy each other.

The day before we left for Florida, mlb.com’s Anthony DiComo posted an endearing story describing how a group of Mets players have formed an impromptu “Cookies Club,” meeting up regularly after road games to eat peanut-butter cookies, drink 2% milk, and talk about baseball and life.

I saw evidence of this refreshing decency with my own eyes: Jacob DeGrom joked with the home plate umpire after leaving the pitcher’s mound following three innings of work. I’m guessing it was about the five strikes the ump had given the Nationals’ Michael Taylor in a previous at bat. And when muscular, fan-favorite Tim Tebow pulled back from barreling late into second base during a meaningless, late-game double play, Nationals middle infielders gave him a respectful, appreciative nod.

Even though today’s culture is so divisive, and cheaters evidently do sometimes win, I refuse to believe that nice guys always finish last. Give me Luis Rojas over Leo Durocher any day. I’ll take my chances.

Niceness is contagious, even if it isn’t yet a global pandemic. It’s amazing how friendly the Mets vendors and support staff are when we attend games in New York. That vibe extended to Clover Park, which has been newly renovated and mirrors some of the best features of CitiField (cheers, Jim Beam Bourbon Bar!).

Clover Park was more fan-friendly and comfortable than FITTEAM. Upon entering on Sunday, the guards let my wife through with a friendly wave despite problems with a wonky metal detector. We joked that had the same thing happened at Yankee Stadium, I would have spent the afternoon bailing her out from a Bronx detention center.

My Dad, a great amateur ballplayer in his own right, used to observe that, however old he was, he always felt he was younger than the major leaguers he watched on TV. In real life, that conceit is hard to maintain. All the players look young… and younger than on TV. They also seem bigger in real life; not like actors, who always seem smaller.

Today’s baseball players are in terrific shape and are the most talented in the world. I chuckle to myself when people claim that Babe Ruth would be just as effective today as he was in the 1920s. Back then Ruth’s opponents came from a small, sometimes out-of-shape, homogeneous talent pool who did not have the benefit of all the advances over the past century in health, nutrition and sports science.

Strolling past the left-field bullpen during the Rays-Nationals game, I heard what sounded like a gunshot, only to look down to discover it was the pop of a Jalen Beeks fastball hitting a warmup catcher’s mitt. Young Beeks’ stats suggest he’s so far been an average big-league middle reliever, but I wonder if Ruth had seen or heard anything like him.

My wife wore her “Scooter and the Big Man” T-shirt to Sunday’s game, which happened to be scheduled on Michael Conforto’s 27th birthday. The E Street Band reference in this case refers to “Scooter” Conforto and “Big Man” Pete Alonso.

It also happened to be deGrom’s first start of the spring that day (we were doubly lucky: having witnessed Stephen Strasburg’s first spring start on Friday).

It was quite a sight to see “Jake” warm up on the third-base sideline (I wonder why the Mets dugout is on the third-base side of Clover Park; isn’t the home team always on the first-base side?). All the other Mets pitchers gathered around to study/watch/admire deGrom’s seemingly effortless delivery. Catcher Wilson Ramos, who looks to begin the season in top physical condition, was squatting closer to the ground and setting a lower target than he did during the 2019 season.

Once the game started, deGrom made short work of the first three batters he faced: a great sign for the season ahead. Not only that, but Scooter and the Big Man came through: Alonso getting his first hit of the spring and Conforto hitting a birthday home run.

It was a memorable Sunday. Only one thing was missing: Where was Mr. Met?

Some other things of interest:

  • FITTEAM Ballpark has no clock on its expansive scoreboard, as if time had stopped… or we were in Las Vegas.
  • The hawkers in spring training are especially entertaining, although the “very, very cold beer / if I were you I’d order a beer” guy met his match when a high school baseball team sitting together all jokingly stood, shouted and raised their hands when he passed.
  • The between-inning amusements are sweetly reminiscent of scenes from “Bull Durham.” Games at both parks were interrupted by an urgent plea from the PA announcer for the owner of a certain car. The centerfield scoreboard then displayed said vehicle, and the announcer enthusiastically informed the crowd that it had won that day’s “Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot” contest, awarding the owner a free wash.
  • Florida is filled with palm trees and churches and concrete utility poles.

In the end, my wife and I enjoyed our stay in West Palm Beach very much. It features inviting bars and restaurants, street art and musicians, and people who like to dine outdoors on Clematis Street in shorts and short-sleeve shirts in 53-degree weather.

We crossed the bridge to moneyed Palm Beach only once. I felt claustrophobic there, finding the architecture imposing and ostentatious.

Perhaps that’s where the owners of the Yankees live.

Originally published at http://varettoni.blogspot.com.

Posting here about writing, books, tech, family, baseball. More about me at bvarcommunications.com