Stacey May Fowles heads to Florida for Spring Training to watch the Jays in action for the first time this year.
There’s something about your first annual spring training game that feels a bit like a long-awaited romantic date. There’s a hell of a lot of build up and anticipation, a lot of wondering what the day will look and feel like, a lot of nervous yet optimistic energy buzzing around as you take to the Florida interstate to finally be reunited. In fact, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t carefully pick out an outfit the night before.
For diehards, it’s more than a little emotional to finally come back to the ballpark—any ballpark—after a long, dark, wintery four-month hiatus. If it happens in Florida, there’s a good chance that the weather will be beautiful and the mood congenial, making it hard not to get a little teary behind your sunglasses. All of that emotion is only heightened when the last time you saw your beloved he was gunning hard for a World Series championship. Spring Training may be, as they say, meaningless, but after what we all endured last October, it’s hard not to carry our lofty expectations with us as we push through that turnstile for the first time.
This year’s reunion between me and the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t happen at the team’s springtime home in Dunedin, but instead at Tampa’s George M. Steinbrenner Field, one of the Grapefruit League’s more majestic ballpark offerings. Steinbrenner is like a tiny Yankee Stadium substitute, still steeped deep in heritage and holiness, though its capacity is about one fifth its parent’s size. (It is, however, the largest Spring Training ballpark in Florida.) From the $10 open field parking lot, staffed primarily by polite retirees, the park is a quick walk across the bridge over Route 92. The stadium itself is tastefully decorated with a collection of pennant flags, each marking a year the storied Yankees have won a World Series—27 if you’re masochistic and counting.
In my day-to-day life, I’m egregiously early to pretty much everything (it’s annoying for everyone involved), and baseball games are no exception. Game time in Tampa is 1:07 p.m., and I’m already through the gate by 11, ready to take in every last drop before the first pitch is thrown. As I walk the concourse at Steinbrenner, down the aisles toward the field, dozens of yellow-shirted staffers, most of which are seniors, say hello and tell me that they hope I enjoy the game. It’s such a pleasant environment it almost feels suspect, as if it’s impossible for all of these people to be this nice in quick succession. I watch as a guy in a Jays jersey has a warm, friendly chat with a guy in a Yankees jersey, reminding me that in Spring Training there are no real pressing rivalries. The clock is set back to zero, and the slate is wiped clean.
The real bonus of being early to Spring Training games is the potential for proximity to players, with a handful of fans congregating along the third base line to get a closer look at Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, and Kevin Pillar. The boys in blue casually exercise as frantic onlookers snap photos, with lucky children occasionally getting a ball tossed their way. While they collectively lurk, a Steinbrenner staffer warns all enthusiastic adults that they need to make sure only children occupy the first row, lest everyone be told to take a hike.
In a nice confluence of events, my first game of the year is also Jose Bautista’s. Mar. 10 marked the legendary bat flipper’s return to the field for the first time since the Kansas City Royals eliminated the Jays in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. All of the rumours about him being in peak physical form are true, at least from my stadium vantage point. Watching him stretch yoga-style pre-game is a near meditative experience, and I can’t help but join the chorus of “pay the man whatever he wants” while witnessing him methodically prep for this “meaningless” spring game.
I watch as Bautista finishes his toe-touching and back stretching before wandering toward batting practice and joining Josh Donaldson as they crack balls far into the outfield. Heartthrob Donaldson has somehow managed to modify his uniform ever so slightly, solidifying his bad boy status by pulling his baseball pants up to his knees (sans high socks) and positioning his cap high on his head.
For the following nine innings, I’m stationed out in left field, my seatmates a couple of kindly Yankees fans from Tulsa, Oklahoma. We strike up a convivial conversation immediately, and I’m fascinated by the fact that they’ve managed to become fans of the pinstripes despite hailing from a city more than 2,000 kilometres from NYC. They tell me they’re both close to 60 years into their Yankees fandom, and that they got impromptu married in Las Vegas the year the Twins beat the Cardinals in the World Series (1987). She laughs when she points out it’s actually her seventh marriage, the one that finally stuck, after all the others lasted less than a year a piece. As the game progresses, they teach me about the Yankees players I know little about, and I do the same for them about the Jays.
In the grand scheme of baseball things, there was nothing exceptional about this particular Thursday game at Steinbrenner. People were nice and the weather was good. I drank a summer shandy out of a plastic Yankees souvenir cup, ate some $6 popcorn, and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Drew Hutchison, who is looking to secure a fifth starter spot during the regular season, allowed two runs and three hits over two and a bit innings. Aroldis Chapman, who is facing a 30-day regular season suspension under the MLB’s new domestic violence policy, hit Bautista with a pitch in the fifth. Twenty-sixth-ranked prospect Andy Burns blasted a three-run homer over the wall in left field. Josh Donaldson was, as always, Josh Donaldson.
“It was fine; normal first game,” Bautista told the media when it was done.
But the game was beautiful as baseball games always are in their own way. If I was the kind of person who believes in cosmic messages (I am), an 11-4 win over the Yankees as my first game of 2016 bodes pretty well. It’s worth noting that the Jays currently have the best record in the Grapefruit League, with eight wins and one loss. Even though I know it’s all meaningless, it sure feels like a damn good first date.