Stacey May Fowles reflects on the (meaningless, but nonetheless exciting) Spring Training wins for the Boys in Blue.
My absolute favourite Florida Spring Training ballpark is the Philadelphia Phillies’ Bright House Field, down in Clearwater. I have dreams about that place, yearn for it all year long, and get deliriously excited when I’m finally on my way there. I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes Bright House so perfect—everyone has their own reasons for falling in love with a ballpark—but I’m guessing the fact that it has a berm has something to do with it.
The expanse of grass beyond the outfield wall seats about 1,500, and before game time, fans gather there to catch any balls that may have made it over the wall during batting practice. The berm is officially the spot for cheap seats, which is comical given that it’s probably the closest you’ll ever get to baseball heaven. Little kids play catch while families lay down blankets to picnic in the sun. For those who think baseball is a slow and meandering sport (I forgive you), the lawn also offers a nice opportunity to take a midday nap.
On Saturday, I spent about an hour pre-game lounging on the berm before making my way down to my first-base seats next to the Jays dugout. I made it in time to catch Jose Bautista’s now-famed impromptu fitness battle with the Phanatic, the Phillies’ beloved mascot. Bautista’s hilarious revelry was well timed, given he just came out of facing (ridiculous, unfounded, and generally annoying) criticism from Hall of Famer Goose Gossage that he’s a showboating disgrace. The crowd was all over Bautista’s on-field comedy, and it certainly felt like it fell well within the realm of “respecting the game.” The outfielder’s critics tend to forget that beyond his proud bat-flipping and take-no-shit attitude, he has a pretty entertaining sense of humour. “Think of the children,” indeed.
R.A. Dickey had a strong start Saturday, but the Jays ultimately fell to the Phillies 5-8. The knuckleballer took the Spring Training opportunity to experiment with his fastball, something he later told the media he wouldn’t have done otherwise. “In an in-season game, I wouldn’t have messed with it,” he said. “But it was a great opportunity, and a great spot to be able to try to use that and get some feedback from it.” There’s a great deal of talk right now that this Spring Training is the best showing slimmed-down Dickey has had thus far, meaning things are looking good for him for the upcoming season.
Sunday afternoon brought me back to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, where the Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays. Rays match-ups always offer fun rivalry, with Tampa locals coming in to cheer on their own major league team in the Jays’ tiny stadium. It’s fun to overhear Rays’ fans conjecture on how the Jays are going to do this year, with more than a few of supporters calling them “the team to beat” (though I’ve heard that refrain at Spring Training for three years now).
Sunday’s seats at Dunedin were third row at first base, and scores of enthusiastic children congregated in front of us hoping to get a photo, bat, or baseball signed before first pitch. Their parents hung back to keep an eye on them, looking just as eager for the brush with fame. Marcus Stroman was the first to come by and oblige, giving a warm hug to mascot Ace before uncapping a sharpie and getting to work. Josh Donaldson followed, scrawling his name on dozens of items before wishing everyone a good day and scurrying off to the dugout.
For one guy in the row in front of me, high profile players just weren’t enough. He wandered down the aisle to the media pit, where cameramen, photographers, and personalities gather, and begged Sportsnet sportscaster Hazel Mae to sign his brand new spring training cap. She sheepishly obliged, and for the rest of the game he made an adorable point to show and tell everyone around him.
At any time of year there’s a great deal of gossip and speculation about players, whether it’s about contracts, injuries, or otherwise. Spring Training presents a unique way to dispel the rumours. A Toronto fan to my right decided to yell his questions at first-base coach Tim Leiper during breaks in the action. Leiper wandered over and told him not to worry: Edwin Encarnacion (who we’ve yet to see this spring), he said, will be back in a few days, and Marco Estrada is around, the team opting to start him off slow.
The Blue Jays won Sunday’s matchup pretty handily, in no small part because Bautista hit a home run that reminded everyone in the stands what we love about him. If I’m honest, the moment gave me chills, if only because I had flashbacks to that moment in Game Five last year. Bulked-up pitcher Aaron Sanchez is also looking more and more likely to take that fifth starter spot, with no runs, one hit, one walk, and four strikeouts in four innings. This was the team’s sixth win in the past seven games, keeping them at the top of the Grapefruit League standings. (I know, I know. It’s meaningless. But it’s nice.)
The Jays have a day off today—a shame, really, given that a midday game would be a great way to get you through your Monday daylight savings time slump. The team is back in Dunedin tomorrow to face the Baltimore Orioles, with new Blue Jay and former Oakland A Jesse Chavez on the mound. It’ll be my last game of this trip, and though I’ll be sad to leave, I’m reminded how much closer we all are to Opening Day.