In a matter of hours... Spring will be upon us – pitchers and catchers will report to their respective clubs and begin routines for the start of the Major League Baseball season. For a little more than a month, baseball teams will play their “season before the season” in an effort to tweak rosters and fine-tune lineups and rotations. It’s an exciting time of year when every team has new hope and, new prospects. Fans and the media will begin their speculations and fantasy teams will be drafted. For me, it brings back one of the greatest memories of my life.
In 2006 my son Matt was in his final year of elementary school. The following year he’d be moving into the middle school of our small city in upstate New York and, with the new school would come new challenges, new faces and a new schedule of things to do.
That year, Matt had a foreign language teacher who knew him to be a dedicated baseball fan – in particular – a dedicated Yankee fan. As luck would have it, that teacher held tickets for the Yankees spring training schedule, because he spent spring breaks in Florida, and the week of Matt’s spring break, he could not make his regular trip south. So, he asked Matt if he would like a couple of his tickets to Yankee games and, Matt came home excited about the possibility of seeing his baseball heroes in action. Knowing that he and I might never have the opportunity again, I quickly cleared my schedule and made reservations in Florida.
Our first game that week pitted the Yankees against the Cardinals. The weather was perfect... 80 degrees, partly sunny. The “Big Unit”, Randy Johnson was the scheduled pitcher for the home team and Legends field (later renamed to George M. Steinbrenner park) was full.
As we walked from the parking lot to the stadium, on our left we could see the field where the Yanks practiced and stretched before games and, as we entered the stadium grounds, to our right, was an area with three mounds on which Mariano Rivera, Randy Johnson and Scott Proctor were beginning their daily routines. You could hear the "pops" of the ball to the mitt and you knew it was baseball was here. A crowd gathered along the fence of the practice field as fans tried to catch glimpses of their favorite players stretching and jogging around the perimeter of the outfield.
Matt and I squeezed ourselves in hoping to see Jorge Posada – Matt’s favorite player. Our efforts went unrewarded and we made our way into the ballpark and to our seats. Regardless of whether or not we saw our favorite players, we were in the ballpark on a perfect day and about to watch our favorite team play. Life doesn’t get any better.
The game began and for the first three innings Randy Johnson and Sidney Ponson, the Cardinal pitcher, matched scoreless frames. In the bottom of the 4th, a promising young second baseman for the Yanks, Robinson Cano, drilled a Ponson fastball over the opposite field wall and, the crowd went wild.
In the 5th inning, Johnson would run into trouble and the Cardinals would get two runs to take the lead. The “Big Unit” would be relieved by Rivera in the sixth and, even though it was still just spring, we would be fortunate enough to see his greatness in full splendor as he struck out two of the three batters he faced. The remainder of the game we saw appearances by the likes of Kyle Farnsworth and Tanyon Sturtze and, the Yankees would lose the game 4 – 3.
In spite of the result, our experience lost none of its luster. Matt and I spent a day watching our Yankees and even though our heroes like Jeter, Posada and ARod did not participate in the game that day, others by the names of Cano, Giambi, Sheffield and Rivera more than made up for it.
Following the game we exited the stadium and headed to the gift shop. On the way, we passed an old-style ragtime band playing songs like “Take me out to the ball game”. It only added to the overall atmosphere of the day and I knew at that moment that I was making memories of a lifetime.
That is the beauty of spring training for fans – there is no pressure or stress. It is merely baseball in its purest form played in cozy, throwback stadiums full of sights, sounds and the smells of a promising new season. I cannot think of a better experience for a father and son and, I will cherish the moments at Legends field forever.
--Steve Skinner, BYB Guest Writer