My long-held notion that one should expect to see the unexpected when attending a Major League Baseball game was confirmed once again during a recent three-game, four-day swing through spring training camps.
Spring training this year was hardly recognizable from the last time I attended strictly as a fan. Long gone are the days of showing up a few minutes before the first pitch, slapping down a couple of dollars and finding a vacant seat almost anywhere in the ballpark. So, too, are the days of purchasing a reasonably priced cup of beer to wash down an inexpensive hot dog.
Two of the three games I attended this spring were sellouts on game day, so I purchased a $20 standing-room only ticket in Dunedin where the Toronto Blue Jays train, and a $15 standing-room only ticket in Bradenton where the Pittsburgh Pirates prepare for the regular season. The field-level box seat in Clearwater where the Philadelphia Phillies work out cost me $28.
Hot dogs were priced anywhere from $5 to $8.50, and even the most garden-variety beer set me back $10, including tip to the vendor. For a single fan, a day at the ballpark in spring training is expensive. For a family of four, well, I cannot imagine paying that much to see an exhibition game.
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It used to be that spring training was mostly reserved for true baseball fans who got the chance to see their favorite teams and players up close. Autographs were easy to come by. Occasional banter between players and fans was part of the experience.
No more. Nearly every stadium, like the newly refurbished or constructed ones in Clearwater and Bradenton, are built so players do not have to interact with fans. Even at old and rundown Florida Auto Exchange Stadium – yes, that is what it is called – in Dunedin, players go to great lengths to avoid fans and autograph seekers. Fans once could pat visiting players on the back as they walked to the parking lot in Dunedin to board the team bus after games. Now, the bus is parked inside a fence. No pats on the back permitted.
Fortunately, autographs and talks with the players were not what I was after on this trip. I wanted to see some baseball, and perhaps something out of the ordinary. As it turned out, I was in for a treat.
First stop was Dunedin to see my beloved Mets take on the Blue Jays. I quickly recognized just how physically fit Major League Baseball players are these days. In the old days, players held odd jobs during the offseason then worked themselves back into shape during the spring. Today, players go through heavy workout regiments throughout the year, and spring training is all about getting their timing and mechanics in order.
The exception to that rule is Bartolo Colon, the rotund yet remarkably agile right-handed pitcher for the Mets. He is listed at 5-foot-11 and 285 pounds, one figure slightly exaggerated to make him appear taller, the other number fudged perhaps to make Colon appear svelte, which is impossible by any stretch.
Yet the 42-year-old Colon remains the Everyman of MLB. He appears for all the world on the pitcher’s mound as if he is playing catch with his grandson in the backyard. He playfully tosses the ball in the air to himself between pitches and smiles at opposing hitters as they wave at his tosses to the catcher. He throws almost nothing but fastballs, rarely topping 92 mph, and works batters up and down and in and out of the strike zone with precision.
On this day, Colon was at his best while working six innings without allowing a run and three harmless singles. He did not walk a batter and struck out six.
Next up was Clearwater to see the Phillies play the Blue Jays. Unfortunately, my expensive field box seat had a clear view of the back of the Hooters ball girl. Why ball girls are necessary in spring training games I will never know. She muffed the lone routine ground ball, a slow roller, hit her way in foul territory and kicked it into left field.
I did crane my neck enough to see Pat Venditte enter the game in the fourth inning. Venditte is hopeful of making the Blue Jays roster as the major-league’s lone switch-pitcher. Venditte was a 28th-round draft selection in 2008 by the New York Yankees out of Creighton. He has bounced around the minor leagues since, finally pitching 26 games in relief a season ago for the Oakland A’s.
In this game, Venditte pitched right-handed to the first Phillies batter he faced, then left-handed to the next three, retiring all with what appeared to be relative ease. When the switch-hitting Cesar Hernandez approached home plate with two outs in the fifth inning, Venditte stepped in front of the mound and signaled to the umpire that he would pitch left-handed to Hernandez. Having to declare which arm he will use before facing a switch-hitter is now commonly known in baseball as the “Venditte Rule.”
(Venditte was optioned to Buffalo on Wednesday and will begin the regular season in the Triple-A International League).
My final stop in Bradenton featured the use of the designated hitter by the visiting American League Tampa Bay Rays, while the pitcher batted for the National League’s home-standing Pirates. This unusual practice could only happen in a spring training game.
Then came the seventh inning when the game was halted briefly as a 67-year-old man suddenly appeared in front of the Rays dugout. The man proceeded to toss a couple of beers into the dugout, showering the unsuspecting players.
Charlie Montoyo, the former Durham Bulls manager and now the Rays’ third base coach, quickly bear-hugged the man before security arrived and toted him away. It turns out the man was of Cuban descent and took exception to the Rays having recently played an exhibition game in Havana.
I had never before seen anything quite like that at a baseball game.