Today is Opening Day, and many are writing on the subject. Opening Day is what I should be celebrating too, but I’m dwelling in the realm of spring training for a few more hours. You might call it an afterglow.
It’s funny how most of us dread the end of baseball in November. Melancholy sets in, together with a longing for spring, and it doesn't take long for fans to start counting the days until the next big baseball holiday: Pitchers and Catchers. We anticipate spring training with such joy, and finally it comes. But fans soon grow weary of exhibition games - did you notice the empty seats earlier this week? - and so do players and coaches, many of whom complain that spring training is too long. Opening Day becomes the next big thing, and that’s where we pin our hopes and our happiness – for a day or two, anyway.
Before long, the talk will focus on trade deadlines and the All Star break; then we'll hurry to pennant races, and before you know it, the postseason will be upon us. We’re all on a tear to get to the next milestone or opportunity, even as we regret time passing. Between anticipation and regret, there’s something lost. Maybe I'm alone in thinking this way, but I want to slow things down.
I’m still dwelling in the realm of spring training, because for ten straight days of perfect southern weather, I watched four major league games, one minor league game (plus morning workouts), two pre-season high school match-ups, and nine innings of college ball. When it came time to go home, I wasn't ready to leave. I didn't want to face the truth of a New England spring: “Windy conditions and snow showers. Low 33F. A slushy accumulation of around one inch.” There’s a reason T. S. Eliot chose April as the cruelest month . . . breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain . . . feeding / a little life with dried tubers.
The Red Sox are in faraway Texas as a new season begins. I'm thrilled that Jon Lester is our Opening Day starter, and I anxiously await C. J. Wilson's first pitch in Arlington, but let's hold that thought for now, while I savor the rich experiences of Spring Training 2011.
I can still taste them.
When it comes to ballgames, food is never the big draw or highlight for me, but this time around, I remember every wonderful thing we ate. Here are my recommendations, prepared especially for you.
Best ice cream cone. Digital Domain Park, Mets vs. Braves. The waffle cone was perfect. Sturdy enough to support a generous serving of soft chocolate ice cream but not gummy or thick. Light, crisp, not too sweet. Just the right proportion of ice cream to cone. Minute crystals of ice in the frozen custard, the way I like it best. My sister offered to stand in line for our snack, so I didn’t even have to leave the game. Side by side we sat in the shade, Section 202, Row M, watching coconut palms sway in the 82-degree breeze, licking our ice cream cones like two young girls while Mookie Wilson headed out toward first and we wondered where all the years had gone.
Most affordable beverage. Same ballpark. Mets vs. Nats. The franchise may be struggling financially and its future uncertain, but you'd never know this, judging by the upbeat, welcoming feel of the place and the generous people I met all along the way. We carried our bottled water into the stadium, and to my surprise, it wasn't confiscated. I didn't have to fork out $3.50 for a whole new bottle of "spring" water. That worked for me.
Best nachos. Detour to Winston Salem, North Carolina with my sixteen-year-old son. Ernie Shore Field, a.k.a. Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park. If college baseball appeals to you, keep in mind that concession stands may not be open on weeknights. You either go without food and drink for an entire game or you smuggle it in. We made a quick stop at Chipotle en route. Their chips are just about the best: thin, crisp, lightly salted with a hint of lime. It’s a generous portion, enough to last two or three innings if you pace it right, as girls sometimes do.
Most refreshing non-alcoholic drink. Roger Dean Stadium. Frozen raspberry lemonade. Cardinals vs. Marlins. My sister and I had hoped for classic fresh-squeezed lemonade, the kind with big chunks of citrus floating in iced sugar water, but no such thing in Jupiter. Instead we tried raspberry slush. Its smooth consistency was satisfying, the small chunks of seeded fruit intriguing, but the drink was much too sweet; once melted in the hot sun reflecting off our aluminum seats out near the Marlins' bullpen, it became a warm syrupy liquid that only made us thirstier. The first few sips were well worth trying, though, and they made a random afternoon in March feel just like summer.
Best alcoholic beverage. Draft Newcastle Brown Ale in Charlotte Sports Park. The stadium also offered Smithwick's on tap. We had great seats in the shade just above the first base line, so the ale stayed nice and cool on an 84-degree Saturday afternoon. My brother-in-law paired his draft beverage with the best sandwich I've ever tasted in any ballpark. (See below, Grand Prize.)
Easiest lunch. Banana. Purchased at Publix Super Market, 24 cents. We left our Hutchinson Island efficiency at 9:30 a.m. and grabbed a couple bananas, not knowing we’d be spending an entire day at camp with no other source of food. After morning drills at the minor league complex, players on teams A, B, C, and D filed back into the clubhouse for their midday meal. Ten minutes later, the purposeful sound of many cleats broke the hot silence of pavement and gravel. Two squads of visiting players filled the picnic tables and small sets of bleachers at high noon. They chatted quietly and quickly consumed their bag lunches.
My sister and I were the only spectators in the stands, so we kept to ourselves and I ate my banana. As I did so, I noticed a young pitcher who was eating the same type of food. I figured if it was good enough for him, it was enough for me too. Seven straight hours of baseball, and all I ate was a banana.
“These games don’t count.” That's what some fans and commentators say.
But I say, oh yes they do. When you're behind the scenes and eating a banana for lunch, you feel the tension and the uncertain dreams, the grind and hard work. Things count. Players get released. Fans sometimes laugh at the kids with high numbers on their jerseys as if they're nobodies - the ones who enter late in the game - as if their names don’t matter. Their names do matter, and from what I've seen, the games do count.
Best coffee. Starbucks, one mile from Digital Domain Park. I highly recommend the triple tall iced Americano with room. That’s probably too much espresso for you, but it's a great way to jump start a late afternoon. If you’re lucky, you might see David Wright grabbing a coffee in the same neighborhood – just like we did – after a long day of baseball.
Hot Dog. Tradition Field. Not so good. Cold and bland. “The sign said Nathan’s but this don’t taste like Nathan’s,” declared the retired cop from Staten Island, who entertained my sister with anecdotes and personal history throughout the game. Our mediocre ballpark supper made me nostalgic for Fenway Franks and the Cape League’s excellent hot dogs with the snappy skin.
Best post-game meal. The coconut shrimp appetizer at Conchy Joe’s in Jensen Beach was average, while the steamed mussels were the best I’ve ever had - not at all puny or dry, and superior to those harvested within walking distance of my Cape Cod home. Oysters on the half shell were plump and buttery, their cool liquid so refreshing when sipped straight from the pearly shell.
Grand prize. Fish sandwich at Charlotte Sports Park. We were expecting my brother-in-law to return to our seats with a couple dry, hockey-puck-type chicken sandwiches. Instead he surprised us with a much finer entree. The open-faced, lightly-breaded (flour not crumbs) grouper sandwich was, hands down, the best meal I’ve ever had in any ballpark, bumping Safeco Field’s garlic fries with green apple wedge out of first place. The Gulf Coast grouper tasted as if it had been caught just the day before, maybe even that same morning. Finished with a light citrus cream, the moist seafood required no tartar sauce or ketchup; it was delightfully crisp on the outside, but didn’t taste of deep fried grease. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself at the shimmering Four Seasons in Manhattan; then I visualized a bustling Legal Seafoods in Boston's Back Bay. I might as well have been dining in either place. When my eyes opened, Ben Zobrist sent a fast ball away to the opposite field, and the score was 1-0.
Food is usually the last thing on my mind when I go to the ballpark. This time around, however, I’m savoring memories of everything I ate, because when recalling various flavors and textures, many visuals come back in all their fullness. Open-faced grouper, and I'm seeing a young star named Longoria (who once rode around lazily in a golf cart at a kids' camp on Cape Cod); he's swaggering onto the field with his gear bag, sporting long curls, and clowning with the likes of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, sandwiched between them in today's lineup.
Raspberry slush and I'm in bright sunshine of Jupiter. Pujols stands in at the plate and I hear that moment of contact live for the first time in my life, and I'm thinking that ... was ... loud. Holliday tracks a ball as he moves in red-toed spikes across the rich splendor of the outfield, while a 6'7" Marlin warms in a nearby bullpen. A so-so hot dog and fries, and I'm back at that night game in Port St. Lucie, watching Danny Espinosa, who just fouled a ball off his foot and needs assistance getting back to the dugout.
Mookie Wilson runs happily back to the Mets dugout. He's still here, and so am I.
Upon leaving Tradition Field, I was tempted to buy another ice cream cone, but when I noticed a large portrait of Gil Hodges above the Carvel stand, food didn't really matter anymore. Instead, I thought about how one man's final day in baseball was probably a perfect-weather afternoon just like this. Everything ended unexpectedly for him at age 47 during spring training, a magical time when no one anticipates any kind of ending.
I walked down the ramp of Digital Domain Park in silence.
Opening Day is here, but I'm not quite ready to leave spring training behind, for all kinds of reasons. Before you know it, we’ll be dreaming about "Pitchers and Catchers" all over again. Baseball is a wondrously slow game, but life passes so swiftly.
It's not too early to make your plans for next spring. The Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues are only growing more crowded, tickets harder to come by, the gulf between players and fans ever wider. Keep my recommendations in mind. Tuck them in your back pocket, even as you savor the sweet tastes of a new season that has just begun.