Guest Post: Recapping a Grapefruit League Road Trip
Jae Canetti is an eighth-grade student and an avid baseball fan from the Washington, D.C. area. Next year, he will be attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where he hopes to play baseball for the Colonials and study astrophysics.
Last month, he and his family visited Spring Training ballparks throughout the Grapefruit League, many of which host Florida State League ballparks during the regular season. Jae, a long-time reader of this blog, now shares his experience:
On March 18, 2016, after months of counting down to my family’s long-planned trip to Spring Training in Florida, I woke up to my dad blasting “Centerfield” by John Fogerty in my ear and dancing around like Christmas had come early. With the song playing on repeat, my parents and I packed everything up, hopped into our Honda and set out down I-95.
We were greeted at the Florida Welcome Center by free orange juice and a giant banner advertising Spring Training as one of Florida’s main attractions. An entire corner of the building was filled with brochures about spring baseball and decorated with pennants for each of the 15 Major League teams that make up the Grapefruit League.
Our itinerary took us to seven Spring Training facilities over the span of a week. We began at Champion Field in Disney World, where we saw the Braves host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers.
Before the game, we were treated to the sight of a laid-back Miggy taking infield practice while appearing to urge the Tigers coaches not to hit those grounders at him too hard.
We also ventured over to the Braves’ minor league complex behind the stadium where I, a Minor League Baseball fanatic, sought out and found some of the team’s top prospects. I obtained autographs from Ozzie Albies and Touki Toussaint, the Braves’ #3 and #6 prospects, respectively.
Most exciting for me, however, was my conversation with Dansby Swanson, the Braves’ top prospect (the #8 overall prospect in Major League Baseball) and last year’s first overall draft pick. He and Trey Keegan, a catcher in the Braves organization, were nice enough to take a picture with me, even though I was wearing some of my Tigers gear from Little League. Meeting and talking to these two guys was a highlight of my trip and I can’t thank them enough.
We then launched ourselves to Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals were ending their final spring before leaving Viera for a new home in West Palm Beach.
As Nationals devotees, my father and I came to the park determined to buy Nationals hats with the 2016 Spring Training patch on the side. As a cap collector, this purchase was at the top my trip agenda. The hats were flying off of the shelves, but we managed to grab a pair.
Sporting our new caps, we watched one of the last games that the Nationals would ever play in Viera. They won it on the strength of a home run by Wilson Ramos and a two-run double by Ryan Zimmerman.
Due to some pre-trip confusion, we scheduled our next stopover at the Mets’ Spring Training home in Port St. Lucie on a day when they were playing in Tampa (oops). Having made this realization, we rejiggered our plans and used this location as our jumping-off point to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. My dad had purchased special tickets that allowed us to enter an hour before the gates usually opened to watch batting practice, and what we saw when we got to the gates was shocking.
Roger Dean Stadium is shared by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who happened to be playing each other that day. We came to the park expecting a somewhat equal balance of Marlins and Cards fans. Instead, we were greeted at the gates by a sea of Cardinals red. The entire stadium was filled with the Cardinals faithful, and not a Marlins fan was anywhere to be seen. Marlins fans, your team plays here too. To make things worse, the Cards were designated as the “home team” that day, meaning that even the PA announcer was on the Cardinals’ side.
Our seats for this game were… well… not seats. The game sold out long before we arrived in Jupiter — apparently to Cardinals fans exclusively — so the only remaining tickets were standing-room-only. My dad and I chose the section along the left field line near the Marlins’ bullpen.
If you’re one of those people who buys a standing-room-only ticket and then sneaks behind home plate in the fourth inning while the usher isn’t looking (you know who you are … I tried), Cardinals games at Roger Dean Stadium are not for you. At most of the Spring Training games we attended, there was a steady flow of people exiting the stadium by the eighth inning or so. However, at this game, the only people I saw leaving before the last out were two poor Marlins fans (the only ones there) who got kicked out of the stadium for heckling their own team. I knew that the Cardinals may have the most dedicated fan base in baseball, but these fans took Spring Training to a whole new level. Long story short: If you want a seat for a Cardinals game at Roger Dean Stadium, buy a ticket. Early.
Back in Port St. Lucie, we found a batting cage near our hotel. I wanted to take some swings to prepare for my own baseball season. After a few sessions in the cage, a young man asked us how to operate the payment system. After engaging in a short conversation with him, we discovered that we were talking to Christian Montgomery, a New York Mets prospect who will begin this season pitching for Double-A Binghamton. This was my second time talking to professional ballplayers in three days. Talk about getting lucky.
My elation dimmed upon returning to the hotel when we discovered that the Red Sox game we planned to attend the next day in Fort Myers was also sold out. Even standing-room-only tickets were gone. Apparently, Red Sox fans give Cardinals fans a run for their money in Spring Training enthusiasm. We still had to drive to Fort Myers because we had hotel reservations there. However, we were now free to take a detour half a mile up the road to Tradition Field, which the Mets open to the public at no charge from 9:30 until 11:30 each morning. While there, we watched David Wright, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes go through their morning routines. Manager Terry Collins even wandered over to the fence, spoke to fans, and autographed a ball for me.
After about an hour, we had to leave for Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida. Although there was no way we could get into the Red Sox game, we found out that there were two Minor League games being played at the training complex behind the stadium and decided that we could not pass up the chance to see one of the nicest facilities in the Grapefruit League.
My dad and I ended up watching a game between the Greenville Drive (Class A Red Sox affiliate) and the Delmarva Shorebirds (Class A Baltimore Orioles). As we watched, we heard loud cheers and the famous singing of “Sweet Caroline” coming from inside JetBlue Park as the big league game wound down. Outside, it began to rain in the late innings of the Minor League games that were taking place. After a considerable downpour, the coaches got together and spontaneously called the games off. As a 10-year veteran of Little League Baseball, I can tell you that this was eerily familiar to me. I have had numerous games unceremoniously ended due to weather, never to be completed or rescheduled. Some things never change, do they?
But this was not the end of that day’s excitement. Earlier, one of the Orioles’ Minor Leaguers chipped his bat. As he walked past me on the way back to the clubhouse, I stopped him and asked him if he needed it. He was incredibly friendly, gave me the broken bat and even signed it. Many thanks to Alejandro Juvier. Your bat is a fantastic souvenir that now has a home in front of my bed.
After Fort Myers, we turned north toward Sarasota to see the Orioles play the Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium. Before the game, we met up with former neighbors who moved to Sarasota last summer. This was fun in and of itself, but as an additional surprise our friends had arranged for us to visit the home of their new friends Fernando and Kristi Cuza. Mr. Cuza is a leading agent for Latin players — including many household names — and they invited us to tour their memorabilia room.
My jaw dropped at the sight of the collection. I would say that the Cuzas’ assortment of memorabilia easily rivals a gallery in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (and I’ve been there — twice). Mrs. Cuza was very gracious with her time and shared many insights into her and her husband’s baseball experiences. But the Cuzas’ generosity didn’t stop there. Mr. Cuza gave me a baseball autographed by Miguel Cabrera!
We then made our way to Ed Smith Stadium, where we witnessed an absolute slugfest. The Orioles hit four home runs and the Yankees slammed two, on top of a few hard-hit doubles. We watched those baseballs fly out of the stadium from what I believe was the best standing-room-only view out of all of the parks we visited.
Our final day found us unexpectedly attending a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers at the Phillies’ home park of Bright House Field in Clearwater. We originally planned to attend a Blue Jays game in Dunedin, but that game sold out (again). By going to this game, however, we completed an unintentional tour of every National League East camp.
The game turned out to be entertaining, with a late-inning Tigers comeback to rob the Phillies of a win. More importantly, we witnessed Justin Verlander’s hilarious bunt and walk to first base that later went viral. If you missed it, Verlander laid down a bunt with two strikes against him and then proceeded to take about two slow steps toward first before being thrown out. As he veered off toward the Tigers’ dugout, all of the fans on that side of the stadium let loose with a barrage of light-hearted jeers, to which Verlander responded with an elegant doffing of his helmet.
The final out of that game marked the conclusion of our time in Florida. Over the following days, we drove back home with a new (broken) bat, several autographed baseballs, an assortment of Spring Training gear and a week of memories that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to see what the regular season holds. Go Nationals!
Thanks to Jae for contributing this post, which, not surprisingly, contains no spelling errors. If you find yourself intrigued by the idea of contributing a guest blog post, then get in touch.