My trip to the Grapefruit League

Note:  Even for one of my posts, this is probably going to be long.  You might want to print this puppy out and read it over a day or so, because it’s a long one.

As long-time readers of this site may or may not know, I love spring training.  Not necessarily watching the games on television, mind you; it’s hard to take the time to watch the games on television knowing they don’t mean anything.  No, I love going on vacation to spring training.  I love going to ballgames, going to the different ballparks, the access of seeing the game’s top players in glorified minor league ballparks, the chance to see future stars before they reach the majors.  I have gone on two spring training vacations and I loved them both.

The problem has been that, while I have gone to spring training twice, I have never seen the Mets.  Indeed, I have flown out to Phoenix to catch some Cactus League action, often hitting two games in one day because of the close proximity of the venues.  I even saw a World Baseball Classic encounter, a 15-0 drubbing of South Africa at the hands of Team USA in 2006.  But I’ve never caught any Grapefruit League action, something I have long regretted.

So last November, I resolved to change that, and made reservations for myself to follow the Mets around for a few days. After the Mets released their preseason exhibition schedule, I looked for a good 4 day weekend that would make sense for me, finally settling on a 4 game swing in late-March that didn’t have any long car rides to Orlando, and only one car ride to Fort Lauderdale (which is where I flew out of anyway).  As luck would have it, this was the best time to go this year, because the WBC left the Mets stretched for talent for much of March.

So with that in mind, I decided to set off for Port St. Lucie, Florida and my first encounter with the Grapefruit League.  My usual Spring Training tag team partner is my friend Jeff, but he welcomed a new son into the world this past January January, and as a Phillies fan he had no interest in seeing the Mets for four days anyway, so I went out on this one alone.  Here is a look back at my trip.

Thursday, March 26th

For the first day, I was so anxious to get out to Florida that I took the first flight I could out of Newark to arrive in Fort Lauderdale in time to drive up to Jupiter, Florida to catch a Mets/Cardinals tilt at 1:05.  Unfortunately, this required waking up at the ass crack of dawn to catch that 6 AM flight.  No matter, I made my flight with plenty of time and walked away from my flight with nothing but great things to say about JetBlue.

We had a great crew on this flight and the ability to watch TV was a major plus (I caught some Married With Children and Saved By The Bell on my flight, two of the all time great shows). It felt like no time at all before we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, where I picked up my stylin’ Suzuki Reno and made my way to Jupiter, arriving at the ballpark with time to spare before the first pitch.

One thing that is striking about Roger Dean Stadium is that it is in the middle of a condo complex.  Apparently, the stadium was built first and the condos were built around it, but it still feels strange for a spring training site/minor league baseball park to be surrounded by condominiums.  It was as if it were like a tennis court or community pool.  I guess it is good for older Cardinals fans who retire to Florida, or local Marlins fans (the teams share the complex) but it sure felt weird to me.

Take a look at that Reyes picture.  That’s how close I was to the field.  That’s a good example of how close you sit at spring training baseball games, and why I love attending games so much.  For the average fan, you just can’t get tickets that close, and in spring training, you can sit that close at every game.  Roger Dean Stadium was built along the lines of more modern ballparks, with less foul ground and closer angles; despite being rows closer at other games, it felt like I was closest at this game.

I caught a pretty good game on this day.  John Maine pitched well, probably his first good outing of the spring.  He went 5 innings, struck out 5.  He was a little wild, allowing 3 walks and did allow 6 hits, and he did allow three runs, only one of which was earned.  The problem was, Jose Valentin is not much of a third baseman, and two of the runs scored can be traced to an issue he had handling a great throw from Ryan Church in left field that should have nailed a runner at third, and a throwing error he just flat botched to Carlos Delgado.  Sadly, the Pink Panther Mustache has probably reached the coaching stage of his career, and would best benefit the Mets in that department (he was released today).

This would be the only chance I’d have to see JJ Putz (pictured above, even if you can’t tell it’s him) on this trip, and he pitched well, a 1-2-3 6th.  The first thing I took away from seeing Putz this close was how big he was; he definitely looked imposing from where I was sitting.  He would pick up the win after the Mets scored 7 runs in the top of the seventh to build a 9-3 lead that they would not relinquish.  They batted around and generally beat up on Cardinals reliever and former  Trenton Thunder pitcher Trever Miller, culminating with a pinch 2 run homer by Mets farmhand Omir Santos.

I also got my first look at Bobby Parnell in this game, and he also looked good despite allowing a walk.  We will probably see him carrying the Hello Kitty backpack at least to start the season this year.  Nelson Figueroa and Carlos Muniz looked less impressive, each allowing a run.  I am hopeful we will not see either of those guys pitching in important situations in 2009, or else that would represent things going very, very wrong for this bullpen.

In the later innings, the Mets had the strange defensive alignment of Jeremy Reed at first base, and Nick Evans and Fernando Tatis in LF and RF, I assume to get Evans and Tatis playing time in the outfield.  This was also the first time I caught Mets farmhand Jonathan Malo in action, as he seems to become the Mets’ designated backup 2B to Luis Castillo whenever it came time to rest the starter.  He reached on an error and scored in the seventh, which would not be the last time I saw him reach home plate on this trip.

After the Mets picked up a 9-5 win, it was up to Port St. Lucie.  For those unfamiliar with Florida geography, Port St. Lucie is about a 45 minute drive from Jupiter, which is right outside of West Palm Beach and about an hour north of Fort Lauderdale and Miami.  I elected to stay in Port St. Lucie for this trip.  I had read that it is probably more financially prudent to stay outside of town, but I decided that the ease of getting to the ballpark was worth the extra money.

I don’t regret the decision at all; the golf villa where I stayed was a short 5 minute drive from Tradition Field, and was not outrageously expensive.  If I do have one regret about this trip, however, it was that I don’t know how to play golf.  From what I could gather, there are only two things to do in Port St. Lucie; Mets spring training and golf.  Since Mets spring training only took up a few hours of my day, it often left me trying to find things to do, often unsuccessfully.  I did head over to SuperPlay USA, and had a good time there drinking and doing some of the worst bowling ever seen by man, but I did often feel like I had little to do, with half of the area options not being open for me…

Friday, March 27th

…Which led to the picture you see above.  What is that, you ask?  That is the Big Apple Pizza in Port St. Lucie, which is located next to a Duffy’s Bar and Grill also located in town.  The significance, for Mets fans who remember this team’s history of lousy corner outfielders, is this is the location where the (infamous?) Shane Spencer/Karim Garcia altercation with a pizza delivery driver occured in Spring Training 2004.  Sure, the charges were later dropped, and it is possible they never even laid a finger on the guy, but we can all agree that Karim Garcia definitely peed somewhere in this parking lot, right?  To celebrate, I went to Duffy’s next door and enjoyed an adult beverage and a Buffalo Chicken sandwich for lunch.

I elected to skip Mets morning workouts this morning, sleeping in after being awake so long the day before.  In retrospect, I regret this decision.  After eating lunch and then trying in vain to find something to do for 2 hours, I decided to head over to Tradition Field and catch that night’s ballgame between the Mets and Nationals.

The exterior of Tradition Field is quite nice.  The brick facade look has become quite common at ballparks, but it is a marked improvement from what the stadium once looked like.  However, I was disappointed by the team’s gift shop.  I took a look inside with money to spend, looking to pick up some things for my friends back home as well as some souvenirs for myself, and walked out empty handed.  I just didn’t like their selection of items, and their Mets spring training gear was disappointing.  When the only thing I even thought of purchasing was a K-Rod Team Venezuela jersey t-shirt, you know you’re in trouble.

This is the inside of Tradition Field.  For those of you, like me, who will miss Shea Stadium dearly, just take a trip out to Port St. Lucie, Florida and visit Tradition Field.  The drab concrete interior and the ramps will remind you of Shea for sure.  It was a throwback to a simpler era, when teams were simply unconcerned with building walkways that were bright, open, and full of room to walk around.  Anyway, I didn’t miss Shea because it was a nice place to see a game, I missed Shea for the great memories I had there.  With no memories of Tradition Field, I walked away mostly unimpressed

It was on this night where I picked up my one autograph of the trip.  I don’t really consider myself to be much of an autograph collector.  While out in the Cactus League, I did get Mike Piazza’s at a Padres game, but…I mean, that’s Mike Piazza.  The Mets don’t really sign much from what I saw at spring training games this year, so I didn’t really regret this decision, but former Mets prospect Lastings Milledge was signing close by, and…well, I always like L-Millz.  I didn’t like the trade for Church and Schneider, and I think he has a good career ahead of him, so I made my way over and had him autograph my ticket stub.  I didn’t come prepared, so I didn’t even have a pen for him, but I thought that was cool, you know?

But if there was one gentleman who did impress me, it was Johan Santana.  Man, he was just on that night.  The Nationals just couldn’t do anything with him on the mound.  Four hits, no walks, and six strikeouts in seven innings of work, striking out the side in the sixth against three of the Nats’ four best right-handed hitters (Ryan Zimmerman did not make the trip).  Everything was just working for him against this poor hapless Nats team.  I also took approximately 6,000 pictures of Johan.

David Wright returned to the lineup after a few weeks away at the World Baseball Classic, and received a nice ovation, of course.  The stadium was full of Mets fans wearing either Wright jersey t-shirts or Wright jerseys (myself included) and he went 1 for 4 with a single.  He didn’t factor into the game at all, but it was just nice having the full team back, you know?  We didn’t have the full lineup out there on this evening (Fernando Tatis played right field, giving Ryan Church most of the game off; he did enter as a defensive sub late in the game) but everybody was available to play, which was nice after a few weeks of separation due to the WBC.

I also had the chance to see K-Rod in his spring debut, and while I wouldn’t call him sharp, he did manage to get himself out of a first and third, nobody out jam.  Granted, he created that jam for himself, but let’s not nitpick.  When the pressure was on and the Nats were threatening, he got out of trouble.  Personally, I’d rather see less instances of K-Rod having to pitch while the opposing team is threatening, but you’ll have this from time to time.

After the good guys pulled out a 4-1 victory, I decided to check out the Port St. Lucie nightlife, which involved a trip to SuperPlay USA.  It’s a nice place, it’s a large facility that offers miniature golf, bowling, laser tag, and has a big bar area and a restaurant.  I had the grilled Mahi Mahi platter, along with four Yuenglings, and then tried my hand at bowling, where I did not fare well at all.  I may be the world’s worst bowler, and I sure demonstrated that with gutter ball after gutter ball.  I bowled a 99, which would be fine for one game, but sadly that was over two games.  I need to bowl more often, apparently.

Saturday, March 28th

I was faced with a decision Saturday morning.  I could either sleep in, take my time getting to the ballpark, and eat a healthy breakfast, or get my ass out of bed, check out the Mets morning practices, and then sit out in the sun for 3 hours catching some baseball.  I opted for the former, and in retrospect, I regret this decision.  I wound up not really taking in the Mets’ practice facilities, minor league parks, and such on this trip.  I rationalized this by thinking the Mets wouldn’t make their stars train after playing a night game the day before, and that may have been true, but I should have gotten there early one day.  Oh well, it gives me something for my next trip.

I do have to say something nice about the two biggest stars on the Marlins, Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez.  Both were nice enough to sign for fans before the game, with Uggla signing for every last fan that came up to him, mostly kids.  I thought that was really cool, and Uggla seems like a good guy.  It’s hard to like a guy who helped end the Mets season, and who will forever be known as the last man to homer at Shea Stadium, but hanging around and signing every last autograph at the opposing ballpark (a place where the home team rarely signs) was really nice.

It was another full lineup for the Mets, with only Luis Castillo and Brian Schneider (second game in a row he sat out) not playing.  Jonathan Malo got the start, and made the most of it, helping to jumpstart the Mets offense by getting the first basehit off of Josh Johnson, and scoring the first of the team’s four runs in the 3rd inning.  I don’t know who Jonathan Malo is, or if we will ever see him on a major league roster, but at least he can say that he made an impression on me over these games in spring training.

For some reason, I took a lot of pictures of Sean Green, and I don’t know why.  I didn’t take nearly as many as K-Rod, which is strange.  Part of the reason is that my camera batteries had died just when K-Rod came into the game the day before, but I have no excuse for not taking more pictures at this game.  I think after the day before, I was burned out of taking pictures, and just wanted to watch the game, but went crazy when Sean Green entered the game, for some reason.

Mets prospect Dillon Gee got the start, and pitched alright for a prospect.  There wasn’t much expected of him, and he gave his all, with 3 and a third decent innings before letting the bullpen get some work in.  Four hits, two walks, and four strikeouts against a lineup of mostly major leaguers is not too bad for a guy who hasn’t pitched above A ball yet.

K-Rod and Pedro Feliciano got their second day of work in a row in this game.  Feliciano, the lone holdover from last year’s disaster of a bullpen, has looked sharp with a new sidearm-like delivery this spring.  He was picking up strikeouts in the two games I saw him, and has yet to allow a run all spring.  K-Rod had a much more mundane performance this time around, only allowing a single hit.  Darren O’Day picked up a bit of a rickety save, but I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do on the big league team this year.  I really liked that pickup.

After this game, I had to pack up the Reno and drive down to Fort Lauderdale, where I was to spend the next two nights, as the Mets had a day game down there the next day, and I was flying out of Fort Lauderdale Monday morning.  I stayed at a hotel that wasn’t as nice as the golf villa, but did have the benefit of a hotel bar with great drink specials.  I drank six beers, a Jameson on the rocks, and ate a fish sandwich while watcing Pitt/Villanova on a big screen television, and spent a total of $30, which included a nice tip.  Can’t beat that, right?

Sunday, March 29th

This is Fort Lauderdale Stadium.  I love Fort Lauderdale Stadium.  It is unabashedly, unapologetically retro, but not retro in a cool way.  It is just old, and creaky, and has the look of a place that hasn’t had a single upgrade in over 40 years.  Sadly, it looks like this is the last season for the ball yard as a spring training site, which is too bad.  I would have made sure I made a return visit to this place every year if I could.  I mean, look at these seats!

These seats must have been really something in 1963.  Today, they are worn, sun-bleached, and awful.  I loved them and I loved Fort Lauderdale Stadium.  By far, my favorite spring training venue ever.  I’m not even being ironic.  It’s just an old style park, not old enough to be considered retro or cool by baseball fans, but not so young that it has even a single modern amenity.  There are no 360 degree concources, there are but two rampways that take you to the seating area, and the concession stands are located at the bottom of these ramps.  That is old-school.  That is cool.

Anyway, most of the fans attending this game were fans of the Mets.  I’d say about 70-80% of the crowd was Mets fans who made the trip from Port St. Lucie.  I think I saw more fans wearing Red Sox gear than Orioles gear.  And it was strange, because all of the vendors were walking around in Adam Jones t-shirts.  I guess those aren’t hot sellers.  The ballpark was such that, at the hotel bar the night before, one of the waitresses wasn’t even aware that the Orioles trained here, and the hotel was like 5 blocks from the ballpark.  Spring training just isn’t a big deal in Fort Lauderdale, whether it’s because the residents don’t care about their aging stadium or because Orioles fans don’t travel.

Speaking of not traveling, here is the biggest star that made the trip to Fort Lauderdale; Mets manager Jerry Manuel.  He was the first and only Met I saw sign autographs over these four days.  Now, granted, I missed the morning workouts in Port St. Lucie, and some of the players may have signed there, but at games, it just didn’t happen very often.  Like I said, I’m not a huge autograph guy, but it would have been nice if more players signed for the kids, you know?

Up until this point, I had not even seen a raindrop in four days out in Florida.  I realize that this was very fortunate, where Florida is not like Arizona (which had a drought of 143 days end during our last trip to the Cactus League), but it would have been nice to get through one more game without rain, right?  Alas…

This is an example of the conditions Big Pelf had to pitch on this day.  It was a very sporadic rain, going from very heavy to non-existant right around the time the game started, but eventually it went right into torrential downpour mode. This eventually became a problem, and Jerry Manuel kept trying to get the umpire to go into delay, but the crew chief seemed determined to get as much of the game in as possible before a delay.  Finally, it started picking up and became unplayable, and the players came off the field, with Big Pelf, Luis Castillo, Fernando Tatis, and Alex Cora all coming out of the game, and Ryan Church the only Mets regular who stayed in the game (and he was the DH).
Having already had three pretty great days of baseball by this point, I had a choice; wait out the rain delays, and risk getting poured on (Fort Lauderdale Stadium was not built with a lot of room for protection from the elements) or meet a friend for lunch.  I went with the latter, having already been soaked from a few heavy rainfalls.  I don’t like leaving games early, but I don’t like being wet, either.  I had enjoyed my time at the other games, I could walk away from Florida satisfied with what I had seen.

This picture of Nick Markakis, by itself, is fairly unnotable.  Alas, it appears as though this will go down as the last picture ever taken by my camera.  It appears that the rain did a number on it, and I was unable to power the camera off or get the lens to retract.  Fortunately, as you can see, none of the pictures were lost, but I’m out a perfectly functional digital camera.  It stinks, but lesson learned…no more pictures in the rain for me.

And that’s it for my Mets spring training vacation.  I woke up early again the next day, rushed back to the airport to return the Reno and fly back to Newark.  At one point, it looked like I may not make it, as the security checkpoint line was long, to the point where they had me stand in another security checkpoint lined while an unfriendly German man yelled at passengers who tried to cut ahead.  Alas, they rushed us through the first class check-in line, and I made my flight safe and sound.  With some luck, I managed to grab my bag off the belt fairly quickly, and just made it to the Newark Airport train station stop in time to catch an express train, where the first stop was my stop in New Brunswick.  All in all, a nice ride home.

Overall, a very enjoyable trip.  If I were to do this again, I might cut out the road games, and just spend the week in Port St. Lucie, although Fort Lauderdale won’t be a destination point again after this season (the Orioles’ lease is up and they are unlikely to renew).  Despite what I’ve said about Port St. Lucie, I did enjoy the golf resort, and if I learned to play golf more competently than I bowl, I could have a fun week of golf and spring training baseball nearby, with maybe road games close by (which by then, would consist of only games in Jupiter).  I would probably fly out of West Palm Beach, as well, as the trip from Fort Lauderdale is quite a bit of a hike by car.

But I would definitely do this trip again, and I recommend it to all Mets fans.  Just the access of seeing most of the stars up close in a way you can’t see at Citi Field, no matter how more intimate it may be, makes the trip worthwhile.  You get to enjoy the sun, there are always things to do in Florida, and most of all, you get to see the Mets every day, for less than $30, and even cheaper seats are available that are still in great locations.  It’s a great time, and I highly recommend that all Mets fans try to make one trip to spring training, because it really is a lot of fun.

One Response to “My trip to the Grapefruit League”

  1. tjv101 says:

    I really enjoyed reading your spring training log. I can’t believe how close you got in some of those games. I totally agree with you that every Met fan should goto Spring Training at least once in their life. Although I have never went, I watched a lot of the games on SNY and channel 11 and wished I was there the whole time. The nice weather, the promise of a new season, the players in front of your face…you were so lucky. I am very jealous. I enjoyed your analysis of the different ballparks and their quirks and positives. I was only disappointed in one thing…no (current) Mets were signing autographs. Maybe next year with the WBC not going, more will sign. I am seriously going to consider going next year with you if you go. Seems like an awesome trip. Glad you had so much fun

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