A Postcard from Florida


Local author Barry Blair passes along sights and sounds of Spring Training

Johnson City native Daniel Norris, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers works against his former team – the Toronto Blue Jays – in a Spring Training game in Florida on March 18. PHOTO BY BARRY BLAIR

By Barry Blair

It is 10 a.m. on Saturday morning in the quaint little town of Dunedin, Florida. Two motor coach buses sit outside the player’s entrance to the Toronto Blue Jays Spring Training Stadium.

It is a split squad day for the team. What that means is, they will play two games on this day in two different stadiums. One group will soon be departing to make the short bus ride across Tampa Bay to play the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Others are staying behind to take on the Baltimore Orioles here at their home away from home. There is quite a bit of activity taking place as the players prepare for what awaits them. Both games are scheduled to start at 1 p.m.

At 10:05, two vanloads of players are brought over from the nearby minor league complex. They roll out of the vans, some dressed in their game day away uniforms of grey pants, some in the home team color of white pants, ready to go. They all sport the Blue Jay’s distinctive blue jersey tops, with high numbers. This is a giveaway that they are prospects. With them they carry their tools of the trade, bats and gloves. They are being brought up for the day to make sure that there will be enough players to supply two teams. For most of these guys, it is an opportunity to show what they can do with the big league club. Lots of eyes will be on them to see how they perform.

It is now 10:10, and two more buses slowly roll up to the stadium. On board are the Baltimore Orioles, who have made the trek up I-75 from Sarasota. After some discussion, they are directed to the visiting team locker room on the opposite side of the stadium. “Must be some new drivers,” I am told by one of the Blue Jays drivers. “They pulled into the wrong end of the stadium,” he said, shaking his head.

The watch now says 10:15 and the trainers are starting to load up their gear in the underbelly of the buses that are waiting for the trip to Tampa. Trunks full of supplies and equipment go in with a thud. I continue to talk with the lead bus driver as he waits. “What is your worst trip to make?” I ask him. Some places down here the traffic can really get backed up, “Orlando?”

“No, having to go across the state to Palm Beach,” he said. “Seems like a long way across and back.”

“When are you leaving?” I asked.

“We pull out of here at exactly 10:30,” he says. “Batting practice starts over there at 11:00, so we should get there with a few minutes to spare.”

“Anybody ever miss the bus?” I asked.

“Not more than once,” he says with a big grin.

By 10:20, players are starting to file out of the clubhouse, dressed in their uniforms, some with bats slung over their shoulders, ready for the game. Some of the older, more established stars don’t head for the buses, but get in their own cars instead. Into the trunk or back seats they throw their bats, gloves, and cleats.

In most cases, it’s one man to a car.

“Why is that?” I asked the driver.

“The bigger-named players, they get their work in, start the game and play the first few innings, then they are allowed to leave and go home. They don’t have to wait around for the end of the game and ride the bus back.” There were probably six or seven cars that pulled out and took off as we talked.

It is now 10:25, and the rest of the players are coming out making their way to the buses. Most carry a Blue Jays duffle bag with all their equipment and load it themselves. The players drift more to the back bus while the front one carries the coaches, trainers, and staff. At 10:29, the drivers close the cargo bays, step on board, shut the doors, and at exactly 10:30 on the dot they pull out, heading for their date across the bay with the Yankees. I check the box score later, and it looks like all 25 players who made the trip got into the game. The Yankees won 17-7. That might be why.

Have you ever had the opportunity to meet people that you admired at some point and time in your life and hoped that you wouldn’t be disappointed in the outcome? For me it happened twice on this trip. It is not unusual down here to run into former star players as they are often brought back to spring training to work as guest instructors or ambassadors for their former team.

At the Braves complex in Orlando, I had the opportunity to run across former Braves star Dale Murphy, who was back there working with the team in the batting cages. The two-time National League MVP and Atlanta crowd favorite was every bit as nice in person as you would imagine. These days he is a partner in a restaurant and sports bar that bears his name – “Murph’s” – and is located just a few blocks away from Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park. I find it interesting that one of his sons played in the NFL. He is one of several big league players who got his professional start in the Tri- Cities, with Kingsport of the Appalachian League.

Detroit Tigers great Willie Horton began his baseball career as a Little Leaguer in Kingsport. PHOTO BY BARRY BLAIR

In Lakeland, before the Tigers-Braves game, I had the opportunity to meet former Tigers star Willie Horton. He was one of the stars of the 1968 World Series when the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals. Tiger fans will tell you that his throw from left field to home plate to get out the speedy Lou Brock is one of the greatest plays in Tigers history. He was a four time All-Star and hit over 300 home runs in his career. I asked him if it was true that he had a connection to Kingsport.

“I had four brothers who lived in Kingsport, but they have passed on now. I have a lot of relatives still living in that area. Did you know I played on my first organized baseball team in Kingsport?” he said with a big grin. “Little league! I don’t know that a lot of people remember that.”

Two great former stars, both of whom were very nice in person as well.

How about a baseball game on St. Patrick’s Day? In Florida, it is a big deal. At Tigertown in Lakeland, all the workers were decked out in green, as were a vast majority of the fans. There were some unique outfits on this day, to say the least. The Tigers wore green jerseys, hats, and socks. The Braves came with the green hats and socks as well. There was lots of excitement for the young Braves stars, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies as they took batting practice.

Most of the talk in Florida centered on Bryce Harper and his record-breaking $330 million dollar deal with Philadelphia. Demand for tickets in Clearwater to Phillies games shot skyward, with all their games quickly becoming sellouts. They are already one of the bigger draws in the Grapefruit League, even before his signing took place. If you want to get in now, you’ll have to hit the secondary market or see a scalper. But then the news broke of the Mike Trout $430 million signing taking place with the Angels, and just like that, the Harper story seemed to be pushed away to the back burner. His desire to land baseball’s largest contract ever only lasted for a couple of weeks.

The trip south was closed out with a return back to Dunedin to see Johnson City’s Daniel Norris pitch against his former team, the Blue Jays. Coming back off of groin surgery that cost him a good portion of last season, he went three innings, giving up three runs, including a home run. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy and have a great season.

Hope to see you at a game this summer!

Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough. You can reach him at barryblair54@gmail.com or check out his website www.rightfieldpress.com.


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