In honor of the first Spring Training game today versus the Reds…
There’s something magical about Spring Training. It’s not just the fact that it’s warm there, while it’s still so cold in Cleveland (although that definitely helps), nor the fact that you’re seeing baseball for the first time in several months. I think it’s because in addition to those two points, everything is so laid back and up-close and personal; like you’re practically on the field participating in drills along with everyone else. It’s a slower, less competitive pace, and because players cycle in and out every two innings or so, you see people from the entire organization.
My first Spring Training was in 2003, at the complex in Winter Haven, Florida. People made fun of Chain of Lakes Park and the Winter Haven complex (myself included) for being kind of run down and old, but I have to admit that I really miss it.
Our decision to go to Florida was rather spur of the moment. We had some time off and just decided, “why don’t we hop in the car and drive to Florida?’ That’s another reason that I miss the Indians training in Florida – while Florida wasn’t exactly a day trip, it was still a reasonable, feasible car drive. Not necessarily the case with Arizona. My husband was whining and complaining about having to see the Indians, so we settled on a compromise – a game at Chain of Lakes Park against the Yankees.
After we parked and walked into the complex, it was incredible. In a grassy area off to my right, minor leaguers in full uniform were doing drills. No walls or fences separated us, I probably could have joined them if I wanted to. We were so early for the 1:05 game, we spent some time walking around the minor league fields before we entered the park itself.
Once we entered the park, players were signing autographs all over the place. Derek Jeter walked right up to us and signed our program and several other items.
Yogi Berra walked just a few feet in front of us and David Wells did his warm-up stretches on the other side of the fence (it’s probably obvious that we were sitting on the Yankees side of the park). After the game, we stood back by the lake outside of the stadium (yet still inside the complex), hoping to catch some of the players going to use the minor league weight room and lockers. This was a tactic I used over the years and got to talk to/get photos/get autographs from several different players, like Brandon Phillips, for example: (who was awesome, by the way)
One thing that you could always count on every single spring was the presence of Bob Feller. Every year he’d wait at a picnic table with an umbrella, and the line for his autograph would snake around the picnic area. Everyone got a chance to chat with him about their favorite baseball memories, and often walked away with pictures in addition to the autographs.
When the Indians announced their move to Goodyear, I was pleased to see that Feller would continue his spring tradition at the new ballpark. Last spring was a bit bittersweet, since it was the first spring training I’d ever been to without Feller (out of 7 total trips). I’ll talk more about Goodyear in another post though.
I went back to Winter Haven three more times – 2004, 2006 and 2007. In 2004 and 2006, even though I made the trip by myself, I never had a shortage of people to talk to. I befriended people in the seats around me, sometimes they were Indians fans, sometimes they weren’t. It didn’t matter – since nothing is at stake during Spring Training, a baseball fan is a baseball fan.
Of course for the Indians, not every year in Winter Haven spawned fond memories. During their first season at the complex, in 1993, pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident on a lake just north of Winter Haven. Pitcher Bob Ojeda was seriously injured and only played in nine games after that incident before retiring. It hit me hard as a 13-year-old fan, as it probably hit all Indians fans pretty hard. The Tribe was supposed to have a complex in Homestead, Florida, but after Hurricane Andrew decimated south Florida, they moved instead to the complex recently abandoned by the Boston Red Sox when they moved to Ft. Myers. Even though I had been excited about the move from Tucson, after this tragedy it seemed that somehow it wasn’t worth it anymore; maybe those three guys would still be with the team, still with their families, if the team stayed in Arizona.
Even though their time in Winter Haven began with such tragedy, there were still many good times to be had. The rest of the 90s produced a string of winning teams, and fans like me got the chance to create more positive Spring Training memories. While the facility in Goodyear is obviously state of the art, for me, it just doesn’t hold the charm of Winter Haven. It may have been run-down, it may not have been that pretty, but it still managed to give me some of my greatest baseball memories.