Friday, March 31, 2017

30 Years As a Mets Fan – Part 6

30 Years As a Mets Fan – Part 6

Spring Training Annual

I just completed my 14th annual visit to Mets Spring Training in Port St. Lucie, Florida. I like to go down there for a long vacation, at least 1 week, and usually longer. I like to walk around the ballpark taking pictures from different vantage points. I’m always trying to grab a foul ball (or a home run ball). I like to go see other Spring Training ballparks. I like to buy a t-shirt from every team/stadium that I visit. I like to get autographs from players when I’m there. Spring Training is billed as a time when you can get closer to the players. At least in the Mets case, I like to spend the morning on the practice fields watching the players conduct different baseball drills.

Sometimes I’ll talk with people. I’ve met and become friends with a lot of fans over the years that vacation in Port St. Lucie similar to me, live down there for part of the year, or live down there permanently. I’m not the only person who makes this an annual trip. Some Mets fans have retired or relocated to Post St. Lucie because of the Mets. Several years ago, I joined the local booster club (which mostly supports the minor league St. Lucie Mets). After most home games, the group (or at least parts of it) will go out to dinner somewhere. I know some of the ushers and security guards at the stadium complex, mostly by face. I have my routines and my favorite spots there.

I spend every morning, except when there’s long travel necessary, at the "back" (practice) fields of the Mets complex. They stretch and throw together and conduct different baseball drills each day. If there’s a home game, everyone is there. If there’s a road game, only the players left behind are involved. The fans are usually allowed to stay back there until the workout is complete, which can be a couple of hours that we’re out there. Some players will sign autographs after their workout is finished. Sometimes the fans can stay to see the minor league teams working out or maybe playing in a game. Every day is different.

Inside the stadium, I’ll usually talk with people and then grab lunch and some shade until the players come out. Then it might be autograph time, time to get pictures from the bullpen, or time to get in position for a specific photograph. I like taking pictures of broad scenery and the Mets ballpark in Port St. Lucie certainly offers that. A high sky, sometimes clouds, bright sunshine, and many distinct features along with a baseball field filled with Mets jerseys is very photogenic. The left field terrace and right field berm both offer big blue and white shade covers. Left field has the scoreboard with the practice fields behind it and home plate has a big concrete covering. Even when I can’t get to the highest point, the inner concourse/walkway in the stadium works out well for most pictures. My favorite spot over the past few years is right behind the CF wall next to the batter’s eye. The wall is taller than I can see, but I can put my camera on top and get some great pictures.

I don’t chase down autographs as much as I used to. It used to be that I had to get at least one autograph at every game (Mets or not) and the game was a personal failure if I didn’t. With the exception of one stadium where it was forbidden to ask for autographs, I had one at every game for about 5 or 6 years. That’s what’s great about Spring Training, it was always possible just to go in and get an autograph. My first Spring Training autograph was actually Tommy Lasorda when he was sitting in the stands at my first game in 2004. Over the years, as I got older, I stopped finding the appeal of camping out at a spot by the dugout or down the foul line (and it didn’t necessarily matter which team it was) to wait for the players to come out, and/or to get crowded into an small area of seats and an aisle fighting people (adults and children alike) to try to get an autograph from a player who might come by that location to sign and might not. The waiting, pushing and shoving lost its appeal. I still like getting autographs. I keep it simple, usually having players sign the scorecard page in the program. I’m not one to try to get baseballs or baseball cards signed. These autographs are usually just for me. I still try to get autographs on the practice fields at Mets camp when I don’t have to run around the place to get it. I still wait after the game (when I don’t have some place to be) at the players’ parking lot gates to get autographs as the players leave (with some success). There’s still something about the chase for an autograph that makes me feel like a kid (even when these players are all now younger than me).

I also like to get around Florida to see other Spring Training sites. After this vacation, I can once again say that I’ve seen all of the stadiums currently in use – 13 active ballparks housing 15 MLB teams (2 stadiums are each shared by 2 teams) and 7 defunct ones. Those numbers have changed over my 14 years as teams have moved around Florida, built new ballparks, or moved to Arizona. Other teams have upgraded their ballparks making a case to come back and see the improvements. Those numbers will change again when the next team moves (rumored to be Atlanta) and then again when I can get out to their new location. Some of these ballparks are a short drive – less than an hour – from Mets camp in Port St. Lucie. Others are farther away and visiting them becomes a side trip (where I go see non-Mets games for a few days and stay in another part of Florida). I don’t go on side trips every year, but once every 3 or 4 years to see something new is okay. Exceptions are made if a Mets game can be seen in another part of Florida. I’m very biased towards seeing games in Port St. Lucie, but my favorite place to watch a game was at old Dodgertown in Vero Beach. This is the 9th Spring Training without major league Spring Training there and it’s still some place I try to get to every couple years.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

30 Years As a Mets Fan – Part 5

30 Years As a Mets Fan – Part 5

My first visit Spring Training

For those of you that know me, or have been following for a long time, you know that every March, I make the trip down to Port St. Lucie, Florida, to see Mets Spring Training. It’s something that I’ve been doing every year since 2004. But the first time I set foot at the ballpark in Port St. Lucie (then known as Thomas J. White Stadium) was in March of 1995.

Yes, THAT 1995. The one with the infamous replacement players.

1995 was the first year in which I had a break from school in March, and my dad decided it would be a good opportunity for the two of us to go to Florida to visit his parents (outside Ft. Lauderdale). I think he convinced me to go by promising me we could go see a couple baseball games. One was a Yankees-Red Sox game at old Ft. Lauderdale Stadium. This was during a time when Yankees-Red Sox games weren’t always must-see. It was also the last season for the Yankees in Ft. Lauderdale after almost 35 years. And the other game, with my 80-something year old grandparents in tow, was 90 minutes north in Port St. Lucie to see the Mets.

Getting there was one of those adventures from hell. Without thinking of the back fields or batting practice (like I do every day that I’m there now), I wanted to get there early because I just wanted to get there, like the little kid who just wanted to be at the ballpark just because it was there. But we got off to a slow start to the morning. And it was a long ride to get there. And I misread the map and had my dad move to Route 1 because that’s where the dot for “Port St. Lucie” was located. In case you don’t know the geography of the area, Route 1 is a road with traffic lights and is located about 8 miles away from the ballpark, while I-95 is an expressway and located in the ballpark’s shadow that also goes down to Ft. Lauderdale. So that little detour to Route 1 in Port St. Lucie added about 45 minutes to the ride to the ballpark. Then everybody walked slowly through the parking field/lot to the ticket office. It was torture.

But inside, it was pure joy. Here’s this ballpark which I’ve watched on TV every March since the Mets moved there in 1988, as the spring home of the Mets and the portal into the baseball season, right in front of me in living color. I have no memories of the game. That part doesn’t matter. It was an exhibition game between teams made up of scabs. Somewhere, I have the program and ticket stub, because I always have a program and ticket stub. And I have a few pictures. It was the only time I got to see old Thomas J. White Stadium before the first round of upgrades (which launched in 2004).