Fantastic Florida Fun (Mostly)

Mar 6, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

This was one very special week. It was heartwarming, loving, exciting, adventurous, full of travel even after we got down to Florida, and nostalgic. It was a lot of really good feelings.

I’m a day late posting this, but for a legit reason. Yesterday, my appointed blog day, was pretty much consumed by travel, whether on roads, on foot, or in the air. We left our hotel in Cape Coral at 9:00 in the morning, and got to the Ft. Myers / Naples airport, officially known at Southwest Florida International, around 10:15 for our 12:20 flight. If that seems quite a bit early, it’s because it has to be that way. Once you start your car in this part of the Sunshine State, you don’t know if you’re going to glide right through the route of travel or spend half your life in gridlocked traffic. You have to allow for the latter option, and if the traffic is manageable the worst thing is that you’re early. More about all that traffic later in the blog. You can’t visit the Gulf Coast of Florida without dealing with it.

I flew into Orlando on Saturday, following Barbara by a few days, and drove my rental car straight to the suburb of Ocoee, where nephew Todd, niece Angie, and the two adorable Twincesses (Bella and Stassi) live. Their wonderful home is also inhabited by an awesome group of cats and dogs, so it’s right up our alley, and Barb’s sister Kitty is often there as well, since she looks after the girls a number of days each week.

Growing up SO FAST! (Click on any image to enlarge)

Todd and Angie are both busy almost all the time with work, so it’s a big deal when “Gramma Barb” and “Bob-Bob” come down for a few days. It’s basically nonstop fun for everyone involved.

The girls are at an age (three and a half) when things change so rapidly. We see them only every few months, which seems far too long, but each time we come down they have grown and progressed so much it’s beyond startling. They’re not babies anymore. There not toddlers learning to stand. They’re not even the little girls who just celebrated their third birthdays with us last fall. They’re so advanced, and they look so cute in a much more grown-up way. It’s amazing.

The last time I was with them, we could read to them and play some very simple games if their attention spans would allow it. Now, they hold in-depth conversations, play card games that I had to watch for a while just to figure out, and “point and swipe” on their iPads like pros. They play memory games on the iPads, turning over cards that reveal animals or other objects, and then have to remember where they saw that when they find the matching card later. You could almost see the neurons firing as they developed that memory, and then the matches would appear as fast as they could touch the screen. Wow.

For much of the time I’ve been around them, Bella would always be very open and welcoming to me but Stassi would be extraordinarily shy. So shy I felt bad about it, because she would hide or cover her face whenever she saw me. Each visit, it would get a little better and during each trip it would ease up noticeably while we were there. I’ll never forget the first time she grabbed a stuffed animal out of the bin, walked across the room, and handed it to me. Made my heart melt. Now, Stassi is officially my girlfriend. And Bella is the life of the party. It’s wonderful.

On Monday, it was time to say our goodbyes and make the drive down to Cape Coral, which is just north of Ft. Myers. I have enough experience with I-4 and I-75 to know that following that route can be really direct and efficient, but also very slow and frustrating. Long gridlock backups are, unfortunately, not uncommon. So, we took the scenic route much of the way, straight down the middle of the state on small highways. We did take I-4 as far as Lakeland, though. I wanted to show Barbara Tiger Town and Marchant Stadium, where I went through Spring Training and then played in the High Class-A Florida State League a lifetime ago. The Tigers were actually playing a game, so we couldn’t park and walk around, but I did give her a tour around the edges of the facility, and then we drove over to Florida Southern College, which features one of the world’s most extensive collections of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. It’s pretty amazing to drive around a college and see so much obvious work by one of the all-time masters of design. And it’s all still functioning and beautiful to this day.

After the long drive down to the Cape Coral – Ft. Myers area, we made one tactical mistake. I’d studied the map pretty extensively to check out how we’d get to the hotel, and none of the options seemed all that good. My original thought was that it might make more sense to cross the river into North Ft. Myers and then drive to Cape Coral that way, crossing back over the river not too far from the Westin. Instead, we decided to dial up the trip on GPS and use that. Those directions were awful. They literally had us going too far west, then south, then backtracking, all while battling bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was agonizing. And yes, the next day we discovered that my hunch would’ve been the better option. That was the best way to go, and we used that technique to get to multiple places.

Hello Spring Training! Rougly 55 degrees warmer than the Twin Cities.

Our schedule for Tuesday had us attending the Minnesota Twins game against the Detroit Tigers, at Hammond Stadium. It officially marked Barbara’s first experience with Major League Spring Training. Her “Spring Training debut” as it were. We got there in plenty of time, had no delays getting parked, and had the chance to cruise around the beautiful ballpark and soak it all in before the game started. The Twins won (which is kind of beside the point in Spring Training but still fun) and the day was gorgeous. It was damn near perfect.

Spring Training. I seem to write about it every year, but it never gets any less special to me. The first time little Bobby Wilber ever visited Florida was for Spring Training. All those early memories of Florida, from my youngest years up through college, were trips in which baseball and sunshine were directly linked. Whether by train (which was VERY cool) or by car, we made those pilgrimages nearly every year, and when my dad was the manager for the Twins Fall Instructional League team, I’d get to “double up” and head back down in late September for another visit. Let us never forget the time the 12-year old version of me threw a ball back into the infield while shagging fly balls out in right field, and said ball hit a young rookie infielder right in the back of the head. I wonder if that rookie remembers it. Next time I have a chance to chat with Rod Carew, I’ll have to ask him.

I’ll also never forget the spring of 1979 when I drove south myself, with my duffel bag, bats, and clothes all stuffed into the back of my little red Ford Fiesta, to attend my first-ever Spring Training as a professional player. When I was a few miles from Tiger Town, I spotted the massive light towers at Marchant Stadium and all the hair on my arms stood up. I was going to Spring Training once again, like all those other years, but this time I would part of it, on the field and in uniform. When I drove Barbara through Lakeland and spotted those light towers once again, the hair on my arms remembered the first time. It’s so very special.

Enjoy the game. Soak up the sun. Spring Training is special

Everything about Spring Training is special. As I posted on Facebook, there’s really nothing else even remotely like it. It’s unique in sports, and fabulously so.

The NFL plays four preseason exhibition games. There is almost nothing special about any of them. They are mostly disregarded by even avid fans. The NHL and NBA also have preseason games. They are meaningless, of course, but also nothing really unique or different from regular season games other than the fact they don’t count and the play is less spirited. That meaningless feature makes them, well, meaningless.

Spring Training is different. True, the scores don’t matter, but the experience and atmosphere do. You get to escape winter and head to paradise to watch your favorite players mix in a few innings in the sunshine. Then, guys you may or may not have heard of, minor leaguers looking to make an impression, often enter the game wearing jerseys with numbers like 87 or 93 on the back. Even then, there is a hierarchy. The minor leaguers who are almost ready for the big leagues and who have been to big league camp before get a high number too, but they get to have their last names on the back. Those guys wearing number 87 or 93 with no name on the back? They are soaking up every minute of it, gaining experience from it, and hoping desperately to make an impression on the big club staff. They know some day soon, maybe even this week, they’ll get the word to pack up their stuff in that first-class big league clubhouse and make the short walk over to the minor league complex next door. It only takes a few minutes to get there, but it’s roughly a million miles away. Still, they won’t forget a single moment of their time over there at Hammond Stadium, or wherever their big club plays. I’m 63. I still remember being in Tiger Town like it was yesterday. Those memories are indelible.

With one out in the 9th, we headed for the exits to get back to the Westin, which is incredible, and enjoyed a nice dinner before getting some shut-eye. Barbara had reserved a nice room, but her Titanium status with all Marriott properties again came in handy. We got upgraded to a two-bedroom suite on the top floor, with incredible views, two baths, three TVs, and a full kitchen. Since she’s not traveling nearly as much this year, she is not likely to keep that Titanium status, so we’ll enjoy it while we can!

Going to Spring Training some year? Put McKechnie Field on your itinerary.

The next day, we had tickets to see the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Atlanta Braves up in Bradenton. When we were making all these plans I recall being unsure what to do about that, in terms of driving and the hotel. With no traffic, Bradenton is about 90 minutes up the road from Ft. Myers. Add in the time it takes to just get to I-75 from the Westin in Cape Coral, and how long it takes to exit the freeway in Bradenton and plow through the stoplights just to get to historic McKechnie Field, and then factoring in possible tie-ups on I-75, and the trip could take anywhere from two hours to infinity. So… Should we leave the Westin and move to a hotel up there, or should we just make the long roundtrip drive? If we stayed up there for the final night, we could then fly back home out of Tampa or Sarasota. I had pondered that for a few days back in January, but decided the Westin was so nice that in and of itself it was part of the allure of the trip. So, we made the drive up there on Wednesday morning knowing we’d make the full round trip.

McKechnie Field (now officially LECOM Park at McKechnie Field) was built in the 1920s (1923 to be exact) and it’s a marvel in terms of being a trip back in time. It’s been renovated and updated a couple of times over the last century, but it maintains its atmosphere of an old-time ballpark. It’s marvelous. It’s unlike any other Spring Training park still in use, and it’ll warm your heart just being there.

For the record, neither Barbara nor I had any idea what LECOM was, but I wondered if it might be a Pennsylvania company of some sort, involved with the Pirates to create recognition with the Buccos fans who make the trip south each spring. Turns out, it’s a school. LECOM stands for Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and it is indeed a Pennsylvania institution, but they also have a branch in Bradenton. I guess that makes sense.

There’s nothing quite like it.

The latest renovation to McKechnie was a great one. They added a plaza behind the first base grandstand, where huge palm trees shade a grassy area where there are chairs and chaise lounges, while concession stands take care of hungry and thirsty fans. It’s beyond quaint. Barb was pretty mesmerized by the entire experience. It’s kind of like going to see your local amateur team but then on the field are big league stars. It’s about as comfortable and enjoyable as any ballpark I’ve ever visited. Definitely special!

McKechnie is also unique in another old-school way. It’s been on this particular site since it was built, and back then Bradenton was just a sleepy little Florida village. Over the decades, business and industry spread into the neighborhood, along with side streets full of homes, and they surrounded the ballpark. It now sits right on a busy intersection, about three steps from the edge of W. 9th Street, and any foul ball has a better than average chance of leaving the park altogether.

Parking can be an adventure, especially when compared to all the modern Spring Training ballparks that are surrounded by massive parking areas. At McKechnie, you drive down 9th and see a plethora of individuals with bright flags, trying to wave you into the their business or yard. We parked at a place that does tires and wheels. It cost $5.

Had to have our photo taken on the big bouncy chair!

Up until just recently, the Pirates didn’t control any of the parking for McKechnie. Then they bought the property behind the left field wall, tore down the abandoned building, and built their own lot that holds, maybe, 75 cars. That lot costs $10 because it’s right at the park, but to me it also looked like a magnet for home run balls, during BP and the game. Plus, the wind was blowing out to left. I could just imagine coming back to the car after the game to find a Major League baseball sitting on the driver’s seat, directly below the hole it made in the windshield. Hence, our decision to park a few blocks away.

If $5 for parking seems cheap, the ticket prices are too. We had great tickets for both the Twins and Pirates, just a few rows from the field in the reserved box seat section. They cost $29 each. Concessions are reasonable as well. At Hammond Stadium we bought a couple of hot dogs and two bottles of water and I think the total tab was less than $20 total.

Souvenirs are pretty much on a par with any Major League stadium, but we didn’t let that stop us. We left each ballpark fully stocked with new Spring Training t-shirts and hats. That’s a given. You just have to.

Both Hammond and McKechnie have also followed a fantastic trend during recent renovations. They’ve installed boardwalks that completely circle the outfield, so you can walk all the way around the field any time you want. There are concession stands out there, and any place on the boardwalk looks like a good spot to catch a homer if you get lucky. We spent at least four innings walking around at both parks. It’s great way to enjoy a warm Florida day with a baseball game just a few feet away.

By the way, have I ever mentioned what I believe to be the most wonderful sound in the world? It’s the crack of the bat when it hits a baseball right on the sweet spot. This is true.

After the game, we decided to take a little side trip and drive over to Anna Maria Island, just west of Bradenton across a causeway. The hard part was getting there. Traffic, again, was just brutal. It probably took us 45 minutes to cover the 5 miles over to the Ugly Grouper, a fun outdoor restaurant Lance, Radar, Oscar and I discovered last spring. That was fun, and good, so we decided to drive up to the tip of Anna Maria just to smell the Gulf breezes and enjoy the day a little more. Then everything took a much more frustrating turn.

Traffic, as is so often the case down there, was horrendous. Stop and go, with a lot more of the “stop” portion than the “go.” Stoplights galore, lots of tourists not familiar with the area, and even a draw bridge or two, just for added merriment. After all the fun we’d had, it was really exasperating way to end things. I think it took us nearly three hours to get back to Cape Coral, and that was with an effective “back way” into town I’d found on Mapquest. It allowed us to get off I-75 about 40 miles north of Ft. Myers, on a county road with very little traffic. And, to make things even better, that backroad took us right to the area of Cape Coral where the Westin is situated, so no need to trudge through all the surface street traffic you have to battle if you stay on 75 all the way. Still, I was exhausted from the day. All that driving and all that traffic will do that.

About five miles north of the hotel, I stopped to fill up the rental car with gas, making sure to top off the tank as much as I could so it would still be on “Full” when I returned the car the next morning, and when I went to put my American Express card in the reader on the pump, my heart stopped. It wasn’t in my wallet. I’d obviously left it on the table at the Ugly Grouper. Crap! It’s hard to avoid a panic attack when that happens, but I kept it together enough to fill up with a different card and then move the car out of the way so I could call Amex. Barb called the restaurant, but unfortunately they didn’t answer any of the multiple times she called and their voice mail system was full. Ugh!

It took a while to get through to the American Express rep I needed to speak with, because Amex has a pretty efficient phone recognition system that remembers your number and recognizes you. Well, to make things even MORE frustating, my phone had 2% battery and the rental did not have a USB port (what?) so my phone was effectively dead. At 2%, I wouldn’t have time to even get to a rep much less talk to them.

So I used Barb’s phone, which was fine but, of course, it fooled the Amex system, which meant they thought I was her. We finally got it sorted out, got my card cancelled, and a new one issued. It just came from FedEx a few minutes ago. The Amex rep then did a scan of my transactions and immediately asked me if I’d used the card at some place called the Ugly Grouper, for a bill of around $22. I had, obviously, but luckily there were not any other attempts to use it. The server must have grabbed it and put it somewhere safe where they could hold it for me when I came back. That wasn’t going to happen, though. Not after six hours of driving, and by then we were almost back to the hotel. No way on Earth I was driving back up to Bradenton and Anna Maria Island. Cancelling the card and issuing a new one was the only way to go.

To give them credit where such accolades are due, American Express probably leads the world in this sort of customer service. They know they’re going to be talking to a stressed out customer, and they calmly reassure you of everything. This is the fourth time I’ve gone through it, although the first three were after instances where I’d been hacked. This was the first time I’d ever walked away from a restaurant and left my card there, and then compounded that mistake by not discovering the fact until I’d driven many hours away from the scene of the lost card.

I have to change quite a few online profiles to the new number now, but that’s easy. I’m just glad we got it sorted out as quickly and as well as we did.

So there you have it. We flew home yesterday and got to the house around 5:00, I think. When we boarded the plane via jet bridge, it was 81 degrees. When we did the same in reverse, at MSP, it was 36 degrees and snowing a little. That’s a bit of a shock to the system, and I didn’t bother taking a jacket with me.

Now we’re back home and getting ready to enjoy temps in the 60s here this weekend. It’s not 82 and sunny, with a ballgame being played right in front of us, but we’re glad to be home. Buster and Boofus are glad too, after putting us through the “ringer of guilt” by yelling at us for a couple of hours. Once they realized we were truly home and not just stopping by, they spent the rest of the night purring on our laps. We did break in a new cat sitter for this trip, and apparently all of that went very well. There’s only one Erica, and we miss her as do the boyz, but Kelsey pinch-hit like a pro.

After getting yelled at by the boys and checking everything out, we were pretty exhausted last night, and both slept like bricks once we went to bed. Whew…

Before I go, I’ll remind you all of my ongoing request at the end of every blog. If you got this far and enjoyed the stories, please click on the “Like” button at the top. Maybe I’ll get enough new “likes” to clear my head from the fun of the lost American Express card and all the gridlock traffic.

See you next week!

Bob Wilber, at your service and in possession of my new Delta Reserve American Express card. Let the spending begin!

 

 

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