Quite The Extravaganza

Mar 14, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

The names are not quite the stuff of legend, but we’re getting there. Oscar, Radar, Wilb, and good old Lance who was often called “Disco” in college at SIUE, but who just as often was known as Lance Romance. Neither of them stuck. He’s just Lance. As in Lance McCord, the pride of Highland, Illinois. Go Bulldogs!

I returned from our 5th Annual Roomies Reunion yesterday, getting home around 4:45 feeling a little tired. Once I sat on the couch and turned on the TV, I realized I was more than a little bushed. Barbara had plans with friends last night, and I failed to stay awake anywhere close to 11:00 when she got home. She woke me up on that same couch. My buddies and I about wore ourselves out down in Florida, but man was it fun!

The Grapefruit League (Click on any image to enlarge)

As you read last week, this year’s reunion centered around Spring Training in Florida. As you can see here, there are still plenty of teams who play in the Grapefruit League, despite the fact a few have defected to the Cactus League in Arizona over the last few years.┬áThe whole concept of Spring Training in Arizona has never clicked with me, for one very good reason. Why? Because growing up we always went to Florida. Year after year. Usually to St. Pete, staying at the Edgewater Beach Motel not far from Al Lang Field. When I played pro ball, I went to Florida to train at Tiger Town in Lakeland. I have actually never been to any Spring Training activities in Arizona. It’s the Grapefruit League for me.

In case you ever wanted a visual representation of the current Grapefruit League, here it is. Our trip included games in Bradenton (Pirates), Lakeland (Tigers), and Fort Myers (Twins and Red Sox). That last stop included two games in two different parks, just a few miles apart. To make life even better, our wonderful Airbnb home in Fort Myers was basically equidistant from those two stadiums, with each being not much more than eight minutes away.

What I knew going in but learned all over again was the pesky fact about Florida traffic, especially this time of year when Spring Training is drawing visitors by the gazillions while Spring Break is doing the same. It can be really hard to get around, whether it’s surface streets or the interstate. Those last two stops in Fort Myers came with their share of stoplights and back-ups, but at least we stayed off I-75 to get to the games.

So, let the stories (and the games) begin.

We all arrived on Thursday, with Lance and me flying in on different flights while Radar and Oscar once again exercised their right to drive. Amazingly, we all arrived at the Bradenton Airbnb within a few minutes of each other. That was a good thing, because neither Lance nor I were smart enough to figure out how to get in. The owners sent us the code to unlock the front door but we couldn’t figure out where to enter the code. We were just about at our wits end when Oscar and Radar arrived. Oscar went straight to the door and got it open. What had looked like a decorative face plate above the knob, to me and Lance, was a hidden keypad. You just had to touch it the first time to get the numbers to light up. Sneaky.

Uhhh… Yeah! Not too bad.

The place was really cool. Like very cool. And the views out over the water were everything we’d imagined when I booked the place and shared the listing with the boys.

We each had our own rooms, spread out over two floors. The kitchen was great, the living room fantastic, and the sunset was priceless.

And here’s a fun fact you might be surprised to hear, when thinking of four old guys who went to college together. We only ate out twice, if you don’t count hot dogs at the ballparks. We went to the grocery store in each town and stocked up on breakfast and dinner items, then cooked them ourselves. And it was awesome. It helped that Lance has taken some serious culinary classes and he knows his way around the kitchen. His knife skills were pretty impressive, too. Snacks were also included in our purchases, as were a few beers and some wine. We’re very self-sufficient in that regard.

After we got settled in, ate our great meal, and watched some TV, we headed off to our specific rooms. We made it to 10:00, I think. Maybe 9:45. We’re animals. We did get up early though. Basically the sunrise was our alarm each day and we were ready to go. We had time for morning walks, a great breakfast, and general relaxation. Then, around 11:30 or so on Friday morning an Uber driver arrived at the house to deliver us safely to McKechnie Field, in downtown Bradenton. The Uber thing was important, because the old historic ballpark is wedged into a busy industrial and commercial part of town and parking is difficult. We got dropped at the curb like VIPs. Except instead of a limo it was something like a Kia Optima. You should’ve seen me, Radar, and Oscar in the back seat! Lance always gets the front because he’s an entire half-inch taller than me.

Early enough to see the Jays take BP

After passing through the gates, we were officially starting our 2019 Spring Training Tour. We were quite early, but that was OK by us. We found our seats and watched Toronto take batting practice, then decided to walk around and check out the old park that is now mostly a new park. When I was 11-years old I made my first trip to McKechnie during the fall of that year, to be with my mom and dad for a week of Florida Instructional League action with the Twins. My dad, of course, was the manager. Guys named Graig Nettles, Pat Kelly, and Rick Renick were on that team of rookies. So was a second-baseman by the name of Rod Carew. I got to be the batboy for a week. Think that was fun? Oh yeah.

Back then, McKechnie had basically never been updated since it was built in 1923. It had rickety wooden bleachers that held about 2,000 fans. It was cozy. It went though its first renovation in 1993, expanding it to a capacity of around 6,600. In 2013 it was turned into a fine modern place, holding about 8,500, with only the original stucco facade and exterior still in place. You can still feel the old-school vibe, though, and they’ve done a marvelous job of that. Modern amenities, but that great old-time feeling. The Pirates have called it their spring home since around 1969, I think

The boys had never been there, and they thought it was pretty cool. It most certainly was. We ended up just cruising around the place instead of sitting in our seats, and had a great time. We also proved one more bit of maturity by lathering up with sunblock before we left the house. We actually had one tube that was SPF 100, although we referred to it as “SPF one million”.

I should also mention that during the game we were having fun out in right field, standing on a large patio out there at the edge of the outfield wall, when one of the Blue Jays hit an absolute screaming line drive. Like, if life was a Bugs Bunny cartoon the baseball would’ve been actually screaming as it flew through the air. Right off the bat, all four of these former SIUE Cougars shifted into ballplayer mode. We all knew instantly that it was coming right at us, or at least right at Oscar who was the furthest one of us to the left. Amazing that at 62 you can still instantly tell that a ball that has just been mashed 370 feet away is coming straight to the guy five feet to your left. It was a rocket. Probably never got more than 40 feet off the ground on a laser-like trajectory. With a glove, any of us could have caught it, I’m sure. Those instincts don’t fade away. Oscar was ready, but a young guy wearing a Pirates shirt reached up and deflected it and it shot to the back of the patio area. Oscar then said, “I never really factored in the whole deflection part. That’s a great way to lose four teeth.” We talked about it for hours.

Getting out of there after the game was no treat, as traffic was in gridlock and we had to try to spot a new Uber driver on the busy roads. He actually showed up on a cross street on the opposite side of the road. He was quite stuck, over there, so we dashed through the traffic and hopped in. Craziness, but a fun experience. Our Uber driver was a laugh a minute, too, and it was he who recommended a dinner location for us. We enjoyed a fantastic meal at The Ugly Grouper over on Anna Maria Island. I had the Grouper Sandwich. Imagine that. Hey, go with what you know!

Hello Lakeland!

On Saturday, we were headed to Lakeland to see the Tigers take on the Braves, and I’d wrestled with how we were going to get there. My gut instinct told me to map out a route on country roads. That might be a longer trip, it terms of distance, but it would be a far easier one. Then, for some reason, I decided just to take I-75 up to I-4. Big mistake. Always, let me emphasize this, ALWAYS trust your gut. Traffic was horrible. A 70-mile drive took us way more than two hours. It was great to be back there, though, once we finally arrived.

Like many of the parks in Florida, Joker Marchant Stadium has gone through many fantastic face lifts. It has all the modern benefits while still keeping a lot of its charm. When I played there, in 1979, it had basically no charm. Zero.

And as part of that ongoing renovation, the Tigers have done what the Pirates and Twins have also done. They’ve made it possible to completely circle the ballpark on walkways, boardwalks, and bridges, and they’ve added a lot of green space for fans to hang out on to watch the game from the grass and maybe catch a home run, while avoiding the loss of four teeth. We stayed in our seats more for the Tigers game, but also spent a lot of time walking around to see everything from different perspectives. And we visited the souvenir store. I bought a t-shirt at every game.

Joker Marchant Stadium, 2019.

Back in my era, the Lakeland ballpark seemed large and imposing but it probably didn’t have 60% of the capacity it has now. Back then, Spring Training was not nearly as popular as it is in the present day. Now, many thousands of fans make annual pilgrimages to Florida and Arizona, and Spring Training has become big business for the clubs and the communities. It’s pretty common for games to be sold out, but the teams make sure the relaxed “training” atmosphere remains. If you’ve never been, you should definitely go. It’s a vibe unlike any other I’ve experienced in sports.

And what’s also cool is how fans come down and root for their teams wherever they’re playing. There were tons of Canadians at the Pirates game, cheering for their Blue Jays. Braves fans came out in droves to see their guys at the Tigers game. It’s always like that, and it’s pretty cool.

It’s also exactly the reason why the four of us chose to have our annual reunion this way. We could get to Florida and see all sorts of teams and ballparks in a condensed area. It’s a cool deal.

Still looks familiar (same basic structure and same light towers.) With Howie Bailey in 1979 at Marchant Stadium

Being in Lakeland was really nostalgic for me. The last time I set foot in Marchant Stadium I was returning to the clubhouse to clean out my locker after having been released the night before. That was early June, in 1979. It’s changed a lot, but it’s still the same in many ways. To look out over the complex behind the stadium, seeing those fields and the buildings that make up Tiger Town, was really a special feeling. One of the side benefits of having written “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” was that it gave me some affirmation. For far too long I secretly considered myself a baseball failure, because I could only compare myself to my father and his Major League career. When writing about it, and when visiting Tiger Town again, I had to let that go and realize I’d accomplished quite a lot in the game. Not too many guys get to wear the uniform and play at Marchant Stadium after Spring Training in Tiger Town. I think I did OK.

We had to get up and get rolling on Sunday morning, because we needed to get to Fort Myers in time to go straight to Hammond Stadium for the Twins game. With two vehicles, and knowing what I-75 traffic could be like, we split up the tickets and planned to meet outside the park when we got there. Amazingly, that worked like a charm and traffic wasn’t too horrible.

Welcome to Hammond Stadium

Hammond Stadium, a part of the Century Link Sports Complex which houses the entire Twins organization during the spring, is a jewel. Like so many others, it’s been renovated and improved on a nearly constant basis. I’ve been going to games there for a decade, by combining the NHRA Gatornationals up in Gainesville with a side trip to Hammond, and compared to how it was when I first did that it’s now a palace, while it’s still so comfortable and friendly.

The Twins were playing the Blue Jays, and we sat behind a wonderful young family from Guelph, Ontario (not too far from Toronto). It was fun talking to them and enjoying their kids, who were having a blast. As I said to Barbara on the phone after the game, “Imagine a crowd made up of Canadians and Minnesotans. Possibly the most polite game I’ve ever been to.”

And, it was the second time we’d seen the Blue Jays on the trip, despite the fact we never got close to Dunedin, where they train. Again, the beauty of Spring Training. And we got to see a young man who has a chance to do pretty well in the sport. Do you remember former big leaguer Dante Bichette? His son Bo Bichette is a young player in the Jays’ organization who played in Double-A last year. If the performances he put on during the two games we saw him in are any indication, he’ll be in the big leagues soon. He absolutely mashed the ball every time he came to the plate. I’m not talking about regular line drives or home runs that barely cleared the wall. He hit absolute rockets. He hit four home runs in the two games we saw, but they kind of all blended in as a series of explosions off his bat. This old scout says “Keep an eye out for Bo Bichette coming to a ballpark near you…”

Wearing our home whites

The game at Hammond also seemed like our “home game” on the trip. Obviously, I’m a Twins fan but the guys have all kind of stayed interested in the Twins since our reunion in Minneapolis a few years back. Plus, as it turned out, they all thought the overall experience at Hammond Stadium was the best of the trip. So, it only seemed right to break out the new reunion shirts as our home white uniforms.

The Twins did get bombed by Bo Bichette and the Blue Jays (great name for a 50s Doo-wop band) but that’s not really why you go to Spring Training. You’re seeing a lot of rookies, wearing numbers in the 70s and 80s, who will soon be “going back to the other side of the complex” for more minor league seasons. You’re seeing veteran pitchers “working on things” to help develop new pitches when it doesn’t hurt as much. You’re soaking in the sun and enjoying a hot dog surrounded by friendly people who are all doing the same thing.

It’s a magical place.

After the game, we headed over to our second Airbnb of the trip, and it was great too. Not the zillion dollar view of the first place, but a very comfortable and modern home in a suburban development. It could not have been any nicer and it felt like home the second we walked in the door.

Another great place!

As you can see, Radar gave it his seal of approval upon arrival.

While in Fort Myers, we also had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon and evening with yet another SIUE Cougar teammate, Kent Hendrickson. He and his wonderful wife Mary live in Fort Myers now, and Kent had us over to enjoy an afternoon at the pool in his condo complex, followed by an incredible dinner whipped up by Chef Mary. It was all phenomenal and it was great to see The Stork in his new habitat. Plus, Mary is a riot so the whole visit was full of laughter. We’d also hook up with Kent one more time, when he talked us out of our laziness to join him for dinner at a great place near Fort Myers Beach.

And, in a total “it’s a small world” type of deal, any Team Wilkerson fan will know why I said “Wow, look at that” when we approaching the restaurant. To get there, we passed Diversified Yacht Services, which is owned by Dick Levi. DYS decals have been on Wilk’s Funny Car for many years. The place is huge, and really impressive. What a coincidence!

Our final destination was JetBlue Park, just a few minutes from our Airbnb on Tuesday. JetBlue just opened in 2012 and that’s pretty obvious from the moment you approach the facility. JetBlue may need a renovation someday, like around 2040, but right now it’s the most modern and striking park in the league. And, the field is exactly the same shape and dimensions as Fenway, hence its nickname of “Fenway South.”

JetBlue Park, and it’s own replica of The Green Monster

Strangely, the one feature JetBlue doesn’t provide is the ability to walk all the way around the park. Not sure why they didn’t do that, but it’s still a beautiful place. And another thing they did, I suspect to give it a bigger Fenway vibe, was to build an actual street into the design, so that once you’re through security and the gates, and in the park, you can check out all sorts of food trucks and other concessions that are available beyond the standard concessions.

We had bleacher seats for this game, but they basically went unused. It was the hottest day of the trip, and the aluminum bleachers only made it hotter. We lounged on the grass, watched the pitchers warm up before the game, and wandered around. And yes, souvenirs and t-shirts were purchased.

On the ride back home, the consensus was that JetBlue was strikingly beautiful and the field layout was really cool, but it felt a little antiseptic to us. And that’s a bit odd, because Fenway is one of the two most “character rich” ballparks in the world, along with Wrigley. It felt almost like they tried too hard to make it all things for all people. Frankly, it was a world away from McKechnie in Bradenton.

Wilb, Oscar, and Radar hanging out on the berm at Jet Blue. (Lance was busy lounging on the grass)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fabulous place. We enjoyed the game and the fact the Sox were playing the Tigers, so that made it twice we’d seen Detroit, after also having seen Toronto twice on the trip. We had a great time (despite the fact it was oppressively hot) and really enjoyed the ballpark. Maybe had we gone to JetBlue first the other parks would’ve seemed different as well, but we were all happy we’d done it in this order and we didn’t have much of a choice. There just weren’t that many options when trying to string four games together in one corner of the Grapefruit League.

I think the general consensus among us had the “favorite ballpark” listing as follows:

No. 1 – Hammond Stadium

No. 2 a tie – McKechnie Park and Marchant Stadium

No. 4 – JetBlue Park

All in all, though, the whole thing was magnificent. We had a great time and are already thinking about next year. Toronto is on the short list, as is San Francisco. San Diego is probably in there, as well. We even talked about doing a trip together to England or Scotland some day. Probably no baseball involved with that, but it would be fun.

James Noffke, caught on camera in the wild. We used the grill as bait.

As a bonus, I leave you with this picture of James “Oscar” Noffke, the pride of Strasburg, Illinois and one fine infielder back in the day. Also one of the most sarcastically funny guys I’ve ever known. This is him, caught in his native habitat.

By Tuesday night, when we were unable to stay out of bed any later than 10, I do believe we had squeezed all we could out of the trip. We were pretty exhausted, but so thankful for the chance to do this. And I love it when friends on Facebook mention that fact, commenting on how cool is is that the four of us are making this happen every year. Plus, this time we got the bonus of seeing The Stork as well. Dude hasn’t changed a bit…

I slept in this morning. I didn’t have much choice. After this trip, I needed to recharge my batteries a bit.

I’ll see you next week, and by then I’ll be blogging from Kauai. No rest for the wicked! I’m off to hang out with Biscuit and Maxie. I’m a giver.

As always, if you just read this and thought it wasn’t terrible, please do me the favor of clicking on the “Like” button at the top. A thousand more “Likes” and I win a BB gun! Maybe.

Bob Wilber, at your service and no longer wearing any SPF one million.

 

 

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