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It's almost spring
when a young man's thoughts turn to... those expensive
seat licenses. An online cash advance can help relieve the anxiety.

Attending baseball games can be expensive. You could get a cash advance onine to pay for tickets.


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      F I E L D  T R I P S

APRIL 8 , 2003

March 19-23 , 2003: The Grapefruit League, Florida

Spring Back to Life
Day 1: Escape from New York • Day 2 • Days 3–5

The frigid gray abyss that was January 2003 in New York City found me wrestling with a major life decision. As I desperately counted down the days until Pitchers and Catchers, I faced the realization that it was time to leave the design job I'd held for nearly six years. While the surrounding drama is not worth recounting here, suffice it to say that it left my sapped spirits in need of a boost. Some fun, even. In the sun, preferably. A trip to Florida for spring training seemed like the perfect prescription.

I'm something of a spring training vet, having been twice before. In 1986, my father took my brother and me down to Arizona for four days, where we saw five major-league games (among the Angels, Giants, Indians, A's and Mariners) as well as an Arizona State University one. In 1989, during my freshman year spring break, my family convened in Florida, seeing four Dodgers games in Vero Beach. One day I nearly bumped into Vin Scully and ended up with an autograph. But those trips were long ago, their details lost to the years and my own clouded memory. All I recall is some kid outfielder named Mike Griffin going 4-for-4 against the Yankees on our final day; I don't have a program or a scorecard to show for that trip. Or Scully's autograph, anymore.

Spring training itself is a perfect paradox. The games themselves don't matter very much to us, their details aren't necessarily of importance, but their arrival reminds of how much the game does matter us, how we crave baseball's annual return and the opportunity to savor those details. Our belief — that somebody, somewhere is concerned enough to practice bunting drills while we're buried under cold gray sludge — is a tonic guaranteed to ward off the winter blues.

When I was ten years old, my grandfather passed me a dog-eared copy of Roger Angell's first book, The Summer Game. In its opening pages, Angell treks to Florida during the Spring of 1962, his first foray as the credentialed baseball correspondant for The New Yorker. His descriptions of the flavor of Florida baseball — the lazy pace, the close proximity of stars, the unrelenting optimism of fans, and archetypes of green rookies and grizzled veterans fighting to make the team — have stayed with me for nearly a quarter century, and I've carried the desire for my such foray ever since. Now, with time on my hands, a few more brains in my head, and a space for my own take on the subject, I had every reason to fill that prescription.

My fond memories of Dodgertown and a resurgent interest in Jim Tracy's team put Vero Beach on my itinerary, while travel convenience and my interest in the Yanks made Tampa an obvious destination. A few afternoons with the Internet, a road atlas, a telephone and my credit cards, and I'd booked a dream trip. This took some creativity. Increased interest in the Yanks kindled by their acquisition of Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui caused their spring home games to sell out early, so I resorted to eBay to fill in my gaps. Luck was on my side in winning some of those auctions, but when you're out of work, you've got plenty of time to place those last-second bids.

I was prepared to fly solo on this trip, but luckily I roped in my girlfriend's brother Aaron. A long-suffering Brewers fan desperate for any respite from the Wisconsin cold, he jumped at the chance for some baseball, any baseball. "I'd settle for Mudville vs. the Indianapolis Clowns!" he wrote me. That made two of us.

Loading my suitcase with about seven different baseball shirts, a mitt, a ball, a scorebook, my camera and plenty of film, I was off. But my escape from New York didn't come without a couple of hitches in the form of subway and bus delays on the way to JFK Airport. I didn't reach the ticket counter until the flight's 30-minute check-in window had closed. After begging for mercy, the kind people at Delta called down to the gate and escorted me down there. I had to undergo a lengthy shoes-off inspection, and I was the last person to board the plane, sitting in the last row, right next to the bathroom and a squirming infant. Still, I was in no mood to complain.

Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees, Legends Field, Tampa

I'd booked our trip so that we wouldn't need to stray too far into Tampa, a vast expanse of asphalt apparently consisting of nothing but strip malls and strip clubs. Fortunately, the airport, the hotel and the ballpark are all very close together. We could actually walk to Legends Field from our Howard Johnson's room in about 20 minutes along the Dale Mabry (no relation to John) Highway. Of course in doing so, we'd pass no fewer than three clubs promising live nude girls, and chain restaurants Chili's, Bennigans, Denny's and, if I fudge it by including an extra block, TGIFridays. The place is soulless. But we weren't in Tampa for soul or culture, strictly the business of baseball.

Since Aaron wouldn't be arriving until midnight, Wednesday evening's game was a solo venture. At 5:15, about 90 minutes after checking in (during which I'd done little but gaze at the CNN ticker's fractured factoids concerning the U.S. war on Iraq), I began working my way to the park. I had an extra ticket to unload, so I was open to any takers. Passing a beefy forty-year-old holding up a crude sign ("I Need Tix"), I stopped to work a deal. The man escorted me to two buddies chugging Coors Lights in the Chili's parking lot — tailgating, Tampa style. They were interested, but wouldn't even offer face value for the tickets, so I said fuggedaboutit and kept walking. I finally sold my ticket to a couple in need of an extra for their seven-year-old girl. The Good Samaritan scalper, I still took a loss once the eBay price was factored in. What was that about keeping my day job?

The Yankees' 31-acre Tampa complex, the stuff of many a column inch in the New York papers, greets passers-by on Dale Mabry with a giant sign celebrating the team's 38 pennants and a year-by-year list 26 World Championships. Legends Field, the spring home of the Yankees and the summer home of their Class A afffiliate, sits directly across from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium. Practice fields sit on both sides of the highway. Amid these world-class facilities is a quaint little park (10,000 capacity) which makes an attempt to mimic Yankee Stadium with a familiar white facade at the base of the concrete roof. Legends even matches Yankee Stadium with its outfield dimensions: 318 feet to left, 400 to center, and 314 to right. There's a Monument Park featuring the retired numbers of Yankee greats, but it's outside the ballpark. Legends beats Yankee Stadium on at least one score, aesthetically: ivy climbs up the walls of the bullpens situated near the end of each foul line, and visitors can peer down to watch the pitchers warm up.

Arriving at the stadium about an hour before game-time, I watched several minor-leaguers taking batting practice under the auspices of Joe Torre, Don Zimmer, Rick Down, Willie Randolph, and a very fit-looking Reggie Jackson, clad in shorts. Standing by was Torre's brother Frank, the recipient of the most famous heart transplant in baseball history. I snapped a few photos of this braintrust through the chain-link fence while Reggie talked hitting with youngsters such as Erick Almonte (soon to figure quite prominently in the Yankees' plans) and David Post before I entered the stadium proper.

Cuban defector Jose Contreras was the Yankee starter for the evening, and the Yanks fielded a team which, except for Todd Zeile subbing at third, may well be their Opening Day lineup. Soriano, Jeter, Giambi, Williams, Matsui, Posada — these are the Bronx Bombers. Regular third baseman Robin Ventura, as he often does, sat against a lefty, in this case the Indians' Brian Anderson. The Indians backed Anderson with what may well be their Opening Day lineup, featuring familiar faces Omar Vizquel and Ellis Burks, vets Matt Lawton and Karim Garcia, touted rookies Brandon Phillips and Travis Hafner, and board-game magnate Milton Bradley (replaced in the eighth inning by cereal icon Coco Crisp).

Though he'd had a rocky spring up to that point (including a 10.38 ERA), on this night Contreras pitched like the $32 million man in the catalog. There's no high leg kick or exaggerated flourishes in his windup like his countryman and Yankee predecessor, Orlando Hernandez. Contreras' delivery is much more economical, but he brings some serious heat. The Cuban dominated the Indians from the outset, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced and eight overall in his 5.2 innings, fitting Hafner for a silver sombrero in the process. Cleveland scratched out only four hits and one run off of Contreras, who left with runners on first and second. But reliever Antonio Osuna, another new Yankee, struck out Ellis Burks with a breaking ball that literally dropped the aged slugger to his knees, nipping a rally in the bud.

The Pinstripes' other foreign import, Hideki Matsui, made a good first impression as well. Just as I'd imagined and much to my satisfaction, the stadium PA played a snippet of Blue Oyster Cult's '70s classic "Godzilla" every time Matsui came to bat. Matsui played the entire game, stroking two singles, one of which would have driven in a run if Garcia, the Indians rightfielder, hadn't made a strong throw home. The Yanks touched Anderson for three in the third on a bases-loaded Bernie Williams double, while Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi laced back-to-back doubles in the fifth for another.

One of the more amusing sidelights to the game was an Afro-American concessionaire with an unlikely demeanor. Shouting, "Hey! Guess what?! I got snowcones!" with an intimidating tone connoting a demand to get the hell off of somebody's property, he nevertheless delivered his icy wares with a huge smile. "I wish I actually WANTED a snowcone," laughed the guy behind me. I passed on the cone as well, preferring the more traditional sausage topped with peppers and onions (not exactly Yankee Stadium caliber, to say nothing of Milwaukee), chased by a couple of beers. In the middle innings I ventured to try a deep-fried concoction offered by a Cuban food stand on the concourse, a deviled crab ball that had gastric distress written all over it. Fortunately what went down stayed there without incident.

After the seventh inning, the Yankee prospects and suspects — Drew Henson, Juan Rivera, Chris Latham, and the aforementioned Almonte and Post — took over, with Henson distinguishing himself by lining a solid single off of David Riske. Shane Spencer led off the ninth for the Indians, drawing a respectful cheer from the crowd not only for his years in pinstripes but for the two seasons he'd spent as a Tampa Yankee. But highly regarded prospect Jason Anderson set down the Indians 1-2-3, giving the remaining portion of the 10,000-plus fans even more reason to cheer.
Final score: Yanks 4, Indians 1.

Day 2: A Dream Doubleheader


Click to enlarge
Frank Torre checks in
on his little brother
Reggie Jackson imparts his wisdom to Yankee shortstop prospect Erick Almonte
Reggie asks Willie Randolph if he's ever had a candy bar named after him
The Yanks' Cuban import,
Jose Contreras
Contreras, bringin' the heat