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RSW Living Magazine

Take Me Back to the Ballgame: Florida tradition in springtime

Photo by Tom O’Grady Jr.

The blue of the Atlantic fades in the rearview mirror as the green of fields and firs surrounds me. Heading west to Gulf Coast towns for Major League Baseball spring training feels less like a three-hour car ride and more like a shift in time. My youngest son, Chris, and his good friend, Eric, both fresh into their 30s, swivel their heads from scenery to smartphones, the irony not lost on any of us. They’ve just arrived from the cold of Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, and this is not the Florida they’ve imagined. Small towns and cattle fill the windows, with no baseballs or beaches in sight. But it’s all a pleasant lubricant for the time warp we’re experiencing, as today becomes quietly yesterday, and we are the boys of summer.

It’s March, and for baseball fans the Gulf Coast is where the real madness occurs. Just ask the locals. With a half-dozen teams from the “Grapefruit League” strung along the coast, towns from Dunedin to Fort Myers swell with people like us, stopping by for a week to revisit a tradition. We’re taking ourselves out to the ballgame in ways that recall the days before professional sports became corporate ventures.  

The first jolt of time travel is the price of parking and game tickets. In Dunedin, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, we pass $5 parking on residents’ front lawns. We opt for $10 parking at a bar that gives each of us a free beer after the game. Who needs a valet? In Clearwater, home of our beloved Phillies, the $14 price of a standing-room ticket puts you close enough to the batter to tell if he shaved that morning. In Sarasota, home of the Baltimore Orioles, we stand in center field under palm trees, just steps from cold beverages and outfielders. With average attendance in the 6,000 range, compared to MLB season games that can attract 40,000 fans or more, the games, and the players, feel accessible.        

Accessibility is the first thing you notice when you enter a park; no winding, twisting, level-climbing treks to your seats, just gorgeous green carpet and immaculate tan dirt you can almost touch. Surround it with visible fat clouds against the bluest sky and it’s everybody’s field of dreams. Big league players don’t disappear down tunnels. They walk the baselines and become guys you can talk to, their major leaguer status on hold, as they return to the modest fields of their youth to prove they’re still the man. 

Managers turn your way for pictures when you yell, “Hey, Coach, thanks for a great season!” Ushers smile and accommodate your needs. In fact, everybody is smiling. Why not? It’s a mid-March afternoon and it’s sunny and warm. And there’s a baseball game, hot dogs and cold beer. And, I didn’t have to take out a mortgage to be here. I’m smiling, too.

Elmer Storozow understands the smiles and the time warp. A former construction worker from New York state, he came down 27 years ago and went to a game. He came back the following year and asked for a job. Storozow got it. After seven years each with the Cardinals and Rays in St. Petersburg, and 13 years with the Phillies in Clearwater, he’s still smiling.

At 85 years of age, he’s on his feet and on the job every game. “I really enjoy it; the people and baseball,” Storozow says matter-of-factly. Then a smile breaks out from his salty beard, the inner boy of spring and summer flashing across his observant eyes. “I get paid to go to baseball games, instead of paying.”  

As I watch the fans, along with the game, another cause of the smiles is apparent. People are here with people they enjoy, and baseball is the excuse. Dads carrying babies help their dads find seats; retirees slap backs with visiting, life-long friends; teenagers actually hang with their parents. 

With my knowledge of current players and their stats thinning like the hair on my head, I’m thrilled with my company. Chris and Eric, voracious aficionados of the game, toss player histories and future potentials around like peanuts and popcorn, so I’m quickly up to speed. But catching up on baseball personnel is not the real benefit. The reason I’m here is time with my son. With 1,200 miles between us most of the year, spring training shifts time again, and brings him back to me for a while. Now there’s a reason to smile.    

When we head back east a week later, the sleepy towns nod at us again, unaware of their role in our transition. Time resets, and we boys separate, each to his own place and climate. They’ll carry their stats and predictions home, ready for their fantasy leagues and the upcoming season. I’ll carry my thoughts of time well spent, waiting for the return of my dream team next spring. And we’re all smiling. 
Written by Tom O’Grady Jr., an author and freelance writer living in Palm Coast, Florida.

Photo by Tom O’Grady Jr.