Escape From Winter

We've seen the best — and the worst — accompanying a Yankees trip to Dunedin to play the Blue Jays.

As if my decades-old “Jones” for all things baseball were not enough, the foul New York winter is focusing my thoughts South a week before even pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Yankee Spring Training, and almost three weeks before we join them for all the sun and fun. Stumbling along on week-old ice is not something to do when your mind is 1,000 miles away, but I’m able to survive the days simply because the alternative — like the broken ankle in February 1994 — is just too terrible to consider. (I missed seeing Michael Jordan wielding bat and glove!)

We were traveling to the Sunshine State’s East Coast back then, sunny Ft. Lauderdale, nestled between Miami and vibrant Miami Beach to the South and West palm Beach up North, a short hop that got you the chance to see either of the cohabiting squads: the Braves or the Expos. I bought a game-broken bat for $2 at a Montreal game (could even fly with it, if packed away in a box), a steamy afternoon when the organist toyed with my heat-addled brain by playing the Addams Family theme between each and every pitch, but one where the entire ballpark won a burger from the local McDonalds when a catcher named Jerry Goff poled a walkoff home run.

A few years earlier we had seen what was a record spring crowd at the time as the Orioles hosted the Yankees in what was still known as Joe Robbie Stadium. Earlier still, in 1988, Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami was the site of Jack Clark’s homer in his first Yankee at bat, fun to watch until he hurt himself stumbling on the first base bag as he admired his shot. Florida’s East Coast had its fun times, with conch fritters, alligator snacks, and a social oddity: a show of dwarf tossing in a crowded bar one night.

The Yankees’ ballpark, however, wasn’t much to look at, and it was hopelessly buried in an industrial park off I-95 where we never would have found it except that the light stanchions were the tallest structures for miles. Still, we were sad when we heard that the team would be relocating across Alligator Alley and North to Tampa for Spring Training in 1996. When the move occurred, I flew in a day before Sue and drove to Ft. Myers to see the Yanks clobber the Red Sox 22-9 in a game where they batted around almost three full times in one inning. Hotshot first-round pick never to be seen in the Bronx Brien Taylor was one of a host of hurlers that steamy afternoon, but the sun abandoned the state following that day, when Sue joined me for the opener in a stormy Legends Field. George Steinbrenner pitched in prepping the field before the game, and we thrilled to the very first rendition of “YMCA” as the field was dragged during a Yankee game. Cute, but it won’t last, we agreed.

That year’s rain and cool temps have turned out to be the exception that proves the rule, as we’ve been blessed with a plethora of sun in virtually every year since. We heard Joe Torre comment about outfielder Matt Luke in a game vs. the Astros in Kissimmee that he could have “been in Disney World,” and in Tampa saw the back room in no-longer-there Malio’s where The Boss played court to the Yankee brain trust as they planned out years of Yankee Glory. In 1999, we were the luckiest of fans — in a bittersweet way — because when “greatest living ballplayer” Joe DiMaggio passed away we could pay our respects in Monument Park South, where a beautiful painting of the Yankee Clipper in his prime was propped atop his number and plaque during our stay. A few springs later we enjoyed sliders at Pete ‘n’ Shorty’s in Clearwater, just as King George had done with David Wells two months before as they agreed where the Boomer would be pitching in 2002.

Always fun, but not always pretty, we sat as Gabe White turned a one-run lead into a 6-1 deficit facing six batters in 2004, and Kei Igawa tortured us through 41 pitches in his first Yankee inning in 2007. The next year a South Florida University hitter would reach Igawa for a grand slam, a display that was as embarrassing as the one that blew 2000 Yanks rotation candidate Ed Yarnall out of camp and all the way to Japan. That one took place in the same city where current Yankee stud starter Phil Hughes threw his first pitch throwing for the Bombers: Dunedin, where the Blue Jays play. That game was rained out, a ruling we learned of as Yogi walked by just inches away; it was the same year Sue caught a ball tossed by Fausto Carmona in Winter Haven, and a hale-and-hearty Bob Feller wowed the crown by pitching off the mound pre-game.

We’ll be heading down for the monthlong session’s start, as usual, this year, and there’s no secret what we’ll be looking for: starting pitching, although the bench is shaping up to be a wide open competition too. Most bullpen spots are set, but there are young arms competing to fill in when needed throughout the season. Of relievers who looked good in 2010, Amaury Sanit, currently on the AAA roster, twice closed troublesome innings in March’s first week, and Romulo Sanchez, who would later pick up a “W” for the big club in Boston, was effective as well.

Of potential 2011 starters, in a 3-2 loss to Philly on March 5, 2010, Ivan Nova tossed a one-two-three fifth, as would Hector Noesi the next day in a loss to Tampa, lowlighted by yet another Kei Igawa letdown. Noesi pitched in three levels in the minors last year, and lurks on the AAA level waiting for the call. The first time you see 6’10″ Andrew Brackman throw a pitch, you wonder if he’ll ever be able to harness all that body; if he can the results will be heavenly. And Sergio Mitre, who actually pitched quite well last March as a longshot in the battle to fill starter role that Phil Hughes won, retired six straight in the 2010 opener on March 3, a game in which the Yanks whipped the visiting Pirates on a Colin Curtis walkoff home run.

But we’ll be looking at opposing players too. February 26, George M. Steinbrenner Field; a day later vs. the Phillies in Clearwater. A girl group, the Bobettes, said it best back in 1957:
“1, 2, 3, I shot Mr. Lee..”

I can’t wait.