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Loran Smith’s Column: MLB Spring Training

Major League spring training a year ago was moving along at a business-as-usual pace when suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, the virus shut down one of the most popular staples of this grand old game.

There was doubt that the season would be played. When the dust settled, there were games—even the World Series took place—but there were no fans.

At this point, there are indications that fans will return, perhaps, for spring training. In years past, I always got a lift around Valentine’s Day, knowing that there likely would be an opportunity to drive down to Florida when the temperatures back home brought about shut-in status for all too many. A couple of times there has been the good fortune to also include a few days in Arizona.

If you peruse a map of the Phoenix area, you can readily see that geography is favorable in that the teams are bunched tightly in the greater Phoenix complex.   What you don’t realize, until you get there, is that traffic can be a killer.   It can take an hour to go 15 miles. Traffic is an issue in Florida,too especially in the Tampa Bay corner when you have to go over the Courtney Campbell Causeway to Clearwater and Dunedin where the Phillies and Blue Jays have organized spring training for years. The distance is but 9.9 miles, but at peak traffic times, you may spend two and a half hours reaching your destination.

The Braves, a long-time fixture at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, South of Orlando, were initially happy with their digs, but bus travel was a colossal pain for the team. That led to their taking possession of a new complex in 2020 at North Port in South Sarasota County—the mailing address is a box number in North Port, but the physical address is listed as Venice.

It is about as nice of a spring training facility as there is in Florida, some of that having to do with the fact that it is the newest.   Several new ballparks have come about lately with one of the classiest being the Red Sox facility at Fort Myers where the Lee County government built JetBlue Park at Fenway South for Boston and Hammond Stadium for the Twins.

The new stadiums have a pristine appearance and fans flock to watch their favorite team play in the sunshine, but there is opportunity for other options such as golf and fishing.   You can play golf in the morning at classic layouts or boat a prized Snook and arrive at the nearest big league stadium in time for first pitch.

The late Phil Niekro considered the best spring training site to be West Palm Beach where the Braves trained for 34 years. Only an hour northwest there is Lake Okeechobee where you find plentiful and highly regarded fishing grounds. There are many small lakes in between.

Last year, I was able to add a new endeavor to spring training when a former Georgia tight end, Bill O’Leary, took me into the central part of the state for a bedazzling turkey hunt where I was able to claim a prized Osceola turkey.

There are a number of former big league personalities, who have retired to Arizona and Florida. One of the most memorable of experiences came several years ago when long time Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson introduced me by phone to the legendary Red Grange who lived out his life in Indian Lake Estates, which is 70 miles south of Orlando.

On several occasions, Red and his wife, Muggs, were hospitable hosts when I took spring training trips and stopped by to see them. We talked football while Muggs prepared snacks for us to enjoy over insightful and illuminating conversation.   Red thought Charley Trippi was the greatest football player he ever knew. Although he had reminisced about his record $100,000 contract many times before, he patiently recalled them again for a friend of a friend.

One of my favorite stories from Red, had to do with the Bears playing the Redskins in Washington. The senior senator from Illinois invited Red and a teammate by to meet President Calvin Coolidge.

When the senator introduced the players, he said, “Mr. President these guys are with the Chicago Bears.” With that, Coolidge greeted them and said, “Hiya fellows, I always did like animal acts.”