My favorite spring training memory goes back some 41 years, to 1976.
Most teams were training in Florida at the time, with some closer to the Miami area. Miami Stadium was the home of the Baltimore Orioles, and the Texas Rangers were north in Pompano Beach while the New York Yankees played in a nice ballpark in Fort Lauderdale. The three weren’t that far of a car ride from the kosher hotel district on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
At the time I headed The Baseball Bulletin, a national baseball monthly, and had access to all clubhouses, dugouts, and press boxes. I met Yankees manager Billy Martin and team owner George Steinbrenner in the relaxed Florida pre-season atmosphere. Near game time I took the elevator up to the rooftop press box and chose a seat among several empties. In the second inning an elderly gentleman wearing an off-white summer suit with light blue stripes and a round light-colored canvass hat with a small brim turned upward sat beside me. The outfit went well with his white hair.
Over the next hour or so he commented on the game between the Yankees and the Dodgers, the weather, and the view. I mentioned that Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey was my favorite current player because he was obliging to everyone. The man shook his head in agreement.
With a few innings to go, he got up, wished me a good day, and headed to the elevator. As the elevator door opened, I heard the press box attendant say, “Have a nice day, Red.”
“You too,” the nattily dressed elderly gentleman said as the elevator door closed.
It hit me like a baseball bat on my head. I had been sitting next to Red Smith, the legendary sports columnist who knew Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb and other baseball greats.
What a wasted opportunity! What stories I could have heard! What great lines he penned, such as these two beauties: “Baseball is dull only to those with dull minds” and “Ninety feet between the bases is the closest to perfection that man has yet to achieve.”
As memorable as that spring training was 41 years ago, spring training 2017 will go down as even more memorable.
The reason is the brand new, absolutely beautiful complex of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, housing the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals.
It’s only 3.4 miles from my winter dugout in West Palm Beach’s Century Village. All I have to do is exit the village (facing the Aitz Chaim shul on Haverhill), turn left on Haverhill for 2.8 miles, and the 160-acre large complex with its welcoming signs and palm trees fairly screams “This is Florida and this is special.”
There are well over 3,000 parking spaces and it’s a scenic walk to the ballpark itself in the center of the complex with 6,500 beautiful blue seats and the outfield lawn berms that could hold another thousand slanted fans. The area has hundreds of new palm trees and hundreds more smaller bushes and a large lake that gleams in the sun as you go up to the top rows of the ballpark.
Fencing rises one hundred feet along one of the main streets (Military Trail) bordering the complex to protect vehicles from practice field home runs. Palm trees were planted along the bottom of the fencing to discourage drivers from viewing the action on the fields.
I’ve had tickets well in advance for the Monday, March 12 game between Washington and Detroit (Rabbi Richmond, spiritual leader of the Aitz Chaim shul and a native Detroiter, also hopes to go) and the Washington/Yankees game a week later on Monday, March 20. A shul group of 15 is planning to attend the latter. I also hope to see Houston as the Astros boast my favorite two players – second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman.
Bregman has the makings of the best Jewish player since Shawn Green. During the first week of practice sessions fans could get close to the players and Bregman was very accommodating to their requests. My friend Abe Lubinsky, who started the Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim, took time out from his holy work to watch the workouts and had his picture taken with Bregman. Abe and several other New Yorkers from Century Village enjoyed the interaction with Bregman and others. I showed Bregman my World Series ring and told him I hope he gets one.
Someone from my New York group (comprised of Abie Freedman, Joel Gold, Dovid Josowitz, Jack Koplowitz, Avrohom Kullas, and Dovid Tannenbaum) said “hatzlacha” to Bregman.
“What does than mean?” Bregman asked.
“Good luck,” replied Josowitz.
My New York friends went away with some great memories and Alex Bregman trotted off to the batting cage having made a bunch of new fans who will be watching the Houston box scores this season.