DUNEDIN, FL. – Every old-timer I know says that spring training is not what it used to be.
What it used to be was a few fans sitting around in the sun, flamingos flying overhead, scouts smoking cigars while they check out The Kid, the players hanging over the fence talking to the fans and handing out autographs. It was a lazy and informal setting and every fan wanted to be part of it.
Maybe it was never like that. Maybe the past was never as romantic as we think. But what today’s spring training is like is bound to suffer from the comparison. What it is like now, in Dunedin, Florida, in the unromantically named Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is a large minor league park in any city, with lineups, parking problems, reserved seats and overpriced coffee.
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, where the Toronto Blue Jays practice, reminds you quite a bit of Lynx Stadium in Ottawa, in the days when there used to be crowds. There is hustle and bustle and grown men wearing baseball caps, and some women too. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium holds fewer people, but it’s a nice small park and the sightlines are about the same.
Where the old-time spring training feel still plays out is in the easy-going nature of the fans, so pleased to be watching baseball again, so pleased to be out in the sunshine that that they can barely bring themselves to boo a bad call, so pleased to be out in the sunshine that even Boston Red Sox fans have a hard time being unpleasant.
The minor-league vibe can also be felt in the informality of the stadium itself, where a leather-lunged vendor can proclaim “ice-cold Canadian beer in an American can made in China” and, when announcing last call, urge customers to “take one home, as a souvenir.”
A beautifully bush league feature is the announcement over the public address system concerning fans’ vehicles that are damaged by foul balls. The owners of said vehicles will be entitled to a coupon that will give them a free chicken sandwich.
So some things haven’t changed, but one thing that has -- and it applies to all sport -- is the recent trend among fans to wear full team uniforms. It used to be that if you went to the (sob!) Expos game, you might wear an Expos hat or an Expos t-shirt. You might see the odd guy wearing a uniform shirt with a name on the back like Raines or Dawson, but it was rare because those things cost $75 and being a fan only went so far.
It sure is different now. So seriously does the modern fan take his responsibilities that the uniform shirt, or replica jersey as it is known in the store, is seen in the hundreds, even at spring training where things haven’t begun to get serious. They are listed at $119.99 in Canada.
And people aren’t wearing some old replica jersey with Jesse Barfield’s name on the back or Carlos Delgado. No, these jerseys, most of them worn by grown men, have the names from the current roster on the back, not only names from the current roster but names of players, like Dickey and Reyes, who arrived in off-season trades and haven’t played a regular season game yet.
Of course the wearers of these jerseys, aside from Reyes and Dickey themselves, must surely be Canadians. And you realize how many Canadians there are in this small Florida town when the anthems are played and O Canada is actually sung by a large number of people. Probably more than at home.
Then the Star Spangled Banner is played and what seems to be an equal number of voices is heard. Mercifully, no animosity is detected between the singers of the different songs. But then, it’s spring training.