At The End, A Beginning: Part I

March 20th is just another day. Equinox, schmequinox. And Punxsutawny Phil? He’s a groundhog, for God’s sake – just another figurehead with no real authority.

Ask any sports fan when Spring really begins and they’ll reply without hesitation:  The day that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. No matter where you live, from the snowiest of Frost Belt towns to the warmest Sun Belt city, the day that baseball’s pre-season camps open is always the most reliable harbinger of hope. And what is Spring anyway, if not the Official Sponsor of Hope?

When Spring Training begins, every team is a potential World Series champ. Yes, even the Pittsburgh Pirates! OK, that’s patently ridiculous, but see how easily the concept can sweep you away?

With that in mind, what better place to end my journey than at the home office of Renewal?

I bounced that very concept off of my buddy Kels, and he was completely on board with it. Literally, in fact – as in on board USAirways flight # 245 from Newark to Phoenix. And as luck would have it, his beloved San Francisco Giants were scheduled to play my Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a “pivotal” Cactus League contest. On St. Patrick’s Day. Which happened to be the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament.

That flash you may have just seen was that of stars aligning themselves perfectly.

The 100th and final event of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour positively dictated that I go the extra mile in preparation. I’m sure you’ll agree that I couldn’t just blindly wander into such a momentous occasion. I needed a dress rehearsal.

So on the day before The Day, I rose at 4:30 AM and poured myself into the car for the 6 ½ hour drive to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, where I was to collect the equally sleep-deprived and giddy Kels. From there it was a short drive to Glendale, the Spring Training complex shared by the L.A. Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox, the latter of whom were hosting Kels’ Giants that afternoon.

Giants Fans Of All Ages Strain For A Closer Look

The game had already started by the time we entered the centerfield gate, and even from a distance it was easy to see that San Francisco’s star pitcher and cult hero Tim “The Freak” Lincecum was pitching. Much to the delight of Giants fans, he remained there longer than expected. After completing the fifth inning, he left the mound to a standing ovation of appreciation for his day’s work. Except that his day wasn’t exactly done, for when the bottom of the sixth inning began he was out there again. Oops. Hey, it was Spring Training for the fans too.

There’s a unique strand in the male DNA that researchers have found responsible for the irresistible Road Trip urge. Curiously enough, it’s right near the strand labeled simply “Beer”. The Bird has found the whole topic to be fascinating. “What do you guys actually do on road trips?” she once asked. The answer is simple:  (a) Play games; (b) Watch games; and (c) Make fun of each other. Is there anything else?

Sure enough, like moths to a flame, Kels and I soon made the acquaintance of three fellow grandstand residents who had come down from North Dakota for some desert biking and some baseball. It was the last day of their trip and they were in need of some visual keepsakes. Naturally we were happy to help out; as were they to reciprocate.

Over the course of the next 48 hours, that scenario replayed itself repeatedly. “Where are you in from?  How long you here for?” And of course, “How’s your team looking this year?”

Everywhere we went, we were greeted by a bright visual mix of shirts and hats bearing the logos of the Cubs, the Reds, the A’s…and well, pretty much every one of the 15 teams that call Arizona their Spring Training home. It was like a political convention – minus the nasty name-calling.

Brandon Belt Connects On A Single

We were all scouting the opposition, some of us more seriously than others. We were also on the lookout for Baseball’s Next Big Thing, so that on that future date when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame we could say “I saw him in Spring Training, before anybody else had heard of him.” A strong candidate to fill that role was the Giant’s rookie first baseman Brandon Belt, whose name is a perfect description of what he does to a baseball. In his first four times up, he walked, singled, doubled and launched a 400-foot opposite-field home run. I thought I was going to have to wipe the saliva off of Kels’ face.

Belt’s batting heroics and Lincecum’s seven strikeout performance were the catalysts for a 5-3 San Francisco win, which put a warm smile on the faces of Giants fans. The game had clocked in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, and we were left wanting more. We hadn’t even finished our bag of peanuts when the final out was recorded. So we lingered in our seats for several minutes before slowly meandering toward the exit. And that bit of loitering exposed us to an extra bit of entertainment:  The Senior Stroll.

If there is one single thing I would pick to personify the difference between Spring Training and the regular season, it would be the Senior Stroll. It’s pretty much a universal promotion at major and minor league ballparks across the country to offer kids the chance to line up and run around the bases after the pro game is over – and there is never a shortage of takers. Here in Glendale there was a new twist on the concept.

The line of men and women “of a certain age” waiting their turn to Stroll began at first base and snaked all the way up the grandstand aisle, spilling out onto the concourse above. And the event was every bit as festive and euphoric as those involving their grandchildren. As they toured the base paths, they laughed and joked, hamming it up for pictures that documented this distinctively American activity. The musical accompaniment wafting through the P.A. system? A Sinatra medley, followed by Wayne Newton singing Danke Schoen (“Bueller?…Bueller?). There was just one rule:  No sliding.

They were still at it as we slowly wound our way through the meticulously landscaped complex to the parking lot, passing signs all along the way that bore the official Cactus League mantra:  “Beware of Flying Bats and Balls”.

Yes indeed, for every ending there is a beginning. When one wonderful thing reaches its conclusion, there is always something else to look forward to. Becoming eligible for your first Senior Stroll, for example.

To be concluded in next post…

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