Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on March 23, 2017
Since the dawn of the 21st Century, my family has traveled to Dunedin, Florida in March.
We’ve checked into a perfectly located Holiday Inn, far from the beach, downwind of a great barbeque joint and a short walk from the Toronto Blue Jays Auto Exchange Stadium. There, we defrost our souls with baseball and pulled pork. This year the baseball was as slow-cooking as the pork shoulder.
On my first morning at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast bar, I stationed myself at a communal table not far from the enormous TV, hoping to capture the zeitgeist of 2017 spring training. There was some talk about the new rule that attempts to speed up the stately pace of baseball by doing away with the intentional walk.
Nevermore will catcher and pitcher have a loopy, four-pitch toss, casual and silly-looking but full of dark meaning, as the dangerous man with the bat is sent to first base where he can’t do too much more damage. Now the guy with the high batting average will just appear on first base as if he stepped into the Transporter in the dugout and said “Beam me up.”
Most people I spoke to think the new rule is a shame, and won’t noticeably shorten the games.
The repeat customers greeted the new breakfast attendant who was two days into his job refilling coffee pots and fixing the occasional blockage in the raisin bran dispenser. The attendant talked shop with the “Four-Guys-Formerly-from-Boston,” old friends who meet at the Holiday Inn for a week of baseball every spring.
The attendant was soon coaxed into sharing one of his own cherished baseball memories: “My daughter was born at 9:16 p.m., right at the first pitch of the third game of the World Series. It was delayed for rain, and just as the players were coming out, she was coming out. Eight years ago — it was a historic day for me.”
Even if he had not mentioned his daughter’s birth, you’d know this guy was the father of a young child by the way he handled the failure of the pancake batter to coalesce into a hotcake as a youngster attempted to use the automatic pancake machine. The result was unsightly, but the child went away satisfied, and the rest of the molten mess was discreetly removed.
What does appear to shorten baseball games is efficient pitching, as demonstrated by the first two games we took in. When the Yankees and Phillies met on March 15, it took the Yankees just 2 hours and 19 minutes to beat the Phillies 3-1.
The next night it took the Orioles three and a half hours to tie the Phillies in nine innings. The start was enlivened by the amazing athleticism of one man with two steel drums playing the National Anthem. Somehow he generated the sound of a full band, accompanied by the sing-along of the Orioles fans on the “O” in “O, say does that star-spangled….”
Most of the game was a plodding no-hitter for the Phillies, with several walks and wild pitches in the first eight innings. It wasn’t until the ninth before the athletic accomplishment of the guy with the drums was surpassed by the players on the field. Finally, an Orioles base hit and home run tied the game 2-2 giving the Birds a shot at a walk-off, and briefly energizing the crowd that had sat so patiently through all those scoreless innings. The Orioles did not walk-off, and the game ended with a whimper.
When the Yankees no-hit Detroit on St. Patrick’s Day at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, almost no one noticed, including the Yankees. Coach Joe Girardi reportedly laughed when asked if he had saved the lineup card from the no hitter.
That’s because in the alternate universe of spring training baseball, what matters truly is not if you win or lose, but how you play the game.
“There goes the no-hitter.” The fan who uttered this was seated a few rows in front of us as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays faced the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin the following day, but we could hear the irony loud and clear — the Rays batter got the team’s first hit in the second inning, hardly a dramatic moment.
Some fans focused on ice cream, specifically the relative merits of soft-serve vs. dippin’ dots, a deconstructed form of ice cream made by liquid nitrogen-wielding food scientists. “I don’t like dippin’ dots,” said the mother of two teenagers from Toronto to her girls. “It’s just wrong.”
“Do they have those little wooden paddle spoons?” asked one of the daughters. “Ice cream tastes better off a wood spoon.”
A 2-run homer by Tampa Bay Rays Jake Bauers in the 4th inning enlivened things. Briefly.
The Jays 40-year old pitcher Jason Grilli faced five batters, came out of the game and started off the field mumbling audibly that he had no adrenaline for signing baseballs for the fans, until the veteran was stopped in his tracks by a carrot-top toddler in a tiny Jays jersey.
“I think I need a new hat anyway,” Grilli said, and signed the sweat-soaked brim. He handed it to the boy and continued into the clubhouse.