April 18, 2014

Washington Nationals Spring Training Postcards: N.Y. transplant – now Florida local – loves the Nats, too

by Wendy McDowell (@yankegator)

I have Randy Siegel, a seventh grade crush, to thank for sparking my interest in baseball. You may think love is enduring, but in my story that’s just not the case. Baseball is enduring. Randy never did notice me, and I probably would have outgrown him and his crusty milk mustache and stretched-out turtleneck by eighth grade anyway. Fast forward 35 or so years, and I am still wide eyed at the mention of baseball. Imagine my boundless joy as the month of March rolls around now that I — a transplanted Manhattanite — live in Central Florida.

My husband Brian’s claim to fame is that I gave up my Yankee season tickets to move to Florida. Yes, he was well worth it and not just because he too thought a romantic weekend should include a schlep to four spring training ballparks in three days. I learned he had a priceless skill: he could review multiple baseball schedules and fashion baseball trips like no other before him. Sold.

Starting in December, I count the days until pitchers and catchers report with the guys behind the fish counter at my local Whole Foods. As soon as they see me rolling my cart towards them, they shout “How many days?” God help me if I am wrong. So, I am spot on, largely because I call Brian from the Whole Foods parking lot just to ensure my countdown is correct. These guys rely on me.

As mid-February draws near, Brian (a Satellite Beach native) and I start planning. We discuss when we will go to watch the Nats practice. We start filling in the matrix for who will be joining us for home games. Brian starts his Nats shopping on MLB.com. I shop stores for sassy red clothing that will let the team know I am one of them while also ensuring I make the most of my time in the sun.

Brian’s gift for avoiding a heavy work schedule in March usually allows him to make all but one home game. Our preparation is akin to what some go through to get ready for the Christmas season. Instead of decorating trees and wrapping presents, we fuss over finding the right jerseys, check on trades, stats and injuries, and identify what positions are in contention.

A few mornings in late February, we get up early and drive over to Viera from southwest Orlando. We want the Nats to know they have local support and to help get the team pumped. If I was being totally honest, I would admit that we are just baseball junkies, and by mid-February we need a fix. Ken Burns can only satisfy me for so long before I build up a resistance. I actually watched Field of Dreams for the gobzillionth time in January, just to scratch the itch. So, yes, watching stars and the non-roster invitees run sprints, seeing the paunchy coaches barking directives, and reconnecting with the friendly, wonderful stadium staff does it for me. For a bit.

We became Nats fans, in part, because we love the feel of the Space Coast Stadium and the people who work there. It feels like what we want spring training to feel like: relaxed yet packed with the hope of a new school year … just like Dodgertown before the Dodgers killed it … err, I mean “relocated” a few years ago. That is a story for another time when I can discuss it without foaming at the mouth.

Back when Spacecoast Stadium hosted the Marlins and then the Expos, Brian’s father played tuba in a Dixie Land band that welcomed fans at the stadium entrance. Now, that spot features a young man who sells programs with an impressively loud voice. “Programs … Geeeeeeet your programs … Only Fiiiiiive Doooollllllars!” Dixie Land band or the shouts of a program seller assure me that baseball is near. Baseball that is near is almost as good as the Big Voice Man who instructs us that he has “Ice cooold beer … beer that is cold and in ice!”

We anticipate the Nats spring training opening day more than we probably would admit in open court. In late February, Brian starts referring to his bedroom closet as his locker, and I have to remind him to take his white Nats jersey off at the dinner table. On opening day, we make our hour-long trip in time to be there when the gates open for season ticket holders, and we are both a bit goofy with excitement.

The D.C. Nats fans who spend a large part of March at the ballpark amaze and impress me. It is a whole other level of Nat-sanity to leave your home and workplace for a month to travel south to hear the crack of a ball on a wood bat, and I am in awe. I may be there for all the games, but I get to go home at night. These fans remind me that my oddball cross-wiring is shared by others, and it is clear that I am in the midst of relatives of some kind.

Spring training baseball is not about who wins and who loses. It is about the intra-team struggle for positions and the demonstrations of character. That is a different animal from the regular season “team win” pursuit of the regular season, and I like it.

Spring training is also about the treasures we have met along the way … from Mike, the beer guy, who a few years ago became Brian’s BFF, to Ed, our Uber-Usher who bleeds baseball, to Sue, the usher who travels back to DC for the regular season, to D.C. Neil who sits in front of us and gives tickets he cannot use to his former Air Force squadron in Cape Canaveral, to Michi and Gary who add so much drama to the game I am without words to describe it (get those socks out!), to the quiet Phillies fan who lives down here five months a year and just likes to watch baseball. We have met such wonderful, quality people that the gift of knowing them may just surpass the game of baseball.

I know it is at least two weeks into March when every call from my Mother starts with “Did you have a game today?” Noticeably, she doesn’t ask “Did you go to the game?” I am sure she thinks Brian and I are on the team. In a way, we are.

Uber-Usher Ed looks over his sections with determination at Space Coast Stadium. (photo courtesy Wendy McDowell)

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