Baseball has had a rough couple of months. Heck, it’s been a rough couple of years. For the first time in a long while, I found myself going into a season with little or no excitement.
After all, the only news that has had any staying power revolves around the game’s best player doing steroids, Manny being Manny, a commissioner who may or may not be as corrupt as Richard Nixon and a looming list of 103 tainted players hanging over our heads.
That being said, it's ironic that this is the first year I’ve had the privilege to go to spring training in Florida, and, to be honest, I was more excited for the weather than the Sox game I was to attend.
Sad, I know, but I thought with Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Co. off at the World Baseball Classic, it would just be a Double-A amateur fest.
Looking back at that mentality, I am upset that I let the pessimism get the best of me, as a trip to spring training would normally be my equivalent of a Vegas Elvis making an inaugural trip to Graceland.
I vacationed in Clearwater, which is on the Gulf Coast, home of the spring training facility for the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies, but the game I was to attend was a three-and-a-half-hour trek to Jupiter, where my Sox were taking on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Had the pitching matchup not been Josh Beckett and Chris Carpenter, there’s a very solid chance I would have just succumbed to my hangover and slept in rather than making a road trip to see a minor league scrimmage.
I figured I would regret the decision to go, wasting a perfect, cloudless, 80-degree day in a car, a Honda Civic rental no less, possibly the only car at the Tampa Airport Enterprise that didn’t have a sunroof.
When I finally arrived in Jupiter, stuck to my seat and sun-burnt only on my left arm and the left side of my face, I was able to see that the trip was worth it. The place was packed.
Even in Florida, the Sox still fill the house, with a record-setting day for attendance at yet another team’s field.
Walking into the ballpark, surrounded by a sea of Sox and Cards’ jerseys, I realized just how wrong I was to have been so down on the sport that has been a pillar in my life.
The sights and sounds of the ballpark gave me a new hope for this season, things that are easily forgotten but become so much more apparent once you’re there to see it.
Like watching Justin Masterson sign literally hundreds of autographs, or Beckett looking very sharp and more fit than he’s ever looked.
Or a web gem by John Jay, a Cardinal’s minor leaguer, about four seconds after I made fun of his name with a nerdy joke about the Continental Congress, or Julio Lugo’s penchant for adjusting his cup as if it were filled with Icy Hot.
Or things like the taste of a cold ballpark beer on a hot day and seeing people scramble out of the way of foul balls, but never at the expense of the Bud Light in their hands.
But, most of all, I remember the adults and children alike, crowding around the bullpen, hoping to get any autograph, or seeing entire families rocking Sox gear, sun-burnt but ecstatic to take in a game.
It’s easy to forget what this game means and has meant to our country. It’s America’s pastime, a game of fathers and sons that has been the glue for so many relationships.
I thought back to countless nights of twilight batting practice, with my dad, arm hanging, rearing back for another bucket because I still had a loop in my swing.
Or watching Field of Dreams for the 20th time, and still getting misty-eyed when Ray asks his dad for a game of catch.
Or sneaking into Game One of the 2004 World Series on the Green Monster, standing a mere 10 feet from Tom Hanks and Jimmy Fallon as fans and celebrities alike belt out “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth.
It didn’t matter that all my favorite Sox were playing elsewhere, or that my hometown nine lost on a walk-off homer. No, all that mattered was that there was Red Sox baseball being played, and I was there to watch it. It was fantastic, and an experience that I’ll always remember and hopefully repeat at some point in my life.
No longer will I focus on the negatives that have permeated the psyche of all baseball fans. Steroids, Manny’s selfish saga, Selig’s exorbitant salary; these are all things that are now pushed to the back of my mind.
Now, my concerns are about the state of the Sox’ rotation, J.D. Drew’s health issues, Ortiz surviving without Manny, a packed AL East, and whether or not I can convince my dad who works security at Fenway to risk his job and sneak me into every home game (just kidding to anyone who works there...kind of).
It’s unfortunate that it took a trip to spring training to cure my baseball blues, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. I am certainly not looking forward to the cold of Boston or the wintry mix of a Massachusetts March.
However, Opening Day is about three weeks away, and I couldn’t be more excited.
It’s time for baseball, America’s pastime, and I, for one, am ready for the two sweetest words in the English language.