This was my first spring training, and I’ll be sad to see Kissimmee go. Though it was state-of-the-art on opening day in 1985, Osceola County Stadium is now outdated and considered small. Even these young and exciting Astros came in last place in Grapefruit League attendance for their last year in the training facility. Still, catching games here was magical. If baseball is like religion, spring training games are like tasteful ceremonies in Catholic or mainline Protestant churches, focused on the altar and complete with organ music. At McLane’s Minute Maid, games were more like flash-bang megachurch shindigs, with blaring music and distractions drawing attention unnecessarily away from the rite.
Even through all of the nostalgia, one guy who might not be sorry to see his last of the place is veteran Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski. I listened in as he reminisced with some of his coaches about a Dickensian baseball camp he attended there as a teen, one unaffiliated with the Astros. “So all these parents would send their kids from across the country down here, to see if they were prospects,” Pierzynski said. “They paid $1,000 a week. I remember we got down here and the director told us, ‘Guys. This is no different than Spring Training in the big leagues.’ Then every day for lunch he’d give us a can of chicken noodle soup and some saltines, and he’d be like ‘Go get ‘em, kid.’”
One of the things I love about baseball is its historical continuity. There was Terry Pendleton, coaching the Braves, a guy I remember as a vacuum cleaner around third base when I was young, chatting with another coach whose face looked familiar but that I couldn’t quite place. That man turned out to be Ralph “Roadrunner” Garr, the slap-hitting, fleet-footed outfielder who starred for the Braves in the early seventies. Now in his 70s, Garr played with Hank Aaron, who played with Warren Spahn, who played with Paul Waner, who played with Max Carey, who played with Honus Wagner, who debuted in 1897 for the National League’s Louisville Colonels. There he stood before me, six generations of separation from the pre-dawn of modern baseball and an ancestry full of some of the game’s greatest names.
Speaking of names, it looks like nicknames are making a comeback from the pits of the 1990s and 2000s, when good ones like “The Big Unit” and “The Big Hurt” were outnumbered by lame handles like “A-Rod,” “Bidge,” “Baggy,” and “Junior.” Modern baseball abounds with good ones: Evan Gattis is “El Oso Blanco,” there’s Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler, “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, and Shane Victorino, “the Flyin’ Hawaiian.”
Last, a few pokes at Florida. It’s true, the state is weird, and Carl Hiaasen never wrote a lie. Across from my motel was a combo motel/urgent care clinic and weight loss center, and a nightclub/resort/two hundred-bed hostelry for swingers, complete with on-site group shower and, yes, a dungeon. Down the street was another business billed as an “Auto Injury Clinic,” that one surmises has a hungry lawyer on-site. Florida managed to freak out even the Butthole Surfers, and that was way back in the 1980s. It’s only gotten more surreal since then.