Almost seventy-three years old. Lifelong baseball fan. Never attended a Spring Training game. Sad.
That was me. Until this week. A long-time friend of mine and I went to Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter Florida to see the New York Mets take on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bucket list gets another splash of agua.
Bright beautiful sunshiny Florida day with low humidity and 87 degrees. My pal had checked ahead of time, and he was told that walk-up tickets would be available. Available yes, but seats, no. We got two standing room tickets for $20 each and headed into the sold-out park (7,000 in attendance).
Hot dog, beer, peanuts (check, check, check).
There is something about the first glimpse of a major league baseball field in the springtime that takes your breath away. In the majors, the groundskeepers are also major league, and the pristine, manicured greenness is blinding. The beautiful basepaths and pitchers mound crafted with a recipe of sand, clay, and silt have that distinctive brown hue. The geometry of the field is framed with brilliant white chalk. The outfield ringed with fence advertising typical of minor league venues, and the scoreboards, while high tech, still not ready for prime time. You walk in and feel like someone says, “Welcome Home.”
That being said, my home has seats and while Roger Dean has plenty, they all had fan fannies occupying them. That is where my buddy’s ability to birddog empty spaces in the shade came into play. First, we moved to the painted off standing spaces just to the third base side of home plate. Then, laying a finger aside his nose, up the lower box stairway he rose. “Listen for me” was his over-the-shoulder instruction. In seconds, I heard him shout my name and turned to see my favorite Sherpa waving. I ran up the steps, and there in the $45 section was my very own seat in the shade. Wow. Jackpot.
Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium is named after a local car dealer whose store sat at the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and Congress Avenue. His daughter Patty has continued her dad’s legacy with a store in Cape Coral. She and her husband Park Miller bought the naming rights to honor Roger Dean and the brand that made them crazy rich Floridians.
The park is a low-rise and has an old stadium feel about it. Foul balls behind home plate scoot over the green roof and regularly leave the friendly confines. No iconic walls, warehouses, or office buildings block the view past the outfield.
The Stadium is the spring training home to both the Mets and the Florida Marlins. It boasts the distinction of being the only stadium in the country to host four minor league teams. They include the Jupiter Hammerheads and the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Low-A Southeast Division, and the FCL Cardinals and the FCL Marlins of the Rookie-level Florida Complex League. All these divisions are too complex for my mind to comprehend, so if you are curious, ask Mr. Google.
This is the year of the rule changes, so we had a preview of what will be coming north in April. We saw the new larger “pizza box” bases. We experienced the pitch clock where pitchers have 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on. Pitchers now only get two pickoff attempts and no more extreme infield shifts against pull hitters are allowed. Inning changeovers are also on the clock.
Result? We both commented that the entire pace of the game was way faster and had a new momentum about it. We approved. Even baseball fans must admit that 3+ hour games on school nights are tough to take.
All the starters and many wannabe’s were playing. Spring training is about management getting to see a lot of players in action and while we didn’t stay for all 9 frames, 15 pitchers and 38 position players were used in the game. We saw Pete Alonso stroke a 4-bagger against JoJo Romero. We saw Ryan Helsley who was credited with the fastest single pitch in baseball last year at 104mph. We saw some errors, some great outfield catches, and many solid hits. The sound of maple hitting leather is like no other.
We had fun. As we walked back to the car, we commented on what a perfect way to spend a warm Florida afternoon. We were talkin’ baseball.
Now if that weren’t enough, I needed a Forrest Gump moment in history to end my great day with great friends. That was served up like an oyster on the half shell at dinner.
Reservations had been made at the Seminole Reef Grille in Palm Beach Gardens and like all other choices by our dear friends that weekend, this place was terrific. While the waitress was a little too pushy for us at first, we slowed her down and she soon conformed to our leisurely pace. Signature cocktails all around (The Smoked Old Fashion for me). As we were perusing the menu, a gentleman passed by our booth and joined a man and two women who were already seated at the booth right behind ours. He was black, over 6 feet tall, nicely dressed, and sat down facing me.
As soon as I got a good look at his face, I thought, oh my God, its Dusty Baker, manager of the World Champion Houston Astros. I knew that they had played the Washington Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches that day because that was one of the games we had considered attending. It was him.
I shared my discovery with my seat mates and they asked the question that celeb gawkers always get, “how do you know”. You don’t want to respond with “because I was built with facial recognition software.” That sounds boastful bordering on ridiculous. However, there was a point in my life that recognizing people was part of my job.
With each new Congress a little booklet is published with the pictures of 435 representatives and 100 senators. It was both for the Members to recognize their colleagues and the guys and gals like me to identify new members or “targets” as they were affectionately called. Back in the day, membership didn’t change very much from congress to congress. But with the onerous demands of fundraising, the politics of destruction, and some revolutionary shifts in ideology, retirements and losses in historically safe districts made new face recognition de rigueur. My right hand guy Shawn Morton was better at it than I, but we both went to study hall as soon as those books were published.
So, back to baseball. Yes, this was Dusty Baker. Last fall, much of the baseball world was pulling for him to win his first World Series as a manager and his face was everywhere.
Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. was born June 15, 1949 in Riverside, California. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1967 despite his prayers not to play in the Deep South. Hank Aaron was a big reason that he eventually signed with the Braves. Aaron promised the Bakers that he would watch over their son and treat him as though he were his own. Ironically, Baker was on deck seven years later when Hank Aaron hit a shot to left off Al Downing for his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth in career home runs.
Baker played for three other teams in his 19-year career as a player, most notably with the Los Angeles Dodgers where he was a two-time All Star, won two Silver Slugger Awards, and one Gold Glove. After retiring as a player, he was the manager of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals, and took the reins of the Houston Astros in 2020. Baker replaced A.J. Hinch as manager after Hinch was fired as part of the sign-stealing scandal in the 2019 season. Baker took the talented, maligned, and highly scrutinized Astros to the World Series in 2021, losing to the Atlanta Braves in six games. Baker brought them back to the 2022 series where they became the champions, beating the Phillies in six games.
One unique trait of Dusty Baker is his love of the toothpick. He is rarely seen without one protruding from the corner of his mouth as he watches the game from his dugout perch. He facetiously calls them an “excellent source of protein” but actually uses them as a way of avoiding the chewing tobacco that he used in his playing days. The toothpick, the smile, the quiet competitive fire, and the obvious wisdom about people and the game have made him a favorite of mine.
While we surreptitiously snapped a couple of pictures of Baker during dinner, I made a studied effort not to gawk and to let the man enjoy his meal and his company. But when we got up to leave, I was caught in the act of being myself.
As I was putting my jacket on our eyes met and I asked, “Hey Skip, you get your ring yet?”
He held his hand up, laughed, and said “Nope, not yet”.
Playing home towner, I finished with, “Why not back-to-back? Let’s get two.”
He laughed, waved, and responded with “Why not?”
I turned and joined my wife who knows me better than any other. One question.
“You couldn’t help yourself, could you?”
Guilty as charged, but happy as a lark.