Nothing’s more joyful than spring training

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Spring training is a time to work and a time to play, a time for promise and a time for joy. Spring training is a time for players to learn what it takes to be a major leaguer and a time for coaches to see whether young players have the skills and intangibles (whether they have ‘it’) to take it to the next level, and a time for managers to see if their veterans are ready for another long, grueling season.

Spring season is a time for fans to reconnect to the game, learning about rookies and re-evaluating veterans, and this is a time for parents to reconnect with their kids (showing them how to keep score and pointing out key plays); it’s also a time for remembering and telling baseball stories with friends and other grown kids.

Spring training is a time for re-birth, where twenty-seven-year-old pitchers like Matt Smith shag fly balls for batters with numbers more evocative of defensive linemen and wide receivers than of major-league players, where a non-roster invitee like Lou Marson rips line drives to the outfield, hoping coaches will see a promising 21-year-old catcher and not the number 71 on his back, where players with Nos. 80, 81 and 91 rip into pitches and practice bunts. And where Smith throws his mitt into the air, hoping to snare a shot over his head out in the outfield, laughing as the glove falls to the outfield grass and the ball bounces against the right-center field wall.

Spring training is a time more for kids than adults, where young boys and girls bend over railings and along dugouts – as pleased to get an autograph from 32-year-old journeyman Jim Rushford, who wears No. 97 (and whose career includes 77 at-bats, a .143 batting average, a homer and six runs batted in) as to get a scribble from reigning MVP Ryan Howard. Adults creep near the railings as well, but, unlike during regular-season games, the older fans tend to restrain themselves around these kids – at least here today at Osceola County Stadium. (Unlike two years ago at Busch Stadium where middle-aged men shoved my young daughters aside to gets signatures from A-Rod and Jeter, among others. Losers, I’m sure, who have nothing else to live for and no respect for the game.)

But, here on this Saturday mid-morning, with the sun shining, with old men smiling and kids laughing, all is well in the world. So the kids reach out with programs and baseballs, imploring someone to sign. And players comply — the older ones glad to see the joy in the kids’ eyes, the younger players pleased to be asked, the middle-aged players struggling for a roster spot happy to be called over (knowing this could be their last chance.) Players have fun with the crowd. Brian Sanches, a 26-year-old right-hander with just a season under his belt in Philadelphia, shags a slow roller down the third-base line and tosses it to some screaming young boys by the dugout.

On this day, I am also reconnecting – with the game and old friends. We arrive two hours early at the stadium here in Kissimmee, Florida, happy to be at any ball field on this beautiful day. I’ve been to this stadium a few times before, but neither Phil nor Scott have visited. Usually, Phil and I will take in a day-night doubleheader, driving to see the Blue Jays in Dunedin or the Phillies in Clearwater before heading back at night to Winter Haven (where we’ve watched the great Bob Feller toss out the first pitch) or Lakeland (where we saw the mercurial Esteban Yan finish off a game in an unusually cold Florida night.)

Today, we shag hot dogs, peanuts, pretzels and beers and watch the game unfold before us, a game between two younger teams with a chance to make the postseason. The Astros start most of their regulars, including 41-year-old Craig Biggio who still hustles on every play. (He beats out an infield single today.) The Phillies rely mostly on young kids and prospects. In the end, it is Houston’s youngsters that rise. Cody Ransom, a 30-year-old shortstop likely to start the season in the minors, drills a line shot down the left-field line to win the game in the bottom of the tenth inning, 3-2. Hunter Pence, hitting .737 this spring, jogs across the plate, fist pumping as if this were the final game of the World Series. For a young outfielder like 23-year-old Pence, who had doubled, this is a highlight.

We also take delight in this young man’s joy, saying wouldn’t it be great if these two kids were to do the same in the postseason, not caring that none of us root for the Astros. Young Pence is a fine player, we all agree and walk out of the stadium. There is a certain buzz, of dads and sons and daughters (and a few moms) walking out of the park, glad to have spent three or four hours so wisely, planting new memories and reaping the benefits of times spent with old friends.

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