When we first started planning our adventure, right at the top of our “must do” list, was making sure we attended some spring training baseball games in Arizona. We had talked about making the “pilgrimage” to Phoenix for several years, and something kept coming up that had us saying “next year for sure”. 2014 was finally going to be the year. By early January we had a condo booked in Scottsdale and we were committed to be in Arizona from March 15th through April 5th. Our plan was to leave Langley on March 3rd, and take a leisurely two week drive south, with quite a few stops along the way.
The first “adjustment” to our plan occurred when we were invited by Postmedia to fly to Phoenix with them and watch the Canucks play the Coyotes on the road. I wrote about that trip in three separate blogs posted back on March 7th. What a wonderful way for us to pay our visit to Arizona!
We flew back home for one day, and on March 8th, we loaded up the Jeep for a shortened (one-week) drive from Langley to Scottsdale.
But the Canuck road-trip wasn’t the only “adjustment” we made to our plans. In mid-February, we received a call from our good friends at Rogers Media, who at that point knew nothing of our planned adventure, but did know that Mary and I were huge baseball fans. The call went something like this….
“Hi David. We know that you and Mary love baseball and we’d like to invite you to join us in Tampa, Florida to see a couple of Blue Jays spring training games. The dates are from March 20-23, and you’ll get to see the Jays play the Detroit Tigers (one of Mary’s favorite teams), and the New York Yankees”.
I began to chuckle at the irony of these wonderful opportunities that were coming our way. When asked why I was chuckling, I explained that we were going to be in Arizona for 3 weeks from March 15th to April 5th. Before I could say anything more, I heard,
“That’s no problem, we’ll just make arrangements to fly you from Phoenix to Tampa and back, instead of flying you out of Vancouver. Oh and by the way, what size shoes do you and Mary wear”.
What could I say, other than, “Are you kidding?”, and “Thanks”, and “Wow, that is awesome!” and “Did I mention thanks a ton?”, and finally “Our shoe size?”
I told Mary about our wonderful good fortune, and she was just as blown away as I was.
Roll the clock ahead to March 19th, and early that morning, there was a knock on the door of our Scottsdale Condo. It was a FedEx delivery man with two suitcases, one of them the very cool logo’d version in the picture to the left. Inside the suitcases were our invitations, plane tickets, and two pairs of sized-to-fit Nike “Free Run” trainers. Mary looked at me in disbelief and then after a few moments during which she began to try on her new runners, she smiled and said “we’re going to see the Jays in Florida – how freaking cool is that?” (I think we probably both use “cool” and “awesome”, far too much, but a) it ‘s how we speak, so get over it, and b), in this case, repeated use of both words was entirely justified).
Up bright and early on Thursday, March 20th, we drove to Phoenix’s Sky Harbour Airport and parked the car in the long term lot. We then boarded a shuttle that took us to the terminal we were departing from. Our flight from Phoenix to Tampa took nearly 5 hours, and with the 3 hour time difference, it was after 10 PM (EST), when we arrived on the east coast. We were met by a chauffeur from Roger’s “One Call”, their newly formed multi-platform sales division, and once we had collected our bags (which did not take long at all), he whisked us off to the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort, where we would be spending the next 3 nights. The driver was quite the character by the way, and it turned out he was a jazz musician and composer who was moonlighting as a limo driver, while trying to establish himself and his band. He played some of his compositions for us on the car’s sound system during the 45 minute ride to the hotel, and they were really very good.
Check-in at the hotel was a breeze, and when we opened the door to our room, there were more Blue Jay goodies for us, laid out on the bed. Awaiting each of us was a Blue Jays Jersey, matching athletic shorts, a full track suit, and Blue Jays caps. There was also a really nice ladies warm-up jacket that had been set out for Mary. Even though it was close to mid-night (EST), we tried on everything, and practiced our throwing motions and batting stances in front of the full-length mirrors. We were having an absolute hoot!
Up early the next morning (Friday), we headed to the beach, and walked for miles in both directions from the hotel, before heading into Clearwater and roaming the streets some more. We managed to use up a good portion of the day soaking up some east coast sun, and on more than one occasion remarked how different the moist heat in Florida was, as compared to the dry desert heat we had come from.
At around 4:00, all of Roger’s guests (I think there were about 32 of us) assembled in the hotel lobby in full Blue Jays gear for the ride to the Bobby Mattick Training Centre. The reason for all of the Blue Jay gear we had been given? We were going to get to participate in a training session with 3 of the Blue Jays minor league instructors – Richie Hebner, Mike Mordecai, and Stubby Clapp. One potential problem was that unlike the guests from Toronto who’d received a few more pre-trip instructions, we did not have our mitts with us.
Problem? What problem? One of the fabulous “One Call” staff walked us over to a trailer and said “help yourselves to one of these new Rawlings gloves that have been provided especially for this Spring Training session”. Mary picked out the brown and pink one, which fit her like a glove – wait it is a glove, and in the process earned the nickname of “Pink” from the Jays’ Stubby Clapp for the rest of the camp.
Now we were ready to “shag some flies”, “scoop up some grounders”, and hit a few “frozen ropes” out of the batting cages, right?
Before we were allowed to hit catch or throw a baseball, we were put through a strenuous 30 minute work-out that was based on what the Jays players do every day, but with fewer “reps”. I was a little skeptical about being able to do this but the 17 year old brain inside my 58 year old body told me I could do it, and you know what? I did.
I have to say that if I had not lost over 20 pounds in the last year and with Mary’s support and encouragement, and undertaken a fairly aggressive walking program (10,000 or more steps a day at least 70% of the days in each month), there is no way I could have done this. Especially since I was the oldest person on the field. In fact one of my favorite moments was when one of the young media buyers from Toronto saw me run down a ball in the outfield and he came over and asked me how old I was. When I told him he said “holy s#*t, you’re 10 years older than my dad, and if he tried to run around like you, he’d probably bust a gasket!”. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Mary and I believe that we’re pretty savvy ball fans and have a pretty good understanding about the mechanics of pitching, fielding and hitting, but we couldn’t believe how much we learned from those 3 coaches. They were awesome (there’s that word again). Mary has never been able to throw the ball as well as she would have liked, but after 10 minutes of help from Mike Mordecai (former major league 2nd Baseman and the Jays Infield Coordinator), she was throwing from “over the top”, further, stronger, and more accurately than ever before.
At the end of practice we had a full-on scrimmage, complete with hitting off one of the pitching coaches. I managed to reach base on an error in my only time at bat, and Mary beat out a grounder much to her absolute delight.
Once we were done, it was time for a group photo with the Jays coaches. Mary is second from the right, in the first row of seated players, and I’m almost directly behind her, fourth from the right.
After the team picture, Richie Hebner, the coach who had run hitting practice for us, gave Mary his 1993 World Series ring to try on. It was so huge that it was bigger than her thumb. She told me afterwards she probably could have got two fingers in it.
Training Camp was over, and it was now time for a mad dash back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes, before heading out for dinner with some of the Jay’s players, and the Sportsnet broadcast team of former Jays, Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler.
Dinner was at the Salt Rock Grill, and before we sat down to eat, Mary had a chance to meet with Buck and “Tabby”. She introduced herself and told them how much we enjoy their broadcasts, and that given how much baseball we watch, we think they’re the “best in the business”. Mary also had a chance to meet with and talk to the Blue Jays young second-base prospect, Ryan Goins. He actually made the team out of training camp, but after struggling to hit
major league pitching, he was sent to their AAA farm team in Buffalo for further seasoning. The player “assigned” to sit at our table was another Blue Jays’ prospect, Anthony Gose, a very talented and speedy outfielder, who desperately wanted to make the team this year. He sat beside me at dinner, and I spoke to him at length. He was somewhat reserved, but certainly not lacking in self-confidence. He was aware that it would likely come down to a decision between him and Rubin Sierra, as to who would head north (to Toronto) with the team as the 4th outfielder.
Sitting with him, it was also quite apparent that he didn’t have any use for the sports-talk hosts on radio and TV and many of the so-called experts who cover the team. I can’t say I blame him either. He didn’t mind talking to former players like Buck and Tabby who knew what it was like to actually play the game, but he made no attempt to hide his contempt for the others.
I quite enjoyed talking to him, and as the evening wore on, he got more and more comfortable talking “baseball” with me.
The next two days (Saturday and Sunday), were all about the Jays games for us, and we were both excited at the prospect of who we were going to see.
First up, the Detroit Tigers versus the Jays at Dunedin, and any time those two teams meet, it represents a struggle for Mary. Growing up in Amherstburg, Ontario, just across the water from Detroit, she was a Tigers fan and enjoyed “sneaking” over to the Motor City to Tiger Stadium to watch the likes of Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Lolich. Once she moved to Toronto (in 1978), the two of us started regularly attending Jays games, and she began supporting her new home-town team, while always maintaining a soft spot for the Tigers.
Back to the game at hand, and it was a super hot day at the ball-park in which the Blue Jays prevailed 9-4 behind the strong starting pitching of Todd Redmond. Here’s a few of the better pictures from that game, starting with;
Jose Bautista at the plate.
The Tiger’s starting pitcher with a great baseball name – Kyle Lobstein.
Adam Lind sporting his “goatee”, that he started growing in July of 2013, and he hasn’t shaved since.
Fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki, who entered the game at Third Base as a late inning replacement for Brett Lawrie.
Blue Jay reliever, Aaron Loup with his unmistakable pre-pitch stance.
And finally, the post game congratulations
The next day (Sunday), we were off to Tampa, to see the Jays play a “road game” against the New York Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field. The stadium opened in 1996, and the dimensions of the field precisely mimic that of old Yankee Stadium.
The scalloped grandstand facade is also meant to invoke the old ballpark in the Bronx. When built, it was the first spring training stadium to include luxury suites.
Directly behind us, and beyond the bullpen down the first-base line is Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.
Outside of the stadium are plaques commemorating Yankees whose numbers have been retired, and again in the tradition of Old Yankee Stadium, it is meant to resemble Monument Park. The newest addition is Mariano Rivera’s #42, following his retirement at the end of the 2013 MLB season.
The Blue Jays started Mark Buerhle on the mound, while the Yankees countered with Michael Pineda. For Mary and I it represented what might be our last “live” opportunity to see the great Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, as he has announced his retirement at the end of this season.We were once again treated to a Blue Jay victory (3-1), but unlike Saturday when we sat out in the blistering heat, this game was played under cloudy skies with the threat of rain present throughout the entire afternoon.
We were bused directly to the airport after the game, where we boarded a five-hour flight back to Phoenix.
Mary and I know that we are extremely lucky to be able to participate in events like this with some of our major media partners, and it goes without saying that we extended a heartfelt thanks to the management of Rogers for treating us to a “Baseball trip of a lifetime” in the middle of our “Road-trip of a Lifetime”