The Markowski family “New York Mets Spring Training 2016 Extravaganza” came to a close earlier this week.
To say we are hooked on the experience is a gross understatement. It dominated our conversations all three days while we were in Disney World following ST, which is really saying something. Mickey ain’t got nothing on “The Big Sexy”.
After returning home late Wednesday night and somehow stumbling into the office on Thursday, I was bombarded with the requisite “How was your trip to Florida?” Normally I’m not a fan of recounting a vacation because you know, it’s over and I’m annoyed and you really don’t care much anyway, you’re just being courteous.
But this time was different.
Without hesitation, I went all tween:
… and then we like, saw Harvey
I totally got a fist bump from Yo
Oh my gawd, Piazza was there and he looked like way skinny
Yes I’m 43 and many of the players are of the age where they could be my son. Don’t judge.
As I provided detail after painful detail about the Spring Training experience I could see that my coworkers expected to hear more about Disney, the most wonderful place on earth. Sure it was magical or whatever, but it couldn’t hold a candle to watching overpaid men throw a baseball back and forth.
At this point you are probably asking yourself, why the love for glorified baseball practice? Thanks so much for asking. You’ve aided in my transition to now listing all of the reasons why. Some will be obvious and others not so much, but collectively I hope I can effectively express why ST is a must-see for any baseball fan.
Florida is warm in February. New Jersey is not warm in February. If you hate the cold as much as I do, this is an easy one to grasp. My goal is to figure out how one becomes a snowbird and still keeps their day job at my age.
There is no better player access than during Spring Training. I don’t know if all teams provide the same level of access as the Mets do, but it is phenomenal.
The kids (and adults if they so wish) get fist bumps as the players race between fields and drills. You can listen in on the conversations between coaches as they watch/evaluate their players. Getting to watch the players hit in the batting cages from just feet away is worth the price of admission. Speaking of admission …
There is no admission cost. Yes, you heard that right. Attending ST practice is free, including the parking.
The autographs. Good luck trying to score an autograph at a major league game. Those days have been over for a while now. But during ST, almost all of the players will sign at one time or another. With the success of the Mets last season, the crowds seemed to double in ST this year, as did those seeking autographs. Still, the chase is exciting and most of the players are as accommodating as possible, especially with kids.
My son is an autograph freak. His collection has become super impressive over the past few years. I’m not going to lie, the hunt during ST is a bit like gambling and the rush is a hell of a lot of fun. This year, we were at the stadium for three straight days before 6:30 AM and were the first fans to arrive. Most of the time, the players arrived to the park and just waved, but there were a few who stopped to sign and that was awesome.
We also typically stay until the last player/coach has left the facility and have hit pay dirt from time to time.
**Negative aside** There was one much more noticeable negative this ST in terms of autographs. We encountered way more “dealers” than last year and I’d have to assume that has to do with the team’s success. They had no problem pushing kids aside and shoving their way to the front of the line. My son is very laid back and not the least bit aggressive or obnoxious when it comes to pursuing an autograph. These a-holes made autograph pursuing a lot less fun this year for him and they don’t know a thing about the Mets to boot.
True story: a group of 5 guys came up to my son and asked him to identify a few players they had on a photo they were looking to get signed. I shit you not, it was Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard. I’m sorry, if you don’t know who they are by now, stay the hell out of Tradition Field. There should be a basic entry test before one is allowed into the facility. I’ll design it and even implement it next year.
Fan camaraderie. This is the most underrated benefit. The majority of the fans at ST are the diehards. Those that remember every Met dating back twenty years. They remember Butch Huskey and Danny Heep. They know who plays second base in AA and what WAR means.
At least 15 casual conversations are had each day with someone you just met and there is that immediate bond. I could listen to stories about how entertaining Rickey Henderson was in ST in 1999 or how much more out of shape the players were upon arriving to ST back in the 80’s. Every fan had a story and one was better than the next.
Taking an interest in a player’s personal life. Since the access is so fantastic and often times you get to chat up a player, it makes you interested in the person as much as the player. You feel like you got to know that player on a more intimate level even for a brief moment and it inspires you to want to know more about what makes them tick.
I’ve taken a liking to the Mets relief pitchers, specifically those who are on the bubble for a roster spot. You can see their appreciation for getting another chance and you cannot help but pull for them to make it. During the season you may scream at the TV “How can you walk a .225 hitter?” but then think back to that interaction in ST and realize they are more than just a number on the back of a uniform.
That player for me this year is Buddy Carlyle.
Super nice guy and beyond signing for my daughter, I watched him chat with another little girl who reminded him of his own daughter and all I saw was the human, missing his child, but having no choice if he wanted to continue in his current profession. I’m pulling for him.
A chance to watch the “up and comers” before they explode on the scene. Since ST includes those players who will start out in all levels of the minor leagues, you get a chance to get a sneak peak at the future stars. You get to see the players go about their business quietly and humbly since they are just starting out and learning the ropes. You get to see glimpses of their skills and why they were so highly touted in the first place. You get to see them before they have a chance to become hardened to the never ending carousel of fans and media requests. That player was Noah Syndergaard last year.
Now he is “Thor” and has taken New York by storm in only one year’s time.
Your fandom becomes a richer experience. Last year was the perfect example. As the Mets season developed into a special one starting in July and running all of the way through October, I got that feeling of “I was there from the beginning. I literally watched certain players meet on the practice field.”
I watched players get criticized in ST (Ruben Tejada) only to bounce back and play well at times during the season. I watched players come into camp as potential starters only to be gone at season’s end (John Mayberry). I watched pitchers who were up an coming really up and come within no time (Thor).
It’s the reason you start calling the team “we” instead of “the Mets”.
On a more personal level, here are additional reasons why I plan on heading down to Port St. Lucie, FL for the foreseeable future:
Photographic opportunities. If you read any of my posts from the past week, this one is obvious. ST allows you to feel like you were granted special access to the players. The photo opps for a wanna be professional photographer like me are endless.
Inspiration watching someone do what they love. Maybe it’s just me and where I am in age and professionally right now, but I walk away from ST determined to also pursue what I love as a profession. It may not last beyond the plane ride home, but watching these young dudes do something that requires such skill and athleticism and all of it done with a smile on their face is a thing of beauty. You can’t help but get caught up in it. It even extends to the photographers and the beat writers and the security guards and the coaches. It is a contagious thing and I gladly allow myself to soak it in.
The crew grows larger year after year. My wife and daughter and another friend attended ST for the first time this year and they have all admittedly been converted to lifers. It’s fun to watch someone experience it for the first time and we hope to up the crowd even more in 2017.
Who’s with us?