JUPITER, Fla. — The first act of spring actually occurs back where it’s winter. It involves rolling up T-shirts, identifying books that are worthy of the trip south, stacking yellow legal pads, making sure there’s a raincoat handy, and otherwise packing for the longest road trip of any baseball season. The goal is to fit all that stuff, snugly, into as few pieces of luggage as possible, while also making sure all of the essentials fit into one of two carry-ons. Can’t have that Skype-ready webcam lost in transit.
The days before arriving at spring training involve feats of geometry.
The first day on the ground at spring training is an experiment in trigonometry.
It’s all about the tangents.
By taking an early flight from St. Louis this morning, I was able to land at PBI (West Palm Beach, Fla.) and save a few hours of driving up from FLL (Fort Lauderdale) or MIA (Miami). That meant that I’d get to Florida around noon and have a half day to race through the regimen that awaits every baseball writer on the first day of spring training. That race to get ready started the moment I grabbed my carefully and mathematically packed luggage off the carousel and headed toward the rental counter. Spring training was afoot, and it was time to pull all the tangents from the afternoon together. Sitting at Hurricane Wings tonight, I jotted down on a napkin the nine stages of Day 1 at spring training.
“The Winter Molt”: There is no need for a winter coat in Florida, so wearing one to the airport is a wasted amount of space. Instead, I dress in layers for the cold weather on the way to the airport. That allows me to take one pullover for those semi-chilly mornings in February and not bother with a bulky coat that will only sit in the closet here. Layering means the first act of every spring is the molt. It usually starts while waiting for luggage. Off comes the pull-over. Off comes the long-sleeve waffle shirt. Maybe a polo slides out of the luggage. By the time it’s time to get a rental car, the winter layers have been shed for a more Florida friendly outfit.
“The Rental Car Mambo”: Simply signing up for a “midsized” or a “full-sized” car isn’t good enough. It’s important to know exactly the car you’re getting for spring training, and there is no shame in being choosy. I’m greeted at the counter today with the news that they had a Civic set aside for me. Excellent. I have a Civic back at home. Except … this Civic has a license plate that expires in March, and that means with my rental ending in early April there is no way I can leave the lot with it. How about a Ford Fusion? Let the dance begin. If you’re going to spend six or more weeks with the same car, it’s important that you can actually stand the car. As more teams leave Florida for Arizona and more teams leave the Atlantic coast of Florida, there is more and more time spent in the car during March, powering up the interstate or drifting across the state for the next game. The goal is to find an acceptable car at a reasonable rate — preferably the one advertised or less — and that’s the mambo. It took 30 minutes to complete the dance this season. One year, I went was assigned three cars before finding one that fit. The first reeked of smoke. The second one was too big and boxy. The third one, a Sonata I believe, was just right. Occasionally, you get lucky and two-step into a Jetta or, jackpot, a Mustang.
“The Pyro’s Dash”: It’s lunch time, and on the first day in Jupiter that can mean only one thing. It’s off to Pyro’s. Arguably the favorite midday haunt of Cardinals scribes, Pyro’s is a wrap place located near the ballpark. It’s part Chipotle, part CBW, part fusion restaurant. When not looking for a change pace by getting some tacos sprinkled with blue cheese, I feature the “Tatanka,” which is now be renamed “Buffalo.” It’s a chicken or steak wrap with yellow rice, a celery buttermilk ranch, and a stripe of hot sauce right down the middle before rolling. When possible, it’s the first meal of spring because it doesn’t disappoint.
“The Ballpark Hustle”: The handoff is always at the ballpark. It’s a convenient place to meet the colleagues. It’s neutral ground. And as much as we’ve moved around the past few springs, we can count on the ballpark always being at the same place. The goal on the first day is to make this a drive-by visit — as swift as possible. There will be plenty of time spent at the ballpark and in the media bunker in the coming weeks. The checklist at the ballpark is simple: get the key, get directions, get going.
“The Staples Stock-up”: To streamline the packing process, I’ve learned to leave the office supplies behind. It helps that I’ve found a suitable notebook available at a local Staples. Somewhat of a notebook and pen snob, I prefer to use the Cambridge steno pads during the season. Down here though there’s a nice, almost pocket-sized, top-spiral available at Staples. It’s the “finest selection” Gold Fibre from Ampad. A 5-inch by 8-inch, palm-sized notebook it’s pages are “antique ivory” and receptive to the ink from the Uni-Ball Vision Elite pen I prefer to use. There are 80 sheets to a pad, which is usually good for four or five days depending on the assignments. I’ll grab five today. It’s a good start. I also grab a box of envelopes. Spring is always a good reminder to write letters.
And then it’s time to head home for the first time.
“The Condo Audit”: If first impressions matter, we are going to be well looked after this spring. Greeting me as I walk through the front door is a table loaded with porcelain angels. That motif is carried on through knickknacks around the rented cottage three baseball writers will share this spring. It’s Real World: Jupiter, and things are about to get real for one reason — there are 2 1/2 bathrooms for three people. I’ve got the den, which has one of the two TVs in the place and a nice work space, but until this afternoon it did not have a bed. There’s a pull-out sofa — my son calls it a “pirate bed,” because it’s hidden — and now a twin bed dropped in the middle of the room. Looks like I’ll be curling up on the sofa for a But, hey, there’s a desk. There’s wireless. There is not, however, a comforter or a blanket or sheets anywhere to be found. That means it’s off to …
“The Target Raid”: An annual rite of spring is the race to Target for all the essentials — soap, toothpaste, baseball cards, towel and, new this year, blanket — that didn’t rate being included in the luggage or are needed after canvassing the condo. This is not a one-time trip. A quick story: Several years ago, the boy wonder was having a particularly difficult time with me being gone for so long. We were about a month into spring training when he called me.
“Daddy, I need you to park your car out front so I know when you’re home,” he said. “Can you do that?”
“Yes, but it won’t be for a few more weeks.”
“Well, I need you to park out front so I know when I get home to look for you.”
“Where are you now?”
“I’m at Target.”
He sets the phone down, and I hear him rush off to another room.
“Mommy! Mommy! We need to go right now! Daddy is at Target! He’s at Target! We need to go see him!”
It took some deft mommy-ing on the wife’s part to explain to Ian that while, yes, I was at Target, I was not at the Target in St. Louis and that they could not race down the street to see me. The little boy was crestfallen. He didn’t want to get back on the phone. Target’s national reach had broken his heart.
“The Great Sort”: Fueled by Pyro’s and armed with geometrically and efficiently packed bags, a key to office, and a few bags from Target it’s time to move in. The goal is to create both a living and a working environment. Having a desk helps. Not having a dresser hurts. In the past, I’ve had two beds in the room and used one as the staging ground for special section research, long-term assignments and reading materials. It’s going to take a few days to figure out the rhythm of this room and where things are best. For now, the new blanket goes on the couch, a stack of books goes on the table beside it, and a power cord runs from the nearest outlet toward the couch for such essentials as this laptop (I’m writing this sitting on the couch right now) and the cell adapter. This room feels a lot like my dorm at Mizzou. All it’s missing is a Wayne’s World movie poster.
“The Monk Hunt”: If Pyro’s is the meal of choice, Monk is the perfect way to wash it down. A local beer from Inlet Brewing Company, “Monk in the Trunk” advertises itself as an “organic amber.” We first met at Hurricane and have been chums ever since. A welcome finish to the first day is a copy of the local paper, a half-finished magazine from the flight down, perhaps a thumbed-over book I really, really swear I’m going to finish reading this spring and a pint of Monk.
Spring has sprung.
Bring on Day 2.