Just Another Gated Community
We arrived back from Spring Training last night, three games in three delightful mad dash days that left us wishing there was time for one more. When I got home there was a wonderful surprise: a copy of the new biography of Bill Veeck by Paul Dickson. I went to sleep reading it. Yes I was disappointed not be in a hotel room full of snoring baseball fans. It hurt to be alone with my wife sleeping quietly beside me, not a sound to distract me from the story of one of the game’s great innovators who Dickson describes as an “Everyman’s Owner,” one who respected the fans and players alike.
Yet as much as I look forward to the Spring Training experience every year, there is a new twist to it that sucks just a little of the wind from those gorgeous Florida sunsets, something that cuts into the fun that I as a baseball “everyman” get from the games.
I went to my first spring training in 1999 with my 11 year-old daughter, a little red-head with a pen and a baseball leaning over the rail yelling, “Mr. McGwire, Mr. McGwire, could you sign my ball?” She ultimately cornered Mark McGwire in Washington, DC along the rail at RFK Stadium at a preseason exhibition game between the Cardinals and Montreal Expos. The big man smiled at his admirer’s crimson locks and told her how much he wished they were his own. He grinned broadly as he signed her ball, making her and her father about as happy as they possibly could be.
We arrived at RFK stadium early that day in 1999, several hours before game time to watch batting practice. We were rewarded with an amazing display put on by McGwire. Balls flew into the upper deck of RFK where seats were marked to denote where Frank Howard had hit his moon shots back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. A few of the balls McGwire hit struck the light standards above the roof line of RFK and the gathered throngs were just waiting for one to totally exit the confines, headed for the moon no doubt.
It would be difficult to replicate that experience today. Fans cannot enter the playing area until 90 minutes before game time and the home team never takes batting practice in front of the home fans. There are security guards that ring the field and discourage fans from getting too close to the players. Sometimes players will sign autographs, but it is not like it used to be. The red-headed 11 year-olds are still there, but their access is tightly controlled in almost every major league baseball venue.
There is an exception. Every year we venture up to Osceola County Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Houston Astros in Kissimmee, Florida. It is a small little stadium that tightly hugs the playing field. There are fewer security personnel and during the run-up to game time, they allow unfettered access to the field level seats. Kids and adults hug the rails yelling out to the players as they stroll past.
My favorite baseball teddy-bear of a guy, Pat Corrales, limped past last week while we were there and I yelled out, “How’s the leg Pat?” ”Still got one,” he answered with his uniquely charming snarl. A concessionaire was standing next to me having left his post to be with his 16-year old daughter who cradled a pen and baseball. He asked me how hard it was to get Ryan Zimmerman’s autograph. I opined that in the atmosphere of Osceola County Stadium it would be much easier than any where else. And indeed the face plate of the Nationals came over and signed for her and chatted with the two of them for a bit. Those two fans left absolutely delighted to be a small part of the action, something they will cherish for the season, perhaps for a lifetime.
The neighborhoods around Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida are overwhelmingly Hispanic. The restaurants are Tex-Mex, the Catholic Churches that dot Route 192 are named for saints with a distinctly Latin flavor. The games draw well with the local Spanish-speaking fans who often get into hot conversations with some of the Latin ball players.
Two years ago it was Jose Cruz, a coach at the time for the Astros. A group of bench jockeys along the rail were riding Cruz before the game and a grin was spreading slowly across his face as they needled him in Spanish about god knows what. Finally he came over and they got into a conversation about his playing days that left them all smiling. Ultimately they were joined by Cito Gaston of the Blue Jays and the crowd of fans grew until Cruz and Gaston departed to warm applause.
You would never see that happen at most of the other complexes in Florida. Osceola County Stadium was designed in the mid-1980’s by HOK, the architects of almost every major league baseball stadium in the country now. Each of these new stadiums was intended to harken back to the old days and for the most part they are more personalized than the cookie-cutter, rounded, multi-purpose stadiums they have replaced.
Yet there is a “sameness” to them and with the rules for fan access in place at all of them, there is no small irony to their claim to have captured that old time ballpark atmosphere. Those beautiful parks are in danger of losing the most important design feature of all: the fan.
The road to the Astro’s complex–Route 192–ultimately leads to Disney World where the Braves train. Driving from one training site to another, one cannot help but be struck by the strip-mall sameness of Florida, and no where is that more apparent than at “Sports World,” as Disney calls it, the March home of the Atlanta Braves. When my daughter and I went there in 1999, one could access the Braves complex at Disney World from the highway. Now access from the highway has been restricted so that fans have to drive past every Donald, Minnie and Mickey in the entire theme park to find Chipper and the gang.
The operative word in the paragraph above is “restricted access.” Whether it was the Lakeland Flying Tigers, Brevard County Stadium or the parks in the Ft. Myers area, fan access to the players follows tight rules of conformity. The gates open at a set time every where and home teams do not take batting practice in front of their fans. As a Nationals fan my best chance to watch my hometown players was at an away game in Kissimmee.
So what happened to the intimate feel that my daughter and I so loved more than a decade ago? To the ability to hang over the rail and yell out to the players? Sure, it has to be annoying to the players to be accosted by so many youngsters and adult fans, but it has been part of the game for as long as I can remember. Players used to come and go from the parks before every game through a throng of fans seeking autographs. That too has been eliminated.
Twenty years ago I was in Detroit on business and sneaked out of my final meeting of the day to walk down Michigan Avenue to the old stadium where I went in several hours before game time to find the Tigers taking batting practice. What a sight it was. Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder sent kids scurrying through the bleachers in pursuit of his batting practice shots. Alan Trammel, then a coach, talked with a fan standing on the rail down by the dugout. He had gone to high school with Tram and asked him to sign a group picture of their graduating class as the two of them talked about the old days.
That ability to see the players up close, to chat with them as people is part of the game as it has been played for generations. I would hate to believe we are losing it. Reading about baseball’s “everyman owner” last night, I could not help but wonder “what would Bill do?” I would like to believe his ball park would be like Osceola County Stadium. He loved daring the tight-asses to complain about his approach to the game. He loved being different. In today’s vernacular, giving the fans the best show in town is too easy. It just means giving them a little more access to the action. Not the Disney sham version, but the real thing. Bill Veeck knew the real thing when he say it. How disappointed he would be with how today’s game is held at arms length from the fans.
MLB Inc. has initiated many good thing for the game. It has spread the wealth among the teams proportionately and brought new economic health to the game that has been missing for decades. But the cost to fans has been to move the game into a “gated community,” where access is too tightly controlled. So Bud, bring those “everyman” fans a little closer to the action. Put a little more Veeck back into the game we love.