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Spring training fans abound with optimism

The ballpark smelled of sauteed onions, suntan lotion and unfettered optimism.

It was minutes before the opening of the Philadelphia Phillies' 67th spring training season in Clearwater, and fans were streaming through the arches at Bright House Field. Their jerseys — gray, green, maroon, baby blue, pin-stripe, apple red and faded red — were clean and pressed. Their score cards were crisp, not yet blemished with runs scored by the opposition.

No one seemed to mind the gray sky, the sticky afternoon air or the $7 beers.

Talk among the crowd was of healthy pitchers and re-signed sluggers. Even of championships. And why not? Their team, like all the others, was still undefeated.

The scene will be recreated today when the New York Yankees play their first home spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Sophie Williams, who is 2, was perched atop her father's shoulders Saturday. She wore a red Phillies T-shirt and red bows in her hair. Sophie, attending her first spring training game, owns two Phillies jerseys and at least three onesies. She and her parents came from North Carolina for vacation and baseball.

"We're going to watch them in the World Series this year, aren't we?" asked her father, Jason.

Sophie, seeming not to notice, reached for her purple pacifier.

As 1:05 p.m. approached, the Rocky theme song rumbled through the speakers.

The public announcer's voice swelled.

"That music," he said, "can only mean one thing, Philadelphia Phillies."

The team's mascot — a pear-shaped mess of green fur with a horn-like mouth and Big Bird eyes — zipped by home plate on an Honda ATV. The Phillie Phanatic, as it is known, did its best Rocky impression as the crowd cheered.

On row 15 along the third-base line, Shirley Schimpf watched intently with her girlfriends, Mary Thompson and Kathy Borneman. They're all from just outside Philadelphia.

Schimpf, who is 66, recently had her baseball cap signed by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. She knows every player and most of their backgrounds. She gets regular emails about the team and text messages with game updates. "I'm the groupie," she said, grinning.

The women have been fans since birth. They know the game and its intricacies as well as any of the men in their families. They used to take their dads to games every Father's Day.

"If you're from Philly," Schimpf said, "you don't root for anybody but a Philly team."

Chimpf is devoted, but on Saturday she didn't take things too seriously.

The game, technically, was a competition, but only in the loosest sense. The Phillies fans didn't once boo the other team (or their own, as they've been known to do). A win, they figured, would foreshadow future success. A loss would be sloughed off as no big deal.

The league, after all, is named for a grapefruit.

On the grass beyond the outfield fence, families sprawled out across beach towels and shared buckets of popcorn. A woman lounged beneath a smiley face umbrella. Between pouches of Capri Sun, children slipped on miniature gloves that looked just big enough to catch golf balls.

As the game entered the fourth inning, the Phillies led the Houston Astros 2-1.

Sitting cross-legged on a blanket, two boys — one wearing a green Phillies hat with a number 6 jersey and the other wearing a red Phillies hat with a number 26 jersey — wrestled and laughed.

Then, a hit. The boy in the green hat heard the pop. He knew it meant something bad.

"What's the score?" he asked his dad. "What's the score?"

The Phillies were a run behind.

He frowned and slumped onto the blanket. He looked at the scoreboard, then back at the field, then again to his dad. His world had stopped.

Moments later, the boy in the red hat noticed something in the grass. He motioned the other boy over. They stared into the green.

A bug.

The chase was on.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Spring training fans abound with optimism 02/23/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:33pm]
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