Jackie and Andy Wade loaded up for the hour-and-a-half drive from Davenport to take their baby, Dexter, to his first spring training game at Bright House Field on Wednesday.
They were looking forward to a fun day at the ballpark, wearing their support for the Philadelphia Phillies — Andy in a jersey, Jackie in a red T-shirt and 8-month-old Dexter in a onesie that read "Property of the Phillies." Jackie, 29, bought the onesie while pregnant with the intention of taking Dexter to spring training in it.
They brought a blanket and found a spacious spot on the outfield berm overlooking right-center field about three hours before the 1:05 p.m. start.
"This is something we've always done together," said Andy, 30, referring to the four years he and Jackie have attended games. After Dexter came along, "we wanted to make it a family tradition."
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Baseball has lots of traditions. Hot dogs. Peanuts. Cracker Jacks. Bringing a glove to catch a foul ball. The seventh-inning stretch. In Florida, spring training is a 100-year-old tradition offering renewed hope for fans at the start of each baseball season.
The Phillies, who have trained in Clearwater for 66 years, opened the 2014 Grapefruit League season Wednesday with a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, who train each spring in Dunedin. More than 5,100 fans filled the stadium under overcast skies.
For some, the first day of the Grapefruit League season started early at nearby Lenny's restaurant, home of "The Best Breakfast in Clearwater." The U.S. 19 eatery serves up about 1,000 meals on a typical game day. Lenny's also provides another 1,000 meals to the Phillies and Blue Jays major and minor league teams throughout the season.
Patrons in Phillies red fueled up at Lenny's around 9 a.m. before heading to Bright House Field. A "Philly cheesesteak" omelette with two sides and pancakes was the special. Diners who took their eyes off their food might have spied former players Dickie Noles and Jamie Moyer there.
Dan Farrell, whose family owns Lenny's, was a Mets fan when the family moved here in 1977, but they quickly embraced their new "home team."
Farrell's first memories of spring training are from Jack Russell Stadium, where Clearwater High's baseball team now plays but the Phillies used to host spring training games. It was an intimate setting.
"The stadium was a wreck," Farrell recalled wistfully, "but you could be sitting right on top of the players."
Over at Bright House Field, fans walked the concourse before the game, circling the stadium to grab souvenirs, beer, hot dogs and game programs.
By noon, batting practice was over and the grounds crew smoothed the red clay infield and showered white chalk around the batters boxes and base paths.
The game featured Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ against the Phillies' Roberto Hernandez. Jose Bautista hit a home run in the first and Ryan Howard powered an RBI single for the Phillies in the bottom of the inning to tie the score at 1.
The teams played seven innings before rain shortened the game, which the Phillies ended up losing, 4-3.
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Jackie Wade admits she is not the biggest baseball fan, but when it comes to spring training, she's been won over by getting to sit outside, the relaxing nature of the game and the opportunity to travel to other cities to watch the Phillies.
For husband Andy, who moved to Florida from the Philadelphia area, a highlight of a trip to the ballpark is a cheesesteak.
As for Dexter, he went home after his first spring training game with some souvenirs, a small bat and a plush Phanatic toy. The family tradition had begun.
Jared Leone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @jared_leone on Twitter.