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SWINGTIME

Spring training is here again, and another of life's injustices is there for you to ponder (or sulk about) again.

Mom and Dad might be able to skip work and catch a game. But what about you and school? What teacher (or parent) in his or her right mind, is going to sympathize with you and let you skip school for baseball?

You can try begging and pleading, but nobody likes a whiner. You can try threats, like holding your breath, but you'll probably pass out before they let you go.

"Listen, (insert name of responsible adult )," you should say. "Remember when I blew it this year on my science project? Gee, I sure wouldn't want to make you stay up till 2 a.m. again helping me with my late assignment so I can live up to my full potential.

"I've got an idea for next year's project, and it's really a great one. (Get that critical tone in your voice) I want to take a look at the effects of chewing tobacco on nonsynthetic turf.

"The timing is perfect! All I have to do is get your permission to go to a few spring training games, where I can observe and record the results and I'll be way ahead of the game for next year's project."

Then you smile, look earnest and eager and wait for the answer.

And if by some miracle you manage to convince them, here are some tips that will help you once you're there.

Grab your mitt and wallet

Ballpark food: The traditional foods (hot dogs, nachos, pretzels and popcorn) are always good choices. But be prepared to part with your cash _ this stuff is expensive. You'll want to take anywhere from $5-$10 just for food.

Hint 1: While it may not be a ball game without hot dogs, or peanuts, or cotton candy, try not to mix up too many things in your stomach (or the pitcher may not be the only one who is hurling).

Hint 2: The shorter concession stand lines are often on the left field side of the stadium.

Ballpark supplies: Here's what you should bring, leave and buy.

Bring: Sunblock to avoid the spring burn. Optional suggestions: a team baseball hat, sunglasses and a good glove to snag those foul balls. Don't attempt to catch a foul ball without one. Ouch!

Leave: Baseball cards at home, unless you want them them bent up, sun-faded or covered with the cheese from your nachos.

Buy: Programs are good to have and pretty inexpensive. You can pick them up for around $1. They have room for autographs, plus it's always fun (and challenging) to learn how to score a game on it. Media guides are a great way to learn EVERYTHING you've ever wanted to know about your team, but can get expensive. These average around $6, but they're well worth the price.

Doing the "wave": They're fun to be part of, but harder to get started than you may think. Don't be disappointed if you wipe out a time or two. The bigger and more vocal the group you're with, the better chance you have of starting one. (Plus, you feel less dweeby if your friends are doing it too.)

Foul Balls: Isn't it amazing how the best of us act like Beavis and Butt-head where foul balls are concerned? (Heh. Heh. Foul balls are cool.)

Best places to snag 'em are usually the bleacher (surprise!) and "Bob Uecker" seats. If you don't mind missing the game (or just can't afford it), try hanging out outside of the stadium. Just be certain always to play it safe when chasing stray balls. Nothing is worth becoming street pizza.

Collecting those X's

Collecting those autographs _ like baseball card collecting _ has become a big deal. And because there is money involved, it has also become kind of a big hassle.

While you might be trying to get Joe Carter's autograph because you think he's a good player, some man next to you might want Roberto Alomar's signature because it's worth big bucks.

Getting a player to sign is not as easy as it used to be. But, under the right circumstances, many players will still sign. And the pursuit can be rather fun.

For the most part, remember to be polite. Some players are more likely to sign for kids than grown-ups. You are better off asking for just one autograph _ a player will be turned off by a stack of cards. Try to treat the player as you would want to be treated.

A few tips:

Go to practice: The atmosphere is more relaxed and the players are generally more approachable at practice sessions. There are a few more days of practice before the exhibition games start this weekend. Teams usually work out starting at about 9 or 10 a.m. and go until noon. These are the practice locations for the area teams: Cincinnati Reds, Plant City complex, 1900 South Park Road, Plant City; Philadelphia Phillies, Carpenter Complex, 651 Old Coachman Road, Clearwater; St. Louis Cardinals, Busch Complex, 7901 30th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; Toronto Blue Jays, Englebert Complex, 1700 Solon Ave., Dunedin.

Go early to games: Teams take batting practice before each exhibition game and some players will usually find time to sign a few autographs before the game. But you'll have to get down near the dugouts or along the foul lines. After all, players can't come up to your seat.

Stay late: After practice and after exhibition games, as the players are leaving the stadium, can also be good times for signings. Look around outside the stadium and see where people _ like the players' wives and kids _ are hanging out and wait there.

Have the right equipment: You'll need something for the player to sign _ like a ball (leather is much better than plastic), a baseball card (make sure you have the right guy), or at least a pad of paper. And you'll need something for them to sign with _ ballpoint pens work on baseballs, Sharpie permanent markers are good on baseball cards and game programs.

Be aggressive: It can get pretty rough when a group of people are trying to get an autograph. Be prepared to take a little pushing as you hold your ground, and make sure to stick out your ball or baseball card when the player gets to you.

Major League mysteries

While you're anticipating spring training, here are some mysteries of baseball to ponder.

Why did it take the Major Leagues 25 years to figure out that Atlanta wasn't in the west?

Who is the cutoff man?

Is a twin-killing legal? Who is the cutoff man?

Who goes around the horn?

Where is the hot corner?

Are a hot dog, pretzel and soft drink really worth $9.50?

Is Bobby Bonilla really worth $6-million?

-Compiled by Jim Bullard, Marc Topkin, and Bruce Lowitt

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