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Spring Swing: Phillies' hand holds new beginning, Four Aces

Big League Stew

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'Duk is in the Grapefruit League this week as part of Big League Stew's Spring Swing. Follow his journey up and down Florida's Gulf Coast here and through Facebook and Twitter.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — You expect your first sensory perception of the 2011 season to be something cliché like green grass or grilled hot dogs. But Bright House Field smells like sunscreen. Great, big white gobs of the stuff. Plopped onto arms, legs and shoulders. Rubbed to the edges on the sleeves of a Roy Halladay(notes) jersey and beneath spaghetti straps the color of Nittany Lion blue. The SPF seeps down into the skin and the odor up into the air, where it floats into my nostrils and makes the announcement I've been waiting for all winter: "Yes, you are really at spring training. Opening day may be closer than it appears."

To slip back into the cliché: It is 80 degrees out. The sun shines. All is again right in the world.

Sorry to get overly lyrical there, but I have a hard time helping it. This is the fourth straight season I've hit the ground running at spring training and there's always a time when the impending season turns from rumor into real. This season's moment happened for me on Sunday, as I jostled my way through a concourse that seemed as packed as a game at Citizens Bank Park back in Philly. Down on the field, the Phillies were getting ready to face the New York Yankees in a game of real, live baseball. The type where Placido Polanco(notes) gets dirt on his jersey while making a diving stop, Ryan Howard(notes) holds his bat perpendicular to the batter's box and Domonic Brown(notes) reminds everyone it's never too early to have a bad day, striking out in all three of his at-bats.

Over the next week, we'll creep closer to these games actually mattering as I point my rental car toward the camps that dot the Gulf Coast — from Tampa/St. Pete to Alligator Alley to the state's southwestern outpost in Fort Myers. But before we continue, let's take a look at a few more pictures from Sunday before moving onto some additional Phillies material later in the day.

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There are a few things in Clearwater that you can't swing a Louisville Slugger without hitting. Strip clubs and billboards for bail bondsmen, for one. Star pitchers, for another.

"The Four Aces" are, of course, the talk of the Phillies camp and don't think they don't know it. Cole Hamels(notes), Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes) all left the dugout during Sunday's game and headed toward the team's clubhouse as a collective quartet. Their shared stroll drew cheers from the crowd that were only surpassed by the wolfwhistles the first time that one of the Hooters ballgirls made a play on an errant baseball.

(It also made me think that it's only a matter of time until someone makes a T-shirt of these four symmetrically crossing a street, Abbey Road-style. If that does happen, I'll use this photo as proof of a claim on royalties.)

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The pregame ceremonies got a bit weird when the Phillie Phanatic spotted an invader from the sky ...

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... but thankfully it was just a paratrooper bearing a gift of a Phillies flag in honor of the team's 65th anniversary of holding spring training in Clearwater. That's the second-longest tenure in baseball next to the Detroit Tigers and Lakeland.

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With the aerial threat neutralized, the Phillie Phanatic turned his attention toward more important matters. Namely, making my pal Mike Ferrin's life by turning his posterior into the rather ample target of an onfield routine that lasted a good two minutes during Mike's show on MLB Network Radio. Let it be known that it's spring training for everyone but the Phanatic down here.

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Cue the Phanatic Signal because, yeah, I don't know either.

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Then again, not everyone can have one of the best ph---ing T-shirt in the history of T-shirts.

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Look ma, I can get artsy with inanimate spring training equipment, too!

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