Big League Stew - MLB

For as long as I've been a baseball fan, I've wanted to visit the spring training camp of the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. But whether because of scheduling or money, I could never make the trip happen. Until this year.

'Duk and DB may be covering the belly of the beast from the inside with their Spring Swing, but these were a few of the things I observed in my first time watching Grapefruit League action strictly as a fan. If you've visited yourself, you probably already know this stuff (and more, which you can leave in the comments).

But if not, you might find some helpful tips if you're planning a future trip.

1. It's a baseball convention: Sure, when you go to the home park of your favorite team, you're surrounded by like-minded fans. But while you cheer together for a positive outcome during the regular season, how often do you sit down with your fellow fan and talk some baseball? At spring training, opportunities are abound because most fans really know their stuff if they're going to be spending money and traveling to watch baseball games that don't count.

If you're staying at a hotel near a team's training complex, you can meet up with other fans during breakfast. At the ballpark, along the back fields, there's plenty of time to chat about the upcoming season while players throw/catch in front of you. Who do you think will have a big year? Where's you're favorite spot to sit back home at Comerica Park? And, hey, who's that young kid wearing No. 73?

2. The fancy cars will be few and far between: One of the more popular notes from reporters when players first report to spring training is the sweet rides they drive to work in. For instance, those who cover the Detroit Tigers were impressed by Justin Verlander's(notes) Ferrari and Victor Martinez's(notes) Rolls Royce.

So I expected to see some quarter-million-dollar vehicles to roll into the lot when I got to Lakeland early on a workout day, cars that would make me feel even worse about my economic standing and life choices. But there were none to be seen. Players were driving trucks and ... crossovers? I could've gone to a grocery store parking lot to see those. The most interesting car was Joel Zumaya's(notes) souped-up truck with the license plate "ZOOM 54." 

3. Jose Valverde(notes) will smile at any camera pointed at him: At spring training, players and coaches are happy to see you. They'll pose for photos, they'll sign autographs, or chat with you for a few minutes. Maybe they appreciate that you drove down to see them practice. Or like you, they're also excited about the upcoming season.

In Tigers camp, no one seemed happier to see the people than closer Jose Valverde. In between workouts, he obliged a fan who asked him to speak to someone on a cell phone. (My last Spanish class was 20 years ago, so I couldn't tell you what was being said.) While Valverde was on the phone, a woman wanted to get her picture taken with him. So she ultimately decided to pose right next to him and smile. Just as her boyfriend was snapping the photo, Valverde turned and smiled for the camera.

4. Happy players say funny things: In late January at Tigerfest, Phil Coke(notes) endeared himself to many Tigers fans by saying the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins suck.

One fan remembered that in Lakeland as Coke walked from the clubhouse to the practice field for morning warm-ups. "Phil Coke, love what you said about the Twins!" he yelled out. Coke turned back and said, "What, that they suck?"

5. Sunblock is your friend: If only I'd gone to Clearwater first, as 'Duk did, where sunscreen is apparently in abundance. If people were rocking the sunblock in Lakeland, I didn't see or smell it. But even without that, I should've realized that I would need the stuff.

Instead, I acted like the kid who could play outside all day and come back in with a tan. That was a long time ago. I spent my last evening in Florida looking like Dr. Zoidberg, feeling like my face and arms were on fire. Days later, I look like George Hamilton's fat nephew. Rookie mistake.

6. Watching grown men play catch is strangely relaxing: Maybe it's the sun. Maybe it's the green grass. Or the sound of baseball hitting mitt. Watching people play catch seems to take us back to a simpler time, when throwing a baseball back and forth with someone was the only care you had on a summer afternoon.

At one point, it occurred to me that I'd driven 640 miles to watch grown men play catch. But if we thought about sports that way, none of us would enjoy them the way we do. Everything seems OK when people are playing catch. Even if you're not directly participating. 

7. You should memorize the players' numbers beforehand: You might think you know all the players by their numbers. And you probably know most of them. But you likely don't know all of them. Learn those numbers. Print out a copy of the roster. See if you can buy a program.

If you're not familiar with those numbers, you might find yourself intrigued by a particular player by the way he runs, hits or throws, but have no idea who he is. Then you'll get back to your hotel room, pull up the 40-man roster, realize that you've been watching one of your team's top minor league prospects — someone whom you knew only by name and stats — and wonder if you should've been paying closer attention.

8. Nieces or nephews will empty your wallet: Approximately a month ago, my sister had her first baby. As a proud uncle, I think my niece is the cutest thing on the planet. And I wanted nothing more than to outfit her in a closet full of baseball team swag.

Baseball teams know this. Their souvenir stands and shops are filled with little onesies, T-shirts and hats. Make sure your sisters or brothers have their children long before or after spring training. I'd say the same thing holds true if you had a child of your own. But let's face it, if you just had a kid, you're not going down to spring training.

9. General managers are mere rows away: These spring training ballparks aren't that big, with 8,000 or so seats. Even if you're not sitting behind home plate or the dugouts, you still may be able to see the general manager of your favorite team taking notes near the on-deck circle. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski makes himself even more visible by often favoring loud striped shirts

No, you probably won't go up and talk to these executives. But it's nice to know that you could. I was sitting five rows behind Dombrowski on Saturday when the Tigers played the Toronto Blue Jays. Former Tiger Wilfredo Ledezma was pitching for the Jays, and I could not remember who Detroit got in return when they traded him to the Braves. Why not walk down five rows and ask the man who made the deal? I didn't, of course. But I could have. 

10. Always hop in your car for more baseball: Do you hope to make a baseball road trip every summer? Is this the year you're going to see all the ballparks on the East Coast? Spring training allows you to have that road trip.

If you stay in Tampa or Lakeland, virtually every Grapefruit League park is within a two-hour drive. And that ride comes with some great scenery. Make the trip to Clearwater or Dunedin. Nothing makes the cold of winter seem further away than the sun reflecting off a huge body of water.

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