Day 5: Red Sox | Extra Innings
FORT MYERS, Fla. – They came early. They screamed often. And by the end of the Boston Red Sox's Spring Training workout here Thursday they had crowded a thin, roped-off walkway designed to allow players to get from the practice fields to the clubhouse unimpeded.
A virtual impossibility.
This is a popular team with passionate fans – maybe 1,500 attended Thursday's session – so trying to get anywhere without autograph requests, name chants or pleads from the dedicated is impossible.
"They all know my name," one Red Sox player said. "They know everything about me. They can throw out stats that you don't know yourself. It's unbelievable."
It was Kevin Youkilis, a minor league prospect who spent most of last year in Double-A and isn't likely to make the Boston squad this season.
"I haven't played one day in the Major Leagues," Youkilis said after being besieged with pens, pictures and well-wishers looking to make any kind of connection. "That speaks for itself. Basically the fans here in New England are the most avid fans in baseball.
"They know their minor league players," he continued. "Not many teams know their minor league guys. It's a great feeling. You don't want to ever leave this team."
Lots of teams have passionate fans. Picking the most dedicated is debatable. But the Red Sox always are going to be in the discussion.
As a result, the franchise has a very fan-friendly facility here, with close access to the players. Just one reason why this southwest Florida town is currently awash in blue and red, the team store had a 15-minute line to buy paraphernalia, and smart waitresses around town long ago learned how to decipher a Boston accent.
Fans tried anything to get players' attention. Some were clever, such as the girl who held a sign that read: "I came a long way/what do you say/please sign my baseball today." Others were doomed to fail, such as the woman who shouted to Martinez: "Pedro, I'm a Yankee fan who loves you." (Not surprisingly he ignored her.)
Due to the promise of the upcoming season, the connection between New England and its Olde Towne Team has never been stronger. But these are not fairweather fans. After 85 seasons without a championship, how could they be?
"If you are a Red Sox fan you are definitely loyal and dedicated," center fielder Johnny Damon said. "You know, it is very easy to begin liking the Yankees when they started winning back in the mid-'90s. A lot of people jumped on that bandwagon. But if you are a Red Sox fan you are a Red Sox fan."
And if you are a Red Sox fan, you can't get enough of your heroes. Even the minor league ones.
BALLS AND STRIKES
• Sox heartthrob Johnny Damon had the girls – both little and big ones – screaming his name and swooning after him all afternoon despite his new look that has some in Sox camp calling him Johnny Jesus. The long hair and out-of-control beard gave Damon that elusive Jim-Morrison-on-a-three-month-bender look. But it works for him.
• This whole "young GM" thing might be getting out of control: Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein stood behind the Field 3 batting cage with no fewer than five Theo-alikes all in khaki pants, short sleeves and closely-cropped coifs. We knew that Ted Williams' head was frozen, but we had no idea Billy Beane's was as well.
• Traffic control outside the practice facility was hampered by the testy worker who had trouble controlling the spin of his Stop/Slow sign. When the Yahoo! Sports Mustang began to edge pass him because of the mixed signals (it said "slow"; he thought it said "stop") he demanded we stop and asked if we could read. "No, we can't read," we said. "We're sportswriters for crying out loud." For that we were relegated to park behind the Green Dumpster – a poor, poor man's version of Fenway's Green Monster.
• One reason the Sox are in good shape heading into the season is the team-first mentality. Reigning AL batting champ Bill Mueller was asked about repeating that feat. "I just want to help the team," Mueller said. "I am not into winning any awards or anything like that. I am out to get the ring on my finger."
• You can tell new Red Sox manager Terry Francona loves his blue-collar guys, and Mueller is just one of them. "When he was with the Giants and I was with the Phillies I hated him. Every day you'd look up he's dirty. If he was 1-for-4 the hit he got would beat you in the eighth or ninth. He is the kind of guy you love having. He plays the game right. He's a pro. We have a lot of those guys."
• Credit the creative Sox fan who grew slightly impatient with Pedro Martinez's one-sided signing for the huge throng of autograph and picture seekers: "We love you more over HERE, Pedro."
• With our traveling companion continuing to play the role of Anti-Tab Master – "I will pay no check before its time," proclaims Mustang Maneuverer David Scott – we've begun closely monitoring the Yahoo! Sports expense account. This newfound fiscal responsibility led us to Belle Glade, Florida's main street eatery, "Linda's Place" where the chicken gumbo would have made Emeril jealous. It might be Linda's place, but it was our pleasure.
• Just how feel-good is the early spring for the Sox? For the first time in recorded history there was a gathering of more than two Boston sports fans for more than three hours and not one "Yankees Suck" chant. We're feelin' the love, man.
• The shaky and enigmatic Byung-Hyun Kim took "throwing off the mound" to new distances on Thursday. While working in the bullpen under the watchful eye of Sox legend Luis Tiant, Kim slid over to the third-base side of the mound and aired it out from about 80 feet for several pitches. This could make Kim the second significant AL Easterner to move over to third base this season.
• The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is so heated and fans are so obsessed with the other team right now, we think the New York Post should staff Sox games and the Boston Herald man Yankee contests. And the respective reporters should ask outrageous questions and try to stir up dissension in the opposing clubhouse. Think "Hey Derek, did you know A-Rod just said he would have gotten to that ball in the hole?" Sure, it's not journalism but think how the readership will love it.
• Next campaign stop: Tampa
• Total miles thus far: 602.4
• Number of Peter Gammons sightings: 2 and counting.
Free-lance writer David Scott contributed to this report.