I got off the plane and was already running late. After the long trek to the car rental lot, I was set to pick up my economy class car, but the row I had been sent to was empty. With the wet heat of Florida bearing down on me, I jogged my husky features back to the desk. They sent me back to take, “Any mid-size car I wanted.” I skeptically returned to the field of cars. The holes in my hastily chosen socks were causing blisters. Met with the choice between a Hyundai and a Nissan, I picked the Nissan. This was my first misstep. The Hyundai was a better option and had bluetooth. But the Nissan was red and I’m a sucker for a hatchback. The Nissan it was. I was off in the red hatchback and in only two minutes I was on a toll road with no cash and no change. Misstep number two. I had landed with an hour until game time and a supposed 45 minute drive to the ballpark. But by the time I got the car, the game had already started. I pulled the audio up on my phone. It was too quiet, so I perched my phone on my shoulder, letting the seat belt hold the speaker next to my ear. I only removed it to explain to the first tollbooth attendant that I couldn’t pay. I wanted to explain to this man and his hibiscus patterned shirt that it was the year of our Lord 2015, that I was a Millennial, that even teenagers selling rope bracelets took debit cards these days, that I was too busy for this. But there was no time for reasonable talk. I had work to do. I was in Florida to learn about the Atlanta Braves. To experience them in their central Florida spring habitat. To figure out who this team was that we bunch of damned fools would be following into the 2015 season.
The game I was late for was at Osceola County Stadium against the Houston Astros Lil’ Sluggers organization. Mike Foltynewicz was supposed to be pitching against his former team for his right to a spot in the Braves rotation. The rain put a literal damper on that storyline. Rightfully so, Folty was pulled in order to give him a shot on a dryer day. This all unfolded on my radio feed as I discovered the rush of driving a rental car through 21st century tollbooths demanding exact change in coins. Eventually I left the toll road to find some cash as the penalties were surely piling up. It turns out that central Florida has no banks, though. Should you spot a bank in central Florida after reading this, know for certain that it was just built and will soon be converted into a daycare, an insurance agency, or both. There were no ATMs either. I drove down this freeway, an American trying to abide by the laws of the land, looking for a cash dispenser. This went on so long that the GPS adapted my route to it. The first step the GPS took was to calmly to drive me through the entire arrivals loop of the Orlando International airport and back onto the road to Osceola. Meanwhile, the Braves were singling their way to a 4-0 lead in the first. Nick Markakis had opened his spring with a hit. The reportedly feckless Braves I had come to see were smacking the Astros’ pitches all over the field.
After having a number of Florida stereotypes unexpectedly confirmed, I finally arrived at the Osceola complex. An hour late, but in time to see most of the game. I located the ballpark in the sea of generic sports buildings. The signs for parking began to come into view. “Parking $10. Cash only.” The profanity flowed into the shaky plastic panels of the Nissan, undoubtedly damaging our relationship forever. After pulling into four gas stations I found an ATM. I got $40 out. Enough for the parking bastards and enough to sate the greedy toll men at a later time. I made my way back to the ballpark, to a beer, and then to my seat in time for the start of third inning. The game had moved slowly thanks to a wealth of Braves hits. The team was firing on every cylinder.
My role this week would be purely observational. I had no access beyond my ticket into the loosely defined seating areas. There would be no interviews, just raw numbers and eyeballs. Both were boggled so far. The Braves put up three more runs in the third inning on a flurry of contact hits. The arrival of Markakis seemed to set a blaze under the lineup of replacement level grinders. The hits came in furied succession. Single, single, double, single, a walk for good measure, then oh so many more singles. It was fun. Not as fun as watching a couple of drives over the fence, of course. There is nothing more perfect in all of sports than a home run; the flawless intermingling of grace and rebellion acting poetically in defiance of gravity. But this game, with its little hits and quick moves around the base paths, was something that held one’s interest.
What is this rebuilt Braves team? Maybe it is a squirrelly squad of slap hitters who will find ways to score. Maybe they could end up being fun to watch. Maybe they would win games. This first day of observation brought all these thoughts racing to my mind. But as another single sailed to the dead zone between the Astros shortstop and the left fielder, reality came back into focus. These hits were coming off of the dregs of the Astros system. This level of competition was a far cry from the Nationals rotation. As the game progressed, this reality settled down into my head like a struggling relief pitcher to the bench.
The Braves nearly surrendered a 10 run lead in the latter part of the day. They threw a young pitcher with a very high jersey number out there for what seemed like 5 innings. After reviewing the box score, it turns out the kid actually never recorded an out. In fact, the best pitcher to enter the game on the wet, nasty day had probably been James Russell. A man who was just cut from the roster as I typed these paragraphs. This was a practice game. Nothing could be learned from it. It had been fun, but I was no closer to having anything solid to report about this 2015 team. Nothing but the same things writers and pundits have been saying for months. I was becoming worried, grieved that my Spring Training adventure was a misguided trip headed hard and fast toward failure–skipping every toll along the way.
This would require some hard thinking. Fuel was needed. Strong drink, good food, large bodies of water. I found all these things after checking into my motel on Florida’s Space Coast. The first and only stop this night would be the rowdy dive bar on the sand. The people I spoke to there were all shouting at me, but in a good and seemingly natural way, a Florida way, maybe. Then the rain came in an attempt to drown my fish tacos and sully the integrity of my beer. I took to the indoors, finding refuge at a table with a less than sober Turkish man and his wife, an ex-Mormon from Utah. We talked about world religions, family problems, and the endlessly exciting world of digital grocery marketing. The Turk was a meat market owner and his wife ran his marketing. Strange to find people in a field so close to one’s own on vacation and not hate them instantly. But these folks were the salt of the earth. Beautiful humans who bought my dinner for being young and not a “fuck-up.” The night progressed from conversations with them to decreasingly coherent discussions about the Cocoa Beach area. But why mention all of this? Why write out this and so many other tangents about my vacation experience? Florida, I tell you. Florida is why.
It occurred to me after a few sobering smokes that rainy night. Central Florida, specifically, is not a run of the mill place. This coast was in a constant state of rebuilding and transformation. There was potential here, but it was mostly unrealized or seemed to have already missed its chance. You didn’t build too high, I was told, because the next hurricane would just knock it down. Or maybe you stayed small because an older storm already had done its evil work. The people were confident, happy, but there was little ambition or firm stance on how things were to be done. Green space monsters walked the same aisles as men sporting sweatpants and $300 haircuts. I saw a baby drink from a Mountain Dew bottle. No, this was no ordinary place. And so the baseball would not be ordinary either. Perhaps with this understanding in hand, something could still be learned on this trip. Hopes renewed. Florida was the key to grasping the Grapefruit League, and this would be my key to previewing the Braves.
Disney. An exception to my unrealized potential hypothesis. This place and the rocket launches–which I will get to–showed what Florida was capable of at its best. And yet, even here at the carefully crafted wonderland, things often did not live up to the billing. The Braves were playing the Phillies that day. They were coming off an offensive tour de force and the hard-throwing prospect Foltynewicz was finally getting his start. The magic of the previous day was not much to be seen. Instead I was treated to the Braves we have been hearing about all off-season. Folty lost command of his pitches early. The ball was coming into the plate fast, but hell only knew where it was going. He walked the pitcher early on and things did not get much better from there. Manny Banuelos came in and held the game in check nicely, but the Braves offense had gone quiet. There were hits. A single here and there, but none strung together to bring home runners. The team was stranded for much of the game. The pitchers mentioned were not the aces of the pitching staff. But unless the offense got things together, it wouldn’t matter if Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel went out there fresh for every game. This was a weak hitting team. Kelly Johnson bunted for a single at some point and I nearly passed out from the laughter. Only the will to finish my beer and get another kept me in it. There was one bright spot on the day. Andrelton Simmons hit a homer over the left field fence. This was coupled with his typically sensual defensive antics. Simmons is the star of the league on the defensive side of the game. And whenever he gets any type of hit, it will be a glorious bonus for all fans. Will it be enough to hold our interest for 162 games, though?
The Braves lost and I headed across the walkway to the massive Wide World of Sports Bar and Grill. I needed a cool place to sit down and drink some water. The walk back to the car was a long one and I had taken part in a cruel ritual known as the “Souvenir Beer Cup Refill Discount” too many times. If there is one thing the Disney ballpark did well, it was beer. Fairly priced, very available and a wide selection representing the home towns of both teams as well as the Orlando area. However, this positive experience was shadowed by the eerie emptiness of the ESPN restaurant. It sits just a few feet from the ballpark. I was one of the first to get out of the gate and was thus one of the first to go in. Many followed me, but we were all met with a massive silence. No employees. The doors were open, the lights were on, but nobody was home. I made my way to the bar along with some Phillies fans. After shouting for service into the void, they gave up and began to pour their own beers from the open taps. The souvenir cups had more work to do, it seemed. I wasn’t keen on the idea of spending the night in a Disney dungeon, so I gave up and went outside. I found a bench and considered what I had just been a part of. I was beginning to get a handle on this team. They would reward us with great moments, but generally they would be mediocre, ineffective, hollow. To say they would be disappointing would be to make the mistake of putting any hope in them in the first place. Like the thirsty fans I had just left, we would be able to find some enjoyment in this team, but we would have to work for it ourselves.
Andrelton Simmons will be a joy to watch. Teheran, Wood, Minor, Kimbrel and whoever else throws from the mound should keep the season from abject disaster. Freeman will likely have more big hits than missed balls. Hell, Nick Markakis might even finish most of the games he starts. There are some things to look forward to from the Braves in 2015. But after seeing the team for who they really were that day, I knew that none of those bright spots would be able to make up for the lackluster roster we have in this year of rebuilding. But then the thought came back once again. This was still Spring Training. I was not at Turner Field. No, I was still engaged in the bizarre act of paying to watch professionals practice. Just a day prior I was believing in this team. Today, I was back off the good season bandwagon. Nothing was certain except that this was spring and I was in Florida.
I needed to clear my head. And nothing can cut through the fog quite like colossal rocket engines. I took in a launch and history lesson at Kennedy Space Center. Here is where Florida truly lived up to its potential. The only place on earth directly connected to the moon by man. The engines blared in person. Deafening, rumbling, shaking the firmament and piercing the sky. Many of our greatest achievements were laid out before me at this hallowed place of science and chutzpah.
I followed this head clearing up by drinking beer on the beach for awhile. As I opened my first can, I began to notice the many patrolling beach cops. Then there was suddenly a sign that said open alcohol was not permitted. Just a few minutes before it had only prohibited glass. I couldn’t know what dark forces were at work now. I buried my beer in the sand, keeping a plastic bag around it for sanitation’s sake. The four cans of high ABV beverage were emptied within 30 minutes. I had no other choice. I am a law abiding American.
From the beach, I went back to the dive where I had met the Turk. They couldn’t make me a decent daquiri, so I settled for Coors and Coronas. I don’t recall how many I drank, but I do recall conversing about the NL East with a Mets fan, a Phils fan, and a man who used to fly F-18s. Three of us were far more confident than we should have been. I lost the rest of that night. I remember some Wisconsonians at the motel bar and pool area. I may have watched some Lifetime murder mysteries. But that’s it. From reveling in mankind’s journeys among the stars to a drunken, sunburned haze in a cheap beach motel. This, my friends, was the Florida experience. This was Spring Training.
There is nothing that can be learned from this preseason of baseball. The Braves beat the Pirates the next day. Wandy Rodriguez was brilliant against his former team. The Braves scored 7 runs. Somebody named Outman pitched. We learned nothing. I had one game left on my schedule. A control game of sorts between the Nationals and Mets. The idea when I booked it was that these two teams would help me tell whether my learnings from the Braves were valid or not. I had already decided this was a pointless endeavor, but went to the game regardless. I only planned to stay a few innings. See the sights, the starters and move on. Then I made friends with the fans around me. They enjoyed my heckling of Dan Uggla. Somebody had to teach the Nationals how to treat the bastard in the event he played any games for them. After all, he was still on my team’s payroll. Dan was amazing, by the way. After striking out looking, he walked to second base where just minutes later he fell down going the wrong way on a grounder hit right to him. We laughed and we shouted. We enjoyed the game as stupid as it was. The Nationals lost 3-8. They left some very bad bullpen pitchers in for very long amounts of time. The game, once again, was a futile exercise except as a way for these uniformed men to practice their game.
I left Florida the next morning. Flying home, I came to terms with the reality that my trip had yielded nothing in the way of hard analysis. There was no new reliable information to be gleaned from Spring Training baseball. There were no lessons to bring back from Central Florida. The only thing I have now to show for my time there is a set of experiences. Peaks, valleys, and the particularly evolved landscape of Central Florida in-between. I went looking for knowledge about baseball, but only got the stories of games attended and new people met. Baseball in early Spring, baseball in Florida is not for learning. It cannot be analyzed, only experienced and retold. It is a hazy time and will be forgotten by the higher functions of the mind. By the time next week rolls around I will be back at work and the regular season will be in full swing. These experiences will only live on as stories of the potential of Cocoa Beach and the prospects who couldn’t make the cut. The rebuilding of the once great space program and the new era of unknown players on their way to Turner Field. The peaks, the valleys and everything in-between. Spring Training is coming to an end. I went to it. It taught me nothing. And I will never forget it.