Column: Making our way back to spring training

Within hours of the news that the baseball lockout was over, my husband and I reserved two seats on an airplane bound for Tampa, determined to see if we could still remember how to do spring training after missing two years.

Our goals felt modest: Experience warm weather, watch a little baseball and work our way back into a life that includes an occasional vacation.

As we have during spring trainings past, we stayed at a Holiday Inn in Dunedin, Fla., an easy walk from the Toronto Blue Jays ballpark. Our last visit took place in 2019, before Toronto renovated the stadium and added lights, more seats and a tiki bar. They kept one vital amenity — a phalanx of grills putting out hamburgers, sausage and excellent grilled onions, adjacent to a group of picnic tables positioned behind the stands.

At the hotel, I was overjoyed to see that Penny, the breakfast room attendant who refilled the Fruit Loops and hauled the coffee canisters for many years, was still in the house. She caught me up on the past two years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the hotel closed for three months during what is usually the height of the spring season. “During that time there were five guests,” Penny said. “I was laid off from both of my jobs overnight, and if it hadn’t been for the pandemic relief money, I would have really been in trouble.” 

Once the hotel reopened, they roped off the breakfast food, and Penny had to hand the cereal and coffee to masked guests who ate in their rooms. With spring training games in full swing, things went back to the way they were.

Like the left-field tiki bar, the automatic pancake machine is now the center of attention in the Holiday Inn breakfast room. On the first morning of our stay, a school-age boy wearing a “Home Is Canada” T-shirt was crouched in front of it, instructing his sisters in the fine art of pancake production. “They come through pretty slow, and you have to wait for them at the end,” he said, pointing out the belt that cooked and simultaneously transported each hotcake onto the plate of the diner. A young couple wearing matching TOMS footwear made a video of their breakfast as the flapjacks moved through the machine and flipped onto their plates.

The kids at the pancake machine informed me that although they were Toronto fans, they were from Pittsburgh, and came to Dunedin to see their dad, Dave Phelps, pitch for the Jays. Phelps (who was drafted by the Yankees in 2008) appeared in 11 games for Toronto last season, giving up just one earned run until a shoulder injury stopped him short. Surgery and rehab ensued, and the March 28 spring training game against Atlanta was the first time his family saw him pitch post-surgery. His wife, Maria, said she and the kids were thrilled to get to see him throw, “He did great!” she said.

Traveling to Florida required some cultural adjustments on our part. For one thing, the way everyone behaved, it appeared there had been no pandemic in Florida. The day we went to see the Yankees play the Jays at Steinbrenner Field, the catcher was the only one in the stadium wearing a mask. 

Out beyond left field, I met Patrick Sandomenico, an outfield-ball-shagging wunderkind who couldn’t have been old enough for a bar mitzvah, and whose family sat nearby watching him trot back and forth, pulling balls out of the air. Hardcore Yankees fans, Patrick’s father explained that the Sandomenico family’s Yankees obsession had already survived a move from New York to the San Francisco Bay area before they settled in Tampa. Patrick’s sister, fixing me with steady gaze, proclaimed, “We never miss a Yankees game.”

Last Thursday, we walked to the Toronto ballpark via the bike path in a stiff warm wind, barely missing a large black snake that crossed in front of us. We watched the Jays play the Detroit Tigers as the wind gusted in from the outfield, making every fly ball an adventure. In spite of the sirocco, the Jay’s star outfielder, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., hit one out of the park in the second inning off Detroit’s starting pitcher, Matt Manning. Lourdes’s fountain spray of tinted braids were a joyful sight as he rounded the bases. 

Before, during and after the game, all liquids were airborne. Groundskeepers hosing down the infield created swamp conditions for the fans in section 108. Uncovered beers lost their foam, and when the wind lifted up a particularly thick head and deposited it onto the arm of the man seated nearby, I decided to walk around a bit. 

One of the things I love about seeing Toronto play is the opportunity to hear two National Anthems before every game. It’s like attending the Olympics. I got to meet the singer, Katie Ducharme, a few minutes after her performance when I ran into her near the lemonade. I mistook her for a concessionaire and asked where I could buy a program. I recovered my composure enough to congratulate Ms. Ducharme, who sings the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” so beautifully that she was hired by the Blue Jays to perform for their Minor League games in Dunedin.

The Blue Jays won that day, beating Detroit 5-3, but the highlight of the game for me was when Dave Phelps made a brief appearance on the mound in the seventh inning. He only threw about 15 pitches, but the 35-year-old with nine seasons of baseball experience, and a son who knows his way around a pancake machine, looked good. The next day, the Blue Jays announced he had made the roster. 

I’m so glad that Dave is working his way back. Like we all are. 

The author is a feature writer and columnist for the Shelter Island Reporter.