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Baseball season has arrived

It’s baseball season again, although it definitely doesn’t feel like it. There’s at least two feet of snow on the ground in this part of the Upper Peninsula, and if you look at the snowdrift near my apartment complex mailbox, it’s probably closer to four.

High school sporting events all around the area have been either postponed or canceled, and last week I had to dig my car out of my driveway to cover the Northern Michigan University basketball games. Hey, that game recap wasn’t going to write itself!

This winter hasn’t been easy and from what I’ve heard, it’s been one of the snowiest-coldest ones in awhile. I’m starting to wonder if the Game of Thrones’ White Walkers are going to emerge from Presque Isle.

It makes me wish I took my November trip to Florida a little later as it might’ve been a little more meaningful escape.

Speaking of Florida, there’s a chance right now for sports fans to escape to — at least from a mental standpoint.

It was that special time of year last week when Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers reported for spring training to the Sunshine State and to Arizona.

It’s a sign that we can soon move outdoors to watch sports and not dress like the sled dog mushers that have raced through town the last couple of days.

Spring training is an interesting experience. Growing up, my dad and I often talked about going down to Fort Myers, Florida, to watch Minnesota Twins play or even to Mesa, Arizona, to catch the Chicago Cubs, but the trip never worked out. I eventually got to spring training, but it was in unexpected fashion when I was in graduate school.

One day after class that I somehow managed to avoid falling asleep in (it was the only class in school that I didn’t like), my fellow students and I were surprised with the idea of a class trip to Florida.

The primary idea was to check out the Poynter Institute, a school that tries to enhance quality journalism among other things, but the head of my program said we’d also get to cover spring training for a day with the Baltimore Orioles, who were one of my favorite teams growing up.

After having a fascinating chat with the guy next to me on the plane, who decided to pound three mini bottles of Jose Cuervo during the flight, we arrived in Tampa and two days later, we drove to Sarasota where Baltimore trained.

We got lost twice after our GPS guide kept insisting that we turn left, which would’ve sent us driving into Sarasota Bay, but we eventually figured it out and got to our destination.

Things are typically relaxed around a Major League Baseball stadium, but it’s even moreso in early March. The drinks aren’t cheap beer, but more Floridian like Mojitos and Bahama Mamas. The attire of the media is even more relaxed.

My advisers insisted we dress up in business casual, which I thought would be the common attire amongst my fellow reporters. Instead, it was straight out of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”

One of the female reporters was wearing a grass skirt and a lei, while two of the guys were wearing Hawaiian shirts and Crocs. I was wearing a Polo shirt and khakis and I’ve never felt more overdressed.

The atmosphere inside the locker room is also remarkably laid back. From what I’ve heard from some baseball reporters I know, players tend to get grumpy during the regular season and tend to stare at the floor when giving answers rather than making eye contact.

It’s different during spring training. We all had to come up with story ideas and mine was on the strength of the Orioles’ infield.

Former Milwaukee Brewer and Minnesota Twin J.J. Hardy was my first stop and he was surprisingly friendly. He talked with me for 15 minutes, even though the coaching staff insisted he needed to take batting practice (He didn’t really need it as he cranked a two-run double off the outfield wall in the game).

I also helped then-third baseman Mark Reynolds fill out his NCAA basketball tournament bracket and got then-first baseman Derrek Lee to talk to me as well as other reporters.

I was told Lee hates talking to reporters, but he happily chatted to me, shocking everyone as TV crews immediately ran up behind me to get a quote.

Just to re-emphasize how chill the players were, then-second baseman Brian Roberts was injured, so the Orioles’ media relations staff told me he wouldn’t be available for interviews. He showed up as I was leaving the clubhouse and I gambled and tried to see if he’d talk. The Orioles personnel tried to stop me, but Roberts ignored them and gave me five minutes of his time.

I learned a good lesson as a reporter that day that I continue to keep in mind. You don’t know what someone will say unless you ask.

The game itself was kind of blah as the O’s got blown out by Houston, but I enjoyed the people watching. Fans were genuinely enjoying themselves. It wasn’t tense like a game in September with a playoff berth on the line, or a game against a rival like the Yankees or Red Sox.

It was just people spending a warm day at the ballpark. Kids were smiling as they watched big leaguers at the plate and the players lingered after the game for several minutes signing autographs and posing for photos. Nobody was walking to the exits and like me, they didn’t want to leave just yet.

Before we left, the Orioles told me that we could attend then-manager Buck Showalter’s postgame press session, but we weren’t allowed to ask any questions. Showalter was asked two questions and there was this lengthy pause, like at least 10 seconds, and I could tell he was wondering if anybody else was going to say anything.

Being the rebel that I had proven once already, I piped up and asked Showalter about Hardy’s performance and his improved play, and he gave me a lengthy answer. I may have really annoyed the Orioles staff that day with my incessant need to ignore their rules, but I got a lot out of that experience.

Spring training really is an experience to take part of. The Tigers have started play in Lakeland and the Brewers are playing catch down in Phoenix right now, so if you get the chance to go down to either place this time of year, I urge you to take in a game.

The Tigers will probably be toothless this year, but catching some rays in the sun with a cold drink down in Florida this time of year sounds quite appealing right now.

Because it’s baseball season once again. Despite what Mother Nature has to say about it.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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