Meg Hibbert Contributing writer

 Peanuts, Cracker Jacks and Pinot Grigio.” An unusual shout from a vendor at a baseball game, but then, our whole spring training baseball trip was a magical adventure. Six games in five days, 11 teams – we saw the Phillies play twice – and more than 1,600 miles round trip on a Sunshine Tours bus with 35 other baseball fans.


Just seeing palm trees surrounding different stadiums, freshly mowed green grass, hearing selected kids shout “Play Ball” and having that first hot dog of the season was exhilarating. And watching the big leaguers who played for the Red Sox in Salem: Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jordan Procyshen, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr., who scored the first run in the Red Sox game.

We sang along with the American National Anthem at all the parks as well as “Oh, Canada” before the Toronto Blue Jays game with the Braves in Orlando. I have to admit I was as thrilled to watch the Major League players as I was seeing blooming hibiscus and being able to dig our feet into the white sand, dip our toes in the Gulf of Mexico again where I grew up going. We also managed to have a cup of Cuban Bean Soup; crusty, hot Cuban bread at The Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, another of my childhood haunts.

We were in Florida last week to cheer on the Boys of Summer, and the hopefuls who were “non-roster invitees” not on the 40-man roster – yet.

Since it was spring training, you had to watch the first few innings carefully, because by half-way through the game the big leaguers left the field and more of the hopefuls with jersey numbers 72 and 89 replaced them.

My husband, Bill, and I and the rest of our tour group started off our first afternoon game with the Astros vs. the Mets in Port St. Lucie at Tradition Field, a replica of Shea Stadium, followed that night by the Nationals vs. the Marlins in Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. That park is home to the Marlins as well as the Cardinals.

Saturday was Phillies vs. the Red Sox in Fort Myers’ Jet Blue Park, which is proud of being a miniature Fenway, complete with Green Monster. We were so far into left field we were reading numbers on the backs of jerseys, but we still had a good view of the action. The Red Sox didn’t win – it was a 3-3 tie, and ties are allowed in spring training. After a hot day, we appreciated dinner at Sonny’s Barbecue which offers big schooners of beer in addition to pulled pork platters and ribs.

Sunday we were surrounded by Yankees fans at the Yankees-Rays game at George M. Steinbrener Field. I’d like to say something nice about Yankees fans. I really would, but the epitome was when one behind me remarked to her friend that I was taking notes and was writing something that wasn’t nice. She had to look really hard to see my longhand scratching on a 3 by 4-inch notebook. And besides, all I wrote was, since Bill and I are Boston fans (but wearing neutral team colors), it was a good thing that weapons were checked at the gate. It was a joke. Note: Yankee fans didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor.

Monday was the Blue Jays vs. the Phillies in the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin. About half the stands seemed to be filled with Canadians.

The final game Tuesday was the Baltimore Orioles vs. the Braves at the Braves’ spring training home, Champion Stadium in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney World. One word – expensive. It’s Disney, what do you expect? A $1 bag of potato chips was $3.50; player-type jerseys in the souvenir shops, $100. There are grassy banks where people can sunbathe and watch the game at the same time with chefs hand chopping pulled pork and pouring cold lemonade.

Here were my picks for best of the best:

  • Best hot dogs – Nathan’s Hot Dogs at Roger Dean Stadium – even one topped with pulled pork and slaw, named a St. Louis Bacon-Wrapped Dog. There’s also a “Chicago Cubs’ Haters Hot Dog.”
  • Best name of the night – Ichiro Suzuki, No. 51, who brought in the first runs for the Marlins. The crowd really liked chanting his name.
  • Best rest rooms – also Roger Dean Stadium, where there were 24 ladies’ room stalls, no waiting.
  • Best extra service – free sun cancer screening and 30 lip balm outside the Yankees’ stadium; also, free sunscreen lotion dispensers inside the stadium.
  • Best outfield displays – Champion Stadium’s free-standing, colorful sponsors’ pennants on the center field bank.

Sunshine Tours is a good way to go, leaving the driving to Tim in our case, with Cindy as our tour guide and coordinator on the ground. The motel rooms were clean, comfortable, and the cook-your-own waffles tasty. An expected drawback: if you want to have your own schedule, drive yourself. Would I go again on a Sunshine Tours spring training trip? You bet.

I especially liked seeing places where I grew up going – although the Sea Horse Motel on North Reddington Beach was razed in 2006 to make way for condos. Tim drove us through the beach area on the way to Tampa.

Even though five of the six teams we pulled for didn’t win, just watching young men play baseball in beautiful stadiums in warm weather was big-time fun. I just may be able to make it without late winter doldrums to this Thursday night when the Salem Red Sox open the season at home in Salem. Plaaaaaay Ball!

 

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