Fear and loathing in Vero Beach
Spring is a time of new life. It is a time of flowers and leaves and hummingbirds and bees. It is also the time of baseball’s spring training, so called because the teams are training for the upcoming season and it takes place in the spring. (You’re welcome.)
I could write a column about what teams or players I think are going to do well. Or maybe some sentimental drivel about what a new baseball season means to fans and to the people of the world. But, being the self-centered egomaniac that I am, at this time of year my thoughts tend to drift toward what all of this has to do with me.
Many years ago, I did what most baseball fans should do at some point and made the journey to Florida for spring training with a friend of mine. Actually, I won the trip on ESPN.com’s fantasy baseball – back in the days when you had to pay to play fantasy baseball and this was their Grand Prize. Free airline tickets, car rental, game tickets and some spending money – a nice haul for assembling the best team in all the ESPN leagues.
So, I invited my good buddy Mike to come along and share the adventure – because he was not only really into baseball, but was a guaranteed good time when traveling.
We chose to go to see the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida. Mike and I were both Red Sox fans who had grown up in Los Angeles, so we thought about going to the Boston spring training facility in Ft. Myers. But Dodgertown seemed the more historic location. Okay, yes, I’ll admit it: I had a pretty intense man-crush on Mike Piazza at the time. So, yes, I was the one who chose Dodgertown – it was my trip!
We flew from gigantic sprawling Los Angeles International Airport to the teeny-tiny Melbourne (Florida) International Airport. There was a stopover in Atlanta where, instead of eating, I used the few minutes I had between flights to order a dozen long-stem roses delivered to my girlfriend. She was not very pleased I had gone without her (or that I was doing something that had the possibility of making me even remotely happy). I am not afraid to admit that I was very, very afraid of her, and I hoped a dozen roses would make things easier for me when I got back.
As luck would have it (sort of), it was good I didn’t eat. The flight was a bit bumpy in the crop duster taking us to into our final destination and I surely would have “un-eaten” whatever I had just consumed.
Melbourne, Florida, had (or “has” – I don’t know, I haven’t been back since) the smallest airport in the free world – and smaller than many in the not-free world. I’m not sure why they’d call themselves an “International” airport – unless they’re counting cigar smugglers flying in from Cuba.
After we landed, we went to the rental car counter where our fully paid car rental was waiting for us. Fully paid? Yes. And no. I found out that there is an extra fee required for car renters under the age of 25. Even if the car renter won it in a contest. Even if the car renter is turning 25 in two weeks. Apparently none of these things matter …
From Melbourne, we drove 45 minutes to Vero Beach to bring an end to our travel day. If you haven’t been, Vero Beach is like Daytona Beach, Ybor City and South Beach rolled into one – and then aged a hundred years and then heavily medicated. The entire city shuts down at dark. It’s like how the Eloi go into hiding at night to protect themselves from the Morlocks. Come on, book readers, you know what I’m talking about.
So, we got to our fully paid Holiday Inn room – which did not have any arbitrary age-based fees. Then we did what all the locals do: We watched TV. After flipping channels a bit, we ended up on the movie Dune – shown with full screen pan and scan and with plenty of commercial interruptions – just the way the director dreamed it would be viewed. That kept us up until about 3:00 am – or as they call it in Vero beach, “all night.” Ugh, stupid time zone differences. So, not only were we assured of too little sleep, but we both had all the Dune lingo and quotes stuck in our heads. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” “All I can see is an Atreides that I want to kill.” “He is the Kwisatz Haderach!”
The next day was the first scheduled baseball game of our trip. Dodgers at the Marlins in Jupiter, Florida – about another 45 minute drive. It was raining almost everywhere else in the country, but in Florida it was a perfect day for baseball or anything really – cloudless sky, bright sunshine, cool breeze. Some sunscreen would have been nice also, but I’m not a complainer.
I don’t remember who won the game or even who played in the game for either team. We only sat for an inning or two and then just wandered around. That’s what most people do there, and we were certainly part of most people. It was perfect. This was worth every hour I spent studying and drafting my fantasy baseball team, making trades, picking up free agents and arguing with my girlfriend about all the time I was “wasting.” When the game ended, there wasn’t anything else to do at the stadium and we had to go back to our hotel. Or did we? (Suspense!)
No, we didn’t. We weren’t interested in watching more TV, so we decided to drive across the state to visit a few friends for dinner. It’s actually a pretty short trip across the state on pretty wide-open highways.
Florida is pretty flat and the scenery was pretty un-scenic. However, the one thing we saw that almost stopped us was the American Gladiators Dinner Theatre. Very tempting. Sets the imagination wild. And to this day, this is one of my single greatest traveling regrets – right up there with the demolition derby I missed in Kentucky and almost all the time I spent in North Dakota.
By the time we reached the “left side” of Florida, we were starving because we had been saving our appetites for whatever fine feast our friends had in store. Well, they had already eaten. Okay, so where the heck were we going to eat? The answer was easy: Hooters! Not just any old Hooters, the Original Hooters – Ground Zero, if you will. It was our patriotic duty.
Here’s the thing about Hooters: I don’t like chicken wings and, more importantly, our waitress had small boobs. Sure, I could just order something besides wings, but I couldn’t ask for a new waitress. I don’t care one way or the other about the size of a girl’s breasts. But I do care when I’m at a place called Hooters and the girls are practically flat-chested. It must have been some kind of affirmative action thing – or maybe she was just an owl-enthusiast.
After our entirely unsatisfying dinner at Hooters, we headed back to the “right side” of Florida and Vero Beach. On an open stretch of road at about 80 miles an hour, Mike saw a sign on the side of the road that said “Swamp Gas.” We laughed it up with a wide variety of fart jokes. Right up to the point we reached the giant cloud of pea soup fog. No laughing. No joking. Just creeping along at 10 miles an hour, hoping against getting crushed to death by oncoming traffic or, worse, that the swamp gas was just camouflage for a UFO about to abduct us.
We made it through with no crashes and no anal probing – from aliens anyway (just kidding, there were zero anal probes … this trip). Once we started to relax, Mike found Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on the radio and I start singing along. I noticed Mike was keeping quiet and so I screamed at him that he better f***ing start singing f***ing now because this is my f***ing trip. And sing we did – belting out the last half of the song in glorious awful unison.
This was our first day at historic Dodgertown. However, our first stop was a convenience mart for some sunscreen. It was definitely a little late for that since I was already pretty well cooked but I wanted to make sure I didn’t burst into flames. Except no sunscreen was actually needed because it was one of those cloudy, muggy, nasty Florida days. What would have been helpful is some bug repellant. Am I right, people who have ever been to Florida?
We spent the whole day at the Dodgers facilities. We watched the minor leaguers practice. Mike shot half a roll of film on Hideo Nomo warming up before the game (yes, weird). We watched almost all of the “real” game against the Astros. We wandered around looking for Mike Piazza (probably more “I” than “we”). Again feeling the satisfaction of having done all of that “ridiculous” fantasy baseball.
In the middle of the game, Mike turned to me, and dead serious, asked me what I would do if the PA announcer asked me to start warming up to pitch in the game. He kept at this for 20 minutes. At first I refused to answer because it was so insane, but then, starting with me being “ESPN’s grand prize winner,” Mike explained in excruciating detail the exact sequence of events that might have possibly maybe ended up with me being called in to pitch. Mike’s the best. So, I said “yes.”
This was supposed to be our last day at spring training, but I had worked out with ESPN’s prize people to book our return a day later so we could squeeze in an extra day. So, instead of preparing to travel back to Los Angeles, we went out to buy some baseballs for our planned autograph hunting the next day.
This was our last game and our last full day – back to Dodgertown for a game against the Orioles. Like most humans, we needed to eat. Whenever I travel, I like to make sure that I eat some “local” cuisine, so we went to the Waffle House for breakfast. And as it turned out, we sat in the exact same booth that Cal Ripken, Jr. had been in 10 minutes prior. Well, maybe not the exact same booth, but these stories alter over time. In another few years, the story will be that Cal Ripken did a table dance in a thong.
We only watched part of the actual game that day. Did I mention I left the sunscreen in the car and the sun was out and burning me alive? It didn’t matter, it was just a flesh wound. And we were on a mission to get the players to sign our balls (baseballs, you pervert).
We got tons of autographs. I had no idea what I was going to do with all those signed baseballs, but it seemed like the right thing to do – like getting a hooker you first night in Vegas. After most of the players had left, the manager came out and told the 10 of us die hards that were still there that we should go check out an intra-squad game up on the field. No tickets needed. Mike and I got almost a whole section to ourselves. Oh, except for Raul Mondesi and his 10-man Dominican posse. Awesome! He kept yelling stuff at the players on the field. Good times.
Dodger ace Ramon Martinez pitched, and we watched a stout young catching prospect everyone called “Paulie” knocking out a couple home runs. It was Paul LoDuca, who would later take Mike Piazza’s place at catcher on the team (but not in my heart).
The game didn’t end until almost 10 pm. This worked out great for us because we didn’t really have a hotel to stay at. “What?!?” asks you. We asked ESPN to extend our flight, but they weren’t going to pay for another night and I sure as heck didn’t want to pay for it myself. You don’t pay for stuff on a prize trip! Since our flight was early in the morning, I had a brilliantly stupid idea: we’ll just sleep in the car.
We drove around for a couple hours on our return to Melbourne and then parked in the airport parking lot. Very bad idea. Very bad. It’s hard enough to sleep in a car, but when your arms, legs, neck and face are totally sunburned, it’s almost impossible.
Very early the next morning we “woke up” – though this usually implies some amount of sleeping – and then dropped off the keys. My plan had worked perfectly except for the lack of sleep and head-to-toe body aches. I managed a few sarcastic remarks for the girl behind the counter about the extra fees for my age (though it’s unlikely she has much influence on company policy).
We carried our backpacks full of dirty clothes and signed baseballs and we boarded our biplane to Atlanta and bid farewell to spring training.
Every year when spring training comes around, I am reminded of this trip. This is something that every baseball fan should do. And you must go with someone who also loves baseball – someone like Mike, or, better yet, just get Mike to go with you, I’ll hook you up if you want.
And be sure to bring sunscreen.