Day one: Spring training road trip and other love-of-baseball musings

Sideways rain, an indecisive GPS device and a presidential motorcade that stalled traffic in Atlanta for more than two hours Friday had little effect on enthusiasm for my first trip to spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League.

It’s 3 a.m. here in Lakeland, Fla., and after a two-day, 1,400-mile trip from Saginaw, Mich., I sit here at the grungy Westmont Inn, trying to ween myself off a barrage of five-hour energy boosters.

Baseball, here I am.

I’m starting off a journal with my home-state Detroit Tigers, kicking off a week of spring training games with a 1:05 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day matchup against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. (If not for Nelson Cruz, this game at Joker Marchant Stadium could have been a rematch of last year’s Fall Classic).

On Sunday, it’s off to Fort Myers Beach for games with the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. From there, who knows?

I’m just glad to be back with my first love — baseball. After focusing on football and basketball at all levels as a sportswriter, I’m glad to be among old school baseball fans, who value an untimed sporting event.

Traveling into Nashville with a pair of good friends Thursday, we paraded around Music City’s Broadway Street proudly wearing University of Michigan T-shirts, chiding every Ohio State fan in sight as both teams were set to play in different first-round NCAA tournament games the next day. (Thankfully I was on the road as Michigan was upset by Ohio University Friday night).

The fierce rivalry and trash talk between Wolverine and Buckeye fans was a complete surprise to my friend Brooke, who has a tough time figuring out why grown men enjoy watching other grown men play a kid’s game.

I assure her as she attends her first professional baseball game that baseball fans are different. I expect this experience to be as enjoyable as last summer, when I went and saw the then first-place Pittsburgh Pirates beat the visiting Cincinnati Reds, followed by a New York Yankees win in the Bronx against the Oakland A’s.

Last summer was a solo trip, but it wasn’t solo for long. In a restaurant outside beautiful PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I befriended a married couple born and raised in Pittsburgh. We talked about crazy Steeler fans, similarities between Detroit’s rise from the cellar to a World Series appearance in 2006 and Pittsburgh’s improving brand of hardball and, of course, former Pirates manager and current Tigers manager Jim Leyland. This Pittsburgh fella truly missed his old skipper … and made me feel bad for questioning Leyland and his quirky love for Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn.

Inside PNC Park, I kept score quietly in a stereotypical National League game that featured a first-inning balk and just one run, which was manufactured with a walk, stolen base, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly. I held conversations with strangers on both sides of me, ranging in topics from bullpen placement in new stadiums to who had a better mustache: Kirk Gibson or Willie Stargell.

I envied Pirates fans because they had that newfound hope that I had in 2006. I also envied them for their free program and $28 ticket that sat me behind first base, six rows up from the field where Reds first baseman Joey Votto seemed to always be angry.

In New York, I found the game to be religion. There’s a strong energy in the subway as it wound its way from Central Park to the Bronx. I sat near three generations of Yankee fans on that subway. The grandfather was a Mickey Mantle fan, the father loved Don Mattingly’s swing and the son wore his Derek Jeter jersey with pride.

Awaiting inside the new Yankee Stadium was a huge elevator that brought several fans to their upper deck seats, $10 programs and a $65 seat that nestled me in the upper deck on the first base side. A far cry from the cheaper, closer seats in PNC.

Also awaiting were a row of some of the most knowledgeable baseball fans you’ll find. It was also a row of worriers.

When an Oakland batter smashed a shot to the left-center field gap, Yankee fans gasped while I assured them Curtis Granderson would make the catch. After “Grandy” chased down the out, they looked at me, saw my Tigers shirt and cracked a smile. After the third inning, I chatted about everything with these guys, from Detroit Lions football to scoreboards in new stadiums to the pitching mechanics of Phil Coke.

When rain poured for a few minutes, we took our conversation to the concourse, where one fellow who worked on Wall Street gave me his business card and said the next time I’m in New York, he’ll get me in better seats. He also suggested some jet card programs from Jettly to make traveling back and forth easier.

Here’s to looking for more golden baseball moments among my baseball brethren. I’ll be here all week, updating my thoughts about exhibition baseball.

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