by Attorney Peter A. Keon
You may know that I go alone on an annual pilgrimage to Major League Baseball spring training in Florida. (That's me in the middle of the photo, taken at Baycare Ballpark in Clearwater, Florida). I'd like to share a little history of how this annual ritual came about.
This all began as I was about to relocate back to California, having left in 1995 to attend law school in Philadelphia and then work for two years. It was the spring of 2000 and I had some time off in between my last job and my move. I learned that Mardi Gras was happening, so I thought, well, I'll take a trip down to New Orleans. And because my parents owned a place at the time in Plantation, Florida, I also thought, well, if I go down to Mardi Gras, maybe I'll skip on over to Florida too. So as I was making these plans, I'm reading the paper every morning, including the sports section and found out MLB spring training was starting in Florida at the same time. I realized I could go to Mardi Gras, go to spring training and visit with my parents all within a week or so. I had never thought about baseball spring training at all. Exhibition games don’t matter. Who really cares about spring training?
My Love for Baseball Grew From There
The deep truth that was revealed to me that first spring training was that, I always loved baseball. I played baseball when I was a kid almost all the time at school, in the neighborhood and then Little League and, of course, I loved watching baseball games growing up. I went to a lot of Phillies games in Philadelphia with my Dad. We had season tickets for Sunday games and we enjoyed going together. So, the idea of seeing my Dad and attending a few games with him in Florida, even meaningless pre-season ones, seemed like it would be a lot of fun.
My love for baseball grew, right away, at my first spring training trip. What I noticed immediately was how small the ballparks were. I could catch one of the star players and I could get him to autograph a ball for me. There were only maybe 5 or 6 thousand people in the crowd. It’s sparsely populated, which enables an intimacy you don’t experience at a regular season game. I could walk right down to the field before and even during a game, talk to my idols and get their autographs.
Besides the unique intimacy of spring training, I noticed I could see two games in a day in different cities with different teams! Many were played during the day, unlike the regular season. I could be in Tampa, Florida for a 1:00pm game, leave at 3:30pm, get in the car and drive over to Clearwater, which is not that far away, and see a night game starting at 6pm. I could do that with Bradenton and Clearwater, Dunedin and Clearwater or Dunedin and Tampa. Or I could go further down to Port Charlotte or to Fort Myers. It was an amazing experience to be able to see a “double header”. But it really wasn't a double header in the usual sense, where you usually watch the same teams in the same park, but rather different teams in different cities and different parks. That was even better than a double feature at the movies as a kid!
(By the way, there's an even bigger Phillies fan than me - - their mascot called the "Phillie Phanatic". I was able to capture a photo of him waving at me!)
This Year's Trip Was a Little Different
This year, I planned things a little differently. My father became ill around Thanksgiving and, while he is okay and is now recovering following surgery, I decided to spend more time on the East Coast of Florida, at my parents’ current home in Vero Beach. I curtailed this year’s trip to the West Coast of Florida and spent less time in Tampa, which I’d always used as my hub. I thought that this time I should spend more time with my parents. I definitely made the right decision. I was able to get Dad out of the house so that my parents and I could go out each night to a nice restaurant for dinner.
My change in plans did not, however, deter my enjoyment of spring training and going out at night. I still wound up seeing one game a day, for 10 days. Since most games did not start until 1pm, I could stay out late and still get enough sleep to make it to the ballgame the next day. After all my past Florida trips I know good places to go to that are entertaining and I meet people, often people I know because I’ve run into them before over the years. Sort of an informal reunion. Coincidentally, another great sporting event occurs at this time of the year, about the back end of spring training - - college basketball’s national tournament known as “March Madness”. When I went out at night, I was able to watch the tournament games live on East Coast time, at a sports bar with lots of other cheering fans. Wonderful!
One thing that didn't happen this year was getting autographs from the players. I usually buy a ball at the first game and have all the players I meet on the trip sign that one ball. But this is the first year I just decided not to get a ball. I don't have a good explanation why I didn’t go after autographs, but I just felt like I didn't need to do it anymore. It’s a lot of work and you have to stand and wait for a long time. Over the years, I’ve gotten about 17 balls filled with autographs from MLB players. That’s enough for me and my three nephews and three nieces, who will inherit them someday. I guess I've just become a little older, maybe wiser or just philosophical.
None of the games this year really stood out for me, except for one that rarely only occurs once every three to four years. It just happened that the final game of the World Baseball Classic ("WBC") was being held in Miami, so I decided to go all the way down to south Florida to see it. If you don’t know, this is sort of an Olympics for baseball, with major league pros permitted to play for their native country’s teams. “America’s Pastime” has evolved into an international sport. Teams participate from not only the US and Canada, but South Korea, Japan, China, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and many more countries.
I was so lucky because, at the WBC I got to see a historic showdown for the ages between two award-winning baseball players: pitcher Shohei Ohtani of Japan and renowned hitter Mike Trout of the U.S. (who both happen to play professionally for the LA Angels). They faced each other in the last at bat of the championship game with the result still on the line! A very exciting first, as Ohtani struck out Trout to win the championship for Japan!
Speaking of Japan, the whole experience at the World Baseball Classic was made greater because of the Japanese contingent. They love baseball with an incredible, great passion. They were very enthusiastic, chanting in the outfield. There was a large group of them. At one point, I got up and went out there, and I saw and heard them chanting. You can imagine how crazy they went at the end when their country won!
Quality Time with Important People
While in Florida, two other special side events occurred. I met up with my good friend from Philly, also a lawyer who actually swore me into the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December of 1998, Tim. I've known him since 1975. Tim and Lori, his wife, decided to get out of Philadelphia and move to Boynton Beach, so we decided to meet up. Tim and I grew up in the same area of Philly, you're talking junior and senior high school together, delivering papers in the neighborhood, going to movies, concerts, the whole kit and caboodle. It was good to see him.
Another person I got to see was our law firm’s longest tenured employee and our senior paralegal, Elaine Anderson, who now lives in St. Petersburg where she still works for the firm remotely. I had arranged to meet with her and her husband Craig. We had a nice little visit and it was really good to see her after about 8 years or so. The whole spring training annual trip, I'm not giving myself all the credit, but I'll just say that whoever invented it, it’s a great idea. It was just fantastic.
Meeting My Kindred Spirit
Oh. I forgot something. When preparing to write this article, I didn't even write it down. And I never got this guy's picture as photo evidence. Something new and unusual happened this year. I was at a park and I ran into this guy. I'm walking behind him just before the World Baseball Classic finished and he had a very unusual WBC jacket on. He had all the country stickers and all that stuff. I asked, "So where are you from?" He said, "South Korea." And I replied, "You've been going to the games?" "Yeah,” he said, “I've been going to all the World Classic games." He spoke in broken English, so we couldn't carry on much more of a conversation. I met him on the first weekend, I think it was at Dunedin. The Jays versus the Yankees.
Curiously, a week later, I saw the guy again at Lakeland. He wasn’t wearing the same outfit, so I asked "Aren't you the guy that I saw?" He smiled and said, "Yeah. Yeah. Did you go to the (WBC) final?" I responded, "Yeah." He remarked, "Was that amazing?" I said, "Yeah." So we talked about the game. That was really great, running into this guy who was following the WBC from South Korea on his own. He also went to spring training games too. Probably no more than 30 years old, just a baseball loving wanderer like yours truly. It made me fully realize how worldwide the passion for the game has become - - and that I wasn’t the inventor or lone guy on a spring baseball pilgrimage. I hope to run into him again next year.
I’ll just sum this up by urging you, too, to follow your passion, whatever it may be - - and do it with your family, old friends, and new ones!
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