For fans, Spring Training signals intimacy

The atmosphere in Dunedin Stadium is one of camaraderie, hope, and low stakes

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. watches his fly ball go foul against the Phillies. (Karan Saini/Toronto Observer)

Harper hype

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The biggest free-agent signing in the history of Major League Baseball has ignited Philadelphia Phillies supporters with hope and optimism heading into the 2019 season.

On March 1 the Phillies officially announced the signing of Bryce Harper, the 2015 National League MVP.

Among the fans excited about the acquisition of the 26-year-old right fielder is Ken Bieri, who was taking in the Phillies’ Spring Training matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays Wednesday.

“Nothing better. Nothing better than (signing) Harper,” said Bieri, who was watching the Phillies warm up prior to game time. “He’s going to be around for 13 years.”

The former Washington National’s 13-year contract is worth a record $330 million US, and despite having yet to step on the field in a Philadelphia uniform, his impact is already being felt.

“One of the things I never do is buy a jersey with a player’s name on it. I bought his,” said the Wilmington, Delaware native.

The 2012 NL Rookie of the Year is coming off a league-leading 130 walks, along with 34 home runs, a .249 batting average, and 100 RBIs during the 2018 campaign.

In addition to the six-time all-star, the Philadelphia front office made a few other moves during the off-season that only raises fan expectations.

“Hopefully they make the playoffs. With him, with the other guys starting to hit. (Andrew) McCutchen, Jean Segura at shortstop, the new catcher J.T. Realmuto, you can’t argue with any of those pick ups.”

Harper is expected to make his spring training debut on Saturday, when the Phillies host the Jays at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla.

By James Sutherland

DUNEDIN, Fla. — There is nothing quite like the size and grandeur of Major League Baseball’s regular season and playoffs, but Spring Training camp radiates an aura all its own.

Dunedin Stadium, home to the Toronto Blue Jays from Feb. 23–March 26, draws fans from near and far for an experience that is tighter and more intimate than any other league event.

Tony Martin, a retiree who’s lived in Florida since 2009 and is a lifelong baseball fan, plans on going to eight games this year. He is familiar with the atmosphere thanks to his days at Arizona State University, where Spring Training remains a common occurrence.

“You’re in a much smaller stadium, it’s up close and personal,” Martin said. “I mean, you can go to a baseball game and there’ll be 50,000 fans and here, you’ve got a lot less than that. … It’s a little more up close and personal and you see a lot of young players that you might see later on down the road.”

This physical closeness with players is a major aspect of Spring Training’s charm. Fans can make their way down to the ballpark fence with ease and, thanks to the relaxed tone brought on by the games’ exhibition status, have interactions with the players that would be nearly impossible at other venues.

“I mean, the stakes are very low here, right?” said Faizal Khamisa, a Sportsnet anchor who attended the Jays-Phillies game on Wednesday as a fan. “It doesn’t matter — it’s not about who wins or who loses. But, cool thing is, you can learn about a different player, you can see someone do something really cool and you can see it as close as you’ll ever see it, right?

“Even if you’re in a major league park and you’re sitting in the front, it’s not nearly as intimate or nearly as close as you are here, in Dunedin or any Spring Training park. I mean, we’re three rows from the field.”

The camaraderie that’s forged between fans in this environment isn’t purely reliant on the ability to talk to players or the game’s final score meaning nothing — it’s also dependent on the excitement drummed up every year by the sport’s return.

“I think it’s atmosphere and expectation of the season,” said Bob Fultano, a Philadelphia native visiting the Sunshine State until Thursday. “I think [it’s that way] for everybody. Until you play your first game, everybody’s thinking we’re going to win the World Series.

Listen: Red-faced in Dunedin

“I prefer baseball over the hype of the NFL in the U.S. Baseball’s a little bit more reasonable, people are friendlier, it’s not as crazy, so I can enjoy that.”

Even with the more eccentric fans, this friendlier attitude shines through, epitomizing the spirit of Spring Training with a high level of optimism permeating baseball opinions.

“You know something, I think we’re going to be surprised this season,” said Sue Wheeler, a die-hard Jays fan since 1967, about the rebuilding Toronto team. “With this new manager, I think we’re going to see a very aggressive team and I think we’re going to have a very surprising season and it’s going to shock some people.”

Whether it’s seeing themselves in others or even seeing past personal endeavours lived out in the play of the athletes, there is a relatable and therefore individualized quality for fans when attending such an intimate event.

For Martin, that quality manifests itself in the form of other excited fans who arrive at Spring Training for the first time. In getting to watch them yell for autographs and wave their mitts for a foul ball, Martin said there is a special enjoyment unable to be derived from anything else.

Fultano feels that same enjoyment from seeing the new players at camp. He feels that as a former Little League player or pickup player or softball player, it’s easier to relate to what’s happening out on the field.

No matter what it is that draws fans to Dunedin Stadium, it’s the atmosphere, brought on by high hopes and camaraderie and low stakes, that keeps them coming back.

“It always makes you feel good,” Fultano said with a beaming face, “when you sit down in the seat, you know?”

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Posted: Mar 7 2019 8:05 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Baseball Sports