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Hardball odyssey

Good morning!

The long stretch of interstate highway between Tampa and Naples is a straight and boring haul past billboards, construction cranes and strip malls. I was bound for Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the winter home of the Minnesota Twins since 1991, one of the few remaining Grapefruit League venues I’d yet to watch a game. The others are Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Space Coast Stadium in Viera and Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.

The previous day I’d paid $4 to park in the back of a Lutheran church to watch the Tigers play in Lakeland, but there was no such alternatives at the Lee County Sports Complex where fans were charged $10 to enter the complex and park on Hrbek Street, Puckett Avenue, Killebrew Lane or any of the other parking aisles named for Twins heroes.

From the outside and at a distance, Hammond Stadium appeared to have a nicer façade than the Red Sox’ new facility up the road at JetBlue Park. I walked between neatly lined rows of palm trees toward the box office where fans posed for photos in front of a waterfall. I noticed a spire looming behind home plate and was told the ballpark was designed to look like Churchill Downs.

I paid $24 for a reserved seat behind first base and the ticket seller asked, “Would you like the hot dog for a dollar more?”

Neither team used its A-lineup, only Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau for the Twins who’ve lost a combined 195 games the last two seasons. The Tampa Bay Rays’ only regulars were outfielder Sam Fuld and infielder Sean Rodriguez. Designated hitter Stephen Vogt, the 375th player taken in the 2007 draft, cracked two singles during the game that Tampa would win, 10-7. The 27-year-old Vogt didn’t get his first big league call-up until last September and was 0-for-25, but he’s batting .357 this spring and is contending for a spot on the big league roster.

After a few innings I left the ballpark, got back onto I-75 and exited toward Lehigh Acres, a housing development east of Fort Myers that went bust during the 2008 mortgage meltdown. Beyond it were cow pastures and mobile homes with tin roofs draped by dead palm fronds. It was 92 degrees on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee when I stopped at the Clewiston Inn, an historic landmark where executives from the U.S. Sugar Corp. would stay and do business.

The lobby looked deserted until I spotted a middle-aged woman leaning over an old color television set, hands on knees, watching the Daytona 500. She turned around, looked at me and said, “Dining room closed at three.”

She resumed watching the final lap of the car race and after it was over straightened up and said, “Jimmie Johnson. I can live with that.”

I returned to the car, broke open a box of Do Si Dos Girl Scout Cookies and drove on toward Belle Glade. The town’s motto claims “Her Soil is Her Fortune” but more recently Belle Glade has been better known for having one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the nation, 51 times the average.

The final leg of the cross-state journey took me onto Route 441 where I drove past burning sugar cane fields and on toward West Palm Beach. Two days later I was at Roger Dean Stadium for a game between the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. It’s my favorite spring training venue because nobody goes to Marlins games. The locals prefer waiting until the regular season because as contradictory as it seems, tickets are cheaper than during the exhibition season.

The stadium was 25 percent full, deserted enough for me to hear a fan yell, “Dig! Dig! Dig!” from across the field and for a vendor to implore, “Buy a beer … Someone, please!”

I purchased a $15 bleacher seat and moved over to the reserved grandstand where a dozen people were seated in Section 212 behind third base, including retired Brooklyn schoolteachers Jeff Sanders and Lance Green. Both are Dodgers-turned-Mets fans, embittered that their first love left town for the West Coast in 1958, then added insult to the exit by winning three world championships in the next decade.

Sanders is a typical Brooklynite, cranky and cynical but likely a good guy at heart. After he asked where I was from he said, “Massachusetts? I don’t know which license plates I hate seeing more, Massachusetts or Quebec.”

I asked about his teaching days. “I worked in the fourth worst school in New York City. Middle School 391, Crown Heights. I got combat pay. I was a PE teacher and coached high school football and girls track.”

He wore a Gil Hodges jersey with No. 14 etched on the back. Hodges was a five-time All Star for the Dodgers who subsequently managed the 1969 Miracle Mets and died three years later at age 41 after a round of golf in West Palm Beach. “I knew he was dead. He died in my arms,” said Mets coach Joe Pignatano. “I put my hand under Gil’s head but before you knew it, the blood stopped.”

Green was more mellow, preferring to smile and listen. He taught school in Bedford-Stuyvesant and remembered watching Dodgers games at Ebbets Field. “We paid 75 cents to sit in the grandstands. We’d get a quarter discount by mailing in Elsie Borden ice cream wrappers. We were ten, eleven years old and we’d take the train or the bus into the game. Today you wouldn’t think of doing that, sending your kid to Citi Field alone by himself. Different world.”

The wind was blowing out and the Marlins cranked three homeruns, two by Casey Kotchman including a grand slam, and a solo shot by Giancarlo Stanton that was a line drive over the left-centerfield wall near the 400-foot sign. The Marlins are major league weaklings and other teams are circling over Stanton waiting for team owner Jeffrey Loria to cave in to trade offers. The 23-year-old Stanton has hit 93 home runs in two-plus seasons, a superstar in the making.

In the second inning the Mets’ number nine-hitter Omar Quintanilla carved a foul ball over my head. I turned and watched it go through a palm branch, hit the top of a wall and bounce out of the park. There was nobody in the area where it landed, so I got up, walked down the grandstand and out of the ballpark, telling the guy at the turnstile I’d be right back. “I’ll remember ya. Ya got barefeet.”

I started jogging. Someone was ahead of me, walking in the same direction. I started sprinting and saw the ball hiding in plain sight on the road. He never saw it. I swooped in behind him and plucked it off the pavement.

The next morning I began my 1,400-mile journey back to Northfield. The temps steadily dropped and the sky turned from blue to gray in Washington, the inverse of colors that represented the two sides of the Civil War. My trip was complete; my grandson Chase would have his first Major League baseball, but his parents quickly took it away from him. Two years old and the kid already has an arm.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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