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Keeping Score

Keeping Score: Countdown

Good morning!

A week ago Thursday on the Merritt Parkway, I heard Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Greg Polanco go deep off Yankees’ hurler David Phelps and the sound of John Sterling’s call on WFAN was better than any robin or crocus sightings, it was proof that winter was grudgingly giving way and the countdown to Opening Day had begun.

I’d been home from Florida long enough to take a somersault on a patch of ice, get stuck in my driveway and come down with the flu. Old Man Winter’s my Daddy, as Pedro might say, and I was retreating back to the Sunshine State for hot dogs and baseball.

Unlike the rest of the country, South Florida is having its third warmest winter on record. It was 80 degrees Sunday and the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. Loyal Cardinals fans had painted the stadium red, and the woman at the walk-up window sold me a $20 ticket for a seat in the last row of the left field bleachers.

Seated beside me were two women in straw hats and sunglasses, sisters, I discovered, both from Massachusetts. Susan Wall said she lived in Medford and Lefty Wall told me she lived in Boston.

“I’m from Northfield,” I replied. “Out where the roads turn to dirt.”

“I live in Leverett,” replied Lefty, offering me some of her $6 box of caramel popcorn. “I say Boston because nobody’s ever heard of Leverett. I’m on the Franklin County Farm Bureau. My boyfriend has a condo here. I got laid off from my job and came down for the winter. I’ll look for a job in ... spring maybe.”

Both were hardcore Red Sox fans and political junkies, and they talked about Deval Patrick’s aspirations for national office and the dispiriting likelihood that Martha Coakley would be the next governor. Lefty was saying how much she admired Vermont governor Peter Shumlin when Susan shifted it back to baseball.

“I sort of like Shane Victorino. His plate music is “Three Little Birds,” she chuckled, referring to the Bob Marley tune that’s become a popular ballpark sing-along, “Every little thing gonna be all right.”

I decided to find out if these women were serious about their baseball, or if they were the type who fawned over anyone with a scarlet “B” on his cap.

I asked Lefty, “If your life depended on it, would you say yes or no that David Ortiz does steroids?”

Most Red Sox fans would be aghast for even broaching the subject. Ortiz is a beloved Beantown figure, a lovable charmer who can hit the ball a mile. Indeed, he returned from injury late last April and DH’d nearly every game for the rest of the season. He batted .309 and still had enough left in the tank to be named the World Series MVP. Pretty energetic for a guy who turned 38-years-old last November.

Lefty thought for a moment and answered, “I’d have to say Papi’s juicing it, although my mother’s devoted to him.”

Intrigued, I asked, “Who’s the greatest Red Sox of all time?”

Babe Ruth, she said, noting that the Bambino began and ended his career in a Boston uniform, albeit the Boston Braves. “Carlton Fisk was awesome,” she added. “My brother named his dog after him. Pudge.”

Best of all was their knowledge of baseball literature. They reeled off books I’d never heard of like “Castro’s Curveball” by Tim Wendel and “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. Wendel’s book takes place in Cuba in 1947 and involves Fidel Castro the pitcher, not the dictator. Duncan’s novel is complicated to explain but revolves around a family that lives in a small Washington town and the plot subtly pays homage to both baseball and Russian literature. “Pinch Hitting for Dostoyevsky,” was the way the New York Times headlined its review of the book.

“One of my personal favorites is “The Greatest Slump of All,” said Lefty, referring to David Carkeet’s comic novel about a team of talented yet psychologically screwed up ballplayers.

Midway through the game Susan Wall realized she’d won a prize. Inside her program was a player’s autograph and they left to claim their night’s stay at a nearby Marriott, which left me to ponder the importance of watching baseball in March. It’s not to see All Stars like Dustin Pedroia, who for the next seven months will be hit by pitches, steal bases, break up double plays, dive for ground balls and leap for line drives. For him, this is a time to get the swing back, stay healthy and conserve energy.

Watching spring training is to see if Daisuke Matsuzaka can break into the New York Mets’ starting rotation or if Jackie Bradley Jr. can win the starting center-field job. Seven years ago, Matsuzaka was a heralded Japanese hurler making his U.S. debut in Jupiter. He’d signed a $51 million contract with the Red Sox and would go on to win 33 games his first two seasons. In the spring of 2009 he helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic, but the effort took a toll on his arm and he had Tommy John surgery.

His cash flow ended after his Red Sox contract expired in 2012. They released him and so did Cleveland last season, but the Mets picked him up late last summer and on Sunday he was back in Jupiter, only this time his career was in the balance. He’d signed for a million dollars, mere chump change, and he gave up two first-inning doubles and took the loss.

I returned to Roger Dean on Monday to watch the Houston Astros play the Miami Marlins, two of the worst teams in baseball. The Astros lost their last fifteen games in 2013, and Miami hit the dreaded 100-loss plateau while finishing 34 games behind the first place Braves.

“They’ve got the top two picks in this year’s draft,” I mentioned to my friend John Blair.

“That’s why we’re sitting in the first row,” he replied.

Indeed, scalpers had tried to sell us seats “right behind the dugout” for $25, a vague promise considering most seats are behind the dugout. Instead we went to the box office and bought $15 bleacher seats, then sat between the dugout and bullpen on the third base side. A few feet from us right-hander Jacob Turner was tossing warmup pitches, the first of seven Miami hurlers who’d get their work in during the 4-0 loss.

The next day’s box score reported that 2,166 fans had attended the game, five fewer than for Tuesday’s game against the Twins. I wasn’t bothering to keep score when Jarrod Saltalamacchia launched a Ryan Pressly pitch over the right field wall 325 feet from home plate. The former Red Sox catcher had signed with the Marlins because he grew up here and attended Royal Palm Beach High School. He married the gym teacher who’s 14 years his senior, something I stumbled on during a Google search that led me to playerswives.com.

The Red Sox were in town and lost to St. Louis on Wednesday and tied Miami on Thursday in an eight-inning rain-shortened contest. Both games were sellouts, and fans who’d hoped to see Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Shane Victorino settled for Garin Cecchini, Heiker Menesis and Dalier Hinojosa.

Six years ago, I had no idea who Clayton Kershaw was when I wrote his name into a lineup card in Vero Beach and today he’s the highest paid pitcher in the game.

Sunday I’ll be watching Washington play St. Louis in Viera, which is midway up the coast near the Kennedy Space Center. The Nationals have a 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander named Lucas Giolito, and someday I might be saying I saw him before he hit the big time, because for this fan that’s what spring training’s all about.

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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