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Spring Training ain’t what it used to be

Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell stands in the dugout during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Fla.,Saturday, March 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell stands in the dugout during an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Fla.,Saturday, March 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

My first spring training game was 50 years ago in Pompano, Fla., sitting with my father in wood bleachers watching the Washington Senators. I can’t recall the opponent but do know the game was tied after nine innings, because the loudspeaker announced, “No charge for extra innings.”

How times have changed. Monday in Fort Myers a standing-room-only crowd of almost 10,000 watched the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 10-5. Fans munched on $14 plates of baby back ribs, sipped on $11 strawberry daiquiris, and watched Grady Sizemore take a giant stride to winning the center field job. He stroked three hits, scored three runs and made two nice catches, all you could ask of a leadoff hitter. If he does step to the plate against Baltimore a week from Monday, it’ll be his first major league at-bat since September 22, 2011.

No wonder the 31-year-old Sizemore shooed a trainer back to the dugout after fouling a pitch off his foot Monday. He’s waited too long and rehabbed too hard to let a contusion keep him from getting back in the box scores, where at one time his name appeared for 382 consecutive games.

Nobody knows for certain who will make headlines in April, but with Jackie Bradley Jr. struggling, and Sizemore playing like the three-time All-Star he once was, it would seem he’s the heir apparent to replace Jacoby Ellsbury. Another critical comparison: Sizemore has one strikeout in 21 at-bats this spring; Bradley has 10 in 37, including once against the Yankees on Tuesday with baserunners on second and third.

With the exception of Roger Dean Stadium, where the hapless Florida Marlins play, every game I’ve seen this spring has been a sellout. Sometimes that’s a bad word, but not in the sports arena, and it’s not just the Red Sox and Yankees who are drawing big crowds. The Tigers have sold out nearly every game in Lakeland, as have the Pirates in Bradenton and the Phillies in Clearwater. Today, the Orioles host the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium and the only thing available when I went to the box office yesterday were $8 standing-room tickets.

At JetBlue Stadium Monday, Rick Gamelin and I were sitting in the last row of the grandstand behind the home-plate screen. In front of us a woman exclaimed, “I waited 45 minutes in line to get this!” motioning to the aforementioned daiquiri. Our tickets were 29 bucks apiece. The Red Sox program, two Cokes, a bottle of water, a cheeseburger and fries totaled for $28.50.

Gamelin retired and moved to Fort Myers five years ago. “No excise tax, no car inspections, and homestead exemptions keep the taxes low,” he said of life in the Sunshine State, which includes owning a stun gun he keeps in the glove compartment. “If somebody tries to carjack me, I’ll stun ’em in the arm. I won’t have to shoot ’em.”

Monday’s Red Sox win was typical of most spring training games. The players got their work in, the fans saw their heroes, and nobody will remember John Lackey’s 9.39 earned run average or that David Ortiz is batting .074. For one day it felt like July; 80 degrees with a blow-your-cap-off wind that helped Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli and Ryan Lavarnway hit home runs over the make-believe Green Monster.

The previous day I got my first look at the Yanks’ spring training facility in Tampa. My friend Brian O’Shea lives in Wilbraham and is a die-hard Yankees fan. As a treat to himself, he decided to rent a place on the beach and buy a pair of season tickets to the Yankees’ spring training games. His seats are seven rows behind the visitors’ dugout, and he invited me to watch the Bombers play the Atlanta Braves.

I left Sarasota midmorning, drove over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge into St. Petersburg and met him at a Wal-Mart off the Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Like a proud father, he showed me what he called the “mini-monument field,” where the plaques of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and other greats circle a statue of George Steinbrenner. On the other side of the park, organ music from a 100-year-old calliope played “When Those Caissons Go Rolling Along.”

Fans wore Yankees T-shirts and jerseys with the ubiquitous “2” on their backs in honor of Captain Derek Jeter, now in his final season, and vendors sold $10 roast beef grinders that far exceeded the quality of the usual ballpark fare.

O’Shea is itching for revenge now that the Yankees have acquired free agents like Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and the day’s starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. When I asked how he liked the new Yankee Stadium, he compared it to Boston’s 102-year-old stadium. “Go to Yankee Stadium and then go to Fenway Park, it’s like a Tri-County League park. They oughta tear it down and get up with the times. They’re just cheap.”

As for Boston’s beloved David Ortiz, he said, “When he’s off the juice and hitting like he did when he was with the Twins, we call him Big Pop Up.”

“I’m all Boston except baseball,” he added. “My father raised me right.”

Not to single out O’Shea, but Yankees’ fans are known to be obnoxious. A guy in the fourth row wearing a Mariano Rivera jersey razzed Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons after he missed a popup near the dugout. “Oh yeah, you lost it in the sun. You need a GPS for that!”

When a fan caught a foul ball and gave it to a youngster, he yelled, “You give a ball to a kid wearing a Red Sox cap?! He got a Red Sox hat and a Rays jersey, he’s all screwed up!”

The two women beside me had flown in from Washington for a four-day weekend to watch baseball. One of them, Rosie, worked in the U.S. Army’s budget office at the Pentagon. The Yankees weren’t using live performers to sing the national anthem, but instead used recordings by the late operatic baritone Robert Merrill for the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America.”

Rosie sang along to all three songs, loudly and on key, and didn’t miss a word.

“You’re active Army?” I asked.

“I am active Army,” she nodded.

“What’s your rank?”

She smiled and said, “I’m old active Army. I’ve been in the Army a long time.”

She’d swapped her work uniform for a white Atlanta Braves home uniform with Chipper Jones’ number 10 on the back. “I was born in Queens and raised in South Carolina and I’ve been a Braves fan since I was a kid.”

Much of the Yankees’ roster was in Panama to honor Mariano Rivera and play the Miami Marlins, leaving Mark Teixeira, Ichiro Suzuki, Brian McCann and Eduardo Nunez as the only regulars in the lineup. That was offset by the presence of Tanaka on the mound, and the expensive Japanese import was impressive while giving up one run and three hits and fanning five in 4 1/3 innings.

The Braves’ starter was 23-year-old right-hander Julio Teheran, who was 14-8 last season. “He hit Bryce Harper in his first major league at-bat,” said Rosie, referring to the Washington Nationals’ cocky yet burgeoning superstar. “Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be his only claim to fame.”

Teheran also gave up one run and struck out five, but in the sixth inning a 220-pound southpaw with the tongue-twisting name of Atahualpa Severino opened the floodgates to a six-run inning and the Yankees won 7-4.

O’Shea waited until Tuesday to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day when he saw the Yankees beat Boston, 8-1. Rosie and her friend celebrated on Monday, but only because their flight back to Washington was canceled by snow.

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