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Keeping Score

Keeping Score: Car Problems

Good morning!

Despite the warm Florida weather, I do look forward to being away from these lame-brained drivers down here in their big white SUVs, talking on cellphones with little dogs in their laps. The snowbirds were indeed migrating up toward Georgia the day I trekked up the Treasure Coast to watch the Washington Nationals play the St. Louis Cardinals in Viera.

I was resting my regular car, giving it a mileage break. A bad idea considering that Enterprise had rented me a heap of metal with 27,000 miles on the odometer and an interior that smelled like a cheap motel room. I pulled an empty Starbucks bottle and Keebler’s cracker wrapper from under the driver’s seat that had been left by the previous occupant.

“Last car in the lot,” shrugged the agent. On his nameplate, a co-worker had written Joe Bag of Donuts.

“So I’m getting the runt of the litter?”

“You can come back Monday.”

I had reserved a standard but was getting a full size and that in rental terms is a downgrade; a Toyota Corolla instead of a Chrysler 200. “The company that picks you up” had let me down.

The previous night American Express canceled my card after they determined it had been skimmed at a Sunoco gas station in West Palm Beach. Bandits had rung up $100 charges at a gas station in Orlando and a convenience store in Illinois.

But hey, it was 80 degrees and the Nationals’ ace Stephen Strasburg would be the starting pitcher at 8,100-seat Space Coast Stadium. I arrived 90 minutes before the first pitched and parked at a nearby high school to avoid paying the $7 stadium fee.

My friend Crosby Hunt was driving down from his home in Cedar Key, a 187-mile haul from north of Tampa. He and his wife Deborah will retire from teaching theater at Middle Tennessee State next year, and being near the Gulf he can kayak and “be an old man fishing off the pier.”

Space Coast Stadium is clean and the ushers are friendly, but the layout is without character and makes no notice of the Nationals’ legacy or its predecessor the Montreal Expos. Just as well, considering the team will be moving in a year or two to one of ten sites being considered in Palm Beach County. The Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays are also considering moving to South Florida, where the weather is more dependable and there are other teams in close proximity.

Two statues between the box office and parking lot are the only landmarks. One is of a shuttle-equipped rocket on a launchpad, and the other is of a baseball ballplayer leaning on his bat and looking toward the pitcher’s mound. He has a handlebar mustache, his cap is tilted back over wavy hair and the letter “M” is embossed on his 19th-century style jersey.

There’s not a plaque or engraved stone to identify the statue, but a St. Louis fan figured out the player’s identity. “Casey at the bat, the “M’s” for Mudville ... There would be no joy in Mudville.”

The Nationals are third-to-last behind the Marlins and Astros in spring training attendance but that’s because of its location. Driving 100 miles didn’t matter to St. Louis fans, who are as amped on baseball as Hollywood is on scientology, and Redbirds fans had sold out the joint.

Fortunately Hunt had arrived early and snagged two $12 tickets down the third base line, seats that would’ve cost $28 in Jupiter. While he waited he wandered over to the minor league fields to see if he could spot Lucas Giolito. “His father and I are the only two straight guys in the theater department,” said Hunt. “He told me his kid can throw 100, I said yeah my kid can throw 200, but he wasn’t kidding.”

The 6-foot-6 Giloto pitched at UCLA and was taken in the first round of the 2012 draft by the Nationals. He struck out 39 batters in 36 innings of minor league pitching but is currently rehabbing from shoulder surgery and the Nationals have yet to put him on the mound for a game this spring.

Hunt and I grew up together in Deerfield where he’d tune into the Detroit Tigers games on WJR in Detroit. He attended St. Lawrence University, then Mitchell College in New London and somewhere along the way tried out for a play, got the part and found his career. He studied at the University of Florida, met his wife and they moved to Murfreesboro. Now his daughter Susan is a television actor whose credits include roles in “The Good Wife” and “The Americans.”

In Murfreesboro he was ahead of the curve on hometown product David Price and watched Boston outfielder Bryce Brentz hit home runs for MTSU. “They’d fly out of the park and land on the football field.”

Brentz may indeed make this year’s Red Sox roster. He’s played in 399 minor league games, batted .273 and hit 71 home runs in 1,536 at-bats. At Fort Myers this spring he’s batting .409 with three home runs in 22 at-bats (Note: Brentz was optioned top Pawtucket on Thursday).

When the major league meetings were held in Nashville two years ago, Hunt sought out former Tiger shortstop and six-time all star Alan Trammell. “I saw you play your first game,” Hunt told him.

‘Oh yeah? When was that?’”

“Second game of a doubleheader at Fenway Park.”

“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re right, and started talking to me.”

We left in the seventh inning with Nationals leading, 10-1. They were picked by to go deep last season but missed the playoffs despite finishing ten games over .500. New manager Matt Williams is no-nonsense and has 35-year-old Jayson Werth playing like his $20 million salary is at stake. The team is loaded power (second to Boston in home runs this spring), but it’s their rotation of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and newly acquired Doug Fister that’ll take them into October.

I hopped into my little Corolla and returned it to the Enterprise location in North Palm Beach. I’d rented it for 10 days but said no thanks, you can have it. The manager was decent and comped me the two days. Over in the corner, Joey Bag of Donuts sat at his desk and never looked up from the computer screen.

John Henry’s opinions notwithstanding, the Miami Marlins do have a few good ballplayers. On Wednesday, Henderson Alvarez went 3 2-3 innings of one-run baseball against the Braves. He’d set down nine straight Cardinals his previous start and no-hit the Tigers the last day of the 2013 regular season. He came to the Marlins as part of the 11-player deal that sent Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson to Toronto.

Alvarez will be the No. 2 starter behind 2013 rookie of the year Jose Fernandez, and the bullpen includes Falmouth righty Steve Cishek whose 94.4 save percentage was tied for best in the majors.

The Marlins’ problem is they can’t hit or field, typified by a 3-1 loss to the Braves on Monday that included two errors and a dropped ball at home plate. In the sixth inning Jarod Saltalamacchia stepped up with two out and runners on the corners and Marlins fans chanting “Let’s Go Salty!” Alas, the mighty Salty struck out swinging.

Following up on last week’s Fidel Castro item, Deerfield’s Jamin Hemenway writes: “Evidently he was quite a hurler back in his day. Whether it’s truth or legend, he continued to play baseball as he rose to power during the revolution. Opposing hitters that were supporters of his cause would lay their bats down when they came to the plate. Out of respect, they’d allow Castro to punch them out. Whether truth or legend, it makes for a good yarn.”

Squibbers: Former Red Sox pitcher Manny Delcarmen is making gains as a non-roster invitee with the Nationals. He hasn’t allowed a run in four games, has four shutout innings, one win and one save. ... The Angels’ Josh Hamilton bulked up 20 pounds and strained a calf muscle leading off first base, his teammate Albert Pujols is batting .190 with no home runs in 21 at-bats. ... MLB analyst Steve Sax needs to tone it down. The former Dodger infielder claims Xander Bogaerts is a potential Hall of Famer. Maybe so, but the 21-year-old rookie could do without that sort of pressure. ... Another who’s trying to live up to the hype after it all came crashing down is Michael Wacha, who gave up six runs in three in innings of last year’s sixth and deciding game. So far so good, he’s held batters to a .173 average in 4 2-3 innings. ... On Sunday, pro caddy John Blair teamed up with 283-game winner Jim Kaat at the Everglades Club. “The guy is always entertaining. He showed us how he threw his fastball and how to throw a knuckleball. He said Micky Mantle could throw real good knuckleballs.” Yes, and highballs, too.

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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