Keeping Score with Chip Ainsworth: Baseball season is upon us

Call to the Bullpen: Youngsters watch the Astros-Nats game at CACTI Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. on March 9.

Call to the Bullpen: Youngsters watch the Astros-Nats game at CACTI Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. on March 9. PHOTO BY CHIP AINSWORTH

Leverett's Jerry Daly settles into an Adirondack chair underneath the centerfield scoreboard for a game at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Leverett's Jerry Daly settles into an Adirondack chair underneath the centerfield scoreboard for a game at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. PHOTO BY CHIP AINSWORTH

Published: 03-22-2024 2:01 PM

Good morning!
On March 9 the Washington Nationals played the Houston Astros at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches. Named for a hard seltzer, the 7,700-seat spring training facility has housed the Nationals and Astros since it opened seven years ago.

It is fan friendly with plenty of elbow room and easy access to the players. The infield concourse is shaded and spacious and fans can sit at picnic tables behind third base. The outfield plaza is a world unto itself with enough room for kids to play catch and for fans to peer down into the bullpens and watch pitchers warming up and hear the pop of the ball into the catcher’s glove.

“When admission was cheaper, people came just to walk around the concourse,” said Fran Togneri, whose wife Kerry teaches power skating in South Florida. Togneri’s been an usher at spring training games since he retired from the Franklin County sheriff’s office. “We get here about 2 1/2 hours before the game, wipe seats and do nothing,” he joked.

My buddy Jerry Daly sat in an Adirondack chair under the shade of the massive scoreboard, close to where others were spreading blankets on the lawn behind the centerfield wall.

Jerry’s late sister was a Boston nurse who didn’t read the newspaper or follow sports. The day after the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, she called her brother in Leverett and said she was mystified why everyone was in such a good mood.

Tickets to Astros and Nationals games start at $25 but there’s a 2-for-1 deal for seniors on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and attendants are always handing out free stuff like the Alex Bregman bobblehead dolls I got for my grandkids.

Despite the name CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches is nowhere near the beach, but whattya expect in a state where realtors refer to man-made ponds as lakes?

The 160-acre complex is a mile west of I-95 on the corner of 45th Street and Haverhill Road near Palm Beach Lakes Community High School. I parked my car two blocks up from the stadium in a strip mall with a pawn shop, nail salon, liquor store and discount supermarket where a 40-pack of bottled water cost less than $10.

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I walked on the sidewalk to the practice fields where players took batting practice and a scrum of teenagers chased after balls that had cleared the screen. At another practice field, balls splashed into a large retention pond. One of them floated tantalizingly close to shore, but a shirtless fan in his 40s pointed to a seven-foot alligator lying in the reeds.

During the game a fan who’d seen me observing his ball-chasing skills said, “I got nine today.” He was standing on the berm and attentive. After Jeremy Pena popped out, he excused himself and moved to where he hoped Jose Altuve would send one his way.

****

At one point while the Astros were batting, a youngster walked to the outfield railing about 20 yards from centerfielder Victor Robles and yelled, “Victor! You have the same last name as me!”

The kid was holding a baseball glove and sported shoulder-length dreadlocks under an old baseball cap. Robles could’ve ignored him, but after the next pitch he turned and said, “Oh, really? That’s nice. What’s your name?”

“Taisun Robles.”

“Do you play baseball?”

“Yes.”

“What position?”

“First, third, and pitch… and sometimes outfield.”

Robles is a career .238 hitter but has a strong arm and has thrown out 28 runners in seven seasons. I’ll be following him this season, because of his interaction with young Taisun that could only happen at a spring training game.

****

Houston is named for General Sam Houston, who defeated Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. It is a conservative city in a staunchly conservative state, and in the middle of the sixth inning veterans were asked to stand and be recognized. The crowd cheered them and a song written during the Civil War serenaded them. It was Battle Hymn of the Republic.

At a silent auction table filled with souvenir items, the buy-it now bid for a bat autographed by Craig Biggio was $750. A bat autographed by Mike Trout cost $1,210.

“Do people really by this stuff?” I asked the vendor.

“All the time,” he said.

I bought my grandkids Chase and Carter each a Savannah Bananas baseball hat. “We put the Savannah Bananas on the map,” said Togneri, comparing the barnstorming ballclub to the Harlem Globetrotters. “They were here last year and this place was a zoo. Kids climbing on the dugouts, everywhere.”

****

A few days later on yet another sunny 80-degree afternoon I went to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter — now Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium and paid $20 to watch the Marlins play the Nationals. The Marlins averaged 14,355 last season at LoanDepot Park, and charge more for spring training games than for the regular season.

Their starting pitcher was 20-year-old Eury Perez. Last year in his rookie season, Perez won five games and lost six in 19 starts. He is tall and lanky and looks like a stretched-out version of Pedro Martinez. After he struck out leadoff hitter Jacob Young, the 6-foot-8 righthander walked the next two batters and hit Keibert Ruiz. Marlins manager Skip Schumaker ran out to the mound with two trainers and quickly signaled for a new pitcher.

A thin and bearded southpaw named Devin Smeltzer went in and got Luis Garcia to hit into a double play to end the inning. A few minutes later Perez emerged from the Marlins clubhouse in street clothes and took a seat in the leftfield grandstand behind the Marlins bullpen.

He had cracked a fingernail on his pitching hand and would need a week off to let it heal. Perez wore large-framed sunglasses, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, gray sweatpants and dark socks under Air Jordans that cost anywhere from $650 to $2,000. Most notable however was his head gear, a wool gray hat with pom-poms on each side that made him look like Mickey Mouse.

Schumaker doesn’t care how Perez dresses, as long as he wins games.

SQUIBBERS: Mike Francesca on headline-grabber Aaron Rodgers: “He’s quirky, he’s past quirky, he’s out of his mind but he can play quarterback.” … Keith Hernandez has been named to the Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame, a baseball game for geeks before they had technology. …. Let the record show that on the first at-bat of the big league season, Dodgers leadoff hitter Mookie Betts walked on a pitch count violation, and the season’s first run was driven in by Padres leadoff hitter Xander Bogaerts. … High school football players in Florida are making more money than their coaches, and Palm Beach Post columnist Jon Santucci reports the good coaches are leaving for Georgia and Alabama where they can make six figure salaries and not have to teach class.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com