Keeping Score: Weather permitting

  • Gator fans watch a baseball game between Sienna and their University of Florida at McKeethan Stadium. for the recorder/chip ainsworth

Friday, March 16, 2018

Good morning!

Here’s something you might want to know about Florida in March. The traffic is awful and the motel rates are exorbitant, but If you’re looking for the poor man’s Nantucket, try Cedar Key.

The tiny island reef 130 miles north of Tampa is a nice place to visit but getting a gallon of milk is an expedition. Crosby and Deborah (Anderson) Hunt gave it a try after they retired from teaching and bought a house on the corner of Hawthorne Avenue and Gulf Boulevard, about a half-mile from everything.

The cottage was a bargain, but bargains need work. “We bought it in 2012 and worked on it for three years,” he said. “It wasn’t livable when we bought it.”

After they’d hung the drywall, damp proofed the stone floors, reinforced the foundation and covered it with two coats of paint, they moved into their new digs. In the mornings, Crosby brewed coffee for his boardwalk strolls, and afternoons Deb tended to the kale she grew in the community garden.

A year later, Hurricane Hermine hit the island harder than Pete Weber knocked down ten pins. The highest measured storm surge in Florida was recorded a half-mile from their home. “Our dogs just sat on the couch and stared at the water,” recalled Deborah. “And we had snakes. I heard a rapping sound, a pygmy rattler was coiled and striking the door.”

Snakes aren’t the only wildlife to be wary of encountering on the island. “Roll up your windows,” Hunt said after I parked in their yard. “Feral cats. They’ll jump in looking for food.”

The Hunts have tried to acclimate. They joined the Audobon Society and are on a hotline to help untangle pelicans from fishing lines, but it’s been a struggle between loving nature and swatting sand gnats, of enjoying the laid-back shore life and dealing with the sweltering summer humidity. “It’s nice this time of year but we barely go out the door in July and August,” said Hunt.

After Hurricane Irma brushed the island in September, they began house-hunting in Gainesville, but I sensed there was something about the vibe that made them decide to move. The final few miles over the bridges to Cedar Key had been idyllic. A canoeist was casting against the setting sun, and houses on stilts appeared tantalizingly habitable in the calm waters. But in Otter Creek I had missed the turn and stopped at a two-pump service station up the road near Rosewood, the site of an infamous 1923 racist massacre.

It underscored the uneasiness Cros and Deb might feel in an area that voted heavily for Trump. Gainesville is also an island; an academic community better suited to the likes and needs of two retired theater professors.

We ate at a place called Steamers Clam Bar & Grill, a trendy eatery over the pier. Deb ordered clam chowder and mentioned that clamming was the island’s principle industry after netfishing was banned in 1993. “You see them in their white clamming boots — Cedar Key Nikes — turning over the bags and nurturing them.”

“Places in Texas sell them as Cedar Key clams,” Crosby added.

They spoke over the din of three guitarists playing oldies and urging diners to sing along. Mercifully I was in the bathroom when I heard the chorus of off-key revelers crooning, “A run, run, run run runaway!”

The following afternoon I followed Crosby 50 miles on Rte. 24 to their condo in Gainesville. I’d timed my road trip to coincide with the University of Florida baseball team’s season opener against Siena College. Faring a sellout, Hunt had already purchased tickets.

The Gators are the defending NCAA champions, and 5,500-seat McKethan Stadium was indeed sold out. Tickets were four dollars and scorecards cost only half a buck, but Gator hats were a pricey $22 and T-shirts cost $35.

The Gators were preseason favorites to repeat, and starting pitcher Brady Singer is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft. The over-matched Saints, meanwhile, were happy to be out of snow-covered Albany.

Like a heavyweight fighter sizing up a lesser opponent, the Gators took measure of their quarry before dispatching them, 7-1. Singer pitched seven innings, allowed one unearned run, two hits, no walks and struck out eight.

After southpaw reliever Jordan Butler struck out the side In the top of the eighth inning, shortstop Brady McDonnell atoned for a run-producing error by golfing a pitch over the left field bleachers. “The ball went a long way,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan told the Gainesville Sun. “It went as high as it went far.”

The next afternoon the Gators scored four times in the second inning en route to a 10-2 thumping. We sat in the last row of the bleachers surrounded by blue-and-orange clad fans doing the chomp — opening and closing their outstretched arms. I asked Hunt about T-shirts that said: “2 bits, four bits.”

“It’s from a slogan coined by a Gator diehard they called Mr. Two-Bits,” he answered. “Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar… All for the Gators, stand up and holler!”

Both games took under two-and-a-half hours, the defensive play on both sides was nearless flawless (two errors) and five different Gators hitters combined to hit seven home runs. It was such a thrill to watch baseballs lofted into the sky on warm mid-February evenings that I was barely bothered by the ping of the aluminum bats.

That was a month ago. On Friday the Gators were 16-3 going into their SEC opener against South Carolina in Columbia. Maybe the 40-degree temperatures cooled them off. Meanwhile Siena was 0-14 and packing for home. On Wednesday the Saints will play Boston College in Chestnut Hill, but that’s weather-permitting, as they say in these parts.

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