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The many faces of the spring training fan
The first thing you realize at a spring training game is that everyone is happy.
Happy to be there. Happy to be sitting in the warm Florida sun. Happy to be pouring a soda or beer. Happy to show you to your seat. Happy to toss a 5-year-old a baseball from the warning track. Especially happy to catch a baseball thrown to you from the warning track (even if you cannot tell who the baseball player is by the football jersey number on his back).
You'll find many different types of people at a spring training game and probably talk to all of them at some point in the three hours or more you'll spend at the park. Some of the denizens of spring training are the snowbird, the local, the roving pack of teenagers, the casual vacationer, the spring breaker, the autograph hound, the shutterbug and the know-it-all.
The snowbird is common in these parts, and not just at the game -- they are everywhere. These grandparent couples relocate to Florida for the winter months to enjoy the warm weather while their friends and family are freezing back home. The snowbirds at the game are particularly fun, as they recount stories of spring trainings past -- how Joe Pepitone used to run his sprints in the outfield or the time they caught a foul ball from Boog Powell. They don't typically know the names of the "new guys" other than the All-Stars but are enthusiastic about being at the ballpark and taking in some sun.
The local might be the toughest person to sit next to at the game. Locals are different from snowbirds in that they were actually born in Florida, and since they live in towns with only minor league baseball, they typically don't know a whole lot about the game or the players. Everything needs to be explained to them, and they think Nomar Garciaparra still plays for the Red Sox. Basically, they are skipping work and just happy to not be in the office. Baseball for them is something to kill time until college football starts again.
The roving pack of teenagers are locals in the making, only they don't care at all about the game. Or the players. Or common etiquette. All they care about is what they're eating next or text messaging their friends that aren't at the game. A sub-group of the roving pack of teenagers is the "Pink Girls." These are the girls that are keeping Sanjaya on "American Idol." These teenage girls approach fandom based on the cuteness of the players. They have pink logo caps. Or sparkly ones. They don't care about a player's ERA or which team wins. They just want to get close to their favorites. For the local teams these days, the targets for the Pink Girls are Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis and the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman.
The casual vacationer is down here for the weekend with the spouse and their baby. It's funny, but most causal vacationers you'll see at spring training just had the baby. I guess by the time they have a second one, the first one is walking and they're over at Disney World. If they don't have a baby with them, you can tell the casual vacationer by the brand new cap they just bought in the gift store as a souvenir.
The casual vacationer's cousin is the spring breaker. Spring breakers come in groups of three to fifteen. Almost exclusively male, these guys get to the park when the gates open so they can start drinking beer at 11:30 a.m. They sit out on the metal bleachers down the baseline or out on the berm in the outfield. They make plenty of noise, since they have to yell over top of each other to be heard. They'll leave after the seventh inning stretch since that's when beer sales are cut off. Besides, they need to get a serious nap in before hitting the beach bars at night. Each group has one guy that really knows baseball who will try to pay attention to the game, but keeps getting disrupted by trips up to the beer line.
My wife and I fall into the next three categories. I'm the know-it-all, she's the shutterbug, and we're both autograph hounds. The know-it-all knows baseball, and he certainly doesn't mind telling you what you don't know. If he overhears your conversation, and you've got a minor detail wrong, he'll correct it for you, whether you care or not. He certainly means well, figuring everyone benefits by sharing his knowledge. Some know-it-alls are genuinely friendly, some are scary, and some just annoying. Pray that you don't have two know-it-alls in your section. They could suck all the oxygen out of the section and cause headaches for everyone.
The shutterbug is the one with the camera. They spend the entire batting practice as close to the field as they can, getting all sorts of photos of guys stretching, talking to a coach or, if they are particularly lucky, getting a decent shot of a player spitting or scratching. If a shutterbug spends enough time taking snapshots that they get legitimately good at it, they graduate to "amateur photographer" and buy a nicer camera. And another one. And soon, every shoebox in their house is full of photos of players stretching, spitting or scratching. There are some shutterbugs, my wife included, whose work could grace the pages of daily newspapers, but generally the level of proficiency of the shutterbug is right around blurry birthday party pictures.
The autograph hounds typically fall into one of the other categories as well. Spring training is a great place to get autographs since the players are generally more loose, access to the field is greater, and most spring training facilities have practice fields the hounds can roam in pursuit of the minor league prospect they just have to have scribble on a random piece of memorabilia. You can get almost anything signed by a player at spring training. It could be a baseball card, a ball or a photo. It could be a team pennant, a program or ticket stub. I've even seen players signing casts of broken legs, T-shirts (including ones on bodies), and my personal favorite ... a dollar bill. If you want to get an autograph though, stay away from a gathering of small children screaming for players to sign. They will yell at anyone, don't know the difference between an All-Star and a groundskeeper and apparently have never been taught the words "please" or "thank you."
One of my favorite things about attending spring training is getting a chance to meet all these types of fans. Since my wife and I are making our fifth annual trip, we have recognized some regulars, and we are being recognized right back. It's a great thing that this game caters to all of us. Old, young, involved, casual, male, female -- it doesn't matter what category you may fall into. As long as you buy a ticket, the game is yours. Most of the Grapefruit League teams play within easy driving distance of Disney World, but with all due respect to the Mouse, these folks consider the spring training sites "the happiest place on earth."
Throughout spring training, baltimoresun.com will publish reports by Orioles fans that made the trip to Florida for baseball's preseason. From Grapefruit League games to minor league camps, our crew of fan correspondents will weigh in with their spring training insights and experiences -- your source for a healthy dose of spring fever.