Minor league complexes a hidden gem

Minor league complexes a hidden gem
The Calvert Stogie and Rail Club. From left, Jim Crothers, self-anointed President for Life, John Abel, General Manager of Procrastination, and Peter Leyon, Pastor and Most Righteous Person. (Handout photo)
Jim Crothers uses Cecil County as a starting point for baseball road trips, including an annual week-long outing with the Calvert Stogie and Rail Club -- a group of "otherwise normal, fat, old guys who destroy themselves by watching up to three games a day."

One thing many baseball fans overlook about spring training is the actual training camps, especially the minor league complexes.

This is where you can get up close and personal with everyone from the superheroes to the lowest rookie.

Some team camps are very accessible for the public. But others are only open until mid-March, when teams get serious and pare down the number of players.

The minor league camps are open, fun, friendly and get better as March progresses toward Opening Day.

Obviously, since it's in Sarasota, visiting the Orioles' minor league camp requires a road trip from Fort Lauderdale, but if you can get there, walk on in and absorb some real baseball atmosphere.

The Calvert Stogies didn't get to Sarasota, but we did spend time at the minor league complexes of the Red Sox and Dodgers.

Yes, the BoSox are the other evil empire, but we know several of the Boston minor leaguers because they played for the Single-A Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks last year. In fact, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie lived with us during their time with the Blue Rocks, so "mom" (my wife) needed to see "her boys" in Fort Myers.

The Red Sox's minor league camp is a mile from the major leaguers, so there is plenty of player movement back and forth, making for a neat setup. Last year we watched Curt Schilling pitch a rehab intersquad game and the first person we saw this year was Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz wasn't playing, but he was motoring around in a souped-up golf cart dispensing hitting tips. And Dwight Evans was leaning on the cage, hanging with us, too.

For a baseball junkie, you just can't get any better access than this for conversations, autographs and stories. The Red Sox's complex has six fields clustered within 100 yards, with multiple practices on each one. On one field during batting practice, Evans was hitting grounder after grounder to a first-base prospect, someone else was hitting fungoes to the outfielders and, behind a screen, another group of players was practicing third base leads. Ten yards away we leaned against the backstop like we knew something and listened to the chatter.

But the ultimate spring baseball mecca is Vero Beach's Dodgerland. The sizzle here is history and class. You can feel it in the understated buildings and tree-shaded pathways named for Dodger greats. Turn right off Duke Snider Way onto Vin Scully Way to get to the minor league complex -- the connections are everywhere. You can feel the ghosts of Jackie Robinson, Snider and all the other old "Bums" of Brooklyn.

As we watch yet another minor league batting practice, Charlie Hough and Steve Yeager are bantering about teaching Hough's knuckleball to some clueless rookie and waiting for the next batting practice pitcher to warm up.

"Hey kid," Yeager says to the 11-year-old standing next to me in full Dodger regalia, "Are you ready to pitch BP? Come on, you've got the uniform. Got a glove?"

The boy blanches, looks down at his glove and glances at his father wondering if this is a joke or not. Yeager defuses the moment with a laugh and Hough points to the now-ready practice pitcher and says, "Maybe next time."

A classy spring training moment at a classic baseball monument.

Throughout spring training, 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.