by Chip Ainsworth
My first memory of watching a Grapefruit League game is when I was 10 years old in Pompano Beach with my father. The Washington Senators were playing a team at a ballpark so nondescript it was the home of the local high school team. We sat on metal benches next to a pitcher named Jim Duckworth and the game was tied after nine frames. “No charge for extra innings,” said the PA announcer.
Today spring training is big business. At Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, fans pay the same prices for hot dogs and beer they do at big league parks. A lower box seat for a premium game against the Red Sox cost $36. Throw in all the other costs — food, beverages, parking and a program — and the price tag tops out at about $100.
Travel writer John Gunther once wrote how to see Europe on five dollars a day; here’s how to see baseball in Jupiter for fifteen dollars a game. First, avoid games involving the aforementioned carmines. Against the Marlins two weeks ago, the ticket office sold 800 standing room tickets. The place was mobbed and that’s no fun unless you enjoy being in a sardine can.
Although the Marlins and Cardinals share the stadium, only go to the Marlins’ games. There’s no fan loyalty for the Marlins in Florida and consequently there are plenty of unsold seats. Cardinals’ games, by contrast, are usually sellouts. The place teems with red-clad fans from the show-me state.
Arrive two hours early and park for free in the triple-level garage across from the stadium. Why they don’t charge to park on game days is a pleasant mystery, and it beats paying five bucks in the parking lot.
Before leaving your car, line your own scorecard to save $6 for a program and layer the bottom of your canvas tote bag with food and soda. Cover the items with a sweatshirt, put a newspaper over the sweatshirt and plop a bottle of water on the top.
Then go to the box office, buy a $15 bleacher seat and head for the turnstiles. A security person will be standing in front of the turnstile next to foldout table. He’ll ask you to put the tote bag on top so he can inspect its contents. As he starts to peer into the bag simply ask, “Water’s okay, right?”
He’ll see the bottle, give a cursory glance at the newspaper and sweatshirt, say “Yup” and begin eyeballing the next person in line.
Once inside the park, ignore your bleacher ticket and sit in your choice of $26 loge boxes down either foul line. Recently I had a whole section to myself. It was great: I read the paper, plopped a foot over the seat in front of me, grabbed a can of Coke and a ham sandwich and watched batting practice and infield warm-ups.
It was luxurious. Some people go to the tops of mountain peaks to get their serenity and others pray in cathedrals. I get mine by watching two ballplayers play catch. The casual ease with which they throw the ball, the back-and-forth repetitiveness, the slap of cowhide on leather, is meditative and calming. I’m in the right place at the right time and all is well with the world.
And that folks, is how to roll when you go to watch a game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.
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A fellow and I were jotting the lineups posted behind home plate before the Mets-Marlins game at Roger Dean earlier this month. Pity the poor Mets. The team that boasted the likes of Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden now has nobody.
Batting eighth in their lineup was a centerfielder named Matt den Dekker. “Ever heard of that guy?” I asked the guy next to me.
He peered at the name and answered, “I had season tickets and I’ve never heard of him. I gave ‘em up this year, $150 a game to watch that team? They’ve become Pittsburgh, signing guys that get cut by Milwaukee…”
He introduced himself. Said his name is Ken Gliedman, from Manhattan but formerly of Brooklyn. I asked him why he rooted for the Mets.
“I grew up a Dodgers fan so I hated the Yankees.” he said. “I rooted for the Mets after Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers to LA. The Dodgers leaving took the heart out of the Borough. We became nothing. In Brooklyn, Walter O’Malley and Adolph Hitler, they’re both about equal.”
Underneath the grandstand at Roger Dean, a vendor was auctioning autographed baseballs. It was a silent auction and top bids would be announced after the sixth inning, but fans could “buy it now” for a set price. “We’re not trying to rip people off,” he said of the high prices. “We have to pay the players, pay for the cubes, and pay for the authentication.”
A baseball signed by Nomar Garciaparra was selling for $225 and a baseball signed by Bob Gibson was selling for $175. Garciaparra played for four teams over 14 seasons and was a .313 hitter with 229 home runs and 936 RBIs.
Gibson pitched 17 seasons, all with the St. Louis Cardinals, and was a two-time Cy Young award winner. He finished 251-174 and is currently 14th on the all-time strikeout list (one whiff ahead of Curt Schilling). In 1968 he was 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA. He made $84,000 that season. He retired in 1975, saying, “I knew it was time to quit when I gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock.”
Gibson was an irascible sort who hit 102 batters and spoke candidly of his mean streak: “In a world filled with hate, prejudice and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice and protest.”
I didn’t get it. How was a Nomar ball worth more than a baseball signed by a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
“Garciaparra charges more,” shrugged the vendor. “The older guys are more reasonable.”
Gibson probably needs the money more than Nomar. He made $1.31 million during his career, Nomar’s made $78.5 million. Chalk it up to greed.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sportswriter.