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Spring training: Cactus league here we come

March 6, 2016 at 11:27 p.m.


On an early March day in 2002, a group of four East Texas guys arrived in Clearwater, Fla., for an afternoon game at Jack Russell Stadium. The legendary ballpark, spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies since 1955, saw our hometown Texas Rangers visiting that day.

The Rangers' key performer during my first ever spring training game was young outfielder Kevin Mench. I can still see Mench, who had two homers and five RBI, clowning by the dugout after the game with friends and family wearing his fielding glove on his head and laughing like a kid. He was having the time of his life.

What strange world had I stepped into? Players were running on the track during the game and talking to fans by the dugout. When their field time was done, they would stop on their way to the clubhouse to sign autographs as the rookies and minor leaguers continued playing. The environment felt something like your local little league park, except these were Big Leaguers. It was spring training baseball, and I was hooked.

My travel companions that year included Clayton "Perkins" Pecot who was also making his first journey to spring training, and Kenny "The Lizard" Lattin, the savvy veteran making his third trip. The Lizard's job was to use his experience to coordinate our schedule while Pecot watched for Perkins restaurants in search of the elusive chocolate chipper, which is part of any nutritious breakfast.

So much has changed since that first trip 14 years ago. We can now order all our tickets online and print them at home. We don't need road maps and magazines to help us find ballparks – GPS will take us right where we need to go. Giant cases of CDs and volumes of baseball reference materials have been replaced with a single phone.

Another major difference concerns the big business into which spring baseball has grown. Many of the old parks have been replaced with modern facilities — always fantastic and full of amenities, but absent the charm and history of the places they have replaced. Players are far less accessible now, but there are still opportunities out there from time to time. Ticket prices have at least doubled since then, too.

That's not the biggest difference for me, though. When I headed to Florida in 2002, I left behind my two sons for the week: Joel was four and Jake was two. They were just little boys who got a new T-shirt out of the deal and that was about it. But somewhere along the way, life happened, and they grew up.

Sunday afternoon, I headed toward Arizona for my seventh spring training vacation, the first since 2009. The Lizard is along of course, marking his ninth trip. His planning skills continue to be without peer, and he has mapped out a schedule that will not only feature eight games in six days, but also allow us to check out our Texas Rangers four times. He even managed to include all four of the new ballparks added since our last visit to Phoenix in 2005.

Perkins will be flying out to join us midweek, and we shall anxiously await his arrival. He is good to have along for more than just restaurant lookout — he will be well rested at that point, so he will also handle chauffer duties for the remainder of the week. This is the first he is hearing of this plan, so I hope he still shows up.

A new member of our traveling party this year will be my younger brother Ben, who will arrive from Canada on Monday night. Though he grew up in East Texas like the rest of us, Benjo has lived in Vancouver for several years now. This has resulted in a bizarre southern-hoser blend of an accent I like to call "red-leaf neck." The locals won't know what to make of that, but it matters little, since most of them are so old they probably can't hear anyway.

Accompanying the Lizard and me for the drive out was my older son Joel "MacTavish" Best, now 18, and a senior at Pine Tree. This trip, suggested by his mother, is intended as a celebration of his upcoming graduation, though I am suspicious that she just wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet for a few days for the first time since his birth. The final member of our group is my younger son, the now 16-year-old who hasn't been called Jake since the days of my first trip. In fact, most of East Texas knows him simply as Pokey. I'm just glad we had enough room to fit his massive wardrobe, accessories and various grooming accoutrements in the van.

I'm excited to share this trip with Joel and Pokey, and no doubt they will inject a lot of enthusiasm sorely needed by their middle aged travel companions. I'm also excited to share our experiences with you in this column, and hope you will vicariously enjoy the fun along with us.

So as you enjoy your morning coffee and read these words remember: We have been driving all night, and there are miles to go before we sleep. But we are in sunny Arizona and living out the old adage: a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day at work every time.

— Joshua Best, part-time author, musician and international renaissance man, is making his ninth trip to Major League Baseball's spring training. Email: jbest@marketmybusiness.net.

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