When Spring Training Meets Walt Disney
Finally, I can check another item off my bucket list: spring training.
After 53 years of baseball fanship and decades of musing about the intimate, relaxed pleasures of watching the best of the best tuning up for a long season to come, an opportunity finally presented itself.
My love affair with major league baseball started in 1957, with the Braves and Yankees in the World Series. After all these years, I can still remember the starting lineups for both teams. My older brother was a Braves fan, so I became a Braves fan too. They remain the only MLB team I ever cared about or followed closely. Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn were the heroes of that team, and rightfully so. Each holds a spot in Cooperstown today.
In the mid-'60s, the beloved Braves moved to Atlanta. Every year after that, our family went down to watch them. Aaron and Matthews were still in their prime, and Spahn was finishing his stellar career. Those weekends were enhanced by the presence of Mays, Drysdale, Gibson and a host of other greats. Sitting in the old Fulton County Stadium, watching Chief Noc-a-Homa dance around the tepee after Aaron hit one out, was as good as it got for a teenager.
Thirty years later, I moved my family to Anniston, Ala. We got to the ballpark 20 times a season. But we never went down to spring training.
Then, on a beautiful afternoon a couple of weeks ago, after an information-packed conference in Orlando about newspapers and the Web, I had a free afternoon. And there my wife and I found ourselves - at the Braves' compound, no less.
I'd always heard that spring training venues were small, simple affairs, with players close enough that you could hold casual conversations with them during a pitching change. Autographs were easy. The pace was relaxed, the seats were cheap, about the same price as the beer and hot dog you ate. The crowds were also small, intimate and friendly. Or so they always said.
To be honest, six or seven years ago I drifted away from Major League ball because my son was playing in college. That took all of my baseball time. When that was over, I found I didn't know any of the players anymore, so the ties weren't as tight. And they practically had a new team every year anyway.
But there was real delight in finding out the Braves were playing in town, just a few miles away. Lani had come to love the Braves as much as I had. This was a chance to get reconnected with our team. We were in for a surprise.
In some ways, spring training is still spring training. The game is still slow-paced. The stars still play only one or two innings before the young guns come in and get their looks. The pitchers still pitch only one inning each. The bats are a little ahead of the arms. That much was expected.
What was unexpected was everything else - what happens when your favorite team meets Mickey Mouse and gets Disneyfied. It's what happens when it goes from being about the game to being about "The Show."
What happens when marketing triumphs over love of the game? Theme Park 5, Baseball Fans 2.
That little ballpark turns into a bright -yellow 10,000-seat stadium, complete with a Jumbotron in right field, reserved seating and, yes, skyboxes you can rent for a group at $80 a head. Seat tickets go from $5 or $6 to $32 each. A plain, blah gray hamburger fetches $10. Beers are $6.50, except in the sixth inning, when they sell PBRs for $3. At every turn, someone is pushing hats, tees and sweats with a team logo for $20.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I guess I just hoped that somewhere in the wide wide world of sports there was something that hadn't totally succumbed to gross commercialism. Pro sports have gone so over the top they've pretty much lost me. College football and basketball - at least the major programs - have too.
Don't get me wrong, I still love the game. I love watching the kids getting a chance to show Bobby Cox what they can do. I'm just tired of the junk that surrounds it. The game of baseball is priceless. The price of an afternoon of DisneyBall, including -transportation was a cool, wholly -unexpected $152.
Next time I go to spring training, I think I'll drive one to deep right field in search of the old approach. Call me a little goofy, but I thought the Disney approach was a little Mickey Mouse.
Pat Taylor is advertising director for The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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