March 13, 2009
Winter Haven, Florida, Friday, March 13, 2009 - Spring break in Winter Haven is not about beaches and nightclubs. Spring break in Winter Haven means baseball.
We arrived midday on Saturday and were greeted by temperatures in the eighties. Each day since has been sunny and warm and we've begun to find a little rhythm in the routines of the trip after getting off to a slow start with close 4-3 and 4-2 losses to Sacred Heart and Miami of Ohio. We got the bats going on Tuesday with a 21-6 win over Bowling Green and stayed hot against Toledo last night. Matt McDonald pitched well and we beat the Rockets 10-2. Tonight, we'll try to get above .500 by beating a good Eastern Kentucky club.
We are staying at a Holiday Inn a long fungo from the outfield fence of Chain `O Lakes Park. Except for two of the games in the Russ Matt Invitational here, we are able to walk to the hallowed ground of the former spring training home of the Red Sox and Indians for our games and batting practice. Each time I see the covered grandstand, it is difficult not to hear the voices of Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery welcoming their viewers to Winter Haven in my head. It seems like yesterday I was one of those frozen New Englanders tuning in to get a late winter baseball fix. The grass was so green and everyone was wearing short sleeves! The fact that the Sox were last here in 1992, when many of our freshmen were still wearing diapers, makes me feel really old.
We made our first walk to the park on Sunday morning at 6:45 a.m. It really felt like 5:45 a.m. in that we had to move the clocks ahead just hours before in order to accommodate for daylight savings time. It was my first time walking to a morning game in the dark. We must have looked like a gang out for some trouble. With our uniforms on, bats in hand and the sun yet to rise, we were heading to batting practice in the pitch black for a 9:00 a.m. first pitch, but I saw some of the passing motorists on Cypress Gardens Boulevard do double takes probably wondering if we were attempting a bad reenactment of a scene from The Outsiders or West Side Story.
Like most baseball folks, I'm a creature of habit and I always go for a pre-game run. That meant I was patrolling the streets of Winter Haven at 4:47 a.m. (or 3:47 a.m. prior to daylight savings). I like to run when we arrive in a town in order to see what dining options are available, get my bearings and also see if there are any places our guys should avoid in their own exploring. I mainly look for signs. Any neon is usually indicative of a place of which our team should steer clear. On that early morning the only neon sign was in the QualiMed store window on the way to downtown Winter Haven. Instead of the usual "Nude", "Bud Light", "Tattoos", or "Piercing", it read, "Chair Lifts, Scooters, Oxygen."
After encountering three stray dogs sprinting ahead of me between the QualiMed and the many foreclosure signs in downtown, I retreated to the breakfast buffet at the hotel satisfied that there wasn't an awful lot of trouble to be found and the distractions from baseball would be difficult to find between the lakes and orange groves in the middle of Florida.
So far, that has indeed been the case. The hitters have put in some extra work in the cages, we've introduced a more dynamic warm-up routine for our team, gotten a productive lift in on the only non-game day here, almost kicked the seemingly never ending viral infection that has haunted us since mid-February, had two good practices and even seen some other teams play while waiting for our games to begin.
Two of those teams here are the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Vermont. Both share a fate that nobody in college baseball would wish on any other program. Due to budget cuts at both schools, their programs are enduring their final seasons this spring.
I got a chance to speak with head coaches Bill Currier of UVM and Rick Heller of UNI briefly between games earlier this week. Both are good coaches and good men. They've run quality programs filled with quality people for more than thirty years combined. I can't imagine what they're going through. Winning games is tough enough when you're not wondering what you're going to do for the rest of your life, trying to find new schools for your players, or managing to stay positive while every coach, scout, and person you encounter tilts their head sympathetically and tells you how sorry they are for you.
I know I'm not alone in the baseball community, when rooting for Coach Currier, Coach Heller, and the Catamounts and Panthers this year. Hopefully, they'll all find something meaningful this spring and enjoy another baseball spring break in 2010 and beyond.
As for the Huskies, we have some work to do in the next two days before we can call this a good trip. With John Folino and Elliot Glynn toeing the slab tonight and tomorrow, we'll look to continue the winning ways and return to the cold of Connecticut with some momentum. With no classes being conducted, no bad weather forecasted and no distractions in Winter Haven, it's all about baseball, baseball, and more baseball.