Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring Training in Tampa

Baseball is a tremendous sport. Combined with the grind of 162 games and the excitement and intensity it provides to fans, it is a sport like no other. It is a tool that unites individuals from a variety of locations and cultural backgrounds. It also provides many with an escape from the reality and turmoils of life that often times come our way.

For me, the first experience I had with the game of baseball came in 1996 when I was around 9 years old. I was in Orlando for vacation and my mom took my brother and I to Tampa for a day to see the Yankees in Spring Training. I was young and didn't know much about the team or players, but I played softball so there was some excitement in seeing a real Major League baseball team up close and in person.

Back then, Spring Training in Tampa was fan-friendly and you had easy access in getting close to the players. The fences were at a decent level in which you could see over them without being obstructed. My mom still remembers how excited I was from this trip and how had begged her to take me back there the following day (she never did since our plane was leaving the next day).

It wasn't until I was a senior in high school that we made the trip back to Tampa. I was the only one in my family who enjoyed baseball, so it was struggle convincing my mom and brother to agree on taking the trip down south. I begged and pleaded and we eventually made the trip during my break from school. It is a tradition I have continued every year since that trip and is something I look forward to once baseball season is over.

Collecting autographs was something I didn't have much interest in doing when I first started going to baseball games. It was really the thrill of being at the ballpark and seeing my favorite players live and in person that was the highlight of making the trip. My first autograph was a ball that was signed by Jorge Posada. It was exciting but it wasnt something that I found myself seeking to do every time I was at a game.

Over time, the thrill of collecting autographs developed into a passion. Initially it was easy to come across. You would wait by the field after practice and the players would come by and sign for you. You had balls filled with autographs; sometimes in which you would come home and be unable to even figure out the player that had signed the ball. The players made kids and adults happy just by taking a minute or two to stop and sign their name on a ball.

As the years went by, it did become harder and more of a challenge to get autographs. With persistence and going to the field early, you were able to come away with something. Over the years I have a collection of an array of players; each having a different story of how I came across the autograph. The most impressive from last year was getting Derek Jeter's autograph. Anyone around spring training knows how difficult it can be to get him to sign. But players like Rivera, Swisher, Damon, and a variety of others have always been easy to come across.

It's difficult at times for the players because they do have a job to do. Last year, Mariano Rivera was around the side field, waiting around the fence before practice began. Many of us asked him to sign autographs; a plea the led to his response of "do you want me to work or sign". In the end he ended up coming over to sign, taking five minutes out of his time. Kids were excited, adults were excited. That's the point of spring training for the fans, isn't it?

You have to keep in mind that signing autographs is tricky for players. You might stop and sign 20 autographs. At some point you have to stop and get to work and that 21st person there is left without an autograph and is often times upset. As a fan it sucks, but you have to realize that they can only sign so many.

That is the difference between this year and the previous years. Very few players are even stopping to sign any autographs, let alone twenty. I have been here for five days and have never seen the players act like this. I talked to a few security guards and fans and they mentioned that they noticed the same thing. The one guard didn't know why- but assumed it was because there are so many people out there that show up every day wanting to sell the autographs online. It sounded like it made sense to me, though I didn't think it seemed very fair to those who are not there to sell them (and someone did point out that eventually, every autograph does get sold, look at those such a Babe Ruth's).

But then came the word that perhaps the lack of signing was coming from someone upstairs. I am not a reporter or someone who works for the Yankees. But a situation occurred in which Eric Chavez was signing autographs for fans on the side field. Tony Pena approached him, saying that he needed to stop signing or he might be fined. Chavez looked up at him, dropped the pen and left the fans. A person in the crowd mentioned in response to this observation that he heard this was coming down from Hank. Word was that he was so angry about the Yankees not making the World Series that he wanted them to focus more on playing and less on autographs. And with this situation, a guy like Chavez has more to lose than a guy who has made the team.

Now I do not know if perhaps there is a certain rule that they have for the players to follow. How would I know since I do not work for the team. But Pena said what he said and there's no denying that. As for what he meant, perhaps the players aren't allowed to sign at a certain time before practice. Who knows. But I will tell you this, regardless of if the Yankees deny it or not, there has been a huge drop off in players signing. Am I saying Jeter cares of he is fined? No, He can afford it even if it is a rule in which they are fined. He's just being himself. Heres the perfect example for you--The other morning when the Yankees were away, there were about 30 people at the field watching Jeter, A-Rod, and a handful of other players taking batting practice. After practice ended, not one player stopped to sign for anyone. Not one. Their day was over as they were not traveling with the team and they couldnt stop for any of the 30 fans.

And this is not saying that NOBODY is signing. Swisher and Granderson have been great this year. But in general, the team has been worse than usual.

I personally have all the autographs I want. Sure, I'd love Tino's, but I couldn't care less if I got his or not. The goal this year was to get some for the kids I tutor. The little girls are not into baseball much, but I remember being young and getting my first autograph. Now here I am at age 24 going to games in Tampa by myself and having a great time watching baseball. It can turn you into baseball and that is the hope I have for the kids. Dont get me wrong. The kids will survive in me not having autographs for them but it is just terrible seeing how ridiculous the Yankees have become and how little they care about their fans. They want your money and the support from the fans but they can not take five minutes to sign for a few people who came there early to support them. And if its true Hank did threaten to fine the players, he must really have no care at all for those who spend a great deal of money coming down to support this team.

At some point in time people are going to get frustrated and stop coming. For me, this trip has not been worth it. My own personal reason goes beyond the autograph issue; more in how I was forced out of a seat by a security guard during the Red Sox game. It was uncalled for and I still am in shock and don't understand the reason for why they did it. I decided that it may not be worth the money next year coming down. I would miss the great fans that I meet while down here but I wont miss the way in which the Yankees treat the fans.