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Q&A with Charles Fountain: Spring training for the soul

Charles Fountain, a journalism professor at Northeastern for 25 years, is the author of “Under the March Sun – The Story of Spring Training,” which was published in January. He has appeared frequently on the ESPN SportsCentury series, commenting on the myth and culture of American sport, and has appeared on NPR, and more than fifty television and radio stations nationwide.

Is there something special about spring training?

From the 1880s, when spring training started, through the end of the 1950s, the major league baseball map started in Boston, stretched across to Chicago, down to St. Louis, and then across to Washington. Draw a line around that map; that’s the land of good honest winter. And every year, in the middle of that winter, newspapers would start carrying baseball stories from warm places like St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fla. Forget crocuses and robins. The first sign that winter would eventually end were those soul-warming, warm-weather datelines in cold-weather newspapers. It’s a different world now, but spring training still means the end of winter. And that’s something fans and non-fans can relate to. There’s a transcend-the-game universality to spring training that the start of NFL training camp can never match.

What are the differences between Florida and Arizona spring training?

The biggest difference is the proximity of teams to one another in Arizona, and the distance between teams in Florida. Twelve of the fourteen teams training in Arizona train within a half-hour of each other in greater Phoenix. The other two are an hour-and-a-half away in Tucson. In Florida, meanwhile, the Red Sox have the Twins next door, and the Rays a half-hour away in Port Charlotte. But every other game is somewhere between an hour-and-a-half and three-and-a-half hours away.

In Arizona, virtually every stadium looks out on distant mountains; Florida has nothing so pretty. But then, when the game is over in Florida, you can go to the beach. It’s a long ride to the beach in Arizona.

What is your favorite spring training location? Why?

I am partial to two places that both lost spring training this year. One is Dodgertown in Vero Beach, partly because we’ve vacationed there for years and I went to a lot of games in Holman Stadium. But Dodgertown is also a singular piece of spring training real estate. Branch Rickey chose it for Dodgers spring training in 1948 because is had some World War II Naval Air Station barracks that could house the Dodgers players. That meant all the Dodgers players, black and white. Florida was segregated at the time and the Dodgers were the only team that lived together as a team, until the segregation customs and ordinances were struck down in the early 1960s. That makes Dodgertown and Vero Beach historic for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball.

The other special place that lost its spring training this year is Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, where the Yankees, Cardinals, Mets, and most recently the Rays all trained. Al Lang is right on the water. You could sit in stands and if the game was in a slow moment—or even if it wasn’t—you could allow yourself to be distracted by the sailboats on Tampa Bay.

That said, however, I have also seen spring training’s two newest complexes in Glendale and Goodyear, Ariz., and they are simply magnificent. But I have found in my travels around spring training that in most people’s eyes, the best spring training site is the one where their favorite team plays.

What do you like most about spring training?

I have never, not once, in the 30 years I’ve been going to spring training, ever had to brush the snow from my windshield when I got in my car to go to a game.

For a New Englander, getting away from the cold in winter is always going to be a treat. For a reporter though, spring training is a time of great story-telling opportunities. Players are more relaxed and cooperative and thus more expansive than they generally are during the regular season. The games don’t count, so there’s not much to say on that front, and it forces reporters to think a little more creatively. That can be a challenge, particularly for the daily writers who are there for the whole six weeks. I was never one of those. For me, I’ll always regard spring training as a place of limitless and very pleasing story opportunities.

What’s the relationship between spring training cities and their teams? For example, are there a lot of Boston Red Sox fans in Ft. Myers? How does it compare with the teams’ home cities?

Any city that’s had a long relationship with a major league team is going to become a magnet for fans of that team. A lot of Mets fans vacation in, or have retired to, Port St. Lucie. There are Cubs fans all over Mesa. And of course there are a lot of transplanted Minnesotans and New Englanders in Fort Myers because of the Twins and the Red Sox. Indeed one of the factors in the Red Sox decision to stay in Lee County instead of moving up to Sarasota when they were being wooed there last summer was a sensitivity to the large number of New Englanders who’ve followed the team to Southwest Florida over the last seventeen years.

One of the most special relationships between a team and its spring training city is the one between the Tigers and Lakeland. The Tigers have been coming to that central Florida city since 1934. The city is crawling with Michigan license plates every March, many of the fans staying with friends or family members who now have homes in Lakeland. Many of the Tiger players, former players and front office people have homes in Lakeland as well. I’m actually writing about this in a story that will go up on the Boston Globe website in a week or so.

Do you think spring training has lost its innocence? Spring training used to be low key, tickets were cheap. Now it’s hard to get tickets. There are big crowds.

While spring training is a dramatically more-crowded and more-commercial scene than it was even a decade ago, and certainly different from what it was 25 or 30 years ago, it is still the most innocent and intimate part of the baseball season. The worst seat at City of Palms Park is roughly just as close to the action as some of the best seats at Fenway, and while those tickets cost three times what they did just a few years ago, they still cost just a third of a regular season ticket. And if the old-timers sit there and tell you it’s not as good as it used to be, well, hasn’t that always been a part of the game too?

Have you noticed if this year’s down economy is having an impact on spring training turnout?

A question with a direct and simple answer: Yes. The Red Sox are still selling out, but across the Grapefruit and Cactus league, attendance at the early games is off as much as 25 percent and more. However sweet the spring training experience may be, unless you’re a ballplayer getting ready for the season, spring training is decidedly non-essential, exactly the sort of thing most vulnerable to being cut out of people’s budgets these days.

What’s your favorite team? Do you go to their spring training games?

I am a life-long New Englander and a Red Sox fan since the days of Ted Williams and Jackie Jensen. I’ve been to Fort Myers many times, and its great to be part of the buzz that’s always there. I write in the book that Red Sox spring training is like no other. But when it comes to spring training, if I’m just there as a fan, it doesn’t matter to me where I am or who’s playing. The experience of watching baseball in shirtsleeves in March is its own reward.

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