A view from the Cheap Seats

18 days ... 9 cities ... 1 man's beer-soaked journey into the world of spring training

click to enlarge HOPEFULS: Trying out for the Tigers pitching staff in Lakeland. - Scott Butherus
Scott Butherus
HOPEFULS: Trying out for the Tigers pitching staff in Lakeland.

Editor's Note: Scott Butherus describes himself as a baseball fan, a native Floridian, a journalist and a devoted drinker of beer. He's also a graduate student in multimedia journalism at the University of South Florida's School of Mass Communications. With a level of savvy that bodes well for the 26-year-old's future success, he dreamed up a master's thesis project that combined all of his passions: a six-month investigation into Florida's baseball culture, culminating in an 18-day, nine-city, beer-soaked journey to all of the spring training sites along the Gulf Coast.

Here at Creative Loafing we empathize with all of Scott's interests (especially the beer), so we agreed with him and his graduate advisors that his story (excerpted from his thesis) would be a good fit for CL. It's a sweet deal: He gets a published piece, a degree and, of course, beer; we get a look back at the spring training season just past, combined with reflections on baseball's place in Florida. (We didn't get beer, though; we'll have to talk to him about that.)

A core part of Scott's project, reflecting his multimedia degree, is its online component. Readers of CL's blog, blurbex.com, have already seen Scott's postings from the spring-training trail. Users can also view his online virtual tour and video documentary (right).

First Inning: Tiger,Tiger

"Number 131, you're up!" yelled a grizzled coach in a Tigers hat. It was my turn to try and achieve my childhood dream of being a big-league ballplayer. Although the chances of that happening were approximately the same as a snowstorm blowing through the Sunshine State, there I was, standing on a pitcher's mound in Lakeland at the spring tryouts for the Detroit Tigers.

Maybe it was a case of the butterflies, or maybe it was the Kobayashi impression I'd tried at the Pirates game the day before, but my stomach had the jitters. I guess that's why my first pitch sailed three feet over the catcher's head, ricocheted off a pole and nearly drilled the handful of catchers waiting on the other end of the battery. After that, the rest of my bullpen session in front of the coaches went well; I spotted my fastballs, my breaking balls were sharp, and thanks to a little extra wind, my knuckleballs danced like a drunken mascot. I even got to shake hands with Todd Jones, current closer for the American League Champion Tigers, who'd come over from the adjacent field to watch. At 26 I wasn't the oldest among the over 200 players trying out that day, but I certainly was old by baseball standards.

The day started off with a drive out to Lakeland to one of Florida's most historic stadiums, Joker Marchant, along with fellow UCF alumnus Phil Risi. After signing in, we were greeted by Detroit's head of player development with a quick pep talk about how the odds were against anyone being signed. Then we were split into groups based on our positions.

The players trying out ranged in age from 18 to 45. Most were players from obscure Division II or Junior Colleges (in their teams' uniforms) who wanted to prove they could play at the next level. A few were players with previous professional experience who'd been forced to forego their baseball careers due to injury or other circumstances. The last group consisted of foreign players from Latin America and Asia who never had a chance to play college in the U.S. (One Japanese player had flown all the way from Tokyo just to try out.) For all the players trying out, the chance of getting a callback was slim. As one of the coaches told me afterward, "Last year we brought in three players from the tryouts. ... none of which broke camp with the organization at the end of spring training."

click to enlarge GONE TIKI: Where Phanatics gather to, um, watch the game. - Scott Butherus
Scott Butherus
GONE TIKI: Where Phanatics gather to, um, watch the game.

Second Inning: Phanatics

Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, the latest of the spring training megaplexes, was unveiled in 2004, built with over $18 million in tax dollars for the Philadelphia Phillies. Perhaps its most beloved feature is the 60-barstool, 50-foot, thatched-roof tiki bar called Frenchy's, located just beyond the outfield fence in left field.

A full liquor bar in the middle of the cheap seats? This was my field of dreams. The only thing missing was Kevin Costner playing catch with Shoeless Joe.

Joe Jackson never showed up, but several other well-known ballplayers made an appearance at the hut. Former Phillies Darren "Dutch" Daulton and Larry Anderson are frequent attendees at the games, and current Phillies like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley often hang out after the games, signing autographs and listening to the live music. It's easy to see why Clearwater was named one of the top sports cities in America by Sports Illustrated, despite being home to only one spring training team and its minor league affiliate.

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