THEY say that "hope springs eternal".
Who says that? I dunno. THEY do. In actuality, it was probably Shakespeare, or Proust, or some other dude whose name shows up in Jeopardy! more often than it shows up in my brain. Most of these expressions are empty platitudes. "You can’t judge a book by its cover" THEY also say. I say that you damn-well can judge a book by its cover, since that’s what covers are there for … to make pre-conceived judgements.
"Hope springs eternal" is more than a platitude, though. At least, variations are. In the case of the Pirates, I might phrase it as "Spring hope is eternal". I think I like that version a lot. Suck on that, Proust.
As a kid, I can remember distinct, visceral emotions connected to Pirates Spring Training. It was something about the dichotomy of shoveling 10 inches of snow from the driveway on a Sunday afternoon and then coming inside to watch the palm trees sway in the outfield of McKechnie Field in the Florida sunshine. It was something about the tenor of Steve Blass’ voice as he described the warm air, the sandy beach, and the promise of a new season. It was baseball. The Boys of Summer driving off the winds of winter.
Five years ago, I attended Spring Training for the first time with my son. We’ve gone every year since. I left Pittsburgh almost 20 years ago for the more temperate climate of North Carolina. I suspect it’s not quite the same sitting in Bradenton on a 75 degree day when it’s still 60 degrees at home than it is getting off the plane in Tampa when it was 25 degrees in Pittsburgh. But, even still, Spring Training is awesome.
Spring Training is now a tradition for us. My son plays hooky from school for a week. Some years, my parents, my brother and nephew, and my high school friends have joined us. One year, my wife and daughter came. I bought box seats for us all. After $100 for tickets, $40 in concessions and two innings, the girls left to go to the beach. Now Spring Training is for baseball fans only.
Make no mistake, Florida is the armpit of the United States, which makes Bradenton the non-cancerous mole in said armpit. Maybe with a nasty little hair growing out of it. But even the largest warts can’t cast a shadow on the hope of Spring Training. Anna Maria Island is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. The orange ice cream at the back of Mixon’s Fruit Farm near Pirate City is a Yinzer delicacy. And McKechnie Field is Camelot, a city on a hill where hope is born. (By the way, it will always be McKechnie Field, not whatever stupid corporate acronym-that-sounds-like-a-telecom-giant-not-a-medical-school-for-C-students sponsors it.)
As for the Pirates, Spring hope is eternal with them as well. I’ll find a way to talk myself into predicting 90 wins, as I have just about every year since 1987. When I bought my tickets last week, I thought to myself "It will be good to buy them now before the inevitable rush when Huntington surprises us all by signing Manny Machado." Hope, amirite?
It’s Spring. So Starling Marte is due for a 6-WAR season. Josh Bell will slug .900. Adam Frazier will be MLB’s breakout player of the year. Jameson Taillon will win the Cy Young. Colin Moran will learn to hit a ball higher than a step ladder.
Before too long, Spring will end. And the hope will melt away in the harsh heat of summer. Manny Machado will sign elsewhere. Veterans will underperform. Rookies will struggle. Colin Moran will kill thousands of worms.
So, in the midst of the Polar Vortex, I’m going to enjoy the warmth of Bradenton. The palm trees at McKechnie. The orange ice cream at Mixons. The white sand beaches of Anna Maria. The hope of Spring. And the confidence that it will be back again next year.
I’d love to hear your favorite memories of Pirate Spring Training and your favorite places to visit and eat in Bradenton!