The Boys of Summer are back on the diamond and Opening Day is just around the corner!
I surged from my seat along the first baseline, rising as one with the crowd.
The ball whistled up the alley in left centerfield, kicking up a small puff of dust as it hit the warning track and caromed off the wall.
Pittsburgh's Russell Martin hesitated for just a moment between second and third, then took off for the plate. It was the briefest of pauses, but it would cost him dearly.
At the Plate
Toronto's Melky Cabrera (of all people!) hustled over from left and played the ball cleanly off the fence.
A wily veteran back in action after serving his PED-related suspension, Cabrera turned and fired a strike to the cut-off man.
Shortstop Maicer Izturis snared the throw and wheeled back toward the infield. He spied poor old Martin, still chugging along on his way home.
Izturis unleashed a laser beam to the plate where catcher Mike Nickeas stood looking suspiciously casual.
The former Met backstop wasn't blocking the plate, or hunkered down in anticipation of a bang-bang play. Hell, he hadn't even taken off his mask.
In fact, Nickeas looked more like a man waiting for a bus than a Major Leaguer at the focal point of an electrifying Grapefruit League highlight.
He was playin' possum!
The ball arrived on one hop just a split second before the runner and Nickeas sprang to life. He stuck out his glove, snagged the throw and pounced.
You could see the shock on Martin's face as he quickly threw himself into a late slide.
Nickeas applied the tag, home plate umpire Bill Welke made an emphatic "Out!" call and the Pirate crowd of 8,439 groaned in unison.
Martin pleaded half-heartedly for a moment, but then dusted himself off and retired to the dugout mumbling under his breath.
I turned to my Dad, who'd also leapt out of his seat as the play unfolded.
We smiled at one another and sat back down. The crowd still buzzed as Welke dusted off the plate and the next batter was announced.
Gaby Sanchez strode to the dish, but my attention wandered. I gazed up at a dazzling azure sky, then back down to the greens and browns of the infield.
Palm trees swayed gently beyond the outfield fence as the sun warmed my face. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. After too many wintry days in NEPA, my favorite week of the year had finally arrived.
Spring Training in all its glory was here and I'd vowed to appreciate every single second, beginning with Day One here in Fort Myers, Florida.
Soaking it In
Extra Innings? I didn't even know they played extra innings in the Grapefruit League.
And yet, this very first game between the Pirates and Blue Jays stood tied at 4-4 after nine.
Mark Buehrle had taken the hill as Toronto's starter, opposed by Pittsburgh's James McDonald. Both pitchers looked sharp for five frames before heading off to the outfield for their daily wind sprints.
Toronto appeared to have this one in hand, but the Blue Jays bullpen sputtered in the late innings.
Pittsburgh rallied to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth on a Felix Pie solo homer and Josh Harrison's 2-out, RBI double.
Carlos Paulino then sent the record-setting crowd home happy by ripping a game-ending single in the bottom of the tenth.
As I've told anyone who will listen, every baseball fan should make the trip to Spring Training at least once in his/her life.
There's nothing like it.
The crowds are small. Ticket prices are more than reasonable. Both players and coaches are relaxed and approachable.
Everyone's in a good mood and optimism reigns supreme.
Spring Training is the place of new beginnings, a place where hope springs eternal. My team and your team are equal and anything's possible on the road to the World Series.
Yes, even my beloved Mets have a realistic shot at the Fall Classic.
Ok, maybe not a realistic, chance, but it's March and I can still dream ... while sipping on my umbrella among the palm trees of Florida.