My heartbeat seems to have slowed a bit.
I feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes more than ever before and on those rare days in late March when I can feel the warmth of the sun, it’s like getting a passionate embrace from dear Mother Nature.
Spring fever is nothing new. It’s afflicted people of these New England climes for generations dating back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But this is different. It’s a strain of spring fever to be sure but with a touch of another more recently diagnosed malady called Baseball Fever.
In my case, it’s rather acute. For the first time in 12 years, I’m waking up at home the last week of March instead of in Fort Myers, Fla., near the training grounds of the Minnesota Twins and their Double-A affiliates, the New Britain Rock Cats.
I miss the perfect mornings when the bronzed young men jog out to the pristine minor league complex adjacent to majestic Hammond Stadium, the beautiful facility that houses major league camp and the Twins’ Class A team, the Fort Myers Miracle. How perfect that name. There is something miraculous about Southwest Florida. In some ways it does seem like it’s a little closer to heaven.
Four diamonds fan out from a three-story tower where the Twins’ administrative hierarchy can oversee everything that happens.
On one field, the Rock Cats-to-be work out and play an early afternoon game against similar competition that trains in the region. The Red Sox are right across town. The Orioles aren’t far away nor are the Pirates.
On another field, you have the Triple-A team, composed largely of players whose big league dreams have been temporarily – or permanently – derailed. I remember one spring when my dear friend and former Rock Cats manager Stan Cliburn had to lecture a young Triple-A outfielder dismayed by the trauma of being optioned to the minors.
Cliburn’s discourse was poignant and brilliantly mixed with equal parts of human compassion, baseball reality and the charm of the southern gentleman that characterizes the native of Jackson, Miss. Ex-Rock Cat Denard Span is now a Twins staple as leadoff hitter/centerfielder.
The third field features the newest professionals, bound for the lowest echelons of minor league baseball, where glory and attendance are rare commodities and dues must be paid.
The fourth diamond has no outfield – a perfectly manicured infield with a fence five feet beyond the skin portion. I’ve often talked to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor there after watching him bang grounders at infield hopefuls, stressing the fundamentals that made him one of the greatest players of his time whom few around here know about because he never played in New York or Boston.
Atop the tower, you’d find the inimitable Jim Rantz, the Twins minor league director who has been with the franchise since it moved to the Twin Cities from Washington, D.C., in 1961 and he was a pitching prospect.
Few people live to have the unique pleasure of witnessing the tributes that have rightfully been bestowed on Mr. Rantz. Since 2002, the Jim Rantz Award has gone to the top minor league pitcher in the system. All nine recipients have pitched for New Britain, including the most recent honoree Kyle Gibson, the rangy right-hander who surely will be the object of fantasy baseball devotees before long.
Mr. Rantz is benevolent, kind and a frequent visitor to New Britain Stadium.
One time about 10 years ago, I tossed my computer bag in the back of my minivan as a headed to the stadium. As I was driving, I heard a voice. I was able to distinguish it as the soft, thoughtful tone of Mr. Rantz.
Divine intervention? It very well could have been, but in this case, my computer bag had landed in such a way that set off my tape recorder.
The Rock Cats manager is Jeff Smith. Talk about kindness and benevolence, I know Jeff didn’t invent the traits but he ranks among the finest baseball gentlemen I’ve ever met.
As a player in New Britain for parts of six seasons, Smitty did everything he could to endear himself to the people of the region. He visited hospitals and read to children. He took the time to encourage the elderly in nursing homes. He was a regular at Klingberg Family Center, the stately facility on the hill in the center of New Britain that does wonderful things for youngsters in need.
As manager, Smith and the Twins expect no less of the players, and they respond with selflessness. Many a central Connecticut native will recall spending time with the likes of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, the heart of the Twins’ batting order these days.
Springtime in Fort Myers was always my time to reminisce with them and others who I befriended in my 30 years around the world’s most exquisite game. I knew I would miss that and I knew the most difficult moments would come as opening day grew close.
When it comes to the milk of human kindness, the Twins are the cream of the crop. That’s one reason why Rock Cats owner/general manager/president/patron saint Bill Dowling relishes a partnership that does not include the Red Sox, the team he rooted for passionately growing up in Holyoke, Mass., or the Yankees, for whom he worked as general counsel.
Spring training has come and gone, and I’ve missed it dearly. I take solace in the fact that nothing will keep me from frequenting my perch in the New Britain Stadium press box just as often as I can as the 2011 season plays out.