You want to have a magical Red Sox experience in Fort Myers? You want to go to a place where the players are so close, they walk right past you and even say good morning? You want to give your kids a chance to fill a couple of baseballs with autographs? You want to watch the players stretch, play long-toss, practice pick-offs and and run-downs, and hear everything they say? You want to mingle with Red Sox legends?
Forget going to City of Palms Park, where the team that’s Boston-bound practices and plays. The crowds there are so huge, you can hardly blame the major leaguers for hiding in the batting cages out back. Instead, head down Edison Avenue about three miles, all the way to the end, to the Red Sox’ Minor League Complex. This morning, I strolled in there with two of my kids at 9:30am (admission is free), and for the next two hours, we (and the 30 other fans there) were in baseball heaven. Seriously.
As the players emerged from the locker room, every single one of them stopped to sign an autograph for my boys (ages 8 and 6) and to say hello. Most of the players are guys you’ve never heard of, but among them were notable prospects Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, and Joshua Papelbon, and former major leaguers Tom Goodwin and Billy McMillon. Did my kids even CARE who they were? Of course not — they were just thrilled to see pro ball players in Red Sox uniforms up close. VERY close.
The players split up into about six groups and headed out to six different fields to stretch and go through their daily drills. From the center of the complex, you can see all six fields, though it’s more fun to pick one field and study a subset of players. My boys and I brought our gloves and a ball, and on the lawn between fields, we tossed the ball to each other, practicing our fly balls and grounders, playing monkey in the middle, and just having a grand old time pretending we, too, were getting ready for the season. Which we were! (Me as a fan, and my boys as little leaguers.)
A groundskeeper driving past us in his golf cart stopped and handed a broken bat to each of my children. The bats had the words “Boston Red Sox” engraved on the barrels. Think they’ll ever forget that?
My 8 year-old is savvy enough to know who Dwight Evans is, so when I pointed out Dewey to him as he walked from one field to another, my son ran over and politely asked him to sign his hat. #24 was more than happy to oblige, and he signed my 6 year-old’s hat, as well. “He’s one of the greatest right fielders of all time,” I told my kids as they gazed at their new autographs. “Lots of people say he should be in the Hall of Fame.”
Tommy Harper was there, too. And Dick Berardino. And Frank Malzone. All of them walking among the handful of fans who were there and all of them pleased as punch to sign an autograph for a kid or pose for a photo.
At one point, while watching players practice first-and-third double-steal coverages, a toddler who was near me started to cry loudly. One of the Red Sox catchers involved in the drill trotted over with a baseball, gave it to me, and said, “Give this to the kid, it should stop the crying.” I made the delivery and, he was right, the tears turned to smiles.
At 11:30am, we left the minor league complex and drove down the street to watch the big leaguers play in a 1pm game versus the New York Mets. We had a splendid time and the boys loved starting the “Let’s Go Red Sox!” cheers and clapping for Manny and Youk every time they stepped to the plate. But the game will probably fade quickly from their memories. Afterwards in the car, all they could talk about was their exciting morning among the minor leaguers and former pros, and when they called Grandma to tell her about the day, that’s what they raved about. “I met Dwight Evans! And you know what? The minor leaguers do the same drills we do in little league! Can you believe it?”
I think you understand. Today I was a father in Baseball Heaven.