Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2018

So Near For Us, So Far For Them

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is on the road for the next several days, so there will be no post this Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Thanks as always for your support.

Dale Mabry Highway is the longest street in greater Tampa. For much of its 22 miles, from the southern terminus at MacDill Air Force Base until it begins to meander through the city’s northern suburbs shortly before merging with U.S. Route 41 just over the Pasco County line, it runs as if laid out with a straightedge, three lanes heading due north and three taking traffic straight and true in the opposite direction.

Along that stretch of undeviating macadam sit two baseball facilities, one on the road’s western side and the other to its east. They are barely more than a half mile apart. Even at a casual pace, a stroll from one to the other takes little more than fifteen minutes; an easy trip if one is just a fan.

The northernmost facility, the one that sits along the western flank of the busy highway, is the Spring Training complex of the New York Yankees, centered around George M. Steinbrenner Field. With a seating capacity of 11,000, the recently remodeled stadium is the Grapefruit League’s largest, but then what would one expect of a venue named after the Boss?

Here large crowds of fans gather daily as the six weeks of Spring Training unfold, eager to watch their heroes get in shape for the new season. On two sides of the main stadium sit several practice fields and assorted training facilities. Since last season a formerly flat expanse of outfield on one of the practice areas has featured a large hill. Players run wind sprints up the slope to improve their conditioning. Along the chain link fences encircling the fields and in metal grandstands near the home plate areas the Yankee faithful stand and sit, taking in the familiar rhythms of the Great Game, calling their favorites by name and of course hoping that a player or two will come over to the fence line during a break and scrawl their signature on the bill of a cap or a shiny new baseball.

On game days the assembly of several hundred swells into the thousands, and the blue seats of Steinbrenner Field, duplicates of those at the great Stadium in the Bronx, are regularly filled to near capacity. Fans were dressed in layers Wednesday night, when a cool evening was made to feel colder by a brisk breeze from the west. A lineup largely resembling the one that new manager Aaron Boone is likely to pencil in for Opening Day squared off against the Baltimore Orioles for one of the final home games of the Yankees’ exhibition season.

New York’s starting pitcher was 25-year-old Luis Cessa. The young right-hander spent last year shuttling between the Bronx and the team’s AAA affiliate and seems destined for a similar role this year. Wednesday he gave up a 1st inning solo shot to Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop, but then settled down to throw four solid frames. Meanwhile the Yankee offense wasted no time erasing the Orioles’ early advantage. Shortstop Didi Gregorius drove in two runs in the bottom of the 1st with a double down the right field line. Then after a pair of singles and a walk to Aaron Judge loaded the bases in the 2nd, first baseman Greg Bird plated two more with a single to center before Judge scored when Baltimore third baseman Tim Beckham threw wildly to first on a Gary Sanchez grounder.

But the night’s loudest cheers were for the player who has quickly become the new face of this storied franchise. In the 4th inning Judge, serving as the designated hitter for this game, stepped to the plate with one out and lined a full count pitch into the seats in right center field for a home run. Then in the 8th with two on and on one out, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year launched a massive homer to left that was clearly gone the moment it left the bat. The ball caromed off an advertising sign far beyond the fence as the roars rolled out of the stadium and over the cars on Dale Mabry.

As the fans at Steinbrenner Field were cheering on Aaron Judge in an eventual 9-4 Yankees win, all was quiet a half mile down the highway at what is formally known as the Yankees Player Development and Scouting Complex. There are never any night games at the minor league camp because none of the four fields are lighted. The diamonds are laid out like a four-leaf clover, with the home plates separated by just a few yards around a central hub.

By day the crowds are tiny compared to those that gather just a few minutes north. Yet if in the tens instead of the hundred or thousands, still the fans come. Mostly they stand, for there are just a couple of small metal grandstands, no more than four or five rows high. They watch as scores of young men go about drills identical to those taking place just up the road. These are the players who will soon populate the rosters of New York’s four primary minor league affiliates.

A handful are high-level prospects recently arrived from a Spring Training turn at the big league complex. The likes of Gleyber Torres, Chance Adams, and Estevan Florial are recognizable to the fans who take time for a side trip from Steinbrenner Field. Luis Cessa will be as well, when he likely soon moves his equipment from a spacious major league locker room to these decidedly less grand quarters. But most of the players are anonymous, especially since the Yankees tradition of not placing names on the back of jerseys holds even at the minor league level. That doesn’t stop fans from seeking autographs, just as they do a few blocks north. Call it a futures market in the autograph trade.

Here the fans intermingle freely with players and a few recognizable Yankee old-timers, back in uniform for a few days to mentor the Great Game’s next generation. But the laid-back atmosphere is deceptive. For the players, this is serious business. They jog, never walk, from one assignment to the next. They concentrate closely on the instructions given by their coaches, and visibly upbraid themselves when they make a mistake in the field.

One day that futures market will provide a handsome return for a handful of the autographs collected by enterprising fans on a March morning. But far, far more will never be anything but ink on paper, a name forgotten, a memento discarded. The dream of every young player in sight is to make the trip up Dale Mabry, never to return. But there are just 25 big league roster spots and nearly four times that many players here, with still more coming as the Yankees make their final cuts. After a year, or two, or five, most of the dreams on display here will have to be set aside. A pleasant stroll for fans, the trip between these two complexes is the daunting challenge of a lifetime for the young players whose goal is Great Game glory.


  1. So close and, yet, so far away. You have underscored the challenge that goes along with the dream for the up and coming ballplayers, Mike. A fine read today. Have a safe trip.

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