As far as I know, I am the southern-most blogger who writes about the Baltimore Orioles. As such, I felt it was my duty and obligation to cover this past Saturday's Orioles Family FanFest that was held at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, FL.
So I gassed up the car, loaded a cooler full of energy drinks, strapped my daughter into the backseat, (Poor kid. Not the last of her father's half-cocked trips she'll get drug along on.) and left Atlanta before dawn.
I drove by Ed Smith Stadium over an hour before the FanFest was set to start but already there were plenty of cars in the parking lot. This was unexpected so I turned around and pulled into the parking lot. There is already a new sign proclaiming Ed Smith Stadium the "Spring Training Home of the Baltimore Orioles".
There was already a line outside the stadium to get in! 40 minutes before gates were set to open, the line already stretched to the parking lot. Were there this many Oriole fans in Sarasota? After getting suntan lotion on and donning our Oriole gear, we went up to wait in line at 1:00 to await the 1:30 open. By the time gates opened,the line snaked up an down the fairly sizable lot. I would estimate that nearly 1000 people were on line.
As we entered the turnstile beneath the "arch" of orange and white balloons, we were handed some vouchers for a free drink and a free hot dog at the concession stand and greeted by the Oriole Bird. Off to the left, there was a kid's activity area where kids could get their faces painted, play a bean bag game and they gave all the kids an Oriole Dugout Club hat and a Orioles pennant. Clowns and unicyclists (?!?) were roaming around as well.
Further on, more free stuff. Stadium workers were giving out Oriole hats, Oriole car magnets and...free beer! I wasn't drinking that day but there was free Bud and Bud Lite for whoever wanted to partake (and was of legal drinking age, of course).
The weather was fantastic. 79 degrees and sunny, no humidity to speak of.
Now the stadium: I have been to Ft. Lauderdale Stadium and I have made my opinions known. That place was poorly maintained and still covered in Yankee colors. I didn't expect much from Ed Smith Stadium but it was clean, seems to be well maintained and the field itself looked great. It's still covered in a Reds color scheme but even as it stands now, it's a very big upgrade from the facility in Ft. Lauderdale.
The festivities began with (Sarasota resident) Gary Thorne taking the mic (again, Gary Thorne has great pipes...) at home plate and introduced the various Sarastoa government officials in attendance, Louis (I think) Angelos (son of Peter), Dave Trembley, Jim Palmer, Adam Jones, Jim Johnson, Nolan Reimold and Brad Bergesen and they each came out to the field.
One of the local politicians read a proclamation that November 16th would be Orioles Day in Sarasota. Then Angelos then took the mic and addressed the people of Sarasota, thanking them for their hospitality and referring to an upcoming renovation of the Sarasota baseball facilities to "a ballpark that is the premier baseball facility, not just in Florida but you can include Arizona."
Angelos and Thorne especially did a lot of sucking up to the Sarasotan which was understandable. Jim Palmer also addressed the crowd and flattered the area and the residents.
After the initial addressing of the crowd, there was a Q&A "hosted" by Gary Thorne on the first base dugout featuring Adam Jones, Jim Palmer, Dave Trembley, Nolan Reimold, Brad Bergesen and Sarasota resident Jim Johnson. after each one of them made a quick opening statement, Thorne opened things up for questions. Let me tell you, those old guys in Sarasota love Jim Palmer. I'd say that Palmer fielded more questions than the rest of the current Orioles combined. "Mr. Palmer, how come guys today don't pitch 300 innings like you did?" "Mr. Palmer, who was the toughest hitter you ever faced?" "Mr. Palmer, do you keep your portrait in your attic?" (The last was a thinly veiled and confusing reference to "The Portrait of Dorian Gray", a reference which Palmer did not immediately catch.)
In between old coots gushing over Jim Palmer, a few Oriole fans got to ask questions to the current players. Adam Jones was asked what his workout regimen consists of during the offseason. So far, that seems to have consisted of relaxing in Hawaii!
Dave Trembley was asked how he intends to fill the hole at third base now that Melvin Mora is gone. Trembley talked quite a bit about Josh Bell and the progress he has made this year but did mention at the end that the free agent pool for 3B is plentiful and that the Orioles will be keeping an eye on things. (I interpret this to mean that Andy MacPhail has told Trembley that he's not going to let him sink with scrubs from the farm system at third next season and that they will at least be looking at signing a stopgap major league 3B before 2010 begins.) Trembely also stated that the Orioles need to score at least 800 runs to compete in the AL East (something the club has only done once in the last 10 seasons, by the way...) and that third and first need to be manned by run producing players in the future.
Reimold and Bergesen were asked about their injuries. Reimold said that his frayed tendon had been repaired and that they had not had to "pick up" the tendon during surgery or he would be in worse shape. He is doing rehab two times and week, is feeling healthier every week and will be ready for next year. (He did not say he would be ready for Spring Training.) Bergesen said his leg is better but still not 100%. He said he would start running "in the next week or so" and that he expected to be 100% for "Spring Training, day 1".
After the Q&A, an autograph session began that was scheduled to last the final hour of the FanFest and the field was open for kids to run the bases. I am not an autograph guy and my daughter had decided against running the bases at this point so we went and cashed in hot dog and soda vouchers and went back to the hotel.
Negatives? The redneck sitting behind me who griped and yelled about the Baltimore fans contributing the customary "O!" during The Star Spangled Banner ("It disrespects the song!!") and complaining about the Oriole promotions team ("The Red Sox did a much better job! They stink!")
The event was well worth the trip for me. There were roughly 2500 people at the FanFest so there is local support for the team (nothing to sneeze at given that the team has been losing for 12 years) and the facility looks good with loads more potential. I have always preferred Florida's west coast to the east so it makes a much more appealing Spring Training destination as far as I'm concerned.
I got my baseball fix and a taste of Spring Training. 95 days until pitchers and catchers report...