It starts at the airport gate. You arrive for your flight to Tampa, and looking around at the other passengers, you notice red. Everyone is wearing something. A hat. A jersey. A t-shirt. Everyone is a Phillies fan.
Spring never arrives on time. In the 1990s we dealt with snowstorms that pushed into April. Even without those events, we’re bombarded by snow and bitter cold in March, sometimes when we least expect it. We tell ourselves it’s time to clean the house, change our disposition, and splash some color into our lives, but that last round of white sludge sends us right back into sadness.
But in the middle of February, without fail, the beat writers each introduce us to spring. They send the photo of the blue sky, the green grass, and the ballplayer in red stretching. And they start with this one word, the word that no matter how cold it gets, no matter how inconvenient that precipitation, we can welcome spring with all our heart:
Admittedly, that may not last. You’re once again reminded of winter’s torturous hand. But then you head to the airport, you reach the gate, and you see the red everywhere. And everyone is smiling. In about three hours you’ll all be in Tampa, minutes away from Clearwater, moments away from Phillies spring training.
It’s a rite of passage for millions of us. At some point in our lives, it’s time to head south to watch some spring training. And there, in the calming space of the Carpenter Complex’s practice fields, you’ll find gloves popping and bats chiming against baseballs. You can stand up close with names of today and tomorrow, maybe scout for yourself the next great Phillies star. Under a sun that bakes your skin and reminds you that the seasons do change, the times can get better, and life isn’t always cold, you can fall back in love with a game that can reward your senses.
Spring training in Clearwater is unique. For over a month a beach town with strip malls and chain restaurants becomes a haven for snowbirds. No matter where you go, you’ll find Phillies fans eager to talk about the team and share a drink. You’re close enough to Tampa and St. Petersburg, if you need a break, but you’re also close to Blue Jays, Yankees, Pirates, Orioles, Rays and Tigers spring training, if you want more.
The Clearwater experience is a checklist of sights and sounds. Have breakfast at Lenny’s and lunch at Frenchy’s. Hit the beach. See some practice. Go to at least one game and be prepared to randomly walk into someone like Larry Andersen or Larry Bowa. It always seems to happen.
But more importantly, be ready to share your love of the Phillies. Watching baseball is better when you’re meeting someone new, talking about your favorite players and reminiscing about the past. And it helps if you’re holding a beer, shoving down some eggs or polishing off some grouper.
I’ve been to Clearwater twice. The sun and warmth is worth it. But I still never forget the conversations I had with fans and friends while watching the Phils at spring training. There’s the woman who followed Andy Tracy’s entire career. The guy who called me out in the parking lot for my 100 Greatest Phillies ranking. The older couple on the flight to Tampa who was making just another trip down for spring training. The folks in line at Lenny’s, who despite the hourlong wait, we’re simply happy to be there.
Spring never arrives on time. But for a few days every winter, some of us choose to live in our own personal spring. It will get to 80 degrees. We can roll down our rental-car windows and sing along with the radio while blitzing down the causeway. And we will sidle up to an outdoor beach bar, enjoy a good drink with some fatty food.
More importantly, we’ll head to Clearwater and meet people just like us. People who are looking to dig out of winter. People hoping baseball can soothe their souls. And it all starts at the airport gate.