On an overcast day in early March, hoards of die-hard New York fans fled the brutal winter winds and snow-covered hills of the tri-state area and temporarily relocated to Tampa Bay, Fla.
Overnight, the tropics of Tampa were transformed into Yankee territory. Middle-aged businessmen in starched khakis, black shined shoes and their newly revived Tino Martinez jerseys conveniently scheduled business meetings in the area for the start of the exhibition series.
Toddlers' faces painted with the blue Yankee emblem were led by the hands of their parents to watch their first of many Yankee games. College co-eds with their Derek Jeter T-shirts escaped from grueling midterms to start Spring Break early by catching a little bit of spring training.
Invading the Tampa Bay area, the young and old fans alike packed into rented minivans and taxicabs and made their way down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the landmark stadium. Standing outside of the main gates of Legends Field, it was as if the Bronx was recreated in Florida. On the sidewalk, an elated old-timer in a cap was distributing the New York Post. Booths selling Yankee paraphernalia, everything from shirts to socks to pens, lined the streets, and a street musician shared "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on his saxophone.
As the smell of chili cheese hot dogs and buttered popcorn filtered through the stadium, Jeter and A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) finished stretching near the Yankee dugout, Bernie Williams took some cuts and Jason Giambi seemed to fight off a slew of reporters sticking microphones in his face. It began to drizzle on the immaculately groomed field while the deep, demanding voice of the announcer drew everyone's attention to home plate.
In honor of the opening game of the exhibition season at Legends Field, Yankee greats such as Reggie Jackson, Greg Nettles, Don Mattingly, Tommy John and Yogi Berra all joined the current Yankees along the left field foul line in order to celebrate the team's storied history. After the singing of the national anthem, two F-15 Eagle fighter jets flew over the stadium, breaking the sound barrier. The whole stadium shook, sending chills up and down the spines of nearly every fan present. After Wade Boggs threw out the first pitch, the ever-edgy Yankee fans settled into their seats to witness the beginning of what is always a promising season for their guys.
My family and I sat across a row near the left field foul line, all seven of us sacrificing our responsibilities in Jersey - work, classes, school - to make the trip to Florida for the opening game to celebrate my dad's 50th birthday.
In front of us, bickering throughout the entire first inning, sat two elderly men in Yankee hats. As the Pirates went down in three and the Yankees come to the plate to score two runs in the bottom of the first, they argued back and forth over who throughout their lifetime were the Yankee greats.
As they wrestled over whether today's generation of Jeters match the Hall-of-Famers of old, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Surrounded by 10,000 fans, the great majority of them Yankee die-hards, listening to baseball chatter, I wondered how this opening exhibition season game compares to the high pressure, high stake games of the postseason. Though it is not the blood-hungry battles between the Yankees and the Red Sox of this past fall, this opening exhibition game held a lot of promise.
Here at Legends Field, as well as at other spring training complexes all over Florida, teams will face each other with zeroes across the board. As the starters head to the clubhouse for showers after the first three innings of the game and the newbies step up for their rare at-bats, the potential for the 2005 season surfaces. Will this year be like last? Which rookies will make the front page of the sports section? Which veteran minor leaguer will finally get a chance at the "show" - and which ones will be sent back down for another season in Columbia or Trenton?
And of course, even in these days of new beginnings, we can't escape old questions, especially regarding the steroid scandal that has been hanging over baseball. Though Giambi looked healthy in his first time out since his struggles with pituitary cancer and poor post-season showings, he knew the fans and media were closely scrutinizing him for his role in the rumors that have been circulating for years and finally reached fever pitch in this winter's BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) testimony leak.
Still, that's a question for another day and another venue. For now, the fans are focused on what they love best: the game of baseball. As my family and I rose to participate in the standing ovation offered to the returning Tino Martinez as he stepped up to the plate, I couldn't help but become excited about the upcoming season and what the Yanks have to offer this spring.