Liquor, cockroaches, grand hotels, old ballparks, national anthems and more spring training fun

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LAKELAND, FL — As this post goes live on Monday morning I am somewhere on I-4. Or I-75. Or I-275. I don’t know, I’m heading to Sarasota to check out the Twins-Orioles game and as I’m typing this I don’t know which way I’m going. Just that I’m going early. Because this is the Grapefruit League and to get from one place to another takes time and miles and after three years of spending spring training in Arizona I’m quite frankly spoiled.

The weekend contained a lot of driving too, but a lot of fun as well. After I checked out of the Tigers game on Friday afternoon I found some local culture in Lakeland:

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Fun fact: in Florida, if less than 10% of an establishment’s income is derived from food, smoking is allowed. This place sells no food. It does sell strong drinks for low prices, however, and as long as you can transport yourself back to the early 1990s and deal with the smoke, you’re all good.

On Saturday I took a trip to Tampa and watched Masahiro Tanaka’s debut. In case you missed it, here is a summary of that day. It was a day of big things. Steinbrenner Field is a big park by spring training standards. I spoke with baseball’s biggest star of the past two decades, though only for a brief moment. The media horde which descended on Tanaka was as big as it gets. Then, when I got back to Lakeland, I found something small:

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In my hotel room bathroom. Which meant that my hotel room immediately became my former hotel room because, no, no way. I won’t say which hotel it was because perhaps it was a freakish, isolated incident and I don’t wish to cast aspersions, but dude. So I packed up my stuff and went where I should’ve gone in the first place: The Lakeland Terrace Hotel. Much more civilized. At least as long as you can deal with the trains that go by pretty frequently, but I can deal with such things. Bygone age stuff, you know. Really, all of Lakeland is civilized and noble.

With accommodations sorted it was back to baseball on Sunday. The Blue Jays home in Dunedin, which I liked very much:

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Like the Lakeland Terrace it is old, at least by spring training standards. It’s unassuming. Small, sitting comfortably in a neighborhood, not drawing too much attention to itself. Easy to get from one side of the park to the other quickly. A nice beer selection. Good sight lines. In this day and age it is a dinosaur and I’m sure for the players it’s shabby and cramped compared to all of the latest fancy facilities, but it’s a ballpark in every sense of the word and I kinda loved it.

One of the things I loved about it was that there wasn’t constant music blaring. Not having a jumbotron or video board of any kind to speak of probably goes into that, but it was welcome. Although there was one instance in which having some audio would have been helpful: when the U.S. and Canadian national anthems were sung. A children’s choir was on hand to do the honors, but there was no microphone or musical accompaniment. So this happened:

A nice effort by most involved. And yes, that’s a Dunedin Blue Jays cap I’m wearing. When you’re bald and you show up to a sun-drenched ballpark without a cap, you have to do — and buy — certain things to protect yourself.

As for the game, I got the Yankees for the third day in a row. Just dumb happenstance, I suppose. The only two starters they brought with them were Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and they still cleaned the clock of an almost-all-Opening-Day Blue Jays lineup in a pretty sloppy game. Heck, it was March 2. That sort of thing happens.

And spring training baseball happens the rest of this week. I’ll be updating later this morning from Sarasota. And a different park every day this week. If you find yourself in or around Sarasota, Orlando, Clearwater, Bradenton or Fort Myers, by all means, say hello. Otherwise, keep checking in here to HBT.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.