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April 2, 2016 at 7:00 AM

Spring Training Rookie: My first trip to the backfields at Fenway South

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Living in Boston forces you to get used to long and cold winters, and sometimes not going outside or seeing the sun makes me stir crazy. Then the day dreaming starts. I start to think of sunny 80 degree days with an ice cold beer while watching baseball games. Sound familiar?

This year was the first year I made my dreams a reality and was able to head down to Fort Myers with the SoxProspects.com crew. No, this is not me rubbing it in your face. I’m here providing a service. Maybe you want to someday head down yourself and check out JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, and if you are anything like me, you want to go in as well prepared as possible. I was able to draw on the extensive experience of the veterans here at the site, and you in turn can learn from my experience as a Fenway South backfields first timer.

If you are reading this, I assume you already have some interest in Spring Training outside of major league camp. Aside from the weather and Cigar City beer, the opportunity to see every player in the Red Sox system all at once is the main reason a Fort Myers trip should be on every Boston baseball fan’s wish list. I went in with a list of things I wanted to do or see, and you should as well, but yours may be different than mine. Are there particular players or levels you want to see? Are you there for only a day or for several? Do you want to see a big league game as well? Everything starts with figuring out what you want, and once I did, it came time to execute.

I drove to the fields on Friday with Floridian family members before meeting up with the staff members who were already down there. I didn’t care about seeing a big league game, myself—I can do that at Fenway whenever I want throughout the year—so it was all about the backfields for me. However, my family does not have that same opportunity, so they got tickets to that day’s 1:00 p.m. game at JetBlue. Upon arrival we went our separate ways, but it just goes to show there is something for every type of baseball fan.

My family and friends have a varying degree of understanding about minor league baseball and spring training, and most assumed that I would need some sort of media credential to get access to the backfields. That is part of the glory of all this: Anyone can go to the backfields and watch the games without needing special access—or even a ticket. More so, it is an extremely family friendly environment, so don’t hesitate to bring the little ones along.

The first thing that surprised me is how casual the environment at the backfields is for fans. Those smart enough to head out back find themselves among a much smaller group than the ones packing JetBlue Park every day. There are some fans milling around, but they are greatly outnumbered by Red Sox staff, players, scouts, and friends and family of the players. The bleachers at each field reminded me more of a little league or high school field than the property of one of the most valuable sports franchises in the country. This means that you have a first row seat, and can even stand up against the fence a few feet from game action, whenever you want.

In the morning, beginning at about 9:30 a.m., players work out in five “teams” on Fields 2-6 (pictured, ab). The players divide up by level, with players often playing “up” a level or two due to the number of eventual Pawtucket players who begin camp with the major leaguers. They start off by stretching and playing catch before breaking into position groups. The catchers typically head off to work as a group in the bullpens while each team’s pitchers, infielders, and outfielders run through fielding drills on each field. Batting practice follows, with some pitchers peeling off to throw bullpen sessions. Pitchers are hard to see in the morning as most of the bullpens where they are throwing are tucked away and harder for fans to see.

The best part of all of this is that Fields 3-6, where much of this action takes place, all back on to each other, meaning that the backstop of each of the four fields sits about 100 feet from each other. This was where I set up shop during my time at the backfields because I didn’t want to miss a thing. Field 2, where the Triple-A spring training squad works out, is somewhat off to itself and is a very short walk if that is the team that intrigues you the most.

Batting practice was the part of the morning that really made my baseball blood boil. The ability to watch Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada hit in the game batting practice group is awesome, but being able to switch between fields and catch every hitter throughout the system you want is an opportunity you won’t get anywhere else.

Players go inside to eat lunch and change between 11:30 and 12:30, so if you have tickets to a big league game at JetBlue, there is plenty of time to check out the morning workouts before heading into the stadium in time for lunch. If you are like me and want to stay out back, then games start around 1 pm there as well. I tried to take notes of which players were taking batting practice with which team to make sure I got to see the guys I really wanted in the afternoon games.

For these afternoon games, the “Pawtucket” and “Portland” teams form one group (scare quotes to remind everyone that these teams bear little resemblance to the ones announced in early April), and the lower level teams of “Salem,” “Greenville,” and occasionally “Lowell” in the other group. On a given day, one group will stay to play two games against their counterparts from the Rays, Orioles, or cross-town rival Twins at Fenway South, while the other half will travel to play away games at that same opponent’s complex. Being in town for just two days, I made sure to see every team at least once. The schedule is not typically available, but we do our best here to post it early in camp to an edition of the Fort Report. When in doubt, ask around at the park.

Once the games start, the majority of players not in the games are camped out behind home plate to get the best views. Here, pitchers not throwing in that day’s games will chart pitches, recording velocities, locations, and pitch counts. It is definitely worth your time to stand back there for a couple innings to get a real front row view of the pitcher. It will change your perception a bit when you see a guy throwing 86 versus a guy throwing 96 from that perspective. I am not a scout and do not own a radar gun, but I was constantly peaking over at the team’s radar readings to see where pitchers’ velocities were sitting. And while being sure to remain respectful of the players, do not be bashful about standing next to guys on the team behind the plate or in any area that is not gated or roped off.

Indeed, the scene feels all the more intimate because players are all around you. Only a portion of the player pool is participating in the games, especially pitchers, and the rest are scattered around. I was constantly overhearing players joking around or making comments about the on-field performances. Most of the pitchers had on simple Red Sox shirts without names, so it was really hard to tell who guys were. There is no separation between the fans and players, which is very different than anywhere else you have watched games in a completely amazing way.

We were there for multiple days, so our scouts, Ian and Chaz, were taking notes of things like who was charting games because it meant they were more likely to be pitching the next day. On the other hand, pitchers with ice wraps on their arms in the afternoon had thrown in the morning and would certainly not throw the following day. When the pitching schedule isn’t publically available, this type of information is crucial to make educated guesses when you’re planning ahead for the next day.

Watching the games, I realized I made several rookie errors. The first and main one is that I assumed that there would be some sort of concessions. Unfortunately, despite what appear to have been the original intentions of the Fenway South designers—there is a concession stand located in the middle of Fields 3-6, but to our staff’s knowledge, it has never been used—no food is available for purchase. Do not expect to get yourself a Fenway Frank and the kids some ice cream in a mini helmet. Under other circumstances, I would have gone in picnic style with some sandwiches and snacks in a bag. Bring lots of water because that sun gets very hot, and while there is a water fountain, I found that Florida water tasted like drinking from a swimming pool. I also forgot suntan lotion, but luckily Fenway South had me covered there, with several suntan lotion dispensing stations scattered throughout, as well as restroom facilities. I needed several applications of the SPF 50 to avoid turning the color of red in the team’s logo, which would have resulted in my wife mocking my intelligence (more than usual).

Once the afternoon games end, players head inside and things quiet down very quickly. There is nothing to see in the evenings, particularly in the part of town in which the complex is located, so we headed back to our hotel to discuss rankings and wash off the sticky Florida sweat-suntan lotion combo. Parking is easy, even on days when there is a major league game in the stadium–though it will run you $10 on those days. Normally, the minor league games end a bit before the major league one, so you can jet out of the parking lot without issue. However, a sudden thunderstorm on our second day sent everyone in the complex running for the exits at the same time. But while it took 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot, the upside was that we got to see people fighting over who had the right to merge and some borderline monster trucks leap over planting beds. If you don’t have your truck on 40+ inch tires in Florida apparently you’re an outcast.

We stayed in the Gulf Coast Town Center, a convenient 5-10 minute drive from the field. It is a huge shopping center with all sorts of bars, shops, and restaurants within walking distance. This is perfect for when you want a couple of cold beers after a long day, and there I’d recommend several within the complex. Our last night was pretty much the perfect night out, featuring Blu Sushi for dinner—I am pretty sure Ian ate there exclusively while in Florida—followed by some drinks and games at the area bars.

Sun, beers and baseball in March. Dreams can come true.

Photo Credit: Fenway South by FenwayNation.com and Matt Huegel by Will Woodward.

Will Woodward is a Senior Staff Writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPWill.