Growing up, my family and I would head south once a year for our annual family vacation: Yankees Spring Training. Every Feb/March since I was eight years old, we would fly down to Tampa and stay as long as my father could take off from work.
I remember as a young kid literally counting the days until we had off from school so we could head to Florida for the best 5-10 days of the year. It was the only thing on my mind; the anticipation of the annual family vacation literally got me through school.
While in Tampa, we would wake up around 9:00 A.M., grab some breakfast, and then head to the stadium to try and catch batting practice or pregame workouts. The thing that differentiated going to spring training from going to a regular season game was the accessibility to players. While my mother, sister, and aunt usually decided to stay at the game for innings 7-9, we boys had different ideas. We frequently went off around the park to explore – there were numerous side fields where players would get extra work in (usually guys like me – minor leaguers).
I’ll never forget the time when my dad, uncle, brother, and I were having a catch during a game right outside the stadium, around one of those side field areas. It was our lucky day. As we are imitating catching world series final outs, throwing strike three of game 7, etc.. Mariano Rivera strides out to get some sprint work in. Not only did my brother’s and my own eyes pop out of our heads, but so did my father’s and uncle’s. Mariano Rivera. Enter Sandman. 42. The man who actually got the final outs of world series games.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey meant I lived just a few miles from Yankee Stadium. It also meant that I was able to go to quite a few Yankees games each year. We would sit in the bleacher seats. What is cooler than that?
Anyway, when we saw Mo walk out, it was like we were witnessing a ghost float by. We froze. But after the initial shock, we watched him get his work in and noticed how meticulous he was about something as simple as some sprints and stretches. As he finished up, he was walking through the little walkway, only five feet away from my family and me. My father courageously said something to him – and he actually came over to us. He signed a ball for us and just had small talk for what felt like 15 minutes but was probably only 30 seconds. Mariano Rivera, my father, uncle, my brother, and me – just shooting the breeze.
That is still one of my top favorite memories from growing up. Spring training with the family was an unbelievable, fun-filled experience every year. Meeting Mariano Rivera? Once in a lifetime.
Spring training is the ultimate fan experience. And for the last few springs, and hopefully many more, I have gotten to see a little bit of what it’s like from the other side. Now, it is work for me, and it is far different then when I was a fan. But still, seeing kids with their families around the complex is always awesome. It’s what this is all about. And every time I see a big leaguer make a small gesture to a little kid – a wave, a nod – I think back to when Mariano Rivera gave up 30 seconds of his day to make mine – and to give me a memory I still hold dear. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to do the same for another kid with a similar dream to my younger self.