Friday, February 29, 2008

Clearwater Beach begins to open my eyes to the possibilities

There's a strong boating culture along the Tampa Bay area beaches, more so than is apparent in Brevard County, on the east coast. Many sailboats just sit on the beach, waiting for the next time their owners will take them out.

This was the day before the 50-degree weather pounced onto the Clearwater Beach area. There was nobody out in bikinis when that happened.


I've often expressed disdain for the artificiality and tourist-catering conglomeration that is Orlando and most of South Florida. The Tampa Bay area used to be included on my blacklist. Emphases on the past tense.

I headed to Clearwater Beach this weekend to see a friend and to see for myself the supposed pristine white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. The trip made me eat my words. In the brief taste I got of the bay area, I saw profound cultures and tasteful development, which is something I cannot say for Orlando.

The bay area beach communities are denser but aesthetically pleasing. Several of them have restricted commercial development - limiting gas stations, high-rise condos, Wal-Marts and Publix supermarkets.

My friend Russ has a small house with direct bayside frontage, perfect for boating. His in-ground pool looks over a spectacular vista of birds, sailboats and aqua green water from the gulf. He showed me around his neighborhood of north Clearwater Beach. While his home is more than 80 years old, others are modern mansions that have replaced historic buildings. Russ says he's glad he doesn't have to bother with the upkeep of such a large house.

But while some new buildings of the wealthy have proliferated, many land lots still are filled with the original homes, from back when there wasn't a bridge connecting the mainland to the barrier island that is Clearwater Beach.

Russ showed me the historic Don Ce Sar hotel, where he has enjoyed many great meals. I tried to snap a photo of the pink building, but it was difficult from the car. He whipped the car around, drove over the curb and a lawn, then stopped, so I could snap a few shots. It was the best vehicular maneuvering I've been involved in to get a photo.

Amid our road touring, we twice (in two days) stopped at local restaurants that specialize in seafood. The first was Frenchy's, home of the famous grouper sandwich, it boasts. The Gulf Coast is widely known for its tasty and often imitated grouper. Trying it was at the top of my priority list for the weekend, so I was glad Russ had the same idea.

My first sandwich was stuffed with Cajun-style grouper. The spices were great but didn't overpower the fish, which was moist and tasted nothing like fish. It almost seemed sweet.

But I think the second grouper sandwich of the weekend was the best, mostly because it was the simplest.

The Palm Pavilion is a beachside eatery that caters to beachgoers coming off the white sand for a beer and some fish to munch on. But not on Tuesday: Temperatures were uncharacteristically in the low 50s. The parking lot is usually overflowing, but it wasn't even 10 percent full. The lot closest to the restaurant usually is closed off, but Russ and I parked there because he knows the owner.

The main part of the dining room was unheated, but some hard-core tourists stubbornly sat there drinking pitchers of beer, determined to prevent the weather from ruining their vacations. But my blood has thinned since moving to Florida, so Russ and I chose the heated part.

The fish sandwich was again moist, and it warmed me. My tastes have matured since I was young. I once only would eat fish when it was fried. And even then, I smothered it with ketchup. Not this time. I added nothing, and at the time, I couldn't imagine anything better in the world than a grouper sandwich.

The other great eating experience I had was in Tarpon Springs, a small heavily Greek community north of the bay. It's best known for sponge diving. Shops peddling baklava and gyros line the streets. No doubt, they cater to tourists. But they don't involve Mickey Mouse, so they're all right in my book.

Russ, his wife Marian and I stopped at a waterside restaurant near a small boat that advertised three-hour, twice-daily fishing trips for $30. The walls of the dining room were glass and the ceiling was metal that leaked with the torrents falling from the sky.

Russ ordered our drinks. Our waiter spoke broken English. And of the three drinks Russ ordered, the waiter delivered each to the wrong recipient. Russ then ordered appetizer after appetizer. "This way, you can try everything," he said. Again, I liked his thinking.

First, a staple of Greek eating, bread and hummus. Nice and garlicky.

Second, phyllo dough stuffed with cheese and spinach. Fatty and sinful.

Third, grilled calamari. This is another example of my newfound culinary maturity. I never could have imagined eating squid any way other than fried. But this was cooked with olive and had a distinct grilled flavor. Not even slightly fishy or chewy. One of the best dishes I've had in some time.

Fourth, shrimp in some Alfredo-like sauce. Of course, that was good.

Fifth, a little Greek salad for good measure. The olives still had pits. Loved it.

Sixth and finally, mussels in marinara sauce. Believe it or not, it was my first time eating mussels.

My Clearwater trip was a first time for many things, but it definitely won't be the last. There so much more of Florida I must discover before I judge it.

The 50-degree weather probably had something to do with that the beach chairs were empty.

Russ' house is smaller compared with something others in the area. But that's what I liked about it. Still original. It even survived 18 inches of water during a flood in the early 1990s.

When I lived in Maine, I lived on the water, so I can appreciate a real view of the water. In most of Florida, commercial apartments advertise a "view of the lake." Whenever I showed up to view the apartment, I found out that the "lake" was actually a muddy retention pond. Ripoff.

Birds seemed to like the dog. Russ' poodle, Bailey, would chase them away.

Russ down at the bay in downtown St. Petersburg, a lovely town.

Russ showed my the Bill Jackson sporting goods store, where they sold ski equipment and offered kayaking lessons. It reminded my of L.L. Bean back at home in Maine. But of course, no matter where you go, the canoes are always made by Old Town in Old Town, Maine.

"Florida's Best Newspaper"? Who made you, St. Pete Times, the king of Florida journalism? You look pretty lonely here. Man, FLORIDA TODAY doesn't get the credit it deserves.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Roger Clemens, most of Houston Astros stick tongues out at fans

Astros pitcher Wesley Wright must be the Michael Jordon of spring training baseball as he warms up, tongue out, Monday in the open bullpen along the left-field foul line in Kissimmee, Fla.

On my way Monday toward a restful weekend in Clearwater Beach, which is more than three hours west on the Gulf Coast, I stopped in Kissimmee for about an hour to check out the Houston Astros' spring training facility.

Kissimmee has been the red hot French Kissimmee in the past few days because Roger Clemens just started to throw batting practice to minor leaguers. And because he's fighting off accusations of steroid use, he has had more to worry about than the L-screen and the occasional line-drive that gets by it. I wonder if he would do any better against major leaguers.

Much like Dodgertown and unlike the Nationals' camp, Osceola County Stadium isn't exactly the best facility for fans.

Snooty personnel - mostly older people with nothing better to do than to work a low-paying job to pass time - shewed away fans who tried to get near players. They were in the middle of an intra-team exhibition game, and the closest fans could get was the left-field stands, far from much of the action.

People were clumped in the seats on one side of the aisle, and I thought I'd sit on the other side. Why? It was shaded from the hot Florida sun. But once I sat down, I noticed there wasn't a sole on my side. Soon enough, an old man said, "Young man ..." Then, he waved four of his fingers toward the side with people on it. He was telling me to move.

Much of the stadium was lame. The bullpen set up along the left-field foul line offered the most action.

This is just a typical spring training scene: pitchers and catchers warming up within an arm's length from the fans. Once, a wild pitch almost flew into the stands. It's probably only a matter of time before someone gets whacked with an errant baseball from the bullpen.

The guy on the left, pitcher Ryan Houston, is on the team because of his name. The guy on the right, Wesley Wright, is on the team because the Astros thought he was right for the job.

The complex seems pretty new, above proudly displaying the boring logo of the Astros. Below is the stadium from the upper left-field stands. In fact, Osceola County Stadium was considered state of the art when it was built in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the Astros had moved from "Astrotown" in Cocoa, which is only a few miles away from Melbourne. Cocoa certainly would be a lot more convenient for me to visit.

This is the guy who tended to be kind of wild with his throws. He must be from the North, because that arm still is thawing out a bit. Because the fans are just feet from the bullpen, without a fence separating them, they're in danger of getting the old ball in the face. Either way, I think this guy still is better than old Roger Clemens.

This symbolizes the dropping of the ball. Well, actually, Wright IS dropping the ball. But if Roger Clemens doesn't step up and fess up, the proverbial ball will be dropped, stomped on and made into gumbo. "Mom, this is leathery."

The Boys of Spring home

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is that a tear? Power hitter Wily Mo Pena misses Boston Red Sox

Well, maybe it's just sweat and not a tear, but Wily Mo Pena seems quite distressed now that he's with a losing team, the Washington Nationals. He was known for many great blasts over the Green Monster and onto Lansdown Street during his time with the Red Sox. He added his autograph to my Nats baseball. Unfortunately, he smudged another signature with that tear. I mean, sweat.

Nonroster invitee and catcher Wil Nieves was definitely the coolest player I've seen so far. Here, he's talking with the local Hernandez family. Nieves is from Puerto Rico, and they were talking en Espaniol quite a bit. The child was quite fascinated with the big guy.

Shortstop Christian Guzman walks unsuspectingly away from one of the practice fields, just before I pounced on him for an autograph.

It's difficult to get good action shots because I'm not permitted on the field. But here, Chad Cordero throws batting practice.

This is Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats' underpaid third baseman. He was quite subdued during practice. He could have ran circles around his teammates, but for some reason, he always let this guy behind him hold him back. I asked him for an autograph, but he just stuck his tongue out at me, then tried to bite the ball. How rude.

Bret Boone offered some of the most biased impartial observations possible in the 2003 American League Championship, when his brother, third baseman Aaron Boone, blasted the series-winning homer. I swear he and Joe Buck of Fox Sports were secret lovers, too. Now, he's back from "retirement," playing with his brother and joining his father, the assistant general manager of the Nationals.

Bret Boone brought his family, so I guess Ryan Zimmerman, above in red jersey and brown hair, felt the need to do the same. Here, Zimmerman is with his local family, the Chefers of Satellite Beach. Wil Nieves is standing with them. What a guy.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

D-Lowe and Nomar are still together after all these years

Former Red Sox stars Derek Lowe and Nomar Garciaparra walk past fans at Dodgertown. Nomar treated it more like a perp walk, keeping his head down so no one could see him.

Today, I hit up Dodgertown, the Los Angeles spring training complex in Vero Beach, about a 50-minute haul from Melb0urne.

Dodgertown has obvious history. The team is well-rooted in the Vero Beach area, with many fans among the Floridians there. There are many former New Yorkers here, and it seems that they are big Dodgers fans, too, probably because of their former name, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Or maybe it has to do with the team's former Yankees, such as Joe Torre and Don Mattingly.

Don Mattingly disappoints fans. But not me: I'm not a fan.

The size of the crowds and the prices of concessions makes it obvious that the Dodgers have broad appeal. At the Nationals' camp in Viera, players mingle among fans while walking from practice field to practice field. At Dodgertown, a converted Air Force base, fans are cordoned off with yellow rope. That makes it difficult get autographs. Most of the time, the players don't stop to sign. Don Mattingly just waved, above. The more fans you have, the meaner you get, I guess.

Tommy Lasorda signs autographs for fans ... and me. Nice jewelry there.


Tommy Lasorda, who's a cool 80 years old, was the only one nice enough to set up a table for people to line up and get him to sign on the stitches, as he does for me, above. As people waited toward the end of the line, some people thought he might die of old age before he signed their photo, ball or card.

Nomar is relegated to ball bucket duty during batting practice. In Boston, he was good.

Nomar demonstrates the size of the fish he used to catch in Boston Harbor.

One of the not-so-nice big shots was former Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who made a point of it to keep his back turned to the crowds. Former Sox pitcher Derek Lowe, below, wasn't as snobby.

D-Lowe ignores his boss, Joe Torre. I wonder why.

I arrived at Dodgertown about five minutes before practice began. Fans were lined along a walkway leading to the fields when the players emerged from the clubhouse. Nomar and D-Lowe walked out together, but Nomar kept his head down the whole time. But it's nice to see that the former Sox guys are showing solidarity.

Joe Schmoe.

It's also nice to see Dodgers manager Joe Torre, above, on the other side of the country, instead of hounding the Sox.

Here are some other photos:

Pitchers Brad Penny and Chan Ho Park share a moment.

The main field.

They didn't trust him with a golf cart.

A child waits for autographs only to be disappointed.

The Boys of Spring home

Spring training day in photos: I forgive you, Aaron !@#$&% Boone

Aaron Boone looks at me like I'm stupid. He wants to say to me, "Are you serious? I'm trying to sign this bat. Stop taking photos! Let me concentrate! Does this look easy to you?"

Aaron Boone plays catch with Dmitri Young.

Aaron Boone does fielding drills with inferior teammates.

It was day two for me at Washington Nationals spring training. It was day one with my new 18-200mm zoom lens ... with vibration reduction. Some shots came out all right. Others did not. I've learned a lot I can do differently tomorrow.

The position players arrived today, and the workout started a bit late - at 10 a.m. instead of 9:30. I was there for the entire thing. And boy, was it great.

The weather has been warmer than usual, but it isn't humid as it usually is, so it felt like a hot summer day in Maine. It was bearable, but I now have a red face and arms because of it.

The first player I noticed was Aaron Boone, the much-hated former third baseman for the New York Yankees. Much-hated, that is, to Red Sox fans. He was the one compared to Bucky Dent and credited for perpetuating the Curse of the Bambino when he cranked an 13th-inning homer over the left-field wall to give the Yanks the American League Championship over the Sox.

Live and let live, though. He's not working for the Evil Empire anymore. He's a good guy now.

Players split into four groups and scattered first to the batting cages, then to four separate practice fields for situation drills in fielding, hitting and base-running. It reminded me of my high school glory days at second base: The professionals get the same couching in the fundamentals that I did.

Some drills take tremendous mental sharpness. As catcher Johnny Estrada hit, the couch tossing the easy cheese barked out situations, demanding that the hitter react in a matter of seconds and do the right thing with the bat.

"Man on third, nobody out." He drills a fly ball to center field.

"Man on second, nobody out." He grounds a sacrifice to first base.

"Man first, two out." Base hit, right field.


The concessions (above: workers smiling because I befriended them) were surprisingly cheap. Two bucks for a hot dog. Two bucks for a soda. I would rather not pay two George Washingtons for a Diet Coke, but the hot dog was worth it.


As the players were walking off the field, fans again swarmed around them. Mostly, they were bugging Barry Larkin, above, the former Cincinnati Reds star shortstop who works for the Nats in some capacity. I was taking a lot of photos, but I wasn't interested in autographs. But I asked myself, "Why not? Duh, you only live twice. You might as well."



So I paid $8 for a Nats logo-emblazoned baseball and got signatures from Larkin, Boone, wannabe first baseman Nick Johnson (both photos above, also a former Yank), wannabe first baseman Dmitri Young, right-fielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez.

Man, if I got that many autographs of that great quality, imagine what I could do if I actually tried.


The best part of Friday was when a local ABC sports reporter from Washington asked Young, above, about the meaning of playing in D.C.

"New York is a nice city and everything. That's where all the money is," he said. "But Washington is our nation's capital. There's nothing better than our nation's capital."

Well, it's a close second behind Maine.

Christian Guzman plays toss with a special, nearly pocketless infielder's glove meant to facilitate quick and easy transfer from glove to throwing hand.

Lovable catcher Johnny Estrada models his tats.

Catcher Paul Lo Duca says, "Ball. ... Ball ball ball ball ball ball. Yaayyyyy. Ball."

At least one of the fans at the fence was suspicious of the clicking behind him.

The workout wasn't very physical, but these players found the need to jog. Slow down, guys. You're gonna have a heart attack.

Uh, it's a basket of balls on one of the practice fields.

This is the souvenir trailer where I dished out the eight smackers for a ball for autographs.

The Boys of Spring home