Nobody asked me, but ...

8:45 AM, Mar 14, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Given the chance to do it all over again, I would.

College was a long time ago. Not quite 30 years, but the memories never leave.

No, not of going to class (some of the time) or of fraternity/sorority parties that lasted way past my current bedtime.

But of spring break and not the kind of spring break many of you might be thinking of.

For a group of young dorks, including myself, the idea of going to Florida was a natural. But not that part of Florida.

We were going to Clearwater - spring home of the beloved Philadelphia Phillies - and use it as our base camp while we also traveled around to other spring training stadiums to see what it was all about.

For baseball junkies, it was nirvana.

So, after driving for 20 hours straight, and in desperate need of a shower and gas, the "Welcome to Clearwater" sign beckoned us as we pulled in to fill up the tank.

"That's Juan Samuel" one of the guys shouted. "I know it is. He's getting gas."

Sure enough, there was "Sammy." He was not quite as excited to see us as we were to see him, but nonetheless as gracious as someone could be who just wanted to get some gas and get to the stadium.

The obligatory pictures were taken, we finished pumping his gas for him and told him we'd see him at the game. Again, he wasn't as thrilled as us, but we didn't mind.

Heck, we'd been in Clearwater for five minutes and already had a brush with a big leaguer. Way cool.

Later that day, after bathing, we pull into the parking lot at old Jack Russell Stadium and who pulls in right next to us?

Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas. Two future Hall of Famers, one for playing and one for broadcasting, and both as nice as could be.

More pictures and autographs and a vow from Harry the K to let our parents know back home that we were fine. And sure enough, Kalas did just that, saying hi to all of our parents during the radio broadcast of the game. And he did it twice.

A trip another day to see where the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals play - they shared the same complex - provided more memories.

St. Louis was on the road, but the Bucs were playing the Cincinnati Reds and it cost a dollar to sit in the bleachers right next to the Pittsburgh bullpen.

And you could bring your own beer. So we did.

And we struck up a conversation with a then-prominent Pirates reliever who told us there would be a "B" game after the major leaguers played and if we were staying for that, he'd come out and knock back a few with us and take in the minor leaguers.

We said great, but never thought the guy would really do it. But this was a magical trip, so, naturally, the pitcher came back and spent the rest of the afternoon telling stories and drinking our beer.

Could you imagine that today? Goodness, with social media, pictures of the guy would be posted for all to see a second after he took his first sip.

That's why a trip these days to spring training no longer holds much allure. The stadiums are fancy, for sure, but the innocence is gone and won't ever come back.

As soon as somebody realized, and it wasn't that long after our trip, that money could be made in spring training, everything changed.

Big-league ticket prices arrived.

Access to the players became next to impossible.

And spring training became homogenized and sterilized and ruined.

Whoever said you can't go back again surely didn't have spring training in mind, but they could of.

Perhaps somewhere out there today another group of dorky college guys are getting ready for a spring break trip to spring training. I hope they get a taste of the magic that we did, but I doubt it. And that's a shame.

Drew Markol has been a sportswriter and columnist for several Philadelphia- area newspapers for over 25 years.

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