BASEBALL CITY, Fla. — On the one hand, we have Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, where the paint is peeling. On the other hand, we have Baseball City, where the roller coaster can be seen between pitches.
“We’ve got artificial turf, network lighting and six fields, all of major league configuration,” says the guide walking me through this new baseball wonderland. “Plus we have the log flume.”
“The log flume?” I say.
This is the future. This is where spring training is headed. “Boardwalk And Baseball.” New home of the Kansas City Royals. No rickety bench seats. No hot dog stands with moth-eaten screens. White-water rafting. Gift shops. Log flumes.
“Come on, you’ve got to see this,” says my guide, dragging me off the field and over the bridge-like walkway. “We’ve got bumper cars and the Swiss Bob and The Big Wheel Ferris Wheel.”
“What about the ball game?” I say.
“Don’t worry. Someone will tape it.”
We walk through the theme park that connects with the stadium. We walk past Cookies ‘N Cream and the Boardwalk Photo Station and the Carousel.
“You name it,” says the guide, “we’ve got it. You can make a photo of yourself on a magazine cover, or you can make a baseball card of yourself, complete with statistics. You can test your pitching skills against a radar machine. What’s your pleasure?”
“I’m always hungry at ball games,” I say.
“No problem. You like Italian?” Coney Island was never this
I should have known this was coming. I should have suspected when I drove here from Lakeland and the highway signs read: “BOARDWALK AND BASEBALL — Everything Coney Island Was, When It Was.” I have been to Coney Island. When it was. It did not have frozen yogurt.
It did not have something called Video Capsule, which, for $5, gives you a small VHS cassette of yourself, complete with mailing envelope. It did not have African Milk Trees.
“Batting cages!” says my guide. “The kids love this. Fast pitch. Slow pitch. Try it.”
I step inside the cage. I put on the mandatory helmet. The plastic visor covers my face, like a Darth Vader mask, and my breath heats my cheeks.
“Go ahead, swing!” says my guide.
“Well, I. . . .”
“You missed it. Try again! Isn’t this fun!”
“You’re not too good at this.”
“Well, I don’t get much–“
We leave the batting cages.
Somehow, this is supposed to enhance the spring training experience. It used to be you’d come to an old municipal stadium, where every seat was a bench, and the sounds of baseball and the nearness of the players, so close you could see the tobacco in their teeth, were enough. That is what it used to be.
“Forget it, my man,” says the guide. “How you gonna keep a kid interested through nine innings of that? Here you can come to the park, watch a few innings, ride the Dragon Coaster, watch a few innings, eat at the Barbeque Junction–“
“The Barbeque Junction?”
“Relax. They have cocktails, too.”
I shake my head. We walk past “Dance USA,” where the music is blaring. We enter a building called “A Taste Of Cooperstown,” in which items from the Baseball Hall Of Fame are on display. I see Hank Aaron’s uniform and Ted Williams’ uniform and Al Kaline’s uniform.
As we leave, we walk smack into a fenced-in area. It is filled with live bulls.
“The Bull Pen,” says my guide. “Get it?” Baseball takes a backseat
I look off. The stadium — with the game going on inside it — looms a quarter-mile away. An electronic message board flashes ticket information: One price gets you the theme park and the ball game.
This is spring training of the future. There are other new spring training sites. The Mets have one. The Reds have one. The future.
“No more of those yellow-paint stadiums where the umpires dress next to the bathroom,” says my guide. “Did you know all our seats are geometrically slanted toward second base for optimal viewing?”
“No kidding,” I say.
“Soon, they’ll all use this concept. Spring training is a real tourist draw. By the way, our Stadium Club restaurant has a prime rib buffet tonight.”
We finally make it back to the ballpark. The seats are comfortable, the fold-down kind. There are two Lite Beer signs alongside the center field scoreboard. Kids are walking in, eating soft ice cream, barbecue ribs and cups of strawberries.
“I’m going back to Lakeland,” I say.
“Why?” screams my guide over the sound of the roller coaster. “You haven’t seen Dr. Bubbles, or the Western Revue. You haven’t seen the 40-foot murals of Norman Rockwell paintings. Why leave?”
What can I say? I could give him a thousand reasons. I could list the reasons backward and forward. I only shrug.
“I miss the paint job,” I say.