Fear and Loathing in the Sunshine State

I got my itinerary this afternoon. The flights and hotels are booked, the rental car is reserved and the media credentials are (almost) squared away. I’m going to Florida the second week of March to cover spring training. I’m going to once again do battle with a state with which I have never really gotten along.

 There were, I believe, three childhood vacations to the sunshine state. Maybe four – they kind of blend together so I may be mixing up the continuity a bit – but none of them were unequivocal successes. The earliest was a classic “let’s pile six people in a Buick and drive 1,500 miles – why? – because it’s the 1970s and that’s just what people did back then” trip.  The two extras were a young neighbor couple, friends of my parents. I think I was six years-old. Must have been at least six, actually, because we were driving the light green ‘79 LeSabre. [UPDATE: My dad notes: “It was not a LeSabre.   It was a full deuce and a quarter. Electra 225 Limited. Strictly class.”]  A celadon green, I’d say, which my parents called “the thick and chewy Buick” because of the soft cushy vinyl – or whatever it was – on the roof.

I dwell on the car, because I remember almost nothing of our time in Florida itself. Just the interminable drive from Flint, Michigan to Key Largo, two adults and a child in the front seat, two adults and a child in the back. Plus purses. And pillows. And books. And Kleenex boxes. And shoes. And a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas, because it was Jimmy Carter’s America and malaise meant only eating at restaurants once a day no matter how far from home you were. And it was always a Howard Johnson’s.

The next trip I remember was just the four of us. It started out as another driving trip, but Ronald Reagan was in office by then, and he turned us all into men and women of action. 20 miles from home my dad hit an ice patch on the highway, decided that he didn’t need two days of this crap, diverted to a pay phone and booked us on a same-day flight from Windsor, Ontario to Tampa. Well, next day, technically, as the flight left at what I remember as 3AM the following morning. We waited things out in a Travelodge motel sort of sleeping, sort of not.  Once we got on the plane my brother ordered an orange juice and the flight attendant brought him a screwdriver.

The trip itself was generally OK. We went to the pre-Epcot Disney World, which I imagine today would be considered quaint.  We made it down to Key Largo again, staying in a mobile home that belonged to my grandparents. I don’t think they had been down there for some time, as the inside was covered with dust and grease and all manner of nastiness. The first morning there my mom turned on the oven and the whole place filled with noxious fumes. The room in which I slept was full of my grandmother’s trashy romance and horror novels. One of them had a hyper-realistic cover picture of a man being hanged. It haunted my dreams for the rest of my childhood. I can still picture it, quite vividly, nearly 30 years later.

But the real downer of that trip wasn’t the trailer – you can overlook a lot when you’re near a nice beach in January – it was a short visit with some people we used to know named the Keefes.*  They had been our neighbors in Michigan for a time. The father sold cars (Buicks, natch). The mother, who seemed on the young side and was rather loopy, worked at a record store.  Their daughter, Janie, was a year younger than me, and we were more or less inseparable when we were five and six years old.  My dad built a ladder that straddled the backyard fence so we could visit one another. I swam in Janie’s pool, she played with her Barbie dolls in my basement and we decided that when we grew up we’d get married and work together as garbage men, Janie driving the truck, me riding on the back, emptying cans. She was my first best friend.

One day, however, the Keefes just picked up and moved from Michigan down to Florida. I don’t think that I ever knew the details, but I recall vague talk of scandal – maybe drugs – and other unseemliness.  I can only assume my parents decided to visit them for my and Janie’s sake, and I remember being glad to see her. Their home in Florida, however, was a disheveled mess. The morning we went to Disney World – Janie and her mother came with us – the power was turned off at their house and some mention was made of “confusion” over the electric bill.  I was too young to know what was going on, but I knew something was amiss.  The day in Disney was fun, but the visit has become overshadowed by a certain sadness in my mind and memory, partially because of Janie’s apparently unfortunate circumstances, but also because it was the last day I ever saw her. I’ve often wondered how her life has gone. I worry that it hasn’t gone particularly well.

The next trip to Florida started off with such promise. It was April 1984. My parents were coming off a couple of years of relative prosperity and we were making the trip in a motor home with a boat in tow. In addition to the four of us, two of our best friends – the Yoder brothers – were allowed to come along for the trip. The two days on the road were great fun. We brought thousands of baseball cards with us and we sorted and traded them all the way down I-75. Day three was spent out in the great big ocean in our little boat speeding around, jumping waves and having a grand time. It had all the makings of an epic vacation.

That night, however, my father was paged by the campground office. The call was from Michigan. My great Uncle Harry – who was really more like my grandfather and who may be more responsible than anyone for me being the baseball fan I am today – had suffered a massive heart attack and died in his back yard.  We started back home that night.  His funeral – a Jewish affair, held an extra sundown to accommodate our journey – was the first one I ever attended. By the end of this ordeal I had come to associate Florida with sorrow and disaster.

It would be 21 years before I’d get back there. This time I was there on legal business, dispatched to Sarasota under outrageously stressful circumstances. I wasn’t exactly told to obstruct an official investigation while I was down there, but it was pretty clear that everyone on my side of the table would have been happier if the investigation went slowly and was hopeful I could make that happen. I wasn’t exactly being followed by government investigators while I was down there, but they certainly knew where I was at all times during the trip.  I wasn’t exactly threatened while I sat in a warehouse full of rare coins for three straight days, but the fact that the security detail that guarded them openly and freely brandished Israeli assault weapons didn’t make me feel all that comfortable either.  On the bright side I billed a shitload of hours that week and back in those days that was pretty much all that mattered.

My last trip to Florida came on the same case a year later when I visited my indicted client and his wife in their stately Florida Keys home to prepare him for his criminal trial. I’ll admit, the place was fabulous. Great views. Expensive wine. Wonderful steaks, seafood, sunsets and  swimming. But for as nice as the accommodations were, an air of dread hung over the entire trip. I won’t say my co-counsel and I knew exactly what was coming, but we did know there were rough days ahead. I remember floating in the pool and looking at the stars one evening when Tom walked out on to his bedroom balcony above where I swam. He raised a toast to me and told me that the next time I came I’d have to bring my family. I knew there wouldn’t be a next time. I don’t know if he did too and was merely playing the role of charming host or if he really felt he’d beat the rap. Whether it was hubris or denial I still don’t know, but it cast a pall over the entire trip.

It’s been four years since that visit, and again, I prepare for Florida.  Will this be the time nothing goes sideways for me down there? The first time that no bad news, bad cars, bad hotels, bad vibes or bad people come between me and all that the Sunshine State is supposed to offer?

I’m hopeful. After all, I’m going down there for baseball. To grok the spring training zeitgeist in the service of my dream job. I’ll be armed with a press pass an expense account and a vague-to-nonexistent mandate to meet people, watch games and write stuff, which is something I’m fairly confident I can handle. No amount of bad Florida juju can mess that up, can it?

Wait. Don’t answer that. If you need me, I’ll be checking out the cactus league schedules and checking to see if my airfare to Miami is refundable …

*As is the case in many of these tales, some names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, the vaguely shifty and the morally dubious.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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