Let’s play! Buxton digs in, MLB spring games finally begin

Mar 16, 2022, 11:26 PM | Updated: Mar 17, 2022, 1:00 pm
Boston Red Sox' Jeter Downs waits to bat during a spring training baseball game against the Minneso...

Boston Red Sox' Jeter Downs waits to bat during a spring training baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Boston Red Sox wore St. Patrick's Day green for their spring debut. (AP Photo/Jake Seiner)

(AP Photo/Jake Seiner)

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — The Boston Red Sox wore St. Patrick’s Day green for their spring debut. Baseball fans might feel luckiest of all.

“I’m glad we’re finally starting,” said Red Sox supporter Jeremy Porter, down from Maine for the exhibition opener.

When Minnesota sparkplug Byron Buxton dug in against Boston right-hander Michael Feliz at sun-splashed Fenway South, it put baseball’s bitter 99-day lockout a little further back in the rearview mirror. The Twins and Red Sox played the sport’s first spring training game of the year, with three more in Arizona on the calendar Thursday before everyone else opens Friday.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he got a jolt Wednesday when the Twins sent over their roster card.

“It feels different,” Cora said. “When we got the lineup from the Twins last night, I was like, ‘Oh, this is real now.'”

Spring games were supposed to begin 20 days earlier, but a nasty fight over the sport’s economics plunged baseball into a longer, darker winter than usual. The lockout ended last Thursday, camps began Sunday, and the race toward a delayed April 7 opening day was on.

All might not be forgotten or forgiven, but there was joy regardless at Fenway South.

Fans arrived early and begged for autographs during batting practice. On the backfields, a father and his young son played catch a few feet away from practicing minor leaguers. The public address announcer noted it was 50 degrees in Boston — “not so bad,” he joked — before reporting a first-pitch temperature of 82 degrees.

Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli brought many of his regular hitters on the 20-minute drive across Fort Myers to JetBlue Park — Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sanó and new starting catcher Gary Sánchez were all in the starting lineup.

Boston sent J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and its other stars to the backfields for some extra reps. With 18 spring games left until opening day, they’ll be on the big diamond soon enough.

Bobby Dalbec got fans on their feet in the bottom of the first, launching a two-run homer over the replica Green Monster.

“It was awesome,” Dalbec said. “Last week I was working on my backyard, putting a fence in. Now I’m back playing, so I’m glad to be out here and not doing yard work.”

Players familiar to most fans were long gone by the middle of the eighth, but plenty remained from the crowd of around 8,000 for the first singalong of the year to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

Porter and his wife, Catherine, roamed the minor league fields before gates opened. The couple traveled from Gorham, Maine, for their fourth straight spring camp together. They were committed to the Florida trip regardless, but their Sunshine State getaway was brightened when Boston announced Thursday’s spring opener.

“It was frustrating to hear that it was delayed,” Porter said. “And I was just wanting them to find a solution for the fans. Yeah, it was frustrating, but I’m glad they finally came to a resolution.”

Philadelphia Phillies fans Pep Bassett and Rich McBrinn came up from Naples, Florida, and also checked out the backfields. Their favorite club plays farther away in Clearwater, but they were eager to see any kind of pro baseball in person.

“I enjoy getting close to see what these guys do,” Bassett said.

A notable absence for Red Sox Nation at this opener was beloved former player and longtime NESN broadcaster Jerry Remy, who died in October following treatment for lung cancer. A bouquet of flowers was placed at his seat in the broadcast booth. The park held a moment of silence for him and other former Red Sox who died this offseason: Ike Delock, Jim Corsi, Jeremy Giambi and Julio Lugo.

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Let’s play! Buxton digs in, MLB spring games finally begin