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The Wilmsmeyer family, above, enjoy a day at the park in Florida during the St. Louis Cardinals 2011 spring training.
The Wilmsmeyer family, above, enjoy a day at the park in Florida during the St. Louis Cardinals 2011 spring training.

After 5: Baseball, at its Purest

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Last edited 2:53 p.m., April 11, 2011

Some area baseball fans already have sung “Take me out to the ballgame” in the middle innings of a game this year – they just had to travel thousands of miles to do it.

Major League Baseball spring training has attracted several Springfield businesspeople to Florida’s warm climate during school breaks this year.

On the Wilmsmeyers’ spring break vacation, the family took a pause from Sea World and Busch Gardens in Florida, to journey to St. Louis Cardinals camp in Jupiter.

Brian Wilmsmeyer, an Elite Promotions salesman, says he and his two sons, ages 7 and 10, are “baseball guys through and through,” as evidenced by his coaching of their Springfield-Greene County Park Board teams.

“They just ate that stuff up,” he says of the up-close views of Cardinals players and the highlight: autographs by legends Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.

“That’s exciting for me,” Wilmsmeyer adds. “(Gibson) ended up chatting with us for a few minutes.”

Ameriprise financial adviser Ron Penney built his vacation itinerary around spring training games in Florida. His goal: seven games in seven days – until he was invited to Barons Financial’s summit for top advisers in Orlando.

“I couldn’t turn that down at the Ritz Carlton with the top people from all over the country,” he says. “I changed my plans.”

Penney, who was traveling with his wife and 12-year-old grandson, settled for four games in four parks, and the Orlando stop allowed him to catch a game at Disney-owned Champion Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves spring training.

Drawn to stadium architecture and atmosphere, Penney soaks up more than baseball.

“I like taking pictures of ballparks,” he says, noting that Disney’s park and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring home in Bradenton are worlds apart – Disney with its fireworks show and the Pirates’ American Legion feel appealing to baseball purists.

While in Bradenton, Penney saw a familiar face, former Pirate and Springfieldian Bill Virdon.

“He was sitting right there by the backstop, so I went up and said, ‘Hi,’” Penney says, pointing out that Virdon was National League Rookie of the Year in 1955, the year Penney was born. “I got a big thrill out of him.”

There also are plenty of beer vendors where the Pirates play, he says. But of course, what is baseball without beer and bratwurst?

Joe Stokes, City Utilities key accounts manager, knows where to order. “The best sausage in the world is at Space Coast Stadium where the Nationals play. The buddies that go with me, they all agree.”

Stokes enjoyed an Italian sausage with the works while watching the Washington Nationals under the sun last month in Melbourne, Fla. Two of his friends and their spouses rented a five-bedroom house in Haines City, and the guys took in two ball games.

“It’s so different than a major league game. You’re so close up to the players,” Stokes says, observing the more casual tone among players and coaches. “Winning is not the biggest part of spring training. It’s called training for a reason.”

However, on the backfields at the camps, minor league players are fighting for survival in their profession, trying to work their way through the system.

That was a message Wilmsmeyer hopes his aspiring ballplayers caught.

“They’re still young, so they haven’t fully grasped that yet. It’s more than just going out there and playing,” he says. “Watching them on the backfields, they were doing some of the same drills we do in our Little League practices. It’s neat for them to get an idea of what it’s like.”

The youngsters even got to chase some batting practice home run balls hit by their heroes.

Wilmsmeyer and company – including Tim Parrish of Trust Company of the Ozarks and his wife and two sons – followed the Cards to the New York Mets facility in Port St. Lucie. Beyond the outfield fence, the boys fetched balls that bounced off the bats of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus.

“It was fun to watch them. Here you are 340 feet away and these big guys are hitting baseballs, and the boys are trying to catch them,” Wilmsmeyer says. “That was the highlight for them, knowing that the balls they were getting were from major leaguers, not just Dad.”[[In-content Ad]]


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