The thrill ride has begun.
It always starts here, not with the thud of a baseball into a mitt or the crack of a bat in a cage, but with the lion's roar of an 18-wheeler's diesel engine and the cacophony of interstate traffic.
That is the first real sound of Spring Training getting under way, and the modern Truck Day tradition continued Tuesday at frigid settings such as Fenway Park in Boston, Citi Field in New York, Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and Comerica Park in Detroit, where 18-wheelers loaded with equipment departed Major League Baseball stadiums for balmy Spring Training destinations. We have seen everyone from Josh Hamilton to Mr. Met seeing off these vehicles, a true sign of the times. Winter was gradually losing its grip, soon to give way to the boys of summer.
It is traditional for Truck Day rigs to "blend in" on the highways with nondescript white sides and the mover logo, for obvious reason. If you are an MLB club, you generally do not want to advertise to every motorist from state-to-state that you are hauling valuable cargo anyone would want.
Well, the Red Sox knocked that conventional wisdom out of the park. With JetBlue sponsoring, the Red Sox truck departed Tuesday featuring splashy Green Monster siding. In lettering made to resemble the old manual scoreboard, it read: "FIRST STOP FORT MYERS, NEXT STOP THE SERIES." Hello, America -- Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez arriving separately.
"I absolutely wouldn't miss this," said Kelly O'Connor, a Red Sox fan in attendance at Fenway, from Arlington, Mass. "We have the best fans in the world -- the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Everything deserves its ceremony, and I think this is the start of the baseball season. We should be here to send off the truck."
Al Hartz of Atlas Van Lines is behind the wheel for the Red Sox, as he has been since 1998. He expects to arrive on Thursday, and a day later they will unload the bats, balls, wrist bands, jersey tops and stacks of other equipment. Sox pitchers and catchers officially report Sunday.
"I always look forward to Florida, but this year, a little bit more than normal," Hartz said.
The Nationals loaded up their JK Moving & Storage tractor trailer with 30,000 pounds of equipment for the 800-plus mile trek to Space Coast Stadium down the East Coast in Viera, Fla.
Clubhouse manager Mike Wallace and his staff packed up and loaded a vast assortment of gear, ranging from weight training equipment and medical supplies to player uniforms and apparel. That includes Jayson Werth's new garb. They ordered roughly 14,400 baseballs and 600 bats.
"With Moving Day, we know it's the beginning of the 2011 season because the offseason is now over," Wallace said. "As the stuff gets loaded, you keep saying to yourself, 'please have enough room, please have enough room.' But it always works out to where we get everything on there and then the truck is on its way.'"
Cincinnati's equipment has been idle at Great American Ball Park ever since that night the Phillies rained on the Reds' postseason parade, completing a National League Division Series sweep. Now the stuff is about to go on a 1,863-mile journey to the Reds' complex adjacent to Goodyear Ballpark in Arizona. It departs Tuesday and is due to arrive Thursday.
Forklifts were loading pallets onto a 53-foot trailer, featuring such items as about 15,000 baseballs and hundreds of bats, plus trunks full of batting helmets, uniforms and socks. There are always unique personal items aboard, and Reds clubhouse/equipment manager Rick Stowe said pitcher Mike Leake wins this year.
"Mike Leake bought a '69 Camaro and found four tires here in Cincinnati he wanted to bring out," Stowe said. "We put his four tires on there, plus he has a framer in Cincinnati he really likes. He got a lot of his jerseys for him, his mom and people like that. We're bringing those out for him, too."
In St. Louis, the Cardinals' clubhouse attendants, with assistance from a local moving company, spent Monday morning loading up two 18-wheelers for the long trip to Jupiter, Fla. Clubhouse manager Rip Rowan said the earlier season-opening schedule -- March 31 is Opening Day -- had a domino effect on when to load up trucks.
"Usually, we always load this thing on a Friday, then we [the clubhouse attendants] have the weekend to spend with our families, and we leave on that Monday," Rowan said. "But with the time frame of camp opening up on Sunday, we can't get down there too early. So this is the first time in many years we've done this on a Monday."
In addition to the standard hats and bats, the crew loaded up several bicycles, a couple of pitching machines and an X-Ray machine. And then there are the daily goods, things like laundry detergent and a telltale 89 cases of sunflower seeds. Soon those will be strewn upon a dugout floor during exhibition games.
The Rays don't have far to go, but it still requires Truck Day to get equipment down the Treasure Coast to Charlotte, Fla. Pitchers and catchers report to the Spring Training facility on Feb. 15, and everything will be waiting for them.
"From spring to spring, we see the players change, but the equipment remains the same," said Rays equipment manager Chris Westmoreland.
The move involved one palate of bubble gum, one palate of sunflower seeds, three palates of Gatorade products, 30 pairs of shower shoes, 20 cases of shoe polish, 600 dozen baseballs and 30 dozen bats. In addition to packing supplies, Westmoreland and his staff have been busy preparing the uniforms for new members of the team, including Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Felix Lopez and Casey Kotchman.
The Tigers have been packing all winter, according to Jim Schmakel, their clubhouse manager the past 33 years. Now the packing is done, and on Tuesday morning the main truck departs Comerica Park in Detroit and will arrive at Joker Marchant Stadium on Wednesday. Equipment will be ready when Justin Verlander and other Tigers pitchers and catchers start officially reporting Sunday, ahead of their first workout Monday.
This is the 75th anniversary spring for the Tigers and the town of Lakeland, Fla., and it is now a time-honored journey. Turn south out of Comerica onto Interstate 75, keep going that way until you hit Interstate 4 outside of Tampa, then head east to Exit 33 for Lakeland and Joker Marchant Stadium. Today, almost all of the old trunks are replaced by boxes that can be easily broken down for storage during camp. They have a lot more gear to haul than they did when Schmakel started, including such apparel as lined and unlined jackets, fleece pullovers, lighter pullovers, sweatshirts, Spring Training hats with piping, still more jackets, shirts and other items.
"It's amazing how much stuff we order," Schmakel said. "Everything I used to have has now tripled."
The first big Truck Day presence around baseball was on Friday, when 18-wheelers pulled out of Progressive Field in Cleveland, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Safeco Field in Seattle, both snow-packed ballparks in Chicago and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
"We want it to be there first thing Thursday morning," said Tony Amato, the Indians' home clubhouse and equipment manager, as Cleveland's equipment was loaded onto a pair of trucks and then set out for the 2,075-mile journey across majestic and mundane scenery to Goodyear, Ariz. "When we roll this off, we'll have Grady Sizemore's stuff all together, we'll have Shin-Soo Choo's stuff all together, so we can just put it right in their lockers."
What makes these Truck Day events so exciting is the realization of what lies up ahead, both figuratively and literally. There is a Cactus or Grapefruit League camp at the end of a mapped route for the truck drives. There is another Opening Day beyond that, starting this time on a Thursday, March 31. So as you watch the equipment being packed into cases and hoisted onto trucks and then see the rigs departing from the loading bay, you can't help but think that the next time it all returns to that ballpark, the giddy thrill of a new season will be at hand.
Phillies fans watched the MLB.com video of the Atlas Van Lines driver, Anthony Castle, pulling out of the Citizens Bank Park interior and onto the route where so many of them lined up to cheer for trucks carrying the World Series champions after the 2008 season. "Heading to Spring Training! Phillies Spring Training!" he told some cheering onlookers.
They knew that when attention ultimately focuses on Citizens Bank Park again, Cliff Lee would be joining Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt for a potentially historic starting rotation. This was how it all began.
"Clearwater or bust" was the theme of the Phillies' moving day, and here is what is aboard that 53-foot rig that Castle and Marty Garland are driving to Florida:
Fifteen cases of gum (regular and sugarless), 12 cases of sunflower seeds, 20 coolers and a half pallet of Powerade mix, 250 batting practice tops, 300 helmets, 350 pair of shorts, 450 pair of socks, 600 pair of pants, 600 hats, 200 fleeces, 1,200 bats, 2,000 T-shirts, 10,000 12-ounce cups, 15,000 baseballs and 150 pairs of batting gloves.
"We pack whatever the players need," said Danny O'Rourke, manager, Phillies equipment and umpire services, who has been overseeing the move the past few years. "It does us no good to have everything here in Philadelphia when the team's in Florida."
At Progressive Field, you could see rolling carts with uniforms being pushed onto the trucks. Amato was responsible for packing 1,100 baseballs (many more will be used in Arizona) and more than 600 bats to Goodyear. Bicycles, bottles of water, weight room equipment, clothing and gear ... it's like packing to go camping.
Because it is camping. Clubs are going to hunker down in communities within the Grand Canyon State and the Sunshine State, as always, and by late March they are going to be itching to get out of dodge and go to The Show.
Want to see what the White Sox move looked like? See the photo gallery. Imagine all those sports drinks being consumed by players during and after Cactus League exhibitions, where one of the 2011 American League favorites hopes to build momentum for Opening Day.
The Mariners truck rolled out of Safeco Field at 11:30 a.m. local time and headed south on I-5, with the plan to reach Ashland, Ore., by Friday night, then to Blythe, Calif., on Saturday before reaching Peoria, Ariz., to complete the 1,100-mile journey on Sunday. A day later, they will start unloading boxes filled with uniforms, training equipment, office materials and everything else needed to run a baseball club during its seven-week stay.
By the time pitchers and catchers report Sunday, all the gear will be in place at the team's Peoria Sports Complex.
As for the scene on Chicago's North side, let's just say that people around the Cubs' quarters were eager to get packed up and head to beautiful Mesa, Ariz. It was a tough week at the not-so-Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, with the blizzard wreaking havoc and even taking off a bit of roof paneling. Somewhere on the Cubs truck are items that will be used by newcomers Carlos Pena and Matt Garza.
While the black-and-gold of Pittsburgh's NFL team was about 48 hours away from another Super Bowl, the MLB team of the same colors was packing up and heading for Bradenton down in Florida. Around noon ET, the Pirates' official front-office Twitter account, @BucsInsider, tweeted a picture of a fully loaded truck that was about to hit the road.
Technically speaking, Truck Day actually already had begun before Friday's moving action. On Jan. 31, the D-backs were moving bats, balls, uniforms and other equipment from Chase Field in Phoenix to the new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick facility that they will share with the Rockies in Scottsdale, Ariz. That's like going around the block in comparison to the typical transportation from MLB ballpark to spring camp, but that step was needed there as well in the Majors' newest training home.