FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Stretching and sunblock. Pitchers running on the warning track in the middle of a ballgame. Late innings populated by players wearing numbers normally assigned to offensive linemen.
This is spring training.
This is my 27th spring training and it wasn't until yesterday that I realized what's best about Grapefruit and Cactus league play. It's not the weather or the beach or the cheap parking. It's not the palm trees, osprey nests, or the green caps on St. Patrick's Day. It's not the early-bird dinner specials, the bargains at Larry's Pawn Shop, or the battle for the coveted Mayor's Trophy.
It's the attitude. Players and fans.
Nobody complains about anything.
This occurred to me yesterday when the bus carrying the Philadelphia Phillies got stuck behind a sludge spill (only in Florida) near the Skyway Bridge on its way from Clearwater. Red Sox fans who'd been hanging out at City of Palms Park since 10:30 a.m. were told the game was going to start at 3 p.m. instead of 1.
Nobody complained. It just meant there'd be more time to drink, sit in the sun, read papers, and try to get Johnny Pesky's autograph. (OK, so maybe I heard some grumbling in the press box and Keith Foulke complains about everything, but I'm talking about the regular people here.)
Spring training is the closest thing you'll find to Ray Kinsella's cornfield. People come because they love baseball. They love the smell of the grass. They love tracking the new phenoms and the veterans trying to hang on. They love the seventh-inning stretch.
There's no getting caught up in wins or losses. It's a game without real competition, a skill show. It represents hope and opportunity. Even if you follow the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The biggest ovation of yesterday's long morning and afternoon at the ballpark was appropriately awarded to the aforementioned Mr. Pesky. Boston's ancient goodwill ambassador sat and signed autographs for an hour and a half during the sun-splashed delay and fans showed him some love when he finally got up from his folding chair stationed by the third base dugout rail.
The first pitch wasn't thrown until 2:50 and fans applauded madly when Manny Ramírez stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning. Naturally, Manny cracked a 1-and-1 pitch up the middle for a single. From a distance, Manny now looks a little like a righthanded-hitting Johnny Damon. He's noticeably trimmer, but mostly, it's the hair. Manny's new hair is braided and blonder than Johnny's mane, and it hangs out of his batting helmet in Damonesque fashion.
There was a distinctive Fenway flavor to this game because Carl Beane manned the public address system for the first time this spring. He told us it was 77 degrees. The Sox played ''Sweet Caroline" when the team took the field to warm up for the second.
Since John Flaherty retired, the Sox have stepped up their search for a backup catcher who can handle Tim Wakefield's knuckler and Josh Bard was tested in the early innings. He dropped a third strike on the final pitch of the second inning, but scrambled to the backstop, retrieved the ball, and still nailed plow horse Sal Fasano chugging down the line.
Bard chased the butterflies for four innings as Wakefield threw a couple of wild pitches, including one that bounced over the catcher's head. Bard dropped a third strike at the end of the fourth, but was able to tag the batter. The man-who-would-be-Doug Mirabelli also knocked a single to center in the second.
Coco Crisp (.615 thus far in Florida) cracked another pair of hits and stole two bases. Trust me when I tell you this guy will make you forget about Damon by June. And it's only a matter of time before he's on cereal boxes at Shaw's. Kids will be cuckoo for Coco.
Trot Nixon crushed a long homer off the light standard behind the right-field fence in the third. But that was only the beginning of the power. David Murphy, a 24-year-old outfielder (former Wareham Gateman) who played at Double A Portland last season, hit a pair of homers in the late innings during the Sox' 9-4 victory over the Phillies.
While the happy fans got into their cars and set forth in search of the nearest Red Lobster or Applebee's, Murphy -- hair still wet from the shower -- dressed in front of his locker and talked to reporters. He said it was a relief because he'd been pressing (he had been 1 for 11 this spring with a four-strikeout game last week). He said he was thinking about hitting a third homer when he grounded into a double play in the eighth. He said he hadn't hit three homers in a game since he was 16 and ''that was a tiny field so I don't know if it should count."
Murphy isn't going to start the season in center field at Fenway Park. He's bound for Pawtucket. But someday soon he'll get the call to the bigs and when he does, there'll be 7,829 people who'll remember when they waited around the ballpark all day and saw a kid wearing No. 77 hit a couple of homers. Another day in paradise. A perfect spring training day.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.