FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Fred Coughlan started going to watch spring training in 1978, he hung around the stands with other diehards, scouted the players, and took in an exhibition game here and there. The players and fans all stayed in the same Holiday Inn, and he once ran into Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd in a laundromat.
"You could go to the park and walk right up and see the ballplayers," he said.
That is not so easy these days. On Thursday, Coughlan jostled with hundreds of fans behind metal barricades, hoping to catch a glimpse of a player jogging onto the field. Eight days before the first exhibition game, 1,557 fans from as far away as Japan had come just to watch the team stretch.
"I just wonder, if this keeps going as it has, what will they do for crowd control?" said Coughlan, 69, a retired engineer who was born in Milton and lives in Virginia. "At times, it gets dangerous."
For decades, spring training was the cherished rite of a few hardcore fans and snowbirds who relished the most intimate experience in baseball: the opportunity to see their heroes up close, away from the glare and pressure of the big parks and the regular season. Tickets were cheap and plentiful, and autographs were available for the asking.
These days, as the Red Sox have exploded in popularity, the pastoral pastime has become a bonanza of swelling crowds, rising ticket prices, and fewer chances to get up close with the players. As the team prepares for its first game Thursday, fans of all stripes expressed fear that the intimacy and accessibility that made spring training special are going the way of the $1 hot dog.
"We could go right up and talk to the players, even when [Roger] Clemens was playing," said Hank Devine, 74, of Agawam, who has been coming to spring training since the 1980s, and watched on Thursday from behind a chain-link fence as pitchers warmed up. "Now, it's different. You don't mingle anymore. It's more like the Fenway scene, the atmosphere."
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"It's not that I couldn't afford to do it. I'm not going to do it," said Adam Lotz, 49, a fish salesman from Swansea who came to spring training with his wife and two sons but refused to buy tickets to games. "It makes you feel like a victim after you buy them."
Gene Campaiola, 80, of Methuen, had hoped to catch a few games with his wife, daughter, and her husband, but could only find standing-room tickets to one game.
"Everything was sold out and we got down here last month - that's when we went looking for tickets," said Campaiola, who was making his fourth trip to spring training. "Since we've been coming down it's been the same thing: jammed."
"It's like Springsteen tickets," said his daughter, Jean.
To ease the crunch, the Sox added a bar and 400 barstool-style seats to the right field wall at the 7,700-seat City of Palms Park last year, and still sold every seat within a month after they went on sale in December. The hope for fans now is to get one of the several hundred tickets that are sold at the park at 9 a.m. on game day. The waiting period for one of 3,000 season tickets has grown to three years.
"You always worry about outgrowing something that's great, but if we can continue to make adjustments on it, hopefully we can keep it great," said Todd Stephenson, the Red Sox coordinator of Florida operations. "It's such a double-edged sword in terms of selling tickets. We are hesitant to increase the capacity of City of Palms because it is such an intimate park."
The worries are hard to imagine given spring training's humble roots. The Sox started traveling South in the spring of 1901 to whip players into shape who had spent the off season working in shops and factories, said Herb Crehan, a team historian. It wasn't until the 1950s that fans started showing up in large numbers.
By the 1970s, the team had set up spring training facilities in Winter Haven and about 2,900 fans, mostly diehards and retirees, would show up for the games. By 1993, when the team moved to Fort Meyers, the crowds had grown to 3,600 per game. Tickets were $10 or $15 and almost always available. But the breaking of the curse in 2004 opened the floodgates.
The next year, the team sold out its spring training tickets within days, and fans have been flocking since. Parents take their children on February vacation week; college students come to party and see a player; and fans like Janice Bamford, 26, a teacher from Rockport, drive straight from Massachusetts to see the stars.
"Everybody understands what the reality of the situation is - the Red Sox are incredibly popular right now," said Jim Holzman, chief executive of Aceticket.com, which is selling tickets for as much as $175.
On Thursday, the first shuttle buses started taking fans to the practice field at 7:30 a.m. By 9:30, hundreds had showed up, and they squeezed behind barricades that stretched from the clubhouse to the field. Vendors sold hot dogs and sodas and T-shirts with Sox logos topped with palm trees. It looked like a slice of Massachusetts by the Caloosahatchee River, as men with Massachusetts State Police and Mass. Retirees caps crowded past teenagers in Sox jerseys. Outfield billboards advertise Dunkin' Donuts, Giant Glass, and Northeastern University.
"The place has transformed," said Roger Harris, a Minnesota native, who has been coming to Fort Myers since 1982, first to see the Twins and now the Sox, as well. "It used to be a small town. Now, it's like Kenmore Square."
Some welcome the arrival of thousands drawn by championship glory.
"In '01, '02, '03, there was interest, but it was oldtime Red Sox fans like myself," said Robert Kidder, 67, of Woodville, N.H, who recently bought himself a headstone featuring the epitaph "Red Sox Forever," and an etching of himself pitching a baseball with the slogan "Catch You Later." "But now there's more excitement, more fans, and they're accomplishing the goal that all the teams try to accomplish and it's wonderful."
Most, even without tickets, had fun no matter how crowded the barricades. They said the experience still offers the best of spring training: the chance to chat with a player, snag an autograph, and watch baseball in the sun.
"This is so much better than Disneyland, if you're the parent of a Sox fan," said Lotz, perched under a red umbrella watching his sons collect autographs. "Even if there's 2,000 people down here, it's still a great time."
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.