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Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Rite of spring (training): Happy Truck Day!

By Jack McCluskey

 Fenway
The equipment truck carrying gear to Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., leaves Boston for Fort Myers on Tuesday.

BOSTON -- As a light rain fell, turning the fresh dusting of snow on the sidewalk into slush and ensuring footing was less than ideal, workers packed a tractor trailer on Tuesday morning. They brought out boxes on two-wheelers and bags by hand, they slid crates and cases on dollies.

It could’ve been any load of any truck. But of course it wasn’t.

This truck loading came with a press release.

Red Sox “Truck Day” was here again. Workers started packing the truck Monday night, filling the front of the hold with gear for the team’s spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla.. The work continued at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, with the truck departing Fenway Park at noon, led by a flatbed truck carrying Wally the Green Monster and an entourage of Sox employees, who had soft Red Sox baseballs to toss to fans along the road.

“This is a lot of fun,” driver Al Hartz said. “This is something special.”

Hartz, who has been driving the Red Sox’s equipment truck to spring training since 1998, said he should complete the 1,480-mile drive by Thursday. The unloading happens on Friday (first at City of Palms Park, then at the minor league complex). Pitchers and catchers report Sunday.

Red Sox equipment truck
Workers loaded gear onto the Red Sox equipment truck on Tuesday morning.
And then will Hartz kick back for a few days with the Sox? Not exactly. He has to pick up a load in Orlando on Saturday and head back.

Not to worry, though, the Sox fan will get his fill of spring training at the tail end of camp.

“On the way back [at the end of spring training] I’ll be down there for three or four days loading up,” Hartz said. “We’ll have two trailers on the way back, because there’s a lot more -- the players all have their stuff.

“I’m in and out of the locker room, they let me walk in and watch the game. It’s a lot more fun down there. Up here it’s kinda rushed to get the thing done.”

As Hartz & Co. were busy early Tuesday loading the truck, which has been festooned with a sticker featuring the Red Sox logo and a scoreboard-style billboard reading “FIRST STOP FORT MYERS/NEXT STOP THE SERIES” by sponsor jetBlue, the only other people watching were journalists and construction workers wandering off from projects underway around the park. Rain dripped off the sides of the truck, puddling in Van Ness Street.

Though the truck used to only have a banner on it for the loading, meaning it would be incognito for much of the trip, Hartz said the new sponsored stickers haven’t made much of a difference for him.

“People don’t pay too much attention to it,” he said. “A few people will see it and wave, but no big deal.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s no interest in the truck from Red Sox Nation.

“My office has had calls from, like, Red Sox booster clubs asking if the truck can stop and visit them on the way down, but we just don’t do stuff like that,” Hartz said with a laugh. “People are a little nuts about the Sox. I mean this just kinda proves it, watching the truck get loaded and drive away.”

Red Sox equipment truck
A Gibson guitar case labeled "Epstein" was among the items loaded onto the truck Tuesday morning.
And while the steady rain probably kept some fans from the truck’s sendoff, the event’s significance as a rite of spring (training), such as it is, is not be diminished.

The truck’s driver understands the attention. “Everybody loves the start of spring training. It means that baseball is right around the corner,” he said.

So fans stand on Van Ness to watch the trucking company workers load boxes labeled “winter batting gloves” and “Nike crew M,” to see crates labeled “Boston Video” pushed up the ramp and to watch as front office workers’ suitcases and personal effects -- including but not limited to a black Gibson guitar case with a pink tag labeled “Epstein” -- are trundled into the truck.

“This is a unique experience,” Hartz said of the fans, not to mention reporters and TV crews following him around at work, “but after 10, 12 years I’m starting to get used to it.”

But he admits it still makes for a bit of a bizarre work day.

“TV cameras are watching, and I’ve got a police escort out of town,” Hartz said. “Any other time of year that’s a bad thing, right?”

Any other time but Truck Day.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.