Commentary

Welcome to Florida. Sort of …

The center of American sports is in a strange place this week: the Sunshine State.

Originally Published: February 20, 2012
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Florida BeachAP Photo/J. Pat CarterIn between all the sports in Florida this week, maybe there's time for our man to work on his tan.

Pitchers and catchers report this week. Me too.

Like migratory birds down the Atlantic Flyway, northern sportswriters return season after season to Florida. Most of us for spring training. A few more this year for the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando. And some of us for the Daytona 500. That's where I'll be.

[+] EnlargeDaytona 500
AP Photo/Nigel KinradeTesting happened last month. The real thing at Daytona is this week.

Think of this as the anchor entry in a race week sketchbook. Or maybe the diary of a madman. In a day or two or three, we'll draw some lines around Kurt and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and fuel injection, Jimmie Johnson's nose and Dale junior's beard, the rumor mill and the restrictor plate, Danica Patrick and Bill Elliott, the Wood Brothers and bump drafting and the Streamline Hotel, sunshine and moonshine and Smoke. The ever-changing everlasting. We'll do the whole thing forward and back from Ponce de Leon to Walt Disney to Bill France, and from Frank Conroy to Carl Kiekhaefer to Carl Hiaasen. We'll do the anniversary thing, too. Ten years ago this month, I drove south to Daytona in a motor home and followed NASCAR for an entire season. A 50,000-mile lap of America.

Start at the beginning. I visited Florida for the first time in 1961 or '62. I was a little American boy in the back of a big American car, and out past the sun dazzle on the hood and the long hot deck of that trunk lid was a vacation blur of blue water and blue sky. And what roared past those open windows was more than just a modern American highway, but a weird sense of something at once forever and impermanent. All those new motels and gas stations, all that buzzing neon set down not just on the edge of the wetlands, but on what felt like the verge of civilization itself. Walk 10 feet out of some Space Coast parking lot and you were in prehistory, out in the cane breaks and the marshes with the Lizard King and the heatstroke.

Too bright at noon and too dark at night, the whole horizon of sand and water and stars shimmered and tipped toward hallucination. Stand anywhere at the water's edge squinting out to the gulf or the sea, and you could feel that swamp pressing against your spine.

I feel it still. To this day, there's something cockeyed about Florida, something at once ancient and disposable that feels to me like a figment of Northeastern imagination. My father lives there now, part of the New York diaspora, pulled down to the heat and humidity as if by gravity.

[+] Enlargespring training baseball game
AP Photo/Richard DrewAhhh, Florida. Where every team is supposed to start spring training with hope. Right?

I understand that this is a failure of my understanding.

After all these years and scores of visits, somehow my Florida is the Breakers and a bag of souvenir oranges, a panhandle tent show and a sepia postcard and an antique railroad, a hurricane and 10 lanes of traffic, a long con, a stock swindle, a mansion of stucco and plywood built on a termite colony. It's Liberty City and the Fountain of Youth and the Early Bird special, tarpon and carpetbaggers and a hundred years of the Grapefruit League drying out soaks like Babe Ruth. It's café cubano and the mob and Clay jumping rope at the 5th Street Gym. It's friends in Key West and enemies in Turn 3 and it's my colleagues in dugouts and press boxes from Clearwater to Jupiter, from Bradenton and Dunedin and Sarasota across to Kissimmee and Port St. Lucie. It's where I ended my chase of Pete Rose, and where I waited out the end of Ted Williams. It's a mirage.

Florida is existential tension, a false prospect and the last hope of every weirdness in our shared America. Dwarf palm and overbright sky, Magic Castle and the empty rattle of the wind in the sawgrass. What the length of the state really measures is the distance between fantasy and reality. Like NASCAR, Florida is the most American thing ever.

I'll arrive there as I always do, looking everywhere for something I haven't lost.

Travel Tuesday. Talk to you again Wednesday.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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