Sox truck leaves Fenway for Fort Myers

Kyle Brasseur for ESPN

BOSTON -- Snow on the ground, 18-degree weather and fans bundled up from top to bottom. It's not a scene we'd normally associate with spring, but for the Boston Red Sox, a new season kicked off Saturday morning.

The team's annual Spring Training Truck Day brought out hundreds of fans on a chilly February morning for what many believe is the unofficial start of baseball season.

"For the families of New England, it's our Groundhog Day," Red Sox executive vice president Dr. Charles Steinberg said. "We may have six more weeks of winter, but at least we get six weeks of spring training."

The truck, stocked full with what Steinberg described as "a child's baseball fantasy," featured much of the team's equipment and supplies necessary for spring training, including more than 20,000 baseballs and 1,000 bats, plus scores of gloves, helmets, jerseys and the ever-important stock of chewing gum and sunflower seeds.

At the wheel of the truck was Al Hartz, who has made the annual drive south to Florida for the past 16 years. A native of Milford, Mass., and a Red Sox fan himself, Hartz considers it an honor to drive the truck for the team each year.

"I enjoy it, I get to see behind the scenes both up here and down there," Hartz said. "It's pretty special."

It's even more special this year, as the Red Sox just won their third World Series since Hartz first started driving the truck in 1998. Back then, Hartz said only a few people would show up, many of whom were local reporters, but now the day has become more of an event.

"There's a little more attention, a little bigger crowd," Hartz said. "A little more excitement, I guess."

The Red Sox began celebrating Truck Day in 2003, drawing fans out for the unique event every year, regardless of the often below-freezing temperatures felt during a Boston February. Steinberg said the support is discussed often among the members of the front office, warming their hearts despite the coldest of temperatures.

"When you have fans who come out here and we're recognizing the faces, some of these folks come every year," Steinberg said. "It's a reminder of how much baseball means to them and to all of us. It's a reminder of how deeply personal baseball is."

"It is such a part of the fabric of New England, and you get inspired by that. You know who you're playing for and you know how much it matters to people, whether they get to Fenway Park or not."

From old to young, fans lined up on Van Ness street Saturday, some holding signs to support the team and others sporting old winter hats fashioned into beards to show that last year is still fresh in their minds. The event featured live music for the first time, as the Boston University band serenaded the crowd with many of the ballpark's favorite tunes. Even team poet laureate Dick Flavin made an appearance, reciting a poem he came up with Friday night to see the truck off.

"This winter has dragged on forever, enough with this Frozen Fenway," Flavin bellowed. "Get trucking on down to spring training, we're ready for baseball, I'd say."

Pitchers and catchers are slated to report to Fort Myers on Feb. 15, although many, including staff ace Jon Lester, have already made their way down to Florida. Full squads will report on Feb. 18 before the team plays its first exhibition, against the Northeastern Huskies and Boston College Eagles, in split-squad action on Feb. 27. Major league competition kicks off with the first game of the annual Mayor's Cup against the Minnesota Twins on Feb. 28.

"We can't wait," Steinberg said. "We are fans, and we're as excited as any fans are."

Last year's truck seemed almost prophetic, sporting a message of "Big Things Ahead" despite a less-than-optimistic outlook on the year heading into the spring. Now, with a World Series championship behind them, the 2014 Red Sox journey begins with a new message displayed across the back of the JetBlue-sponsored, 53-foot truck.

"On the Road to Greatness."