Sox truck rolls south for spring training

Workers at Fenway Park load up the truck headed for the Red Sox's new spring training home. Tom Lakin for ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- It seems strange that on the snowiest day of winter thoughts should turn to spring. But that's the odd beauty of Red Sox Truck Day, the annual celebratory sending-off of the team's equipment truck to Florida for spring training. And on Saturday, for the 100 or so fans who lined Van Ness Street behind Fenway Park, the ritual loading of uniforms, bats and balls into the back of an 18-wheeler was the sports equivalent of a daffodil poking up through a patch of icy grass.

"It's a rite of passage, a rite of spring," said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who showed up mid-morning to shake hands and take pictures with fans. "Some people have a [Truck Day] streak going, and some people think they're good luck -- the last time they [came out] was 2007 or something, and they want to make it happen again. It's inspiring to me. We can't forget how important this team is to so many people, and to their spirit and their sense of community. And it's energizing to see them out here."

Fans began turning out around 10 a.m., though the truck -- painted Fenway green and trimmed with a billboard reading "THE GREEN MONSTER'S ON THE MOVE" -- wasn't scheduled to depart until noon.

Red Sox hats, shirts and jackets blanketed the crowd, and rooters of all ages -- some holding canes, others sitting on shoulders -- cheered the pseudo-holiday -- though for some, like 19-year-old Matt Piazzi, there was nothing pseudo about it.

"My family celebrates this instead of Valentine's Day," said Piazzi, a student at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. "Instead of a Valentine, I got a Red Sox shirt in the mail this week."

As Piazzi stood and watched, workers rolled gear up a ramp and into the truck -- boxes and duffel bags of equipment, along with personal items such as golf clubs, bicycles and patio umbrellas that players and front-office personnel can opt to send down with the truck.

As the truck slowly filled, Lucchino and other Red Sox employees handed out magnetic schedules, rubber wristbands and stickers commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Fenway Park.

"It's another year but this is a really exciting year," Lucchino said as he introduced fans to his two 12-year-old black Labradors. "We've got a lot to prove. We've got new baseball leadership. We've got the 100-year anniversary to celebrate. These are exciting times. You really have to be here this year, and follow it this year. It's going to be a very challenging and exciting year."

Lucchino did admit that after last September's late-season collapse, this year's Truck Day represented something of a Red Sox fresh start.

"There's a lot of newness, certainly," Lucchino said. "With a new general manager [Ben Cherington] and a new field manager [Bobby Valentine] and a new facility down there [just-opened JetBlue Park in Lee County, Fla., the team's new spring training home], it's just not the same thing as it's been the last several years. And I hope the newness results in some new energy."

The fans gathered on Van Ness Street would likely agree. One shouted "How's Liverpool doing?" as Lucchino posed for photos -- a shot at the ownership group's English Premier League team, which some fans believe is taking attention and funds away from the Red Sox. And later, as a worker rolled a refrigerator into the truck, one fan wondered aloud whether it contained any chicken or beer.

But for the most part, the day was one of celebration. By 11:30 a.m., the crowd numbered over 100, and Al Hartz -- who has been driving the equipment truck to spring training since 1998 -- called it the biggest Truck Day turnout he's ever seen.

"The crowd's gotten bigger over the years, it really has," Hartz said. "And this being a Saturday is probably responsible for the larger crowd."

Hartz, a Red Sox fan from Milford, said he expects to complete the 1,480-mile drive by early in the week.

"I'm regulated how many hours I can drive," he said. "I'll probably run down to maybe Southern Jersey or Delaware or Maryland tonight. I don't have to deliver it until Tuesday, so I have a nice easy run. I can take my time."

Once there, he and his crew will unload the truck's eclectic cargo, which for many represents the imminence of spring.

"It's the beginning of baseball," Hartz said. "It's the first sign of spring. And the fact that we're doing it on a little bit of a snowy day, it works out."

Standing on a curb in the shadow of Fenway Park, slush sluicing past his boots, 19-year-old Mike Cefole was happy to agree.

"This is a fresh start," he said as the truck began to depart, The Standells' "Dirty Water" ringing in the winter air. "It's new everything. I'm just excited to get going."

Tom Lakin is a regular contributor to ESPNBoston.com.