Charles Foun­tain, a jour­nalism pro­fessor at North­eastern for 25 years, is the author of “Under the March Sun – The Story of Spring Training,” which was pub­lished in Jan­uary. He has appeared fre­quently on the ESPN Sports­Cen­tury series, com­menting on the myth and cul­ture of Amer­ican sport, and has appeared on NPR, and more than fifty tele­vi­sion and radio sta­tions nationwide.

Is there some­thing spe­cial about spring training?

From the 1880s, when spring training started, through the end of the 1950s, the major league base­ball map started in Boston, stretched across to Chicago, down to St. Louis, and then across to Wash­ington. Draw a line around that map; that’s the land of good honest winter. And every year, in the middle of that winter, news­pa­pers would start car­rying base­ball sto­ries from warm places like St. Peters­burg and Sara­sota, Fla. Forget cro­cuses and robins. The first sign that winter would even­tu­ally end were those soul-​​warming, warm-​​weather date­lines in cold-​​weather news­pa­pers. It’s a dif­ferent world now, but spring training still means the end of winter. And that’s some­thing fans and non-​​fans can relate to. There’s a transcend-​​the-​​game uni­ver­sality to spring training that the start of NFL training camp can never match.

What are the dif­fer­ences between Florida and Ari­zona spring training?

The biggest dif­fer­ence is the prox­imity of teams to one another in Ari­zona, and the dis­tance between teams in Florida. Twelve of the four­teen teams training in Ari­zona train within a half-​​hour of each other in greater Phoenix. The other two are an hour-​​and-​​a-​​half away in Tucson. In Florida, mean­while, the Red Sox have the Twins next door, and the Rays a half-​​hour away in Port Char­lotte. But every other game is some­where between an hour-​​and-​​a-​​half and three-​​and-​​a-​​half hours away.

In Ari­zona, vir­tu­ally every sta­dium looks out on dis­tant moun­tains; Florida has nothing so pretty. But then, when the game is over in Florida, you can go to the beach. It’s a long ride to the beach in Arizona.

What is your favorite spring training loca­tion? Why?

I am par­tial to two places that both lost spring training this year. One is Dodger­town in Vero Beach, partly because we’ve vaca­tioned there for years and I went to a lot of games in Holman Sta­dium. But Dodger­town is also a sin­gular piece of spring training real estate. Branch Rickey chose it for Dodgers spring training in 1948 because is had some World War II Naval Air Sta­tion bar­racks that could house the Dodgers players. That meant all the Dodgers players, black and white. Florida was seg­re­gated at the time and the Dodgers were the only team that lived together as a team, until the seg­re­ga­tion cus­toms and ordi­nances were struck down in the early 1960s. That makes Dodger­town and Vero Beach his­toric for rea­sons that have nothing to do with baseball.

The other spe­cial place that lost its spring training this year is Al Lang Field in St. Peters­burg, where the Yan­kees, Car­di­nals, Mets, and most recently the Rays all trained. Al Lang is right on the water. You could sit in stands and if the game was in a slow moment—or even if it wasn’t—you could allow your­self to be dis­tracted by the sail­boats on Tampa Bay.

That said, how­ever, I have also seen spring training’s two newest com­plexes in Glen­dale and Goodyear, Ariz., and they are simply mag­nif­i­cent. But I have found in my travels around spring training that in most people’s eyes, the best spring training site is the one where their favorite team plays.

What do you like most about spring training?

I have never, not once, in the 30 years I’ve been going to spring training, ever had to brush the snow from my wind­shield when I got in my car to go to a game.

For a New Eng­lander, get­ting away from the cold in winter is always going to be a treat. For a reporter though, spring training is a time of great story-​​telling oppor­tu­ni­ties. Players are more relaxed and coop­er­a­tive and thus more expan­sive than they gen­er­ally are during the reg­ular season. The games don’t count, so there’s not much to say on that front, and it forces reporters to think a little more cre­atively. That can be a chal­lenge, par­tic­u­larly for the daily writers who are there for the whole six weeks. I was never one of those. For me, I’ll always regard spring training as a place of lim­it­less and very pleasing story opportunities.

What’s the rela­tion­ship between spring training cities and their teams? For example, are there a lot of Boston Red Sox fans in Ft. Myers? How does it com­pare with the teams’ home cities?

Any city that’s had a long rela­tion­ship with a major league team is going to become a magnet for fans of that team. A lot of Mets fans vaca­tion in, or have retired to, Port St. Lucie. There are Cubs fans all over Mesa. And of course there are a lot of trans­planted Min­nesotans and New Eng­lan­ders in Fort Myers because of the Twins and the Red Sox. Indeed one of the fac­tors in the Red Sox deci­sion to stay in Lee County instead of moving up to Sara­sota when they were being wooed there last summer was a sen­si­tivity to the large number of New Eng­lan­ders who’ve fol­lowed the team to South­west Florida over the last sev­en­teen years.

One of the most spe­cial rela­tion­ships between a team and its spring training city is the one between the Tigers and Lake­land. The Tigers have been coming to that cen­tral Florida city since 1934. The city is crawling with Michigan license plates every March, many of the fans staying with friends or family mem­bers who now have homes in Lake­land. Many of the Tiger players, former players and front office people have homes in Lake­land as well. I’m actu­ally writing about this in a story that will go up on the Boston Globe web­site in a week or so.

Do you think spring training has lost its inno­cence? Spring training used to be low key, tickets were cheap. Now it’s hard to get tickets. There are big crowds.

While spring training is a dra­mat­i­cally more-​​crowded and more-​​commercial scene than it was even a decade ago, and cer­tainly dif­ferent from what it was 25 or 30 years ago, it is still the most inno­cent and inti­mate part of the base­ball season. The worst seat at City of Palms Park is roughly just as close to the action as some of the best seats at Fenway, and while those tickets cost three times what they did just a few years ago, they still cost just a third of a reg­ular season ticket. And if the old-​​timers sit there and tell you it’s not as good as it used to be, well, hasn’t that always been a part of the game too?

Have you noticed if this year’s down economy is having an impact on spring training turnout?

A ques­tion with a direct and simple answer: Yes. The Red Sox are still selling out, but across the Grape­fruit and Cactus league, atten­dance at the early games is off as much as 25 per­cent and more. How­ever sweet the spring training expe­ri­ence may be, unless you’re a ballplayer get­ting ready for the season, spring training is decid­edly non-​​essential, exactly the sort of thing most vul­ner­able to being cut out of people’s bud­gets these days.

What’s your favorite team? Do you go to their spring training games?

I am a life-​​long New Eng­lander and a Red Sox fan since the days of Ted Williams and Jackie Jensen. I’ve been to Fort Myers many times, and its great to be part of the buzz that’s always there. I write in the book that Red Sox spring training is like no other. But when it comes to spring training, if I’m just there as a fan, it doesn’t matter to me where I am or who’s playing. The expe­ri­ence of watching base­ball in shirt­sleeves in March is its own reward.