One constant through years of covering spring training in Fort Myers is that the traffic along Daniels Parkway — a main drag from Southwest Florida International Airport into town — remains unbearable.
Everything else for baseball-starved fans who travel there to get their Twins fix every winter has changed.
The Lee County Sports Complex over time has seen Hammond Stadium renovated, practice fields added, the minor league headquarters updated and dormitories built for prospects.
Players used to show up as early as 6:30 a.m. to eat and get in a workout before drills began. An eager reporter could show up at 7 a.m. and catch Justin Morneau heading for the weight room or getting in swings. Denard Span or Alexi Casilla would be on a field with Rod Carew working on bunting. Tom Kelly would have the boys out on the field at 9 a.m. provided the sun had burned the morning dew off the grass.
In this era of rest and recovery, Twins players aren't required to be on the fields until 10 a.m. at the earliest. When Rocco Baldelli introduced his approach to camp, Jose Berrios joined a local health club to sneak in a morning workout because he would be shamed if he showed up to the complex too early.
Being in the clubhouse as players reported provided entertainment and revealed the characters who wore Twins uniforms. Eddie Guardado annually stood on one end of the Hammond Stadium clubhouse and hurled his equipment bag to the middle of the room while screaming "unpack my crap!" at the clubhouse attendants, who would laugh. In 2006, Tony Batista entered the clubhouse on reporting day and announced, "My name is Tony Batista. I'm from the Dominican Republic. I'm here to save baseball."
On Friday, I will leave my home, brave whatever latest weather event is in the air and head for the airport. I will land in Fort Myers and then shake my fist at the traffic along Daniels while adjusting my sunglasses and cracking open the sunroof in my rental car.
It will be Year 26 of Twins spring training for this weathered, husky, broken-down ball writer.
The Twins, on paper, are a deeper team than a year ago, but how that depth will play out is a mystery. A chunk of the training camp roster is participating in the World Baseball Classic, and the Twins surely are crossing their fingers that everyone returns healthy and doesn't get hurt celebrating a victory. But there are several things I'm looking forward to seeing.
With Opening Day two weeks away, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Alex Kirilloff — all returning after season-altering injuries — should get some at-bats during the remaining games.
Max Kepler is another player I'll be focused on. He won't have to deal with shifts anymore.
Jorge Alcala, who pitched a scoreless inning on Thursday and struck out two, could be a huge boost to the bullpen if he's licked his arm troubles that ruined his 2022 season.
Emilio Pagan gave up a grand slam in his first spring training outing, leading to flashbacks from last season. Can he be trusted in 2023?
Joe Ryan, who gave up two runs over four innings on Thursday, continues to develop his pitches and is poised to raise his game in his third season with the Twins.
And the final days of camp will provide clues on how the new rules to speed up the game will play out. There have been encouraging signs, as some games have been played in under 2 hours, 15 minutes. This is potentially a seismic shift for the game.
As camp winds down, I'll be looking for clues to help answer these questions:
What are the reasons for optimism from a club that altered nearly 40% of its roster during the offseason?
How will they adapt to the rule changes?
How healthy is Buxton?
Does this team look like an American League Central champion?
I'm willing to fight through Fort Myers traffic every morning to look for answers.