Kick start

Spring training for Revolution (and their fans) is a different ballgame

Email|Print| Text size + By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico - For the Revolution, this is no Mexican standoff.

In their preseason contest against the reigning Mexican First Division champions, who are already in midseason form, the Revolution receive the first eight yellow cards.

When new Revolution defender Chris Albright puts a late tackle on an Atlante player, there is a near-brawl. Two Revolution players are ejected, and eventually two Atlante players.

A smoke bomb goes off among fans who are waving flags, banging drums, and singing in the concrete bleachers. Fans chant about somebody's mother and toss a roll of toilet paper on the field. They should have saved it. There are none in the stadium bathrooms.

The Revolution had zero shots on goal in losing, 1-0. The only consolation is that the oceanfront Cancun hotel where the team's coaches are staying has a dispenser on the wall with upside-down bottles of tequila, rum, vodka, and scotch.

Head coach Steve Nicol didn't need any, though. He is happy. Very happy.

"It was perfect," says the Liverpool legend. "We expect that from the refs. We sacrificed a preseason game. We lost our cool. You could learn a lot from that.

"This is exactly what you want. You want it to be tough. You want to be stretched and put under pressure, because that's what's going to happen during the season. I can't think of a better team to play."

Despite the exotic location, preseason for the Revolution is in many respects similar to spring training in baseball, with morning workouts and free afternoons. But there is a difference. It is a fantasyland for fans, who have total access to the team. But very few show up.

For part of the winter, the Revolution stay at home and practice in the Gillette Stadium bubble. But instead of zigzagging around Florida like the Red Sox, they make weeklong trips to Bermuda, Cancun, and New Orleans to play foreign teams already in regular-season form.

Not bad, the players agree.

"Cancun during spring break? You've got to be kidding me," says striker Taylor Twellman. "This is great. The weather is great. And then there's all the extracurricular activities."

The players are not allowed to bring family, and they stay at the same hotel, two to a room.

"That's the difference," says Twellman. "[Baseball players'] families are down there. Our [spring training] is away from our families."

Captain Steve Ralston, Twellman's roommate of seven years, insists that the trips are boring, that nobody's looking for that lost shaker of salt.

"My wife's kind of jealous," he says with a grin. "She's home with three kids. I call her and tell her, 'Honey, it's not that nice here. It's been really windy. The fields are bad. The food is not that great.' "

The games, to be sure, are exhausting.

"When we come to play teams in Bermuda and Mexico, it's a war, it's a battle," says Twellman. "They're gunning for you always because you're American. They're trying to prove something, and that's the difference from spring training in baseball. The Braves are doing the same thing the Cubs are doing - just trying to get in shape."

The team left Boston last week in a snowstorm for the Gran Caribe Real Hotel. Players carry their own bags. The team lugs around enough Gatorade powder to turn the blue Caribbean green. The games are in old concrete stadiums, with no showers in the locker rooms and doors that don't lock. Revolution director of public relations Lizz Summers wears six wedding rings during games, keeping them safe for the players.

On days when there is no game, the Revolution have morning practices at Universidad La Salle, where the iguanas outnumber the soccer nets, 6-0. When the nets finally arrive, players and coaches lift one to move it, nearly trampling Nicol. No harm, no foul.

But accidents do happen.

Last year, Michael Parkhurst was slammed by a Cancun wave and dislocated his shoulder, missing the first three games of the season.

"This year he's not allowed in the ocean," says midfielder Khano Smith, "and when he goes in the pool, we get him a lifeguard."

The Revolution earned a split on this trip. They defeated Pioneros de Cancun, 4-1, in another chippy match against a young team with a Napoleon complex. Once again, fights nearly broke out several times.

"Every match could be a recipe for disaster," says Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg. "For us, there's no preseason when they drop the ball."

Fans are encouraged to come along on TNT Vacation packages. TNT advertises that you can sit next to a player on the plane, have a kick-around with players during practice, and enjoy a special breakfast with the team. Fans get choice tickets to two preseason games and stay at the team hotel. Although nearly 200 went along to Bermuda, the Cancun trip was as popular as a sunlamp on the beach. Maybe the Revolution's fan club - the Midnight Riders - doesn't like the sun. One thing is for sure: You can't get this kind of access to the Sox.

Tornberg even makes time to have dinner with "The Fan."

Ricardo LeWitus, 58, a pediatrician from Sudbury, is the only fan who purchased the Cancun package. If you count his daughter and her friend, who are spring breakers, there are actually three fans. But they are all very happy.

"This is just like being a kid again," says LeWitus. "I'm watching the game 10 feet away from the players, in a place that looks like my home in Lima. You can hear what the players say. It's the best experience in the world."

He would never go to Fort Myers to see the Red Sox.

"I hear it's just too jam-packed with people," he says. "I like the Revs. They're fun, they're real people. They'll talk to you. They love the sport."

His daughter, Nora LeWitus, is celebrating her 21st birthday with a classmate from Northeastern.

"It's awesome," she says, sipping an ice cold Sol that cost $1.90 (compared with $6.25 for a beer at City of Palms Park). "There's three of us here. There's thousands for the Red Sox."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at

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