At the St. Lucie Mets home of Tradition Field, a pair of familiar faces can almost always be found sitting in front-row seats along the first-base side. They wear matching St. Lucie Mets and hats and jerseys, along with rectangular gold-colored nametags identifying them as "Gayle" and "Jack," respectively.
That would be the Fishbeins, a married couple who have been Tradition Field stalwarts for the past decade. Win or lose, rain or shine, it is a near certainty that Gayle and Jack will be there, rooting on their beloved St. Lucie players. This breed of diehard fan can be found at every Minor League ballpark, if one looks hard enough, but there is one thing that sets them apart.
They're the fans with the candy.
Gayle and Jack always bring full-to-bursting Ziploc bags of candy to the ballpark, distributing them to the players as they're warming up and socializing on the field prior to the start of the game. From Dubble Bubble to Tootsie Rolls, Starburst to Laffy Taffy, they're equipped to meet the sweet-toothed desires of every St. Lucie Mets player.
No one, least of all Gayle and Jack, would argue that candy is good for the player's health. But baseball players are known for their oral fixations, and candy is a far superior alternative to chewing tobacco. Tobacco products are banned in Minor League Baseball, but some players maintain the habit nonetheless. Gayle and Jack want to make sure that there is always an alternative, however. As the St. Lucie Mets players move up the Minor League ladder, and, perhaps, make it to the Major Leagues (where tobacco is still permitted), the Fishbeins hope the candy habit will take precedence over the far more dire possibility of being addicted to tobacco.
I spoke with Gayle and Jack during April 16's ballgame, as St. Lucie hosted the Brevard County Manatees. Gayle, a New York City native, did most of the talking as Jack, soft-spoken and ever-diligent, donned a glove and kept a close watch for any screaming line drives that might head our way.
"My mom and dad were Dodger and Giant fans, so when they left town they lost interest in baseball because New Yorkers can't root for the Yankees if you're a National League fan -- it just doesn't happen," said Gayle. "So my father, he didn't have any sons, and I was the oldest daughter. When the Mets came out [in 1962] he said 'Come to baseball!' So we started going, since [their first] Opening Day. My first job was with Joan Payson, the original [Mets] owner. She helped me pay my college tuition. I was working in the office and any other place she wanted me."
Gayle's lifelong Mets fandom experienced a rebirth after she and Jack relocated to the St. Lucie area to care for her ailing parents.
"It took a couple of years for us to get settled so we could leave occasionally to the games, but from 2005 to now the only games we've missed have been three morning games during the week," she said. "Plus, [we attend] a lot of road trips."
Gayle and Jack both work within the medical profession; she in the oncology field and he as an emergency room physician. They have seen the awful ways in which chewing tobacco can destroy someone's life and began bringing the candy to the games so that the players would another option.
"Head and neck cancer is for the most part incurable. Brain cancer, throat cancers -- there are just so many of them. I've seen it first hand, big-time. And you suffer. It's just a nasty, nasty thing and I don't wish it on a worst enemy let alone someone I care about," said Gayle. "You don't want to see these kids get sick. I'd rather see them get a sickness from sugar. That's controllable, like cavities."
She continued, "It started out as bubble gum….But then [one of the players] said something about not liking chewing gum, so we added candy. After a while I started asking the kids what they want. In '06 Gary Carter was here [as manager] and he gave me an idea of what would be good. He told me 'No sticks, no chocolate, because it melts all over the place, and it all needs to be individually wrapped for safety's sake.' And so we've kept to that, and if any of the players tell me they have a favorite something, that's what we get."
Here, Jack reaches under his seat to display the current candy selection.
"There's one bag of gum, one bag has Starburst, one bag has Tootsie Rolls and one bag has assorted hard candy," he said. "And for the road trips, we bring sunflower seeds."
The Fishbeins estimate that they spend $1,000 a year on candy, restocking the supply throughout the season so it's always fresh. But they assist the players in other ways as well.
"Most of them know that if something happens, they can come over and say 'Hey, can you help me out?' or 'Hey, my girlfriend is coming to town. Do you think you can pick her up at the airport so I don't get in trouble for sneaking out?' said Gayle. "And that's my pleasure. Our vacations are to go see [former St. Lucie] players. Like, in August we'll go to New Orleans to see [Triple-A Mets affiliate Las] Vegas."
And, no matter where the Fishbeins go, the candy remains their calling card.
"It's a lot of fun, because I can send a piece of bubble gum into the clubhouse, like I did in Hickory [visiting former St. Lucie Met and current Hickory Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale]," said Gayle. "He knew exactly who it was from, and he was as excited to see me as I was to see him. It's fun. It's family."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.