Santo's Spring Training (2001) Odyssey Part 1
Santo's Spring Training Baseball Odyssey
First of all, my spring training tour consists of two legs. We have relatives in Port St. Lucie, the winter home of the Mets, and began our vacation Saturday morning. My itinerary showed that the Cards were in town. My awesome hotel room in the PGA village is no more than 1 mile away from the ballpark, and I figured on catching the Mets and the Cards during my brief stay.
No GO!!! For the life of me, my brother in law is a huge baseball fan and my nephew is a cocky, loud mouthed, capable version of Frank Merriwell... fast, strong and able to crank a baseball 350 feet at 15 years of age. But, to my utter astonishment, I learn that they have never so much as thought about enjoying the very thing that brought me some 1000 miles to Florida and cost me my entire tax return. The spring dream recurred every year, and yet they had never so much as attended a spring training game or even been to the complex.
Flying over Ft. Lauderdale, one is stunned by the number of baseball fields that pepper the city. It was dark of night when we landed there, and not only could you make out the fields but THEY WERE ALL LIGHTED! The apathy of my in-laws finally came into full view as flight 709 out of Atlanta descended. Yes, they are self absorbed an unimpressed with our heroes. But, the prevalence of baseball in Florida works to make them that way. I was frustrated as hell to find out we would be chasing Manatees and boat rides today instead of the Mets and Cards, but then again I understand that Pokey's favorite athlete is Alan Iverson and that Johnny Bench, given his druthers, might have been a pro golfer or country music singer instead of the greatest catcher who ever lived. Some of us are fans, and some are still "in it" I guess, and there is a lot of that kind of smugness and great amateur baseball going around in Florida 12 months a year.
Speaking of catchers, I wasn't going to let my wife and my brother in law's wife deprive me of at least some first impression of my first on site right of spring. I woke up around eight am after five hours of restless sleep and used my hour window to cruise down to Thomas White Stadium. Pulling into the lot, I saw an unimposing figure chatting with an Asian woman. The closer I got, the more I was able to identify the man as none other than Mike Piazza in his street clothes.
Now, I don't think Piazza is a great catcher. For instance, I don't think the mere fact that he catches poorly puts him on par with Johnny Bench. But, there is not a better right-handed hitter in baseball today. If I have never said so on this board (and technically I have never said ANYTHING on this new board) I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man and his ridiculously screwed up thing of beauty swing. Absolutely one of my favorite hitters in the last thirty years, sort of like Vlad Guerrero with his ability to crush baseballs in lieu of location or velocity.
Silly fool that I am from Ohio, I stopped my car twenty feet in front of Mike and the lady, got out of my car and pointed the camera in his direction. You should have seen the staff gawk at me as if I was a crazed stalker. I guess with a star of his magnitude, there is an understated nervousness whenever anything peculiar goes down, even during the casual atmosphere of spring training. I was slow in my approach, however, and missed the Pizza man just about entirely as he disappeared behind the gate. The picture was so bad it is not even included here.
Oh well. Felt weird about that, time to park and tool around the park a little. I only had about 15 minutes before wifey needed me back at the hotel with her orange juice and morning paper, so I had to utilize it judiciously.
Darryl Hamilton was taking batting practice on one side of the stadium. A group of blue-capped youngsters with their noses pressed against the fence didn't seem to be especially impressed, especially with Darryl topping the pedestrian offerings into the concrete and popping them into the screen with no crispness to speak of at this early hour.
I turned away from this scene quickly enough and listened in on an old timer holding court to several other old timers further on down the fence. I couldn't make out his take exactly and wasn't nearly as interested as his cronies, but distinctly heard the name of Ed Kranepool repeated several times.
With this murmur barely registering in my ear, I noticed a certain lefty taking to the practice field in front of me with a partner. I soon realized by his motion, even in casual toss, as that of Al Leiter, a REAL major league pitcher. I was curious enough about that to want to end around the opening at the end of the fence and get some pictures. But, some white haired guy in a truck headed me off and told me the area was restricted, and that I would have to wait until 10 am to get closer to the players.
10 am? There was no 10 am for me, just pontoon boats and manatees! I was nice about it, but suggested that I was just trying to get some shots of the hurler. But, he was just as kind about repeating his position and I respected that.
Nothing much left to do here but walk around to the other side of the stadium and try to explore the area where Piazza disappeared to. After all, maybe he was lingering around chatting up with someone else. He wasn't, but I did manage to walk up to the foul territory grass and get some decent pix of the park behind first base, kind of the vantage of a first base coach. When listening to ballgames on the radio, it is a point of view I often envision whenever Junior, Sosa, McGwire or Piazza launches one into the stratosphere. I once saw a guy on my sandlot team crush one over 400 feet from that coach's box, and have been enamored with it every since.
Wish I had more to report. I could go on and on about the killer seafood dinner I had at the Tiki bar at Fort Pierce, and how my 10 year old nephew can impersonate Richard Simmons to a riotous tee. But, I'll cut it short in the best interest of baseball.
Promise to have much more of interest to report next week, as I get down to bidness with our Reds in St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
In yesterday's report I detailed how frustrating it was to show up for spring training just to find out that an itinerary of activities unrelated to the game had been drafted for me on the very first day. Today, damnit, I had to take matters into my own hands.
I woke up to the telephone ringing, and sure enough it was my in-laws saying that they were "uncomfortable" making the trip to Jupiter to take in the Cards and Dodgers. This had been a sure deal the night before, but after sleeping on it they surmised that a delightful trip to the trinket stores in the strip mall was much more suited to my tastes. OH NO, BABY!!!! Not again. As diplomatically as I could put it, I told them that they could have wifey all day long but I wasn't taking it anymore. Gimme my nephew and we're off to the land of high strikes and half nekkid Florida honeys, and they agreed and told me I might be sorry to miss out on their stuff. Yeah, RIGHT!!!
The drive from PSL to Jupiter says 60 miles on mapquest, but I swear I chewed up that asphalt in thirty minutes. My nephew was hiked and kept tuning the radio over to all this Shaggy rap and Pink noise, but it all sounded like Mozart to me. The sun was shining, I was decked out in my cool Reds tank top and cap, my nephew actually engaged me in some thoughtful conversation about ballplayers he had heard of named Mantle and Mays who didn't even play on his sandlot team and all was well.
When we arrived at Roger Dean stadium, the home of both the Cards and Expos, the lot was nearly full. The Ticketmaster lady had told me that my drive would payoff in at least SRO tickets to the titanic struggle, but she should have just said that it was the only tix available over the phone. The ticket taker at the window tried to go through her obligatory routine of checking her dummy terminal for abandoned seats, but the guy before me struck out no more than three minutes before. "Just gimme the five dollar crap" I thought to myself. "We'll take the Standing room, please, and love it and thank and worship you, most merciful goddess" I essentially said.
The last time I had seen my nephew he was an annoying little snot who hated girls and thought everyone was stupid except for Deion Sanders and HHH. Things change rapidly, I and I gotta report that his pubescent obsession with all the gorgeous women he realized cohabited the planet with himself was the subplot of the day. The boy's eyes couldn't lay off the ladies all day long... And, OH MY GAWD, if you are the young blond who worked the beer stand we stopped at on our way to our er, um, standing spots you have no idea what that little flirtation you laid on him has done! This kid has an ego the size of Florida, and when you winked and promised him a free beer if he came back when the boss was away he became an instant adonis. From then on, women were staring at him while holding the hands of their boyfriends, wishing they could be with him and secretly plotting ways to marry him. "You know, uncle Phil, if my dad were here he would let me have a beer." He said.
"Yeah, and your mom would have his butt in a sling too." I replied.
All this talk. What about baseball? When we got our first glimpse of the field from down the left field line, Gary Sheffield was putting on a show in bp. Man, that guy can hit. Say what you will about him, he is one of the best clutch hitters in the game. Shef pounded about 6 long balls in one round, one glancing off the thatched roof of the building in left center field. We missed the Card's bp, so maybe the apathy of the Cardinal fans was due to something much more spectacular from a certain hulk of humanity who characitures James Hatfield from Metallica. Who knows, but my nephew and myself were sufficiently impressed by the clout clinic that Mr. Malcontent was conducting today (more about him later).
The cage came down and the Dodgers took infield. We moved around a lot throughout the day because we had no seats, and I made my way down behind home plate and took some pictures with my cheap aim and click camera. Don't get me wrong, I hate both of these clubs with a passion. But, hey, it's major league baseball and seeing the pristine white ball under a gleaming Florida sun on real grass and presented by the greatest athletes in the world as if on a sandlot field was a beautiful thing. Just playing fungo and in slow motion. I hope these images turn out well.
I was about five feet from Andy Ashby when he took the bullpen mound. The guy never cut loose the entire time. Watching the grimace on his face, and seeing the ball nestle into the glove of catcher's mitt without so much as a puff of sound, I was wondering what the hell was wrong with this guy. I was quite certain I could have stepped up to the plate and crushed a double off this scrub. Anyone that goes to Cinergy has noticed that the last few pitches that a starting pitcher during his warm ups pops the mitt so loudly that it can be heard in the red seats, but not this clown. He had to have a ragged arm, I just new it. It was only after the first pitch in the bottom half of the first inning to Cardinals leadoff hitter Placido Polanco that I realized even more of the difference between spring training and regular season. A perfect strike down the heart of the plate and just under the arm pits. POP! The sound was back!
Speaking of the high strike, I have never heard more discussion generated by an adjustment in the game since the implementation of the designated hitter. Absolutely everyone was talking about it. I met up with a Bosox fan at one point, and he was crying his eyes out about what the change does for the Yanks. Clemens, Mussina, El Duque... he just knew all these guys would see their era's drop by a full run per game. I reminded him that the rule also applied for Pedro and he just scoffed. "He doesn't need it" he said. He was a good fella who bought me a beer for holding his standing room spot while he visited the facilities. You don't meet Red Sox fans at Cinergy very often at all, and the history between the Reds and Sox is a great one (1975). I totally dealt with his conniption about the Yanks, but tried to throw him a line with the Pedro line. He was prolly dead on the money with that one. "Gimme two for these fellas from Cincy" he told the vendor, to which I had to reveal that the boy in the Cincy rep shirt was sixteen, from Port St. Lucie and a hopeless tattle tale (so much for "cool" uncle Phil). I'm sorry, I would have been disowned by his mama.
Speaking of the kid's Griffey shirt and my own Reds attire, we heard several loud mouths in the stands goad us. Apparently the Reds/Cards rivalry is starting to take on some legitimacy. It's the effect we wanted venturing into enemy territory, but for the most part the Cards fans are civil folks even when the kid is chanting "Ga-ry! Ga-ry!" when the hated Shef is coming to the plate. God, those Cards fans spewed reams of hatred at the anti-Mac. I am anxious to see how he fares with Reds fans knowing the intrigue that has been so popular on this board and throughout Redland.
For much of the game, I stayed within full view of the field. Occasionally, I stepped back to have a smoke, but I was there for the game and the warm sun and didn't have much use for the shade of the inside of the park. Nephew had an entirely different agenda after the first couple innings. He was off to the radar gun, returning for cameos occasionally to report that his was the prize fastball of the day at 74 mph. He never guessed his own speed, the criteria for winning a prize, but was totally satisfied with being the one raw talent in the crowd yet to catch the attention of a major league scout. When he ran out of money, he would come back and tell me that he had resumed his illicit affair with the cute, blond beer vendor. Man, she wanted him SOOOOO BADDD!!!! He asked me if I thought it was a good idea if he took off his shirt for his next visit so that she could see how "cut" he was, and I told him that Arnold Schwarzenegger is known to frequent this venue and that he might hold off on that until he hits the magical 450 pound mark with his bench presses.
Speaking of physical specimens, I only took about 15 pictures at the game. I mean, this ain't the Reds and we're on a budget. But, I must admit that I found myself clicking no less than five times when Big Mac took a cut. I used to laugh at the flashbulbs that went off when Macster was chasing the home run crown, but found myself falling into the same trap almost irresistibly. To get a shot of the behemoth just as the ball left his bat and launched into parts unknown would impress Ansel Adams and make me an artist worthy of his own gallery at the Contemporary arts center. I began to work around the park to get the best angles on each of his three ab's. How pathetic can a reasonable man become when in the presence of greatness?
Ok, the nitty gritty for those that want to know my impressions of the ballgame. The Dodgers won the ballgame 3-2 with four very effective innings by Andy Ashby. He scattered five hits, worked out of a bases loaded jam by inducing a double play ball in the third inning and totally redeemed himself in my mind after what was an underwhelming warm up. I was particular interested in Albert Pujols, the heir apparent to the unsettled third base situation for the Cards, when he came up in an rbi situation in the fifth inning. Ancient Jesse Orosco battled and defeated the phenom without giving up so much as a base, but even my nephew recognized how well Pujols battled during the at bat. Who knows if Pujols is a player, but he's as viable as Craig Paquette at this point.
Another lead in, and speaking of Paquette, he ripped a ball down the line so high that it cleared the foul pole by twenty feet. I didn't see a call by the umps and neither did Craig, which is why he rounded second and touched third with a look of bewilderment on his face. There were no conferences by the umps when the guy on third base sent him back to the plate. But, it was an obvious guffaw by the crew.
Matt Morris had a great curve ball today, indicating he may be ready to join the Card's rotation. I don't care for that at all. Morris is better and smarter than Dustin Hermanson and Andy Benes put together when he is healthy. I can't say that the zip on his fastball dazzled anybody, but he knows how to pitch.
Some guy named Karnuth took the mound after Morris and looked like my nephew plucked out of the speed gun line and expected to get major league hitters out. He was obviously scared you-know-what-less, but soon settled down to bring some pretty good heat. His line is terrible, but the kid was not an altogether disaster.
In conclusion, it was a fantastic day. We raided the Cardinal party and might have been the only Reds fans in the crowd, my nephew got to finally see a spring training game after years of oppression, I began working on a tan that I will be able to take back to my co-workers to prove that I didn't spend the entire time watching the Andy Griffith marathon in my hotel room, and....
Did I mention all the beautiful women? I love my wife dearly and don't consider myself any more distracted than the next guy. But being with my nephew as he weaved his awkward way towards manhood, all the while surrounded by the game that I idealize, brought out a lot of memories today. It's on to St. Petersburg and the Reds vs. Devil Rays tomorrow and I will make an assertive effort to narrow my impressions even more to the game and the club we are all concerned about. But, today was loads of fun in the sunshine state.
Man, I wish the club gave me more to work with today. I missed the television broadcast the other night, so it was my first time seeing the men in red this year and they seemed to be as hung over as I was. Three errors and horrendous pitching by a guy we desperately need when the Bell rings. On top of that, three measly hits through seven innings off the toils of Brian Rekar and others. Yech!
We woke up in Port St. Lucie around 7:30 am and my wife knows exactly what to say to try and throw me off schedule. Breakfast, and she doesn't mean an egg a-muffin. She means sit down, eggs over easy, hash browns burnt, and if it ain't right after five easy pieces of lean bacon the waitress can march back to the kitchen with that slop between her knees and re-do it her own self.
I played it out long enough that we were on interstate 70 without a detour, but she kept looking for a Bob Evans or something. Only, as luck would have it, there were no restaurants along the two-lane highway except for a greasy spoon called Mama's Place, a decisively unappetizing converted doublewide trailer. So, by the time we hit Arcadia the infamous sausage-egg-cheese biscuit was calling her name. We lost little time in the drive through, just enough to allow us to get to St. Pete for the Reds and Devil Rays, I guessed.
We hit Bradenton about 12:15. Wifey goes, "well, so much for baseball today, honey". She was accustomed to the unmotivated, lackadaisical husband she knows when we're not on vacation and wasn't prepared for my response that, oh yes, we're getting on over to Al Lang Field even if it's the fifth inning and the Sultan is predicting a hurricane. I owe a report to my buddies on Redszone tonight, and ain't no amount of unpacking and hunger pangs going to stop me.
And so, we get checked in quickly, grab some directions from the hotel clerk and make our way towards 275 faster than house keeping can steal your bags.
I must say, the west coast of Florida might be more beautiful than the east. We crossed something called the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, about ten miles of four lane highway seperating St. Pete's from Bradenton and featuring a 150 foot hump that reminded me of the Beast at King's Island. It was awesome and even shook wifey out of her doldrums for having missed the Grand Slam breakfast. At the Redszone message board my friend Creek14 later informed me that this was the very bridge that collapsed twenty one years ago when a freighter collided with one of it's supports and sent 32 bus passengers plunging to their deaths. I had to take that thing a couple more times before returning to the safety of Cincinnati, so I thanked him profusely for his timely history lesson :) .
After several wrong turns and a scary route through a pretty run down part of the city, we finally got to Al Lang Field and into the park during the bottom of the second inning. It was already two to nothing Rays, and Rob Bell was sweating more than most under an unseasonably hot sun.
Bell had great stuff today, except on only about every fourth pitch. He powdered Greg Vaughn with a fastball that detonated into Jason Larue's mitt on one pitch, then walked him on the next. The curveball was there on certain pitches and flat on others. Unfortunately, in baseball, they don't frame certain pitches for posterity and so on the whole he was as bad as his line would indicate. I still think Bell is going to be a good pitcher, an innings eater and a solid guy who will keep the club in games and notch wins, but when? Love that curveball, but the home run bug bit him again today in the first inning when the indomitable Randy Winn added Rob to his long list of conquests. People are starting to talk, and we need this young man to get untracked sooner than later. He's crucial.
Hector Mercado was much worse. Just look at his line. I liked Mercado last spring and he still has that good hop on his heater. But, he's not changing speeds and might not have the movement on his pitches to assume the lefty role in the bullpen and allow Dennys Reyes to enter the rotation. With all the wheeling and dealing Bowden does, you might think that he would look into a deal for just a lefty. I mean, why send Yarnall back to the junk yard so quick, anyway?
Of course, one of the only bright spots of the day was Jared Fernandez. Two and two thirds inning of stellar pitching. He is a classic junk baller, but no call to break out one of my pet peaves after what he did today (ok, maybe I will anyway. Real pitchers must be able to break a pane of glass, gadamnit! ). He reminded me a little of Rick Mahler with his delivery and approach, and though I know that "Junk Mail-er" earned some credibility in the show he could never pitch on my team with that sissi stuff. I would only learn later that Fernandez was a knuckleball pitcher, so maybe this assessment was pretty harsh.
Chris Sexton turned a beauty of a double play behind Fernandez in the fourth inning. I was at the Cleveland series before the all star break last year, and Sexton played such a deep and fearful second base that a couple Indians not named Lofton beat out routine grounders to his position. But, Sexton played a good second base today, no doubt.
Prime Time: I know he's a football player and Redstorm and others know how I feel about him sticking his nose into the grand game, but I marked out for Deion today simply because of how the fans reacted to one of our guys. Sort of like, I can talk about my sister's stinky underwear but you better watch it, buddy! Prime rose to the occasion with a clean single through the right side, on the first pitch of course. That was the closest thing to great I saw all day. Morris and Deion hit back to back singles and I was like, heeeeellll yeah! Those are my boys!
Al Lang field has some cheesy corporate name now, but honoring my commitment to disavowing any knowledge of baseball's actions it will always be Al Lang to me. There are cool murals inside the old park of Stan Musial, Duke Snyder and other greats of the game who had passed through these parts. I can't say that the place reeks of awesomeness or anything, but there is a certain antiquity to it. The biggest farce is that the cheapest seats in the house are the bench bleachers that begin half way up the upper tier. Because these are the only seats that get any shade. On a day like this one when everyone was frying, it is where throngs congregate to when the season ticket holders dispatch to their Lincolns and Benzers.
I spent the majority of the game on my feet, trying to find good angles for pictures of my beloved Reds. I got what I hope to be a good one of Gully looking straight at me with a wad of chaw in his cheek and a "what da F you lookin' at" expression on his face. Casey was the biggest star on the field for the good guys since Lark and Junior were left home alone, so I spent a number of shots trying to capture the essence of his Opie Cunningham charm.
Again, there were beautiful, tanned young ladies in the audience, but with my wife on hand I refrained from any pix of a perverted nature. I did manage to achieve a certain level of rebellion when more than one usher admonished me for standing in the aisles and obstructing the view of customers in good standing, or seating if you prefer to be literal.
One of these days I am going to be able to report to you guys an insightful, baseball oriented post that would do my friend Redstorm proud. A real work of art that will be worthy of the archiving TeamBoone speaks of, descriptions of an epic battle our beloved corp engages in and emerges the victor of. Until then, I am just having a blast and giving you my impressions of what it is like to be down here in heaven.
A short but sweet one today. My wife informed me a trip to something called "Jungle Gardens" in Sarasota had become her "whatever you want to do" thing, so I avoided Creek's highway nightmare for another day and headed south. She had to know what this meant. I explained to her that we needed to find out where Ed Smith Park was so that we wouldn't get lost trying to find it Wednesday night. She had already factored that in, she replied.
Ed Smith Park is probably the least spectacular of those I have seen so far, at least from the outside. Not garnished with swaying palm trees and the whole old tyme baseball facade... just bland concrete with a trace of Red and a good guy banner out front.
Even so, I was going to grab some pictures of the empty place. I parked next to a trash bin and strolled around the side of the park towards an open gate. Just then, a guy rushed out, slammed and locked it and ran back through the door from whence he came. Hmmm... had to be another opening somewhere...
Wifey noticed an older gentleman about a block down the street standing in front of a parking lot down the right field side. He was wearing one of those hideous white caps that Rob Dibble deemed more suited for UDF than baseball, and he was chatting with another fella in Reds garb. Approaching him, I put on my best middle American smile, nodded howdy do, and recieved one of the coldest glares I have seen since I was eight and my dad found out I was getting into his Playboy collection. I mean, this guy was no Cincy guy, but one of those natives who gets bent when you beat him in line to roast beef at the early bird special. Out of the corner of my eye, I just then saw the practice fields, and an army of Red men taking bp, tossing the ball around and going through drills. I looked back to Prince Charming and boldly asked, "Can I cut through here?"
"Read the sign" he quipped so cleverly. "Players Only" it read.
Pardon moi, ancient mariner, and I reminded myself not to defer the last scoop of instant mashed taters next time I caught his ilk at the Picadilly Cafeteria.
So, I drove around the corner and found the parking lot adjacent to the practice field and walked up to them as if I was just coming to pick up my nephew from t-ball practice or something. I was IN!
I don't think about my size much, but people have told me I'm kind of short. Standing around the players, I felt like Tattoo from Fantasy Island. These are big boys in, and almost in, the majors.
Of course, the club was in Dunedin to take on the Jays. But, I was delighted to find that many of our best prospects were involved in an intra-squad game on field one. Dean Sardhina was behind the plate, Austin Kearns was in right field, Ben Broussard and Adam Dunn (maybe the biggest giant in uniform) were getting their work in. Grant Jackson and Freddie Benevides were chatting it up behind the backstop about something I couldn't decipher try though I might, and Tim Naehring seemed to be in charge of the practice.
I asked my wife if I looked to be as spastic as I was feeling inside, and she told me that I seemed stoic and "cool" milling around with my camera, baggy shorts and crappy Reds hat with the swooshes on the side. My hat was an apparent failed project by some correspondence school graphics design student.
Just one side note: I have been looking for a custom Reds cap since I arrived in Florida. I couldn't find one today either, unless you consider swiping one off the head of a guy destined for A-ball a viable option. More about that later.
Anyway, my visit only lasted about twenty minutes. But, being down on those fields with the Red men has been the highlight of my trip so far. I stood behind the dugout and noticed that professional ballplayers engage in much of the same shenanigans that little leaguers do, especially when they are not in the game. Throwing dirt at each other then acting like noone chucked it, saying "nice rip" when a teammate drives a baseball into the gap and folding their arms an looking terribly po'd off at somebody for not seeing that they are obviously the most gifted athlete on the field.
While I was sewing my wild oats and grabbing an entire roll of film, wifey climbed atop the observation deck that sat squarely adjacent to the four practice fields and took a seat.
Naehring eventually peeled away from a discussion he was having with another coach and went up the steps of the deck. I watched him as he clearly flirted with my wife after reaching the top step and figured I had better get up there before I'm flying solo back to Cincy on Saturday.
On the deck, I had barely taken a couple of steps when the boss of the proceedings turned to us and said "Guys, I'm sorry. But, this is just for Reds people."
The thought occurred to me, "but, dude, I AM Reds people. Don't you read Redszone? I'm Santo baby, Ed, but you can call me Phil if you keep your filthy hands off my wife. Besides that, check out my cool hat. You guys should be wearing these." But, Tim was Cincy people and the old geezer at the gate could take some lessons in manners from him. So, a simple "yes sir" was my response and we descended the deck.
Later, Wifey imparted this pearl of wisdom she had ascertained from eavesdropping on Tim and the man in street clothes sitting next to him on the porch. "He said, 'the catching is a problem.'"
"What?!?!?!?!?!" I pried her. "Catching is a problem? I can't go back to Redszone with something like that. Sweetie, you gotta gimme more, we're putting together a journal here."
But, that was all she heard.
As we left the fields and headed for Jungle Gardens, a player was leaving the restroom we were passing. "Do you want to get a picture of that too?" She teased.
"But, I bet Junior's used that john."
Hmmm.... You know, she was right. I focused in on the rusty bathroom door and squeezed the trigger. If I ever post these pix on an html page, the caption for this one will be "Junior squatted here".
Lots of Images from This day! I was, needless to say, pathetic :).
So goes the end of part one of my Odyssey. The reports are already written for the last three days of my dream vacation, it's just that the film hasn't been developed. For a teaser, I will tell you that a harry situation arose between myself and Reggie Jackson, I caught a manatee doing a burlesque show, I got to give out propers to a hall of famer and experienced an onslaught of baseball flashbacks that very nearly left me institutionalized. Being able to walk amonst the men in red at the practice fields might have been the highlight of Florida, but the last three days threatened to rival it consistently.
Santo's Sprint Training Odyssey (2001) Part 2
Santo's Spring Training Baseball Odyssey Part 2
I was at the ballgame, got back about three hours ago, wrote about one third of my report and had my laptop totally fritz out on me and lost it all. This thing is a piece of junk.
So many things of an interesting nature happened today, within and without the ballpark. For instance, we saw a 53 year old Manatee in Bradenton named Snooty who absolutely loves the inner wall of his aquarium and seems to spend a lot of quality time with it, if ya know what I mean. The aquarium has both an upper surface area and a lower glassed in section, but I think the South Florida museum should seriously consider an id check for the part me and wifey found ourselves in today.
Quick impressions about the game:
- Thank Gawd Junior didn't fracture a wrist diving after a check swing texas leaguer by Beltran. You'd have thought he had been gunned down in cold blood, and my own blood ran cold when he seemed to be totally wrecked for several long seconds. Of course, he rose to his feet and demonstratively waived off the always availbable Deion Sanders before finishing the balance of the game.
- Pete Harnisch was better than I have ever seen him in person. I think he wants to be here, or at least WANTED to. For the middle innings of his outing, I actually forgot it was a practice game.
- Donnie Sadler played excellent d. The diving stop and perfect throw he made on a laser beam up the middle was a thing of beauty, and he also took a screamer directly in the palm of his glove off the bat of Mike Sweeney. I know he is not as offensive as Tom Green, but he can do some things that Castro can't with the stick and flashed some leather tonight as well. I like it!
- Junior had a couple of hits, and might be about ready to break out of his four for tweny start. Michael Coleman messed with him big time during warm ups. I bet he's a magnet for that type of thing.
- Dennys Reyes stunk that badly. That is hard to admit since I am on his bandwagon as a member of this rotation. But, he was nowhere near the Koufax clone I saw last summer strike out the heart of the Cardinal order with a minimum of pitches in a crucial ballgame.
- Pokey dropped a routine popup in foul territory behind the first base bag and it resulted in Pete having to sweat out an inning for the only time this evening. I know it was an anamolay for the two time gold glover, but so is seeing the men in Red shutout for the first time in over 200 ballgames (as I did on Monday in St. Pete). His mit seemed to be constructed of SOME sort of alloy on that play for sure.
- George Brett threw batting practice for the Royals then bellied up to the fans around home plate for about twenty minutes. I don't think these guys care for obnoxious fans who come up and snap candid pictures without asking, but he's going to have to deal with it because he's a hall of famer and by the latest census most Americans are not.
- Wifey spent most of the evening commenting on the virtues of the player's behinds. I tried to stop her running monologue by saying that I was marching down to Velva Sheen as soon as we got back to Cincy to have a t-shirt created in her honor, to which she reminded me that Velva Sheen went out of business fifteen years ago and resumed her comprehensive analysis of each batter's hammer. It was her way of reminding me that my reports have been a little top heavy on the babe watching, but that's ok because I know she has been having a secret affair with Brenden Fraser since George of the Jungle debuted. I guess we're just Jungle people all around :) The ribbing resulted in wifey grabbing a couple of Hooters girls who were soliciting the crowd with coupons and cute tooshies of their own, then "forcing" me to stand between them while she took a picture. Not too shabby at all for a reprimand. They smelled like roses, but I had to stretch the truth a bit and say that the blond had dark roots and fat ankles .
- Speaking of wifey, she assumed a position in stadium security when the guy on guard explained to her that he was a professional and was totally non-plussed by these over-priced, overhyped prima dona ballplayers. Then, Prime Time was announced into the game and he risked his job to her while he fled to a good vantage to see Deion's first ab of the affair. If security were this lax at the Pentagon, we'd all be corresponding in Arabic right now and toting pictures of Sadam Hussein in our billfolds.
In short, it was the best night of all. Spring training is not about wins or losses. It is about soaking in some rays, or in this case some cool, moist, mild south Florida mist, taking positives from the performance of your club and making a nuisance of yourself in the race to be noticed as the most pathetic tourist in southern Florida. I think we are holding up our end on all fronts.
Today was supposed to be another baseball-less day, but wifey is the best! I am at her mercy when I navigate strange lands, my captain to her first mate. She examines the road maps like Ponce DeLeon, examines the climatic conditions and plots our course while I steer the vessel and faithfully obey the captain's orders. It's precisely why we have not found ourselves in the Florida Keys asking directions to Ed Smith field from Richard Simmons or some struggling, misunderstood writer wrought with angst. Anyway, when we sailed for Tampa Bay today I left with the notion that the Florida Aquarium was our lone destination. Turn left, veer right, turn around you missed our street... and we were almost there, she said.
Up ahead were the unmistakable vision of field lights hovering over the buildings of an extremely crowded and bustling city. Uh oh, I thought. We had stumbled upon Legends Field, home of the Yankees. As these reports indicate, I have been totally defenseless to the very sniff of a ballpark since we arrived, and this was no different. I refused to say anything about it until we were almost on top of it, when I said, "Looky here, looks like some sort of sporting facility... Hmmmm."
"You're welcome." She replied, laughing.
See what I mean. The bestest EVER!!!!!
I was thinking, my GAWD, not only does this club and it's fans think they invented the game, they built the most colossal monument to the stupidity of exhibition baseball ever dreamed of. This ballpark was HUGE, and with no cracks in the edifice to see the field or anything. The damn thing must have held 60,000 plus and if they filled it as often as you hear about enough revenue from a handful of spring games could be generated to run five or six other clubs in the major leagues for an entire season. Wifey noticed it too, and we both chatted about it for several moments before I noticed a certain emblem on the side of the building.... Red Jolly Roger flag... this was the home of the NFL's Bucs.
She apologized, but she didn't need to. I appreciated her gesture and fully intended to seek out the Aquarium thingy and tuck baseball away for the rest of the day... but again we were lost.
One wrong turn in Florida can be fatal. I have no idea how some gas stations stay in business, because you can almost never make a left turn into one and almost always have to turn around two or three times to access it's one entrance. I could see where we needed to be, but there seemed to be no path to it.
We drove around in circles for a few minutes looking for a way to the main thoroughfare, when I noticed her opening up the camera and aiming it at a street sign. I figured she was just marking the street in case the film was developed before we actually found our way again.
"Steinbrenner Lane" She muttered.
Oh, really? I looked at her, and saw the ballpark in her background. We had lucked into another haven .
Nothing was happeneing at Legends field. Security is so tight there that even when there is no game some little guy in a wheel chair and a Yankees hat is running people out of the parking lot. I told him we were there to buy tickets (yeah, right) and he gave us twenty minutes before he called in the goons.
Legends field was no better, no worse than the other parks I have seen. Pretty sterile, really. The brim of the upper deck was garnished with a cheap likeness of the white trim that hangs like icicles at Yankee stadium, coming off as something you can buy in bulk at HQ for lawn ornamentation. We walked through the gift shop and, like all the other gift shops at these parks, you can only get merchandise for the home team. I strolled over to a small practice field and took some shots, and wasted the last five or so of that roll on the makeshift "walk of fame" that outlined the entrance of the place (just the tributes to my favorite Yank of all time Lou Gerhrig, Ruth, Mantle, Dimag and Thurman Munson).
All that took a little more than twenty minutes, but the guy hadn't called for the storm troopers yet and we escaped with out lives.
I figured that we were done, but while leaving I noticed that the practice field was just down the block. I had been wondering why there was no Yankee personel on any of the fields around Legends Field. Turns out, they were down the street, and as we drove I noticed that a practice was in progress. In jeapordy of getting totally lost again, I turned left down an adjacent road and pulled into what looked to be the parking lot I needed to use.
Only, it was not the parking lot I needed to use. My first clue was that all the cars seemed to be considerably more impressive than the Mirage I had rented from Alamo. The second clue was that all the signs read, "trespassers will be prosecuted". The third was the signs that read "players only", and the fourth was the fact that Reggie Jackson was walking alongside a friend and directly in front of my car when I killed the engine and parked.
As a kid, I remember Jackson as being a huge guy as baseball players go. Not tall, but strong looking and a little ominous with the glasses and all. Today, he seems small by major league standards and almost scholarly. I guess when you remove the classic swing in which his trailing knee scraped the turf you remove a portion of Reggie's mystique. But, he is still a legend and I was as shocked to see him as I was Piazza my first day in Florida.
I didn't bother him for an autograph because, one, I didn't have a pen or paper and, two, I had no business being there and ending up the victim of a citizen's arrest by a man with over 500 home runs would be a sad side note to this tale. So, I just sat there and watched him and his buddy climb into a car and drive off before I got out.
Wifey stayed in the car and I told her I would be back momentarily. Meanwhile, two groups of cars pulled up beside me containing what looked to be a group of extras from "A Bronx Tale", young Italian kids with heavy New York accents. Obviously, they had followed the Bronx bombers all the way from second street, because they proudly and rudely honked their horns at us and began to give me a hard time.
Some Yankees were practicing sliding drills on a mat on the closest field and as I moved in to try and get pictures, one of the Beasty Boys yelled "Get outta dere!" and his buddies laughed. I turned to look at them and thought: Forget about being prosecuted and start looking for escape routes in case the kids haven't eaten breakfast yet.
The boys got out of the car bearing baseball bats and gloves. I decided to play it cool and just wander around to the other side of the complex, looking for an opening to the fields. At one point they passed right by me and the six of them said nothing in unison. I got to the end of the fence without finding an opening, read one too many threatening signs, got back in my car and left the lot thankful that neither the boys nor Reggie Jackson screwed up my entire vacation .
Leaving the lot and turning on to the next street I could see where the fans were expected to park. I wanted so badly to turn in and relive the events of the other day in Sarasota, but wifey had had enough. She didn't care for the Yankees (she was actually heckling a guy in an NY t-shirt at last night's game) and she wasn't entirely comfortable with those boys either.
Besides all that, the boss was getting hungry and ready to see some tropical fish. Still, y'all would be fortunate to have a lady like mine. She does things of this nature for me all the time and this post would read the same way even IF she didn't proof every single word of them .
As for the hated Yanks, I can proudly report that I have never felt more unwelcome or out of place at any other site during my trip.
The last day in Florida. I know I keep talking about this day was better than the last, but I'll have to say it again. This day was definately better than the last. There.
We got to Ed Smith stadium around thirty minutes before game time. On Wednesday night, wifey had been openly admiring the stand alone seats that were set up for handicap fans behind the lower tier of seats ("openly admiring" being code for nagging). Well, she has been such a peach this entire week I just had to reward her with something, so I slipped the ol' usher behind home plate a ten and, presto, we both were practical parapelegics.
The usual milling around the field, and the Reds were just beginning to emerge from behind the right field fence towards their dugout on the first base side. That was kind of uninteresting after having seen it once. The players seem to walk out in pairs, sometimes waving to folks pining for attention from the bleachers and sometimes ignoring them altogether. Not much to see really, except that you do get your first closeup looks at them as they step down into the dugout.
A couple noteworthy things about the day were the flashbacks. The first one came when I noticed Tim Foli, Bill Madlock and Phil Garner huddled behind home plate and chatting it up. I half expected Pops to come over and hand each of them a star, followed by Sister Sledge creeping up behind in sequin dresses and chirping "We Are Family". AAAAAHHHHHHRRRRRRR!!!!!!!! To this day I can't STAND that song. The 1979 Reds were a superior club to that softball team, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Could you imagine if we had just one more World Championship under our belts in that decade...? The ancient Buccanears seemed kind of harmless in their new threads and were prolly just standing around telling dirty jokes. But, I hated those guys, every last one of them, with a passion for years after the 79 NLCS.
Marty B. was on the field without a mic, so I knew the game wasn't being broadcast today in Cincy. In fact, he was the one who went over the provincial Pirates and broke up their pow wow. Give em hell, Marty! This is Red land.
I got all warm and fuzzy when Mr. Brenneman walked past Junior and said something apparently witty as hell, and the two ROFL'd all over the carpet. Little buddy might be here before and after the kid, but at least they are coinhabiting the state of Florida without starting a hard core wrestling match these days.
Right before the National Anthem, Jim Bowden took a seat four rows in front of me, just out of ear shot. Doc Rogers and his wife followed, and three older fellas crowded around him in the scout uniform, silly wide brimmed wicker hats and Hawaiian shirts.
Of course, I immediately went down to Jimbo and started by asking him if the Reds were really the biggest tightwads in baseball, or were they going to light a fire under their sorry asses and sign Pete Harnisch, trade for Gary Sheffield, get a pitcher for chissakes and....
Wait a minute, that was a hallucination induced by the promiscuous Florida sun :). Seemed so real at the time.
A couple of fans would try to get down to them throughout the course of the game, but I guess they were working and the ushers really patrolled the area. Jim was making a scene by being on the cell constantly and you had to wonder if he really DOES work on deals in the middle of games or if his wife was just reminding him to stop for milk and eggs on the way back to the Queen City.
The guy sitting next to me was a vehament Tiger fan who said nothing the entire game except for when Junior hit, at which time he would break out with "I wish his bat would break and get stuck right up his ass", or something just as unoriginal. He was kind of bitter, so maybe that is precisely what happened to put him in that wheel chair. Or maybe he just said the same thing to Carl Everett once. (One note: Someone on the Redszone board was concerned that these remarks were insensitive to people with disabilities. I just want to add that they were not intended to be, and that my brother in law, who is wheelchair bound, prefers to be treated just like anyone else. The anyone else next to me was being obnoxious).
The guy in front of this man was a Reds fan who said absolutely nothing except for when Junior came to the dish, when it was "This kid is a pretty good ballplayer", or something equally as astute. I rather liked this guy .
My observations of the game.
- Rob Bell was not great, but looked a heckuva lot better than he did on Monday in St Pete. After a rough first inning in which he allowed a couple of runs, he was actually starting to mow them down like a big leaguer. The fastball was consistently faster and the curve had more consistent break than it did against the Rays. Don't get me wrong. I have never envisioned Rob as an era champ or strikeout King, but more of a solid pitcher with a long career like Tim Belcher. An innings eater who can accumulate wins just by keeping his club in games. He avoided the gopher ball jinx today, so he was starting to work on a pretty good outing when a tracer off the bat of Jermaine Clark drilled him in the upper arm in the fourth inning. Hope the boy's ok, because he had to turn the pill over to Clayton Andrews to get out of the two on, two out jam. The scouts got pretty intense and scribbled a lot of **** in their notebooks with Andrews on the mound. Guess you can't have enough lefties, and he did a decent job getting out of that and the rest of his assignment for the day.
- Donnie Sadler made another diving stop in the hole. Not a dazzling play, but he was apparently unware that Rawlings was setting a land speed record today and the play demonstrated good reflexes by the fielder. He hasn't done much with the stick of late, but Sadler is showing me some'm. I've played ss with adults and it ain't as easy as he makes it look.
- Chris Sexton should make the cut.
- Hal Morris should not. In the top of the ninth inning a thirty two hopper down the first base line somehow eluded Hal even as he guarded it. When your back is too sore to bend over and pick up a ball like that it's time to take a seat alongside Bill Doran and Ron Oester.
- I LOVE John Riedling. I mean, not like I loved those Hooter girls that showed up again today. But, in a purely masculine and baseball oriented way, this guy is a real charmer. One of the only things I heard out of the scouts today was when the one who was holding the radar gun turned to the other and said, "Wow. 94". Plus, the kid has great movement on his junk. He was a little wild today, but that just goes with the retro uniforms with this club, I think. Good work by Johnny.
- Dmitri took a swing today. Even my wife said, "isn't he a little chubby"? Not chubby in love like Snooty the Manatee from the Florida museum in Bradenton, but bearing some gerth. "That's my guy" I told her, "pull down your hat a little I think the sun's makin' ya see things". But, she was right. It takes the hitman a couple months to get down to playing weight, maybe a little longer now that his injury has left him more time for hamburgers. Oddly enough, Young topped a ball over the mound and legged out an infield hit. I was crazy go nuts for The Man, and chanting "Steal! Steal!" I feel horrible about that in retrospect, because I think he was straining to understand my request when the catcher picked him off first base.
- Reds lost 5-4, but then you know that. I never feel like leading off these reports with what the final outcome of the game is because that really isn't the "thang" down here. The game would have been tied going into the bottom of the ninth with Casey in there in lieu of Morris, so that's what you get in spring training. Men who would not be there in game situations when game situations occur. I hate it that I was 0-3 down here in the Reds games I saw, but I have seen enough to realize that the first string is just fine thengyewvaddymuch, and guys like Sexton, Sadler, Tucker and Stinnett provide decent depth. I have tried to zero in on the pitching with what minimal serious baseball commentary I have made, because as we all know that IS the "thang".
A couple more notes before I close this crappy laptop and head north to Porkopolis. Marty took a seat not too far from me, and I kept glancing over to him. I was wondering, "what in the hell is this guy doing with a day off and at the game?" He gripes about the length of games during the season, hates double headers, can be ornery as a rattle snake sometimes and just plain dresses bad for an older man. Periodically, somebody would come up to him and say something, and Marty would laugh like Ed McMahon embroiled in a Carnack skit, shake hands and play celebrity. Then, for long periods of time, he just sat there with noone coming up and he seemed a little sad, if you can believe that. Bowden had his entourage around him and would have opportunity to cut up, but here is a hall of fame broadcaster sitting by himself and appearing to almost sulk a little. Now, I'm not big on autographs. I would have liked to talk to some of these people a little more, just never having the opportunity. But, watching him over there, I suddenly wanted Mr. B's autograph. I went to a stand, bought a 20 cent pen for two bucks and then headed for his seat.
"Marty" I said, extending my hand to shake his. "My name's Phil, and I was wondering if you would sign my hat."
And, it was no ordinary hat. I had scowered the entire state for that sucker and was essentially retiring it for him.
"Sure, Phil" He said, taking the hat from me. "Do you want it on the outside or the inside?"
While he was writing on the underside of the bill I told him "congratulations on making the hall of fame. It was well-deserved."
"Thank you, Phil". He replied handing the hat back to me.
You know, that was pretty cool. I have grown up with this guy. I have records, lp's of him and the old lefthander chronicling the 1975/76 seasons. He's a legend. THE voice of my team. He can be grouchy and you don't always agree with him, but he is part of your life and it feels purty damn good to be able to let him know how you feel about him in person. I told Marty to have a good afternoon, and he thanked me for that as well. Class act.
Lastly, the final flashback. Mike Piazza, Reggie Jackson be damned, Jose "Blame it on" Rijo himself came down the steps in the bottom of the eighth inning, shook hands with Doc, Jimbo, the Scouts and a couple others in the stands there. In many ways, the 1990 club means more to me than the teams of the 70's, and Jose was my man. I love Jose, and I don't mean in the way that Sigfried and Roy love leopard print decor. This guy was the most infectious personality of my 90 world champs, and the man that took that club on his shoulders and carried it to the promised land. In my heart, I was praying that Bob Boone would go out to the mound and make a call for the Dominican dandy one last time, right there in his Bermuda shorts, flip flops and fishing cap. And, I was certain he would have tamed those kitties wtih that devastating slider if he had. Rijo was THAT good, he is THAT good! And, he's still "got it" too. It was amazing to see the grim faces and boredom of Bowden and the scouts completely morph into expressions of utter joy as Jose cut up with them. THAT was great, priceless as the commercial goes.
Until now, every part of these reports have been written by me. I have tried to capture the mood of my woman throughout, but it has always been through my own take. I thought it was only fair to let her close this game, since it would not have happened for me without her sacrifices and love.
Wifey: When planning a spring training vacation for your man, remember to factor in travel to and from stadiums in your itenerary. Otherwise, you may miss Snooty the Manatee and his touching love affair with the wall of his aquarium.