Play Ball!

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I wrote this piece when I still had plans to get to Spring Training.  Not looking good this year, so here’s a wistful memory.

Today, February 22nd, the world starts over again.

In Phoenix, Arizona at the beautiful new Salt River Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks take on the Grand Canyon University Antelopes, the Lopes, in the opening game of Spring Training in what is known as the Cactus League, pre-season major league baseball in Arizona.  Tomorrow, in the Grapefruit League, the Detroit Tigers play Florida Southern College’s Water Moccasins at the recently renovated Publix Field in Lakeland, Florida.  Times have changed as increasing numbers of fans fleeing the end of winter follow their teams to sunshine, and Spring Training facilities are spiffier, ticket prices higher, T-shirts and hats more expensive, and autographs harder to snare.  Nonetheless, the relaxed pace of training games, the appearance of rookies who might turn out to be stars, genuinely splendid weather, and the opportunity to see the best players in the game up-close and personal, all of that is catnip to baseball fans.

Today you can cheer for the Lopes or Diamondbacks for $6.00 and drop another six bucks tomorrow when the Brewers take on The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers at my favorite park, Maryvale Baseball Park, a scaled down park tucked into a neighborhood that seats about seven thousand laid back Brewers fans, the most loyal and cheerful fans in Arizona.  I’m not a Brewers fan, but I love sitting in the midst of a Wisconsin family reunion, cousins from Kenosha, twins down from Janesville, Uncle Bub from Green Bay now living in Appleton, the newlyweds from Eau Claire.  They rib each other mercilessly and send the kids out for the park’s signature Klement’s bratwursts.  The Brats are fabulous, but Klements hasn’t stopped there;  they not only offer other irresistible and distinctive sausages, they suit ’em up and race them.   Bets are laid down when the five costumed racing sausages (Brat, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage, Hot Dog, and Chorizo) appear before the home team bats in the sixth inning.

Maryvale is a small town within the western city limits of Phoenix, but so gently removed from city life that an unprepared visitor can drive right by the park, confusing it with the Maryvale High School’s fields unless you stop for lunch at Wendy’s .  The park offers shaded seating, a necessity on some sun-baked afternoons, but for $8.00 a fan can camp out on  the grassy berm that extends from the third base bleachers to the first base bleachers, looking down into the bullpens cut into the berm on each side.  I watch baseball on television because I can’t get to games during the season, but I miss the distinctive pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt only a few feet from my place on the berm.

Actually, of course, I miss it all – the sweep of grass in the outfield, the puff of dust when a hard hit ball skids past second base, the smell of impending thunder as the grounds crew drags the tarp over the infield.  There’s even more to miss about baseball during Spring Training.  My son and I shared a section of the stands with scouts from twelve major league teams, sitting close to home plate as they clocked fastballs and counted the corners each pitcher could paint with consistency.  Until that afternoon, we had never seen a World Series Championship ring up close; that day we saw twenty.

We sat behind Peter Gammons, Groton and UNC educated sportswriter and ESPN baseball analyst, one of the three or four most respected baseball guys of our time, a shameless Red Sox homer, but capable of balanced reporting nonetheless.  My son showed precocious grace in not asking for an autograph but offering a handshake as Gammons attended his first game since recovering from a life threatening brain aneurysm.

We were behind home plate when a Cuban refugee named Aroldis Chapman first pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in a game against the Dodgers.  We had heard he threw hard, but until we saw the blur from mound to plate, pitch after pitch, some of which were actually strikes, we could not have imagined what a 105 mile an hour pitch looked like from the batter’s point of view.  We literally stood ten feet behind  Ichiro Suzuki at the Mariner’s park as he nailed runner after runner from deep centerfield, including a peg to FIRST base that clipped Jim Thome in stride.

Sadly the Cubs quirky stadium, HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa has been replaced with a shiny new park in Mesa, and the Athletics have moved from downtown to a refreshed HoHoKam; probably for the best that one of the most dangerous viewing experiences has been taken out of circulation.  We sat above the third base dugout, happily hoping we might see a foul tip and go home with a ball, when Aramis Ramirez skinned a foul line drive over the first base dugout literally knocking a patron out of his seat.  From that point on, we sat behind a net or paid v.e.r.y. close attention to each at bat.

With no expectation other than catching a game, on March 21st, 2009, we drove in heat and painfully slow-moving traffic from Peoria to Surprise, a western suburb.  The Rangers and Royals share the park, one of the prettiest, and on that evening, the Rangers hosted the Dodgers in what was a fairly uneventful game, until the crowds parted, the atmosphere turned electric, and a procession emerged.  Muhammad Ali supported by his wife, Wayne Gretzky, George Brett, and Joe Torre.

And we got to see a ball game as well.

Spring Training has a rich history including some exotic choices for pre-season locale back before Arizona and Florida claimed the season.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Hot Springs, Arkansas hosted the greatest number of teams (Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Spiders, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox).  Fans who travelled to Hot Springs in 1918 would have seen a Red Sox pitcher shoved into emergency duty in the outfield.  Babe Ruth looked promising, knocking two home runs, including one  that is alleged to have soared more than five hundred feet, landing in a nearby Alligator farm.  Mr. Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs trained on Catalina Island in the 1920’s, a convenience for Wrigley as he owned the island.  The Dodgers trained in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The Cactus League exists because Bill Veeck, one of baseball’s greatest showmen and innovators having trained his Boston Brewers in Ocala, Florida, where segregation was harshly enforced, in 1946 took his next team, the Cleveland Indians to Tucson and convinced the Giant’s owner to train in Phoenix.  A year later Veeck signed Larry Doby, the second African-American to play in the major leagues, the first to come directly from the Negro Leagues,  and the first in the American League.

I’m pleased that spring baseball in Arizona has its roots in an owner’s farsighted and humane vision, pleased that eight National league teams and seven American League teams meet in pre-season play, and pleased that an ambitious fan can pack a lot of baseball in a fairly short trip.  And, it’s worth noting that whatever Saint Patrick’s Day might look like back in Chicago, the Cactus League version is much less about green beer and much more about familiar team hats decked with shamrocks and presented in rich Kelly green. You ain’t seen baseball hats until you’ve seen a green rattlesnake forming the familiar Diamondback “D”.

I’ll close with two thoughts.  The first was written by Jim Murray, Pulitzer Prize sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times:

Spring is the time of the year when the ground thaws, trees bud, income taxes fall due, and everybody wins the pennant.

The second, a thoughtful, perhaps unexpectedly reflective statement from Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, a remarkable player and widely known for referring to himself in the third person, as in “Rickey needs a hit tonight”.

I love playing this game and every spring training feels like the first.

 

 

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