SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – He has checked out and gone home so the statute of respect towards fellow hotel guests has expired, I guess.
I arrive at my hotel here the other night and the place is spread out enough that they recommend that you let them throw on to a golf cart for transport to your room, not just your bags – but you. And we go about 20 yards in the darkness when a big, broad guy with short hair sort of steps in front of the cart and the bellman/driver says “excuse me” and the fellow turns around and sort of stares for a moment before saying “Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda froze there for a moment,” and with a genuine laugh, hops out of the way. And he looks really familiar and while I’m staring at him I realize he’s staring at me and our light bulbs go off simultaneously and as I say “stop the cart for a second,” he smiles.
“This is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” he says with another patented Jim Lunchpail Thome laugh. I say back to him “this is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” and we trade career anecdotes and I ask about the Yankees and he says “I doubt it.” And we try to figure out if we first met in 1993 or 1994 and he says he’s working out but otherwise he’s pretty much by the pool each day and I should try to find him when I get back from the ballpark each afternoon. And I joke about how I nearly made his latest free agency academic by running him over with a golf cart and we say good night.
And Thome, who is easily the most universally respected player in the game, is still unsigned despite Twins rumors and Yankees rumors and the reality that somebody should sign him with an idea of convincing him to manage them in a year’s time because the other players think he’s pretty much the epitome of professionalism and knowledge. I think he knows he can’t play in the field any more but that would still let him fit in at Yankee Stadium because lord knows almost none of them can field any more either.
Thome was how my Cactus League jaunt began but the amount of additional quality human beings whom I’ve known forever that I’ve again been able to spend time with exceeds all my previous spring training trips. In the Angels’ camp it was Mike Scioscia (28 years) and executive Tim Mead (28 more), and from their opponents the Reds, writer Hal McCoy (about 10). At the Mariners’ facility it was consultant – and should-be Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (33 years), and manager Eric Wedge (20 years) and our traditional greeting of “Happy Birthday” (we share one; he’s much younger), and the announcers Dave Sims (32 years; we both worked for Charley Steiner in the 1981-82 timeframe) and Rick Rizzs (12). Rick was nice enough to ask me to come on his broadcast for an inning. Then I found out it was after Bob Uecker of the Brewers (36 years) was going to come on for an inning and as I said to Rick on the air: “I thought you liked me.”
At Wednesday night’s Team USA exhibition I got to visit with manager Joe Torre (32 years) and first base coach – and another guy who is a no-brainer Cooperstown pick – Dale Murphy (30). And today in Glendale it was the Texas staff: manager Ron Washington (10), coach Dave Magadan (11) and coach Dave Anderson (30 years ago this month I interviewed him at Vero Beach when we thought he might be the next Dodger rookie-of-the-year – “boy were you wrong,” he said, again). Upstairs I had a great chat with Rick Monday, who I’ve known for 33 years as everything from a player to a World Series star to a rival sportscaster when he was on Channel 11 every night in LA at exactly the same time I was on Channel 5.
To top it off, of course, was my annual visit with Vin Scully. I readily admit that it took me nearly three years to screw up the courage to introduce myself to him – and I was on local tv in LA during all that time – and when I finally did he said he was relieved, because he thought I’d done something to offend him. I’m sure Vin is not the saint we all portray him as, but that’s really just a hunch because nothing I’ve ever seen him do suggests otherwise. The self-deprecation never ends; even today his first words after hello were “thank you.” I said you’re welcome and then asked him what I’d done. He said “thank you for writing that excellent and kind blog about the Piazza interview.”
Ohhh, yeah. That was nearly a month ago and that was what he wanted to talk about. We batted back and forth the singular personality that is Mike Piazza, but mostly he was talking about friendship and support, and I mentioned that this was the kind of loyalty his kindness and patience engendered, and that I knew I spoke for many when I said I felt like it was our job to fire the arrows when he was attacked – especially when it was as unjustified and as inexplicable as it was in poor Piazza’s self-destructive book. And then there were the usual friendship questions that I invariably suddenly realize are being asked and answered by the Babe Ruth or William Shakespeare of his field and I remember why it took me three years to stop shaking long enough to say hello back in 1988.
So I know Vin for 25 years now – and remember that this represents only about 40 percent of the time he’s been bringing you Dahhh-ger base-ball. And if you wonder how much of a self-starter you can be as you begin your 64th year at one job, Vin and I visited for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he had to pre-record something for his broadcast and when I looked back in his booth after that he had begun his daily ritual of scribbling and reviewing notes for the game ahead. The exhibition game. The exhibition game on a drowsy Thursday afternoon. The exhibition game three weeks before the season begins. And he would continue to do so for at least an hour.
Talk about a role model.
Later in the week here I’m going to formalize what shallow insights I’ve been able to glean from the games I’ve seen (hint: Billy Hamilton) but for now I’m thinking of everybody that Spring Training provides me the opportunity to see again, from Thome to Scully.
That’s fifteen men who I’ve known for a total of 390 years. And every moment of that time, with every one of them, has been a privilege.
It’s been a pretty good trip, huh?
So I’m a kid reporter, see? It’s 1981, I’m almost exactly two years into my professional career and I’m covering the almost annual Baseball Strike for a national radio network, RKO. It’s a first class operation but the sports department is a little small. The new man is a producer named John Martin, I’m the middle staffer handling weekend anchoring and weekday reporting, and our boss…is Sports Director Charley Steiner.
In the middle of that awful summer, in which stories about unemployed baseball peanut vendors alternated with partial scores of the Atlanta Chiefs-Edmonton Drillers NASL games as lead stories on the weekend ‘casts, Charley caught wind of a rumor of a secret meeting in which a group of dissident baseball owners were to meet with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. George Steinbrenner was foremost among them, and he was not happy with the fact that the owners of the Cincinnati Reds could shut down his money-printing factory in the Bronx, and he and the unidentified insurrectionaries had an ally in Kuhn, who wanted the strike over, pronto.
This was about all we knew about the rumored meeting. Ultimately it meant little to the outcome of the strike, but at that time it seemed like the first major breakthrough towards settlement, and Charley wanted to know when the meeting was, and who would be there, and he wanted to be standing outside when it all happened. And with the major wire services and top baseball writers absolutely whiffing on ferreting out the details, Charley decided to have his “kids” get the scoop for him.
Which is where The Steinbrenner Door comes into play.
I happened past it the other day. It is the 55th Street side entrance to one of New York’s most famous bars, P.J. Clarke’s, which has stood in one form or the other at the corner of Third Avenue since 1884. It was already a landmark when I lived at the exact opposite end of the same block – at 55th and Second – from 1980 to 1984, and when the aforementioned John Martin worked in the high-rise “Carpet Center” that went up around Clarke’s when the owners refused to let them demolish the joint in 1971. That a friend of John’s father worked the bar at Clarke’s, and that John worked next door and I lived 45 seconds away meant we never paid at Clarke’s, and that necessarily meant we always went to Clarke’s. Ironically, not long after this story took place, Steinbrenner bought a stake in Clarke’s, and the family may own it still, and I like to think he bought me all those beers.
So back to the story of the Steinbrenner-Kuhn meeting. Somehow somebody deduced the 48-hour window in which the meeting would occur, and Charley had John and I come in to work the phones all day, to try to get the specifics. Chaz gave me a huge break hiring me for my second job, and he and I got along fine at ESPN and have become very good friends in the years since he moved on to announce first the Yankees and then the Dodgers, but he was a strident employer. I mean, my regular weekday shift started around 2 PM and John’s around 9 PM and I think he had us both in there at 10 AM. And we called. And we called, and we called, and we called. We called everybody in baseball we knew, and soon we were calling everybody in baseball we did not know.
Eventually, sometime around 9:30 PM, I said to John: “At this point, we might as well just dial numbers randomly. I’m going home. If Charley wants to fire me, tell him that’s great, but it still won’t help him find out when this meeting is that apparently nobody in the world knows of.” John snorted a laugh and off I went.
RKO’s offices were in the famous WOR Radio Building at Broadway and 40th – exactly the perfect walking commute to a home on the East Side. There were a thousand routes back to my apartment, but nearly all of them ended with me on the Southeast corner of 55th and Third. But because I had spent the whole day banging my head against Charley’s wall, I needed to pick up some pizza on the Northwest corner of the intersection. And the way the traffic lights worked out, the “Walk” sign then sent me to the Northeast corner – and Clarke’s.
The various “no ideas” and “who the hell are yous” from my day of fruitless phone calls pursuing the Kuhn-Steinbrenner meeting were still echoing in my head when, from the middle of the walk lane, I spied the not unfamiliar sight of a limo parked near the side entrance to the legendary bar. Nor was it a surprise to see that side door open up and a bright light spill on to the pavement.
It was, however, a shock to see George Steinbrenner, replete with a natty ’80s tux, step out onto the street. My mind made a thousand calculations: Could I actually boldly go up to the Yankee Boss and ask him where the meeting was? Would bodyguards materialize and squash me? All these thoughts vanished when I heard Steinbrenner stop at the limo and speak – shout, in fact – back towards the still-open door.
“Eddie! Hey, Eddie?”
A balding head peaked out of Clarke’s. It was Edward Bennett Williams, the notorious Washington lawyer and then the owner of the Orioles.
“Eddie!,” Steinbrenner squawked. “What time is our meeting with Bowie tomorrow?”
I couldn’t believe it. Steinbrenner had just confirmed the meeting, and Williams’ attendance. I froze and tried to meld into the brick wall of Clarke’s, or, at minimum, disguise my RKO Radio Network Jacket with the big logo on the front and the even bigger one on the back. I tried not to drop the box of pizza.
Edward Bennett Williams sighed, took a step on to the street, and shouted “9:30, George. We meet there at 9:30. You, me, and Eddie Chiles.”
Now Williams had just told me that Chiles, the owner of the Texas Rangers, was joining the cabal with Kuhn to try to force the owners to end the strike, and that the starting bell would ring at 9:30. But I still didn’t have the answer Steiner wanted: Where were they meeting?
Steinbrenner again started to climb into the limo only to freeze again. “But where are we meeting?”
As I held my breath, Williams sighed again. “Jesus, George, do I need to pin it to your coat? Bowie’s condo! On Park Avenue!”
By this point I thought I was dreaming. Or that I had gained the ability to force others to conduct conversations by telepathy.
Now Steinbrenner was getting frustrated at Williams. “Where on Park, Eddie? I don’t have it memorized!”
Williams promptly barked out a number and a cross-street, and time returned to full-speed. I ran down the block, balancing the pizza box against my hip, and burst into my apartment and called Steiner at home. “Found it, Charley,” I said as calmly as possible. “9:30 tomorrow morning: Steinbrenner, Edward Bennett Williams, Eddie Chiles of the Rangers, at Bowie Kuhn’s condo at (whatever) Park.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Charley (who was nearly as cantankerous a boss as I was an employee), quietly said: “I’m impressed. How did you find that out?”
I summoned all the nonchalance I could muster: “Oh. I just ran into Steinbrenner at Clarke’s.”
The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.
Ford Pettitte Pennock
Seasons 16* 15 20*
Wins 236 229 241
Losses 106 135 162
Percentage .690 .629 .598
ERA 2.75 3.91 3.60
K 1956 2150 1227
W 1086 921 916
20 Win Yrs 2 2 2
World Series 10-8 5-4 5-0
I’m fascinated by the World Series marks. Pennock made his bones in the post-season, and Ford, from his rookie year of 1950 onwards, became legendary in them. And here’s Pettitte with as many World Series wins as Pennock, and the same post-season percentage as Ford.
This monstrosity at the left is included because my friends Charley and Rick were victims of one of the standard media nightmares of the spring. In the bottom of the sixth, the White Sox sent number 83 out to play shortstop. And, of course, as can be the case from the first game of the exhibition season through the last, t
here was no number 83 on the White Sox roster. Managers, especially in split-squad situations and/or road trips, supplement even the usual mass of 40-man roster guys and non-roster invitees with as many as dozen extra minor leaguers on a one-game basis, whose identities are usually written down on the shirt cuff of the visiting Media Relations guy. Anyone in the press box is thus left as helpless as in high school, when whoever kept your scorecard had to exchange rosters with whoever kept theirs (I once had a hockey game in which the rival team wore several years’ worth of uniforms and thus had multiple players wearing the same numbers – they had at least three guys wearing number “5” and tried to fix this by stitching in a little “A” or “B” atop the number).