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?
Last week, when he thought he had killed minor league manager Luis Salazar with a line drive into his own dugout, Brian McCann told friends he had no idea how he couldn’t retire, immediately. Today, the Braves announced that Salazar had lost his left eye – and in the context, that’s good news. He can probably manage again, this season.
Monday night in Fort Myers, Boston’s David Ortiz warned all of us on the Sox bench that Brett Gardner of the Yankees was notorious for fouling balls into the third base dugout and urged all of us to move away from the open spaces in the railings and netting protecting it.
This afternoon in Lakeland, Lance Berkman of the Cardinals sent his bat flying onto the screen above where Tigers manager Jim Leyland was sitting. A few innings later Berkman lost his club again and winged coach Rafael Belliard in the Tiger dugout. Next time up, Berkman jokingly handed Leyland a catcher’s mask.
So far, Berkman has the best idea, because while he was kidding around, there is no question that the dangers from balls and bats flying at too-fast-to-duck speeds have been increasing ever since the Matt Keough disaster in the 1980’s and baseball is either going to address it seriously and presently, or it is in fact going to get somebody killed. The Boston dugout was in fact a tense place Monday – the “park bench” in front of it was periodically unoccupied and each time Gardner came up we all scattered.
This transpired once just as Boston batting coach Dave Magadan and I discussed what to do about this evidently accelerating problem, and we agreed on two points. The first was to experiment with a kind of reversed version of those international soccer dugouts with the clear plastic backs that protect players from drunken fans and thrown debris while letting the spectators see what the athletes are doing. In our vague plan, the plexiglas would go not in the back but in the front, replacing the railings and netting and curving neatly back to enclose and secure the players. The thing could be dotted with oblong slits or small circular openings to reduce the claustrophobia and the likely sense of detachment it could create for the occupants. Obviously it would have protected openings at each end. It might not even need to completely overlap with the dugout roof; perhaps it could replace the dugout roof completely.
Besides the wildly improved safety, the see-through dugout would also solve one of the least well-known problems in the sport: Currently the players can’t see a thing from the dugout. A manager racing out to second base to argue with an ump is almost always doing so purely in faith. Without the railings and nettings to block them, they would all be able to watch the game in which they’re playing. Players trying to make catches would probably have a safer if no less challenging time of it, too.
The drawbacks? You’d need to keep spares, or at least spare components, because the thing would crack often. And the players would feel as if they were no longer part of the game. But the second thing on which the esteemed Mr. Magadan and I agreed: it would be seen as such a departure from tradition that everybody would protest. To which I say: Do you want tradition? Or do you want somebody killed? Because that’s your choice, ultimately.