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?
The Yankees are seemingly focused on Derek Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000 hits. Not getting as much play: his slugging percentage is worse than all but one other Yankee hitter. Not all but one other Yankee regular – all but one of the other 14 guys who have come to bat for the team all year. Jeter is being “outslugged” by 71 points by Brett Gardner and by 33 by Jorge Posada, who is being treated in the Bronx as if he is a ghost…
The only one behind Jeter? Nick Swisher (.303 SA). And yet the manager says “we know Swisher will hit.” We know no such thing. Until last year he had never put together consecutive good seasons in the majors. And incidentally he still has more extra-base hits than Jeter. So does Justin Turner of the Mets – in one-third the plate appearances…
We haven’t even gotten to On Base Percentage. Simply put there is no excuse for Jeter to be leading off. None. He’s at .316. That’s tied for 242nd in the big leagues (that’s a wildly inflated number – it includes everybody in the majors. Nevertheless, among those in his neighborhood are Angel Sanchez of the Astros, Ronny Cedeno of the Pirates, and Jason Bartlett of the Padres. Nobody is trying to pretend they haven’t been offensive disasters. People read stuff like this from me about Jeter and wonder what I have against him. The answer is nothing. He’s a hall of famer and I’ve been stunned by his consistency and clutch play since I was at ESPN – that’s how long he’s been doing what he’s been doing. But they should’ve made him manager or general manager or team president last year – or at least should be planning to do so the day he gets his 3,000th hit.
Remember…this is the franchise that once released Babe Ruth…
The Mets have very quietly built a bullpen out of other teams’ spare parts. Jason Isringhausen has been lights out since coming back, Rule V draftee Pedro Beato’s scoreless streak wasn’t interrupted by his DL stint, and so far, Nationals refugee lefty Mike O’Connor has been untouchable. The secret to the Mets’ disastrous collapses of 2007 and 2008, and the miserable seasons since, has been the startling truth that the relief corps has never been as good as it is right now…
The Yankees appear to be dealing with the resurfacing of an old problem. First it was Ruben Sierra showing the kid a great time, late at night, after night games. Exit Mr. Sierra. Then his running-mate was Melky Cabrera. He was a late-inning game-winning machine in 2009. Nevertheless, exit Mr. Cabrera. Now it is a spare outfielder supposedly escorting the should-be MVP to see the bright lights of big league cities. The should-be MVP is hitting .275. There are rumblings that it may soon be Exit Mr. Spare Outfielder…
Speaking of exits, it may be hard to believe this, but my understanding is that Sandy Alderson, doing all due diligence to try to revive the team from Queens, has asked almost every club what they might give him for every one of his key players. You can forget the Jose Reyes talk: the Mets and the MLB caretakers working unobtrusively with them know they must re-sign Reyes. There are intriguing answers when the Mets say “Ike Davis” and, surprisingly, “Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran.” The answers offered when they say “David Wright” are stunningly low. The rap is simple: perfect public face of a franchise. Wonderful teammate. Great guy. Productive hitter and deft fielder. Durable. And not to be relied upon in the clutch. The yield for David Wright might be less than the yield for Carlos Beltran (FYI absolutely none of this comes from Sandy Alderson or anybody in the Met front office)…
Not to re-stir an old pot but Alex Rodriguez still looks to Yankee coaching assistant Brett Weber’s third-row seat from the on-deck circle. You remember Brett, right?But Brett isn’t always in his seat. He was, Friday. He wasn’t, last night. And it’s possible I’ve missed it, but I have not seen him throw a signal at A-Rod or any other Yankee, or wiggled any fingers, or held up a sign, or even as much as looked back. He may have taken an order for fries in that headset for all I know, but from what I’ve seen, he has not violated communications rule C4…
“WE TALKED ABOUT FEET”
As we look at the rogues’ gallery of baseball friends with whom I’ve posed this season, the touching saga of how Twitter brought together an underrated Marlins’ outfielder and a guy with a similar foot injury (me) is in the papers today, right here. LoMo portrays a certain raunchiness in his Twitter feed. I don’t want to hurt his street cred, but he’s also a polite and thoughtful guy. As is Andy Samberg from SNL, with whom I had the pleasure of sitting through the last of the Yankees-Red Sox games. Delightful sequence of pitches during a Swisher at bat. The first of them is lined straight back and bounces off the screen right in front of me. Mr. Samberg laughs appropriately. The next one is lined straight back and bounces off the screen right in front of him. His laugh is delayed by only about a second. He shouts “Swish! What the heck? I was an A’s fan!”You know this fella. Interviewed Harold Reynolds in, I think, 1987 or 1988. Worked with him at ESPN in 1996 and 1997, most memorably at the Jackie Robinson Game. Continues to anchor – in the more literal sense – the studio work at MLB Network, although Mitch Williams, Dan Plesac, Joe Magrane, all the other analysts and all the hosts have helped create the best TV start-up I’ve ever seen.
It is 6-1 Yankees, one out in the top of the eighth, the bases are loaded and Kerry Wood has just left the mound to deafening silence.
that outfielder Jose Tabata, the high-upside crapshoot of a prospect, doesn’t even have to succeed for this to indeed be a ripoff – for Pittsburgh. Nady may never play again, and nailing Thome on a ground out on Sunday lowered Marte’s ERA to 10.57.