Spring Training: It's Like Heaven Only Better

Farid RushdiAnalyst IFebruary 23, 2010

Over the next month or two, stories about spring training will sprout up across the nation like grass on a freshly manicured Florida diamond.

Professional writers like Phil Wood and Bill Gammons, as well as amateur bloggers and writers like myself, will begin to pen stories about the true meaning of spring training.

With eloquence, terms like "spring cathedrals" and "memories of my youth" will begin to dot the landscape of baseball blogs and magazines of every make and manner. Craftily worded metaphors will connect baseball to all things right and righteous.

Concepts like "patriotism" and "a strong work ethic" will flap in the breeze of their pleasant prose.  Words and pictures will tell the stories of both the grizzled veteran sweating off his winter fat as well as the chiseled youngster with an ego as vast and as deep as his untapped potential.

We will read these stories and they will make us smile, because they will reflect memories of our childhood.  Think of it as a kind of Field of Dreams flashback, but with real players and real fields and embedded dreams from our youth.

And like in the movie, the promise of "if you build it, he will come" still rings true.

I left Washington D.C. a half-decade after my beloved Senators did. Washington just didn't seem the same after RFK went dark during the city's hot, humid nights.  True, George Allen and his Redskins electrified the city during those years, but their success made the summer's silence all the more deafening.

I lived a few years in Denver and watched the Denver Bears play at Mile High Stadium. One night, their second baseman—35 and old for the American Association—was given an award at home plate.  He had just graduated from law school. When the master of ceremonies asked the player what was next on his horizon, he replied that he'd like to manage in the big leagues one day.

His name was Tony LaRussa.

I joined the Air Force in the late 1970s and spent my first tour-of-duty in Japan, and learned that baseball was indeed a universal language.  I saw Sadaharu Oh drive a ball deep over the right field fence at Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo and was amazed that his stance and his uniform mirrored that of Mel Ott and the New York Giants from decades long forgotten.

In the early 1980s, I saw Carl Yaztremksi play at Fenway Park, Carlton Fisk squat behind the plate at Comisky Park, and watched a woeful Mariners ' team draw but a handful of fans to the Kingdome that was as cavernous as it was ugly.  Kirk Gibson impressed me as he roamed the outfield at Tiger Stadium, covering the same turf that Al Kaline once called home.

While visiting my aunt in Birmingham, I had the chance to take in a game or two at historic Rickwood Field, where I saw a young outfielder slam—without question—the longest home run I have ever seen in person.

Reggie Jackson hit a lot of those, didn't he?

And, of course, there were those games in Baltimore , but I try to forget them as best I can.

As much as I loved watching summer baseball, I desired to experience it's prequel, it's birth, it's beginning.

I wanted to experience Spring Training.

Not just a game, or a series, mind you. I didn't want to be baseball's guest; I wanted to be its neighbor and its friend.

By 1985, however, it seemed that it would never happen, and that saddened me deeply.

I was living in St. Louis, surrounded and enveloped by a near-deadly combination of mortgage, marriage, and madness.  My children kept me busy and my job kept me chained to a nine-to-five routine that never seemed to change.  Most every summer night, though, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon would send 50,000 watts through my radio, breathing new life into my weary and worn-out soul.

My only outlet, as it had been my entire life, was baseball.

It had always been that soft, warm place that welcomed me after an especially harrowing day.  It never threatened me for not paying my bills, and it always appreciated and accepted my love.  It never, ever talked back, even when I deserved as much.

I was in St. Louis during that magical year of 1985 when the two Missouri teams met in the World Series. Bush Stadium rocked with "Whitey Ball"—Whitey Herzog's run-and-gun offense that featured solid pitching and seven players capable of stealing 30 or more bases.

The Cardinals , however, weren't really a baseball team.

They were a compilation of superhuman athletes who were so fast that even The Flash himself wouldn't have led the team in stolen bases. They were men who used their bats as a pool cues, deftly adding just the right amount of English so that the ball seemingly defied the laws of physics and always landed where intended.

Circuitous.  Look it up in the dictionary and it you'll find as one of the definitions, "The way the ball traveled when hit by the 1985 Cardinals."

And they did all this on plastic grass.

Bad plastic grass.

I was saddened by my first view of the field at Busch Stadium.  I entered through a portal on the first base side to find that the field wasn't green at all. A decade of abuse by both Cardinal teams and the hot Missouri sun left the first generation astro-turf a color more white than green.

This wasn't baseball. Not really.

Men in double-knit uniforms so tight that you could see a pimple on their butts were springing across an asphalt blacktop covered with three-eights-of-an-inch of padding and a quarter-of-an-inch of plastic skin.  Monsanto made the stuff in the same plant where they made their carpets, for crying out loud.

This couldn't be the same sport that once featured our chiseled heroes in baggy flannels playing on dew covered grass to the cheers of a still innocent America.

Could it?

My daughter Kendi was three at the time. She was severely and profoundly handicapped, and in need of constant care and medical attention.  Her mother and I almost lost her during the Christmas of 1985.

Her fragile little body couldn't handle another St. Louis winter.  The doctor broke the bad news in her hospital room as her breathing was controlled by tubes, diodes, lights, and other things I just didn’t understand.

"I'm sure you love living here in St. Louis, but for the sake of your daughter's health, you need to move to Florida."

Wait. Let me think about that.

Two weeks later, we were packed and on the road.  On Thanksgiving Day, we left for Florida.

The pavement remained snow covered and the sky was a constant, silent gray until the Georgia border.  By Atlanta , the sky turned blue and the frost was gone from the windshield.  By Jacksonville, the temperature had begun to rise.

When we pulled into our new driveway in West Palm Beach, it was 74 degrees.

January and 74 degrees.

As my wife began to make sense of the boxes and baggage that littered the front room of our new home, I made a quick run to the Home Depot.  On my short trip, I traveled past the West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, which was the spring home of the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos.

The gates were open and the grounds inviting. I walked in.

The grounds crew was milling around the infield, working in new dirt around the third base bag.  I took a walking tour of the complex.  There were three batting cages and two regulation size fields.  In the back of the complex were two diamonds with no accompanying outfields.

"For infield practice," a worker told me.

The Braves and Expos shared the facility, and employees from both teams scurried about—painting and hammering, grooming and renovating, moving and stacking.  It was less than a month before players reported.

I returned home to help my wife unpack but found that she had done most of the work by herself.  She probably thought I had taken a mistress.

She would have been right, of course. I had.

I made sure that I didn't start my new job until well after spring training began.  I arrived at the complex close to eight every morning and stayed until the players left, usually around three or so.

A very elderly man from New York told me that I'd see more players on the golf course than on the ball field.  He laughed as he said it, seemingly very happy with himself.  In his mouth was a pipe with a cigar pushed deeply into its bowl.  I asked him about it.

He smiled and winked.

In a gravelly voice, worn rough by a life fully lived, he said in the most stereotypical of New York accents, "My doctor, he said that never again a cigar should touch my lips. On that day, he said I should die."  He bent his head a little to the left and finished, saying, "Kid, it ain't touching my lips."

That was his last spring training.

One morning, I had just gotten out of my car, and was heading toward the right field fence when I saw Bobby Cox, then the Braves general manager, pull up next to me. "Hiya Bobby!"  I shouted.  He paused and looked at me sternly for a moment, then broke into a toothy smile and waved as he walked toward the player’s entrance, never breaking his stride.

He was five years away from winning his first championship with the Braves.

On another day, I found Dale Murphy surrounded by a throng of star-struck kids in the parking lot.  He signed and signed and signed until they all left with their small pieces of baseball history.  He looked up at me and smiled, looking for something to sign.  He cocked his head and took a second look and said, "Don't I know you?"

Dale Murphy and I attended the same church. He had seen me there.

Once.

And he remembered.  He asked me how my daughter was doing.  He remembered she was in a wheel chair.  He asked if he could help give her a blessing.  Later that day, he hit a 470-foot home run off Tippy Martinez of the Orioles.  I saw him at church that Sunday.

"Aw, he just got it up a bit," was all Murph would say.

I visited Ft. Lauderdale and watched the Royals take on the Yankees .  I saw George in the owner's box.  I screamed hello.

He didn't hear me. I didn't care.

Charley Leibrandt was warming up for Kansas City in the sixth inning.  At that time, the bullpen was along the left field fence next to the stands.  The pitcher's rubber was three feet from the fence.  As I leaned against the chain link, I could have reached out and fingered the seams of the arm patch on his uniform.

He pretended I wasn't there.

I pretended I was him.

He gave up three runs that inning.

I didn't give up any.

I saw the Reds in Plant City and the Twins in Orlando.  I took in many Expos games in West Palm as well.  Watching the games was wonderful, but watching the practices was even better.

I saw a tall 25-year old pitch three solid innings against the Orioles.  He struck out three and walked one, giving up only a run-scoring double.

His name was Randy St. Claire, the former pitching coach of the Nationals.

In the third inning of a minor league game in Orlando, I left my seat at Tinker Field for a few moments to take in the sights.  On my way back, I stopped and asked the blue-haired lady at the concession stand if they sold "authentic" Orlando Twins caps.  As she considered my question, her eyebrows rose so high that, for a moment, all the wrinkles on her face disappeared.

It was 1935 all over again.

As I turned to walk away, an athletic-looking young man asked me if I wanted the "real thing."

"Sure," I said.  He walked me towards the clubhouse door, which was a simple metal gate along the side of the stands at Tinker Field.

He quickly looked both ways to make sure no one saw us, then opened the door and motioned me inside.  It was the middle of the game and no one was there.  He pulled a uniform out of a locker and grabbed a hat from a table that was emblazoned with the traditional interlocking "OT" logo of the Orlando Twins.

The jersey had belonged to a Minnesota Twins player the previous season.  At the end of each year, the uniforms were handed down to the minor league club.

"I'll give you both for $25" said the young man.

"Won't they be missed?" I asked.

"Ah, I'll tell 'em someone stole them."

I returned to my seat with a brown paper bag that contained my prizes. The jersey was No. 21.  To this day, I have been afraid to look up whose jersey I "purchased."  Some things are better left unknown.

Has the statute of limitations for theft in Florida expired by now?

When my daughter's health permitted, my family left Florida and relocated to the mountains of south-eastern Idaho.  I can't say that I necessarily miss spring training, because I saw all there was to see and learned all there was to learn about the shadowy underbelly of baseball's annual rebirth.

It was in Idaho, of all places, that I became a baseball insider, a member of the club, someone whose job everyone wanted.  About an hour after the Idaho Falls Braves public address announcer quit and moved to Portland, I walked into general manager Rai Henniger’s office to try and sell him something.

He offered me the job on the spot.  It paid $25 a game and included all the food I could eat.  I later asked him why I got the job. "I had just moved here," he said, "and I didn't know anyone else to ask."

In other words, he knew talent when it walked in the door.

I spent the summer saying, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to McDermott Field for tonight’s game between the [visiting team] and your...home...town...Idaho...Falls Braves!”

No one from the Braves made it to the major leagues, and the only opposing player that ever impressed me was the Helena Dodger’s shortstop, Jose Offerman.

He had a pretty decent major league career.

I learned something while working for the Braves. I was not alone.

The team general manager and I were waiting out a rain delay in his office one evening when he reached into his desk and pulled out a worn shoebox full of audio tapes and threw it on his desk.  He waited for me to ask what they were.

I obliged.

"Every year, I get hundreds of demo tapes from guys across the country wanting your job.  Lawyers, doctors, delivery guys, you name it, they watch a game on TV and record themselves announcing the players.  Most offer to do it for free.  Some are willing to do just one game."

Pretending not to understand, I asked him why these men would humble themselves before a rookie league general manager so that a few hundred fans could hear them speak?

"It's not about them", he began, "It's about being part of baseball.  It's about connecting with something that is more a religion than a sport."

"Oh," I said, as if I just had an epiphany.  "I didn't think of that."

The rain finally let up, and I walked up the stairs to my perch directly above home plate.  After downing a hot dog and a Coke, I was about to key the microphone and introduce the lineups when I thought about all those men who were unable to live their dream because I was standing in their way.

And at that moment I was perfectly satisfied with the situation.

I keyed the microphone.

In 1991, I was the photographer for the Pocatello Posse, who had moved from Salt Lake City when Derks Field collapsed and stayed a single season before returning to Utah and becoming the Ogden Raptors.

The Posse was an independent team, so you’d assume that no one on that club ever made it to the major leagues.

You’d be wrong if you assumed as much.

I took pictures of the players and usually gave them free 8''x10’'s for their families. It was highly doubtful, after all, that any of them would ever get out of the short-season rookie league, and I wanted them to have a memory of their time in professional baseball.

It was learned that the team was moving a day or two before the season ended.  I said my goodbyes and was heading to the parking lot when one of the players shouted my name.  I turned around to see something flying towards me.

I snatched it out of the air.

It was a black home Posse jersey emblazoned with “Pocatello” in teal and bordered in silver.  Though the players were supposed to turn in their uniforms, this player—Cory was his name—gave me his. I think I’d given him five or six 8"x10"s.  He was a nice guy.

It wasn’t until a small plane crashed into a tall building in New York City a few years ago that I realized that sitting in the back of my closet was the first professional baseball jersey of Yankee's pitcher Cory Lidle.

He really was a nice guy.

These are some wonderful memories that rank right up there with my wife and family. But as good as they are, and as often as I whimsically recall them, they are a minor part of my baseball past.

Being part of spring training—though I was just an insignificant fan—envelops and embraced me like nothing else I’ve experienced outside of marriage.

Spring training.

It’s like Heaven, only better.

But just as you can’t go home again, you can’t go back to spring training.

At least not any more.

It was a joyous time. Spring training touched my heart as I thought it would, and allowed me to understand baseball from a uniquely different perspective.  I was able to observe first hand not only the joy on the face of the fans, but on the players themselves.

They were the kids.  They were the ones living vicariously through their heroes as they did when they were little.

The smiles never left their faces.

Spring training was everything I hoped it would be.  Fans and players were friends. More than once I saw a player on the field having a catch with a young fan in the stands.  Memories that would last a lifetime were created a hundred times a day in a dozen cities throughout the state.

I don't want to go back, though.  My spring training doesn't exist any more.  Today's spring training is carefully choreographed and sold to the highest bidder.  Tickets are priced not for the average fan but for the groupies that follow them south each February.

My spring training was innocent and available to the public for free. The stands were full with fans both too young and too old to drive.

No longer is the game available to the average pensioner or middle-class fan.  My gameday experience cost me about $4.00—$6.00 if you include the hot dog and the Coke.

They were the cheapest memories I ever purchased. And they were the best.

Just like that elderly man from New York, I am much closer to the end of my life than the beginning.  Though still chronologically coherent, the years of raising two severely handicapped children have taken their toll.

As you get older, you get closer to God.  Perhaps because you are wiser.  Perhaps because you are scared.

With each passing health scare, I find myself inching closer to my religious roots. The Bible is read more often and prayers are again meaningful.

I am, as it were, "covering all my bases." Just in case.

Hmm. A baseball term used to describe preparations for the end of my days.

How delicious.

-------------------

The above image is of my daughter Kendi, whose illness brought me closer to her and nearer to my love of baseball.

I reprint this story every spring to remind myself of the renewal to the soul that baseball brings.

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