Flying into Phoenix yesterday, and seeing the familiar desert vista, reminded me that twice I’ve promised to deliver some top memories from what is now a quarter century covering spring training.
So here goes. Yes, it has been 25 years that I have been coming to the Valley of the Sun. Some springs, like the six when I was the Giants’ beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner, 1990-95, I spent the entire camp in Arizona, approximately seven weeks worth (except for the brutal spring of 1995, the year of the replacement players. The strike ended on the eve of Opening Day, if you’ll recall. Then the real players arrived, and the spring dragged out another two weeks. That whole replacement debacle was easily the low point of my spring-training resume).
In other years, when I wasn’t the beat writer, I’ve probably averaged two to three weeks a spring in Arizona and Florida (where I’ve done a stint every year since 1996). So I figure I’ve spent nearly two years of my life in the Cactus and Grapefruit circuit, unquestionably one of the highlights of my baseball writing career. There’s nothing like slipping away from cold and dreary San Francisco (or colder and drearier Seattle) in February, and getting off the plane to bask in glorious sunshine. And there’s nothing like the relaxed atmosphere of spring training to whet your appetite for the upcoming season. When I stop anticipating my trips to Florida and Arizona with keen excitement, it will be time to hang up the old typewriter.
Here are a few memories that stand out:
–In 1986, my newspaper, the late, great Bellevue Journal-American, sent me for a week in Tempe, which was where the Mariners were training at the time. It was my first road trip to cover a professional team, having spent the previous six years at Yakima Herald-Republic covering mostly high schools. The details are dim now, although I remember interviewing Mark Langston, Mike Moore, Dave Henderson, Jim Presley, Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, and the rest of that group. But my prevailing memory is of Ken Phelps, (pictured above in spring training during that time) and how he nearly drove me out of sportswriting.
Ken Phelps was a grump. I just didn’t know how to handle him. It was a great lesson for me, because his type of personality is not uncommon to encounter in sportswriting, and dealing with Phelps was good preparation for the grumps that would follow, from Mike LaCoss to Rick Reuschel to Barry Bonds to John Halama. The key is, one, don’t let them get in your head, and two, realize that life will go on without a Ken Phelps quote. And three, give them a chance. Often, the grumps turn out, with a little work, to be not so bad after all. That was the case with Phelps, who could be curt but was a good guy, as I got to know him over the course of the year.
–Covering Roger Craig, manager of the Giants through 1992, was a delight. Humm-Baby, as everyone called him (because that was his favorite expression), was a good-humored man, endlessly patient with a media. In those days, the Bay Area writers had an almost daily basketball game at a park in Scottsdale in the afternoon, when all our work was done (this was pre-blogs. Nowadays, our work is never done). Craig would hear us talking about our hoops exploits, and always was threatening to show up and play with us. Yeah, sure. Well, one day, we’re playing a game, and a truck pulls up. Out pops Craig, in shorts and a t-shirt. Out pops his wife, with a cooler of beer. Sure enough, he played full court with us for half an hour – he was in his late 50s or early 60s, mind you – after which we all enjoyed the refreshments he had brought.
–When people ask me what was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen covering baseball, I always bring up the Jim Abbott at-bat in spring training of 1991. It might not be at the top of the list, but it makes the top 10.
Abbott, you’ll recall, was born without a right hand, and his arrival in the big leagues was an inspiring story of overcoming adversity. This was early in his career, and he was making an extremely rare plate appearance against the Giants’ Rick Reuschel at Scottsdale Stadium.
Sure enough, swinging pretty much one-armed – Abbott kind of cradled the bat with his right arm – he sent a screaming liner off the right-field wall and sprinted around the bases for a stand-up triple. No crowd I’ve ever witnessed – not after Kirk Gibson’s homer, or Joe Carter’s, or Francisco Cabrera’s pennant-winning hit for Atlanta – has ever erupted in such pure, unadulterated joy.
–I saw two bench-clearing brawls in spring games, one when a long-forgotten pitcher named Don August beaned Jose Canseco, who charged the mound in a heartbeat. A few years later, another bench-clearing brawl erupted in Mesa when Mike Jackson, the former Mariner reliever, broke Ryne Sandberg’s hand with a pitch in the very first game of spring. Sandberg, and the Cubs, never quite recovered that season.
–I wrote about this last year, but as I said, I still have nightmares about Griffey’s spring-training press conference nine years ago when he was traded to the Reds. Here’s my post on it from last year:
I flew to Florida to be there for his first day in a Reds uniform — me and about 150 other media members in Sarasota, where the Reds train. At this point in his career, remember, Griffey was about the biggest thing in baseball, and him switching teams was a huge deal.
Griffey held his press conference in the morning sitting on a folding chair on top of the dugout at Ed Smith Stadium. After his first workout, as a huge horde of reporters milled around the clubhouse, he summoned me over to his locker. There were a few things he wanted to get off his chest regarding Seattle and the Mariners. So for about 20 minutes, while the rest of the media watched from a respectful distance, Junior gave me an exclusive interview, the only one-on-one he did that day.
I was thrilled, of course — until I got to the press room and went to transcribe my tape. Unbeknown to me, a clubhouse attendent right behind me was cleaning the mud off spikes for much of the interview. That is done by whacking the shoes with a metal pipe. I had been so intent on listening to Griffey that I hadn’t even noticed what was going on behind me. It didn’t register. But when I listened to the tape, his words kept getting smothered by the loud sound of “Thwack!” from the spike-cleaner. “The one thing I want to make perfectly clear — and this is crucial — is that THWACK!.”
Talk about panic. But fortunately, I had taken written notes while I was taping, and the clubby stopped cleaning the spikes about halfway through. I was able to piece together a pretty comprehensive interview.
–I wrote about this just last week, but meeting Sandy Koufax in Tommy Lasorda’s office in Vero Beach was definitely a spring highlight. I’m quite confident the feeling was not mutual
–I’ll never forget the pranks the Diamondbacks pulled on Bob Melvin when he showed up for the first time in Tucson as Mariners’ manager after being on Arizona’s coaching staff for several years.
A story had just appeared in which Melvin admitted to a lifelong fear of clowns – coulrophobia is the official name of that affliction. Well, naturally, the Diamondbacks seized upon that bit of news. They made some phone calls and hired two clowns to make repeated appearances at Tucson Electric Park for that day’s exhibition game with Seattle. The clowns were introduced to the crowd as “Bob” and “Melvin.” In one inning, they stood right in front of Melvin near the dugout while tossing t-shirts into the crowd. As I wrote in a column the next day, “Melvin immediately gestured toward the Arizona dugout, shaking his head. The clowns came back several times after that, but Melvin simply ignored them, ducking into the sanctity of the dugout whenever they were near.
“The clowns spooked me for a minute,” he admitted. “That was weak, a little excessive. I know where it came from.”
He was not amused, but everyone else was highly entertained by the prank.
–Then there was the time that Padre pitcher Eric Show, an odd bird who so sadly died a few years ago, sauntered in full uniform into a lunch trailer at Scottsdale Stadium reserved for the media and team officials, and began nonchalantly fixing himself a sandwich. Giants President Al Rosen, tightly wrapped even in spring, leapt up to tell Show he wasn’t allowed in the trailer.
“Who are you?” Show said with evident disdain.
“Rosen.” Remember, Rosen not only was one of the leading executives in baseball, but also had a distinguished playing career with the Indians. It was immediately clear that none of this registered with Show.
“Well, Rosie, Barry Bloom (a Padre beat writer for the San Diego Tribune who now writes for MLB.com) said I could go in there,” he replied. “Does your authority supersede that of Barry Bloom?”
That still makes me chuckle. Maybe you had to be there. I’m glad I was.
(Seattle Times photo)