19-23 , 2003: The Grapefruit League, Florida
Back to Life
1: Escape from New York Day 2 Days
frigid gray abyss that was January 2003 in New York City found me wrestling
with a major life decision. As I desperately counted down the days until Pitchers
and Catchers, I faced the realization that it was time to leave the design
job I'd held for nearly six years. While the surrounding drama is not worth
recounting here, suffice it to say that it left my sapped spirits in need of a
boost. Some fun, even. In the sun, preferably. A trip to Florida for spring training
seemed like the perfect prescription.
something of a spring training vet, having been twice before. In 1986, my father
took my brother and me down to Arizona for four days, where we saw five major-league
games (among the Angels, Giants, Indians, A's and Mariners) as well as an Arizona
State University one. In 1989, during my freshman year spring break, my family
convened in Florida, seeing four Dodgers games in Vero Beach. One day I nearly
bumped into Vin Scully and ended up with an autograph. But those trips were long
ago, their details lost to the years and my own clouded memory. All I recall is
some kid outfielder named Mike Griffin going 4-for-4 against the Yankees on our
final day; I don't have a program or a scorecard to show for that trip. Or Scully's
training itself is a perfect paradox. The games themselves don't matter
very much to us, their details aren't necessarily of importance, but their arrival
reminds of how much the game does matter us, how we crave baseball's annual
return and the opportunity to savor those details. Our belief that somebody,
somewhere is concerned enough to practice bunting drills while we're buried
under cold gray sludge is a tonic guaranteed to ward off the winter blues.
I was ten years old, my grandfather passed me a dog-eared copy of Roger
Angell's first book, The Summer Game. In its opening pages, Angell
treks to Florida during the Spring of 1962, his first foray as the credentialed
baseball correspondant for The New Yorker. His descriptions of the flavor
of Florida baseball the lazy pace, the close proximity of stars, the unrelenting
optimism of fans, and archetypes of green rookies and grizzled veterans fighting
to make the team have stayed with me for nearly a quarter century, and
I've carried the desire for my such foray ever since. Now, with time on my hands,
a few more brains in my head, and a space for my own take on the subject, I had
every reason to fill that prescription.
fond memories of Dodgertown and a resurgent interest in Jim Tracy's team put Vero
Beach on my itinerary, while travel convenience and my interest in the Yanks made
Tampa an obvious destination. A few afternoons with the Internet, a road atlas,
a telephone and my credit cards, and I'd booked a dream trip. This took some creativity.
Increased interest in the Yanks kindled by their acquisition of Japanese slugger
Hideki Matsui caused their spring home games to sell out early, so I resorted
to eBay to fill in my gaps. Luck
was on my side in winning some of those auctions, but when you're out of work,
you've got plenty of time to place those last-second bids.
was prepared to fly solo on this trip, but luckily I roped in my girlfriend's
brother Aaron. A long-suffering Brewers fan desperate for any respite from the
Wisconsin cold, he jumped at the chance for some baseball, any baseball. "I'd
settle for Mudville vs. the Indianapolis Clowns!" he wrote me. That made two of
my suitcase with about seven different baseball shirts, a mitt, a ball, a scorebook,
my camera and plenty of film, I was off. But my escape from New York didn't come
without a couple of hitches in the form of subway and bus delays on the way to
JFK Airport. I didn't reach the ticket counter until the flight's 30-minute check-in
window had closed. After begging for mercy, the kind people at Delta called down
to the gate and escorted me down there. I had to undergo a lengthy shoes-off inspection,
and I was the last person to board the plane, sitting in the last row, right next
to the bathroom and a squirming infant. Still, I was in no mood to complain.
Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees, Legends Field, Tampa
I'd booked our trip so that we wouldn't need to stray too far into Tampa,
a vast expanse of asphalt apparently consisting of nothing but strip malls and
strip clubs. Fortunately, the airport, the hotel and the ballpark are all very
close together. We could actually walk to Legends Field from our Howard Johnson's
room in about 20 minutes along the Dale Mabry (no relation to John)
Highway. Of course in doing so, we'd pass no fewer than three clubs promising
live nude girls, and chain restaurants Chili's, Bennigans, Denny's and, if I fudge
it by including an extra block, TGIFridays. The place is soulless. But we weren't
in Tampa for soul or culture, strictly the business of baseball.
Aaron wouldn't be arriving until midnight, Wednesday evening's game was a solo
venture. At 5:15, about 90 minutes after checking in (during which I'd done little
but gaze at the CNN ticker's fractured factoids concerning the U.S. war on Iraq),
I began working my way to the park. I had an extra ticket to unload, so I was
open to any takers. Passing a beefy forty-year-old holding up a crude sign ("I
Need Tix"), I stopped to work a deal. The man escorted me to two buddies
chugging Coors Lights in the Chili's parking lot tailgating, Tampa style.
They were interested, but wouldn't even offer face value for the tickets, so I
and kept walking. I finally sold my ticket to a couple in need of an extra for
their seven-year-old girl. The Good Samaritan scalper, I still took a loss once
the eBay price was factored in. What was that about keeping my day job?
Yankees' 31-acre Tampa complex, the stuff of many a column inch in the New York
papers, greets passers-by on Dale Mabry with a giant sign celebrating the team's
38 pennants and a year-by-year list 26 World Championships. Legends
Field, the spring home of the Yankees and the summer home of their Class A
afffiliate, sits directly across from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raymond James
Stadium. Practice fields sit on both sides of the highway. Amid these world-class
facilities is a quaint little park (10,000 capacity) which makes an attempt to
mimic Yankee Stadium with a familiar white facade at the base of the concrete
roof. Legends even matches Yankee Stadium with its outfield dimensions: 318 feet
to left, 400 to center, and 314 to right. There's a Monument Park featuring the
retired numbers of Yankee greats, but it's outside the ballpark. Legends beats
Yankee Stadium on at least one score, aesthetically: ivy
climbs up the walls of the bullpens situated near the end of each foul line, and
visitors can peer down to watch the pitchers warm up.
at the stadium about an hour before game-time, I watched several minor-leaguers
taking batting practice under the auspices of Joe Torre, Don Zimmer, Rick Down,
Willie Randolph, and a very fit-looking Reggie Jackson, clad in shorts. Standing
by was Torre's brother Frank, the recipient of the most
famous heart transplant in baseball history. I snapped a few photos of this
braintrust through the chain-link fence while Reggie talked hitting with youngsters
such as Erick Almonte (soon to figure quite prominently in the Yankees' plans)
and David Post before I entered the stadium proper.
defector Jose Contreras was the Yankee starter for the evening, and the Yanks
fielded a team which, except for Todd Zeile subbing at third, may well be their
Opening Day lineup. Soriano, Jeter, Giambi, Williams, Matsui, Posada these
are the Bronx Bombers. Regular third baseman Robin Ventura, as he often does,
sat against a lefty, in this case the Indians' Brian Anderson. The Indians backed
Anderson with what may well be their Opening Day lineup, featuring familiar faces
Omar Vizquel and Ellis Burks, vets Matt Lawton and Karim Garcia, touted rookies
Brandon Phillips and Travis Hafner, and board-game magnate Milton Bradley (replaced
in the eighth inning by cereal icon Coco Crisp).
he'd had a rocky spring up to that point (including a 10.38 ERA), on this night
Contreras pitched like the $32 million man in the catalog. There's no high leg
kick or exaggerated flourishes in his windup like his countryman and Yankee predecessor,
Orlando Hernandez. Contreras' delivery is much more economical, but he brings
some serious heat. The Cuban dominated the Indians from the outset, striking out
five of the first seven batters he faced and eight overall in his 5.2 innings,
fitting Hafner for a silver sombrero in the process. Cleveland scratched out only
four hits and one run off of Contreras, who left with runners on first and second.
But reliever Antonio Osuna, another new Yankee, struck out Ellis Burks with a
breaking ball that literally dropped the aged slugger to his knees, nipping a
rally in the bud.
Pinstripes' other foreign import, Hideki Matsui, made a good first impression
as well. Just as I'd imagined and much to my satisfaction, the stadium PA played
a snippet of Blue Oyster Cult's '70s classic "Godzilla"
every time Matsui came to bat. Matsui played the entire game, stroking two singles,
one of which would have driven in a run if Garcia, the Indians rightfielder, hadn't
made a strong throw home. The Yanks touched Anderson for three in the third on
a bases-loaded Bernie Williams double, while Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi laced
back-to-back doubles in the fifth for another.
of the more amusing sidelights to the game was an Afro-American concessionaire
with an unlikely demeanor. Shouting, "Hey! Guess what?! I got snowcones!" with
an intimidating tone connoting a demand to get the hell off of somebody's property,
he nevertheless delivered his icy wares with a huge smile. "I wish I actually
WANTED a snowcone," laughed the guy behind me. I passed on the cone as well, preferring
the more traditional sausage topped with peppers and onions (not exactly Yankee
Stadium caliber, to say nothing of Milwaukee), chased by a couple of beers. In
the middle innings I ventured to try a deep-fried concoction offered by a Cuban
food stand on the concourse, a deviled crab ball that had gastric distress written
all over it. Fortunately what went down stayed there without incident.
the seventh inning, the Yankee prospects and suspects Drew Henson, Juan
Rivera, Chris Latham, and the aforementioned Almonte and Post took over,
with Henson distinguishing himself by lining a solid single off of David Riske.
Shane Spencer led off the ninth for the Indians, drawing a respectful cheer from
the crowd not only for his years in pinstripes but for the two
seasons he'd spent as a Tampa Yankee. But highly regarded
prospect Jason Anderson set down the Indians 1-2-3, giving the remaining portion
of the 10,000-plus fans even more reason to cheer.
Final score: Yanks 4, Indians 1. BOX
2: A Dream Doubleheader