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So, what is spring training really like?
You mean, beneath the thick exterior coating of sunblock, extra batting practice and Carrabba's advertisements on the outfield fences?
Glad you asked.
It is up at 6:30 a.m., in the clubhouse by 8 and players on the field by 10. It is a lump-in-the-throat goodbye to my wife and daughter, a sad farewell for six weeks to dinners at home and evening movies clashing with an eagerness for the change in seasons.
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Remember when you were a kid, that last week of summer vacation before the start of a new school year? That's this week in baseball. There's a gnawing in the pit of your stomach because you know for the next several months you'll be slammed by a relentless schedule and loads of homework. But that's eclipsed by the excitement of a new year and reunions with old friends. (As long as I don't have Sister Noelita again!)
Spring training is watching a kid named Albert Pujols take Jupiter (the town) by storm in the spring of 2001 by hitting lasers to Jupiter (the planet) ... and become an instant star.
It is watching the Braves scramble to hang protective netting over the employee parking lot in February 2010, when a kid named Jason Heyward blasts batting practice home runs through distant windshields ... and wondering, in the spring of 2012, whether he's still a shooting star.
It is interviewing Kirby Puckett at his Florida locker at 7:30 one morning in 1996 for a season preview story, the Twins preparing to break camp later that day ... and him veering toward the trainer's room at the end of our conversation because, as he told me on a day I'll never forget, he "must have slept wrong on my eye" because his vision was blurred. Several weeks later came the glaucoma diagnosis and one of the most heartbreaking exits I've ever seen.
Life has the ability to do that, to take things out of focus in the blink of an eye. Which is why the slow days and thick optimism of spring, the season for renewal, are so welcome. And the laughs. Especially those. I still remember the day before his eye went blurry, Puckett cracked a couple of doubles against Greg Maddux and cackled at him from second base, "I got you, Picasso. I got you!"
Because Maddux could flat-out paint. And because Puckett lived every day as if it was his last, joie de vivre embedded in his DNA.
Spring training is slow, but it's motion, constant motion. The next spring after his forced retirement, Puckett was back in Fort Myers, Fla., as a special instructor with the Twins. Only good thing about his exit was, he joined us for some of the early-spring, late-afternoon pickup basketball games. He wasn't much of a shooter, but One-Eyed Jack -- Puckett's term for himself, not mine -- dished off passes nearly as snappy as his one-liners.
Laughter. It's always been one important way Mike Scioscia brings each new group of Angels together in Arizona. He assigns homework to rookies at morning meetings. Give us a report on your hometown tomorrow. Or tell us about the Ostrich Festival over in Chandler. Oh, Lord. Former pitcher Jarrod Washburn once accompanied a couple of rookies on that outing ... and had a real, live ostrich delivered to the clubhouse the next morning.
When the world's largest (and ugliest) bird was walked into the room on a leash by its owner, pitcher Ramon Ortiz freaked, taking cover inside of his locker, shrieking, "Pollo grande! Pollo grande!"
Bawks, not balks. That's part of the beauty of spring. And fashion. I still love how phenom Brad Radke learned he had pitched his way into the majors in the spring of 1995. Then-Twins pitching coach Dick Such simply asked, "Son, do you own a suit?" Radke had no idea what Such was talking about. Kid, someone finally told him, big leaguers wear suits when they travel.
When a rookie learns he's made the club, it is one of the coolest days of any spring, anywhere. Or nights. When the late Mark Fidrych was told the Tigers were taking him north in 1976, he took his girlfriend out to celebrate that evening, ahem, on a Lakeland pitcher's mound.
Lakeland, apparently, is a pretty good place to get religion. A few springs ago, an interview with Lou Whitaker -- in Detroit's camp as an alumni coach -- somehow took a hard right turn and, suddenly, he was on and on about the Jehovah's Witnesses. I escaped, perhaps too gracefully: Apparently figuring I was still a prospective recruit, Whitaker ambled across the clubhouse a few minutes later and handed me a Bible.
Must be something in the (holy?) water in Lakeland. Two years ago, I was there on Ash Wednesday and scouted out an early evening service at a local church after starting work too early to make a morning Mass. Perfect. So I arrive, and the priest starts speaking. In tongues? No, in Spanish. Oops.
It's all bueno, spring training. You never know what -- or who -- will come floating in on any given gorgeous spring day. The afternoon Muhammad Ali visited the Angels' clubhouse, I've never seen a group of normally world-weary professional athletes melt so quickly with stars in their eyes. Or reporters. I admit, I've got a framed photo from that day hanging at home on my office wall.
The spring after the Red Sox won it all in 2004, my friend Jayson Stark and I were waiting for David Ortiz for a post-workout interview and, by the time Ortiz finally emerged from the shower, the clubhouse, literally, was deserted. Jayson, me and Ortiz. Then, one of the Red Sox vice-presidents came through leading a private tour: James Taylor and his wife.
Turned out, Mrs. Taylor was passionate about her Red Sox and was dying to meet Ortiz. While she talked with Big Papi, poor J.T. was stuck talking with Jayson and I. Frankly, I had always found his music a little too boring. But he was such a sweet man. I've since picked up a couple of his CDs. And I will tell you this: When I play them, my wife razzes me mercilessly about my change of heart.
Spring training is driving straight through places like Yeehaw Junction (a place in Florida, honest), and driving right past places like Blimpie's. And every time, I think of the player's strike of '95. The Twins served those sandwiches during the "replacement player" debacle, post-workout, every ... single ... day. I can still hear legendary coach Rick Stelmaszek calling out, "Blimpie time!" I'm not sure which was thicker, the mayonnaise on the turkey or the sarcasm in Stelly's voice.
It is the most delicious time of the year, spring. It was last year when Tim Lincecum revealed one secret to his training regimen: Frequent trips to In-N-Out Burger, gobbling two Double-Doubles, two orders of fries and a milkshake. I kid you not, shortly after that interview finished, stomachs growling, three of us went straight to In-N-Out for dinner. We're so predictable.
Spring training is a long, pleasant conversation with Jim Joyce in a Scottsdale Mexican joint after bumping into the umpire and his wife over dinner plates of burritos. It is discussing author Pat Conroy with a new skipper in Tampa Bay named Joe Maddon, talking about @overcoming adversity with Ron Washington, Jon Daniels and the Rangers, and it is administering good-guy Johnny Damon with a pop quiz on Michigan in his first few days with the Tigers.
Spring training is Ken Griffey Jr. sitting in Cincinnati's Florida camp and figuring his spring schedule by a two-bridge rule: If the Reds' bus was to cross more than two bridges en route to a Grapefruit League game, he was staying home that day. It is a morning conversation with an animated Jeff Francoeur, who cannot wait for a tee time that afternoon in Orlando with Tiger Woods. Except ... hmm ... the Braves are playing a Grapefruit League game today and Francoeur is in the lineup and how is that going to work?
Bottom of the first, Francoeur is batting when backs away from the plate, steps out, the trainer trots out and ... oh, that's how it's going to work with Tiger and the tee time.
Spring training is sand traps and sandbagging. When Ichiro Suzuki first showed up in Seattle's camp in 2001, his routine Cactus League ground balls were so pedestrian that manager Lou Piniella began to panic. Hey Ichiro, Piniella finally asked ... can you turn on a ball? That afternoon, Ichiro went out and jacked a home run over the right-field fence. Upon returning to the dugout, he nonchalantly asked Piniella: "Like that?"
Spring training is imports from Japan (Yu Darvish to Texas this spring) and classically, quintessentially American (George Steinbrenner, bless his soul, tooling around the Yankees complex in Tampa on his golf cart). It is talking with Snowbirds from White Plains (New York) to White Bear Lake (Minnesota).
It is 3,000 miles driven in rental cars while writing about the next player(s) who will reach 3,000 hits.
What is spring training really like?
Tell 'em, Ichiro.