Too much, it occurs to me, is written about the idyllic charm and optimism of spring training.
But just in case I’m wrong, I have come to idyllically charming and optimistic Arizona to knock around the Cactus League. Spring training is Mother Nature’s wake-up call to America, and this is the best place in America to get the sap--a.k.a. baseball prose--flowing.
I decide to stop first at Scottsdale, because the San Francisco Giants train here and it is the most boring camp in baseball. You don’t want to jump into a hornets’ nest of controversy and dissension on the first day of duty.
This is no knock at the Giants, a team with a couple of genuine stars and so-so pennant potential. It’s just that all of the team’s positions are locked up, and there are no scandals, feuds or lawsuits currently in progress.
Also, the Giants’ ballpark is a truly idyllic and optimistic setting, the kind of place that will get you in the right frame of mind for spring training. Scottsdale Stadium, like most of the Cactus League parks, is a mom-and-pop type ballpark, run by a local civic organization.
This particular park is run by the Charros, who are not affiliated with Charo, the Latin bombshell who used to sing with Xavier Cugat’s band, although they probably wouldn’t mind.
Out on the infield, Giant coach Wendell Kim, a 5-foot-5 Hawaiian, is hitting infield to the B team. If infield chatter is dead in the big leagues, somebody forgot to tell Kim, who chatters away like an auctioneer.
“Eddie-Eddie, come on over, come babe, attaboy Matty-Matty, come Matty . . . “
Kim’s enthusiasm, if not his chatter, is understandable. After eight seasons playing in the minor leagues, and eight more seasons managing in the minors, Kim has finally made it to the big leagues.
Without even knowing the guy, I’m happy for him. Ah, spring training.
Down the left field line, A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball-commissioner-to-be, is signing autographs, looking each fan in the eye and asking his or her name. And he’s signing for free, by the way. Bart--that’s how he signs--is wearing a pair of Reeboks.
If Peter Ueberroth was a cross between Gen. Patton and Lee Iacocca, Giamatti has more of a Misterogers-Santa Claus style. It might be possible to dislike the guy, but you’re going to have to work at it.
Based on recent news involving friends of Steve Garvey and Wade Boggs, Giamatti’s first official directive should be to have ice-water showers installed in all clubhouses. A magazine article has just hit the stands, the steamy, sleazy confessions of Boggs’ former road buddy, Margo Adams.
The article doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir in this camp.
“It’s nothing different than happens in everyday society,” says Will Clark, the Giants’ future Hall of Fame first baseman. “People think because we’re baseball players, we should be different. We’re not.”
Absolutely. They’re just regular guys who, like the rest of us, get paid by the wheelbarrow and have legions of crazed groupies coming at us like human cannonballs.
Most of the players, apparently, haven’t read the article. They’ve heard about it, and it sounds to them like routine stuff, everyday gossip.
Besides, they don’t come to spring training to do heavy reading, unless you count menus. The two main topics of conversation in any spring baseball camp are: a) last night’s dinner, and b) tonight’s dinner.
If Margo Adams wants to catch the literary attention of baseball players, she’ll have to write a steamy, sleazy restaurant review column.
Speaking of genial people, there’s Roger Craig, the Giants’ folksy, humm-baby manager himself. The man with the year-round spring training spirit.
Everybody likes Roger. He actually lives in a log cabin, you know, which would be an even more interesting biographical tidbit had he been born in the White House.
Sitting at the desk in his office, Craig grabs a sandwich and faces three reporters.
“Let me get a mouthful before you ask me a question,” he says.
Somehow, that reminds me of Tom Lasorda and it occurs to me that this ballpark is infested with former Dodgers. Along with Craig, I have run into Giant announcer Ron Fairly, new Padre announcer Rick Monday, and new Seattle Mariners Manager Jim (Pennant) Lefebvre, who brought his B team in for a game. Craig’s coaching staff includes former Dodgers Bob Lillis, Norm Sherry and Dusty Baker.
Baker has been promoted from first base coach to hitting coach. Baseball hitting coaches tend to be wispy, professorial types who were career .187 hitters. Somehow it makes perfect sense for your hitting coach to be a guy who looks like an athlete and who, as a Dodger, was known as Dr. Scald.
The promotion is a big one for Baker, who has aspirations of becoming a big league manager. The day’s game is about to start and Baker heads down the tiny tunnel leading from the tiny clubhouse to the tiny dugout. The tunnel is almost too tiny to accommodate the ballplayers and coaches. The tunnel is so tiny, I expect to see prisoners escaping through it.
The stands are tiny, too. Even though the field is regulation size, I expect the players to run out and start playing catch with teensy gloves and baseballs.
I don’t stick around to find out. My legwork is done. The games are meaningless and I’ve got to get back to the hotel and set up to write before all the poolside tables are taken.
I have given up trying to convince friends and acquaintences that covering spring training is hard work, even though it is. Sometimes it takes a half-hour to get a pitcher of lemonade poolside, and choosing the proper sunscreen filter is a constant challenge.
I don’t even know where my next meal is coming from. Will it be the Pink Pony or the American Cafe?
Tomorrow: Another stop along the Cactus League trail, where, incidentally, you see real cactus, the kind that in the shadows of sunset look like a referee signaling a touchdown.