“It’s either left or right,” Jack McKeon said, “so I’ll go left. You can go right any time.”
Baseball, Cactus League style, is baseball of a different sort.
The first task, of course, is to find the ballparks, which is surprisingly difficult hereabouts.
McKeon’s task, at the moment, was to find Gene Autry Park in Mesa, where the Padres were to engage the Angels in a B game Tuesday morning. It was hard to argue with his convoluted sense of direction, because it seemed that we had been driving far enough to hit Albuquerque, and no park was in sight.
As it turned out, our destination was neither left or right . . . but even farther straight ahead.
Six Cactus League ballparks dot the landscape in the Phoenix area, each one an emerald pearl in the midst of otherwise gray desert.
McKeon’s day would start at the B game at 10 a.m. in Mesa, though I never saw anything that looked like a town in the neighborhood, and continued with the A game against Milwaukee at 1 p.m. in Chandler, though I never saw anything that looked like a town in that neighborhood, either.
However, these settings were perfectly suited to the type of spring training the Padres are enjoying.
Essentially, absolutely nothing is going on, except that a bunch of players with a grandfatherly benevolent manager are diligently pacing themselves toward the April 3 start of meaningful exercises.
Controversy? None of these players are being sued by disgruntled former lovers. None of these players have claimed his teammates partied the 1988 pennant away. None of these players have suggested a teammate needs a psychiatrist. The only hope, for controversy at least, is that two guys will get into a fight while posing for the team picture.
Fat chance. Not with these guys.
“The writers are going nuts,” said McKeon. “They’re trying to get me involved in controversy, but there’s nothing there. What am I supposed to do, come up with a camp controversy? I’m trying to get the players into shape, not the writers’ minds.”
Really, Jack, it would take more than a month to get the writers ' minds into shape.
Instead of contemplating such improbabilities, let us instead examine the peace and quiet of this much-anticipated spring.
Indeed, as McKeon was sitting in the dining room Tuesday morning, the hotel manager came by his table and wished him luck.
“Hopefully,” McKeon said, “you’ll be able to put up a sign that says, ‘Home of the World Champions.’ ”
The fellow wandered away, and McKeon winked.
“Just thought I’d give him the idea,” McKeon said, “just in case it happens.”
This is a year in which it could happen. The Padres are not without flaws, but they have as good a chance as anyone in their division and a better chance than some.
And it is McKeon’s job to get this team ready. His way is the slow way.
His approach to Tuesday’s games was typical of his approach to the spring.
You think won-lost records in the afternoon “varsity” games are crucial to this man?
“We’ll try to win every game,” he said, not sounding as if he meant it, “but we’re not talking about the seventh game of the World Series. I’m not going to take a guy out if he strikes out with the bases loaded or makes an error or gives up a couple of runs. I’m not going to take a youngster out and put a veteran in just because we have a chance to win a game.”
In Monday’s game, a 2-1 victory over San Francisco, he followed starter Walt Terrell with four pitchers who had a combined 14 games of big-league experience.
“If we lose it, we lose it,” McKeon said. “But we didn’t.”
And that, in fact, was the Padres’ fourth victory without a loss.
Tuesday’s lineups were further examples of the ambivalence of springtime in this regime. In the morning B game, the third, fourth and fifth hitters were Jack Clark, Carmelo Martinez and Benito Santiago. These morning games can be unmined gems for fans who can watch for nothing from behind the bench, just as they did in high school.
McKeon stopped at the B game for three innings, maybe just to prove to himself he could find the ballpark.
“What I really wanted,” he said, “was to see some ground balls hit to Carmelo.”
Yes, there is The Great Experiment, Martinez playing third base in the morning games. The Angels were uncooperative, however, and McKeon had to head for Chandler without having seen a single ground ball hit in Martinez’s direction.
The trip to Chandler and the afternoon game with Milwaukee seemed an interminable trek across the desert. McKeon had his bearings, though, and made it with plenty of time to spare.
The afternoon game was the main event, with paying fans and media hungry for controversy.
However, each plays a role in this slow-paced saunter through the sagebrush.
After Milwaukee’s 3-1 victory, McKeon veritably yawned.
“I knew the streak was going to have to come to an end,” he said. “It’s tough to win 190-something in a row.”
And darned if the media didn’t make a fishing trip for controversy. Carlos Baerga, a rookie infielder who will probably open at double-A, had hammered the ball all afternoon.
“What about Baerga at third base?” McKeon was asked.
Back in his car, with the morning cigar retrieved from the ashtray and restoked, he laughed.
“See what I mean?” he said. “Now which way do I turn to get out of here?”
After all, Jack McKeon was in a hurry because he had a date with the governor of Arizona for a hot dog dinner, of all things.
Only in the Cactus League.