The Good Yuma Fan : Come Spring, Faith Blooms at Padre Camp

Times Staff Writer

Miss Yuma County’s crown sparkled under the bright Arizona sun as she began to sing the national anthem before a recent exhibition game between the San Diego Padres and the Cleveland Indians.

The 19-year-old’s rendition began tentatively and then crumbled altogether after “the twilight’s last gleaming.” Struggling to remember the next line, she stopped and put a hand to her ear, trying hard to follow a recording of the song on a microcassette player in her hand.

As the 4,000 fans packed into Desert Sun Stadium shifted nervously, the young beauty queen suddenly broke the embarrassing silence with a sharp burst of “o’er the ramparts we watched . . . “


“I think she missed a line or two,” said an Indian fan through gritted teeth. “This could only happen at an Indian game.” In the Cleveland bullpen, the players tried mightily to keep a straight face.

Moments later, there was another awkward pause, followed by another hand to the ear. Then, as if on cue, the merciful fans picked up the lyrics, beginning with “and the rockets’ red glare,” politely bailing out Miss Yuma County.

So goes another day of spring training, that annual ritual where the uncommon is often the common, where entertainment is not limited to the antics of baseball players who are honing skills that have rusted over the winter and where pollen, fly balls, home runs and missing lyrics fill the dry air. It’s Yuma, and, as the song says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

For those not familiar with Yuma--population about 50,000--the town is not the Sonora Desert hellhole often depicted in stories about the Yuma Territorial Prison. About 67,000 fans descend on Yuma during spring training, according to Chamber of Commerce officials. Besides baseball, the town offers a ballet and theatrical company and a symphony.

However, it is the sprawling sports and park complex surrounding Desert Sun Stadium that sets Yuma apart from many towns its size. The well-kept complex, in the southwest part of town, features three baseball fields, lighted tennis courts, a golf course and acres of neatly manicured greenbelt.

“This is better than anything we have in El Cajon,” said fan Chris Cameron.

And what would spring training be without the fans? When major league teams head south and southwest for preseason workouts, spring brings out a loyal bevy of baseball fans. Spring training has a special appeal to real baseball fans. And why not?

Who wouldn’t choose the warm sun and daytime baseball played on real grass? In this environment, fans sit close enough to the field to smell the blades, if not touch them. Access to the players will never be the same during the regular season, and players who are guaranteed a roster spot are almost as laid-back as the fans.

Last week, after an exhibition victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, Padres right fielder John Kruk spent almost an hour signing autographs behind the center field fence. Kruk, who appeared to be fighting

a cold, patiently signed every trading card, ball and piece of paper shoved in front of him, politely answering “You’re welcome” to every “Thank you, John” from the fans.

Nancy Salisbury, a San Carlos resident, and her grandson, Lance Newmark, 13, from Houston, were among the dozens of fans surrounding Kruk. Salisbury and her husband, Bob, have been coming to spring training for seven years, and spent four days in Yuma this season.

“Only in spring training can you get this close to the players,” Nancy said. “The pressure to win and play well is not on them yet. . . . I’ve got my favorites, too. Mine are Tempy (shortstop Gary Templeton) and Tony (center fielder Tony Gwynn). Tempy is one of the nicest guys and a good fielder, but I wish he could hit a little better.”

Cracked a Smile

Templeton is clearly one of the fans’ favorites in Yuma. On Wednesday, as he was walking to to the clubhouse after the morning workout, a 7-year-old boy ran up to him, pleading, “Tempy, may I have one of your bats, please?” Templeton cracked a slight smile, pulled a bat out of his equipment bag and handed it to the boy.

Gwynn, however, is by far the favorite. After a morning workout last week, dozens of fans mobbed Gwynn, hoping to get his autograph. Even though he was going to be in the starting lineup in less than an hour, Gwynn calmly signed autographs and chatted.

About 45 minutes before game time, a fan asked, “Tony, are you gonna play today?” “Yes, if I can ever get back to the clubhouse,” Gwynn said, laughing. This caused a bit of panic in 7-year-old Anthony Morales of La Mesa, who yelled, “No, Tony, not until you sign my ball!”

Pat Carter and her friend Joan Denniston, both of Clairemont, have been coming to spring training for six years and have been season-ticket holders for just as long. The two women usually spend 10 days in Yuma. Carter idolizes Gwynn and wears a uniform shirt with his number on it, while Denniston is an Eric Show loyalist and wears his uniform shirt and number.

“I call Tony my son, and my 3-year-old grandson, Trevor, calls him ‘Uncle Tony,’ ” Carter said. “He’s really super. I always get a big hug from him every year. I’m saving money, so when I retire in six years I can follow him around the country to every game. How can you not love the man? There’s not a mean bone in his body.”

Age Before Beauty

Denniston, who has seven children and six grandkids, has equally strong feelings about Show. She corresponds with Show during the season and they exchange Christmas cards.

“When he has a bad game, I write to him and send him notes of encouragement. And I cheer him on when he’s going great. Somehow, Eric always has time for me,” she said.

Last week, Denniston was battling with a group of fans who were fighting to get Show’s autograph. She had just purchased a new uniform shirt and wanted Show to autograph it. As Show walked out of the clubhouse, Denniston forced her way through the mostly youthful crowd.

“Age before beauty, kids,” she snapped. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother, let me through.”

Carter and Denniston, who have been friends for 19 years, became celebrities in Yuma last week when the local paper featured their pictures on the front page, dressed in their uniform shirts and wearing hats laden with baseball pins and other memorabilia.

“You wouldn’t believe how famous we are,” Carter said. “We’ve had people coming up to us asking for our autographs.”

But, if fans get to see the best side of baseball players during spring training, they also get to see a side that a team’s public relations man would like to keep hidden.

During the game with the Indians, several young fans were hanging around the Padres clubhouse, hoping to get autographs of players who were not in the lineup and were going back to their hotel rooms after showering.

A tall, skinny kid with glasses spied new Padres first baseman Jack Clark, who was dressed in shorts and a sport shirt, walking toward his car. The youth shyly approached the slugger and asked him to sign a trading card.

“Well, I can’t walk out the door without someone sticking a card in front of my face. If I sign yours, I’ll have to sign everybody else’s,” complained Clark, startling the eager teen-ager.

In the end, Clark signed the card. But he also left a lasting impression on him. “He’s a jerk,” the boy said matter-of-factly. “Didn’t he like any ballplayers when he was a kid?”

Two hours after the Cleveland game, several fans were still hanging around the clubhouse and batting cages, hoping to get a glimpse of a player, or watching the Padres minor-leaguers taking a few swings.

A boy who looked to be about 10 years old was gripping the chain-link fence by the batting cage, pleading with his mother as if his world were about to end: “Please, just a few more minutes, Mom. We’re leaving in the morning.”

“We’ve got to get back to our room to wash up and go eat,” said the mother. “We’ve already been here three days.”

“Oh, Mom. I don’t have to go back to school until Monday. Why can’t we stay longer?”

No matter how much they want to stay, the fans realize quickly that spring training is baseball’s fleeting moment.

And how can you stay too long when the sky is blue, the grass is green, and there are innings left to play and players yet to meet?