Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Spring Training, Day 1: March Madness of Our Own

I awoke eager and ready to go at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, March 16th, Shawn and I picked Rick up at 4 a.m. at his home in Fremont, and sped off to Oakland Airport, where Shawn dropped us off at the deserted curb, a full two hours before the flight.

Standing in the Southwest “A” line, we met a very tall, portly gentleman who, due to the green outfits we were wearing, immediately spotted us as Oakland Athletics baseball fans. He said that he was going to Phoenix on business, but that he was also meeting some of his family. “We’ll go to some spring training games, but the part I’m excited about it seeing my granddaughters, who are 8, 10 and 14.” He said that the eldest was a fast speed softball pitcher currently being recruited by Cal.

When we got on the Southwest flight, we thought we had a half-empty flight. However, right before they were about to close the doors, 20 very tall men in uniform walked onboard: the St. Mary’s basketball team. The team was ranked 20th, and was headed for the national championships in “March Madness,” the great basketball tournament in Oklahoma. They looked too tall for the plane, and kind of confused at 6 a.m., but they finally found seats and we took off.

The guy sitting next to me was from St. Mary’s, obviously thrilled to be going to the tourney, but a bit older and seemingly wiser than his mates. I figured he was an assistant coach, not a player. He mentioned that the reason they were delayed in boarding was because all 20 had had their airline tickets purchased for them at the last minute, meaning yesterday, which is a security alert for TSA officials. Also, he said, “We have a guy from Morocco. They stop him every time.”

I handed him the Sports section from USA Today, as I never read it. (Not enough local sports, mostly Yankees and Red Sox.) As we were being served our drinks on the flight, he said, “Cool! There’s something about one of our players on Page 1.”

When Rick mentioned Moneyball in our conversation, my seatmate said quietly that “we do a lot of the same things when we recruit.” I countered, “Okay, Billy Beane and the A’s look for players who score a lot of walks. How does that equate in basketball?” He answered that walks equals stats in basketball that aren’t tallied, like passing. A player who passes well, moves the ball down the court, would be prized by a team like St. Mary’s. I don’t know much about college basketball, but I assume that St. Mary’s, then, is like the Oakland A’s in that they don’t have the money or reputation to get the hotshots when they recruit, so, as my new friend told me, “We look for players no one else wants, maybe they’re 5 foot 2 or something but they play really well.”

We wished the St. Mary players well, and went on to our own sports adventure. When we got off the plane at 9 am, we talked about whether we should go and check in at the hotel or go straight to the stadium. We decided quickly, hell, let’s go straight to the ballgame even though they don’t open until 11 a.m.

We followed mapquest for the 5 miles in search of the stadium. “It’s gotta be here somewhere,” I said, looking rather worried, as all we could see were one-story industrial buildings. “Where are the signs? Where is the place?” Finally we found the parking sign. The stadium was right next to the parking, but it wasn’t very large. Rick told me, “Linda, this isn’t Candlestick or the Coliseum. It’s small.” And so I’m learning to think “small” for all things related to spring training. The park itself is wonderful, an amalgam of steel and concrete. It only seats 9,000. We arrived two hours early, and watched the place fill in.

We immediately got a hot dog, because, when you wake up at 2 a.m., you get hungry by 11. We were climbing the two steps to our level when Rick slipped and his hot dog wienie flew out to the left, above his head, into an arc, and landed on his back. The bun, filled with mostly mustard flew out to his right and landed on my shoe. I quickly cleaned the mustard off my shoe, while Rick, muttering to himself, went off to find a new hot dog. When he returned, we settled in and watched batting practice. There were still only about 3 people in our section at that point. But one of them crept quietly up to us, handing Rick his napkin. He said, in a hushed tone, “You have a lot of mustard in your hair…”

Rick started yelling at the players right away, as he often does during the regular season. “C’mon, Ruby!” “Blue, punch a hole in that mask!” But I noticed people in our section were staring at him. Apparently games in spring training are a bit laid back, and the players as well as the fans are mellower. There’s not much intensity, no tension, if your team is behind by a run. The games don’t mean anything. The game is a mosaic of the veterans getting ready and the rookies struggling to make the team.

This particular game was a demonstration of the A’s superior pitching and hitting, at least against the hapless San Diego Padres in this instance. Kirk Saarloos, who was the starting pitcher, was hit hard a few times, but only gave up one run, the only run of the game. We then saw a slow parade of pitchers from both sides, including a few I’ve never heard of. Eric Byrnes, playing stellar left field, put on a hitting display. Jason Kendall, our new catcher, seems unstoppable, getting at least two hits before he came out. All of the boosters in our section were interested to see who would end up at 2nd base, as Mark Ellis was back, and apparently so is his bat. However, we are also Marco Scutaro fans. And there’s a third in contention, but he’s not a fan favorite. The A’s, in toto, looked ready to start the season today. But this was just one game.
Spring Training, Day 2: The Wearin’ of the Green

We immediately agreed upon seeing each other the next morning that we were both having fun and just as eager for this second day of spring training to begin.

At the Embassy Suites breakfast that morning, a buffet affair that is really pretty marvelous, we saw Candi. Candi arranged this whole outing for the Oakland A’s boosters, something that arose several years ago simply because her husband refused to do spring training unless it was cheaper. I was amazed to hear that 142 boosters had come to Arizona under her plan! Candi is a high-energy woman of 60, large in life in personality and body, with glorious white hair in a pixie cut. “The hair is just beginning to come in. It used to be blonde,” she said, almost wistfully. “I just ended my year of chemo. My next operation is the day after we get home from Phoenix.” When we said how sorry we were to hear that, she added quickly, “Oh, well, putting this trip together was wonderful therapy. I’d sit at my computer in my underwear at night when I couldn’t sleep or eat, and pound out the details of the trip. It kept my mind off my body.”

The boosters were quite upset when the Oakland A’s decided to abandon the Embassy Suites for the Marriott. The Embassy Suites gives a free breakfast, a suite containing two rooms and two T.V. sets, and free happy hour (for 2 hours) plus snacks. It was hard to beat. So, the boosters just let Candi do her thing in putting the package together and went with her rather than the official Oakland A’s program.

We weren’t exactly celebrity hunting at spring training, but one fan in our section pointed out Peter Gammons, the sportswriter and columnist, sitting in the press box just above our section. He was obviously by himself, working hard on his laptop. I was wondering what he was doing at a spring training A’s game. Which player caught his interest? I looked up at the press box in the 7th inning, and he was gone.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and apparently it’s a celebrated day in baseball. There are actually St. Patrick’s Day hats issued by the teams. I had a fun time trying to spot the different ones, all green with the team moniker on the front and maybe a shamrock on the back. But the surprise for me was that the Cubs had green hats on when they played! The A’s, of course, already wear green hats, so no change for them. When I mentioned to Rick that I had never seen this nod to the Irish before, he said, laughing, “Well, you’ve never been to spring training before.” That’s right – St. Patrick’s Day would only occur during spring training.

Everyone at Phoenix Municipal Stadium today seemed to be in a festive mood. It was a little warm at game time, but the sun disappeared behind the clouds in a couple of innings, and the game went on during coolish weather, still in the high 60’s. The stadium seemed bursting, and they were mostly Cubbie fans.

We actually witnessed a real game this time. We were impressed that the A’s were able to get 2 runs off Greg Maddux in the 3rd, but disheartened that the Cubbies scored 5 runs against Rich Harden, one of the stalwart starters for the A’s. The Cubs won the game, 6-4. I was thrilled to see that we would watch Keiichi Yabu, a Japanese player that the A’s picked up during the break. The reliever told us at Fanfest that “I am not afraid to pitch inside.” However, he was hit a bit during the two innings we watched him today. Closer Dotel came into the game in 9th, and shut them down, but the A’s players, who were mostly invitees at this point, could not make up the two-run deficit. Still, seeing new guys Bobby Smith and Jermaine Clark, two minor leaguers who have been running around in the league for a good nine years apiece, was worth the price of admission. And rookie Bocachica made a spectacular catch in the outfield.

There were frequent conversations in the section today about the A’s players, which ones should stay, who should be sent down to AAA. The woman in front of us, Norma, was probably in her 70’s with a hairdo that reached for the sky and never moved. I figured she would never place a cap on that hair. Her opinion was that Byrnes should stay, because she liked him, and that we should definitely keep Marco Scutaro, one of the three vying for the 2nd base position, because he was the best looking guy on the team. Rick really stirred things up, though, when he mentioned that Eric Byrnes was on the chopping block, that he’s being shown in spring training as trade bait. The fans in Section K were really angry about this, and fought to keep him. However, Rick’s argument was that we have three established players in the outfield; in fact, the A’s brought up right fielder Nick Swisher from Triple A at the end of the season in 2004, and transferred in outfielder Charles Thomas from the Braves. Norma thought that Nick was lame and should be sent down….maybe even to Double A. She would be a cruel but swift manager, and didn’t see the need to wait and see what each player could do.

But in fact, we’re all managers. The average age of the Boosters is probably 65+, and they’re all opinionated about each player’s abilities and place in the A’s organization. We’re all experts, and we take these things personally. We get personally involved in these players’ careers. We may not know all the information revealed in Billy Beane’s office, but we act as if we have all the facts when we have an opinion about his moves. Hey, we can read stat sheets, too.

We attended the buffet dinner in the Embassy Suites Courtyard, put on by Candi and her committee, after the game. We found the table with our names, and helped ourselves to the free drinks which are served in the Embassy Suites bar every night between 5:30 and 7 pm.

During dinner we all talked about the players we had seen. Ken, the A’s Booster Club President, sat at our table and had tons of opinions about the players. Ken, in his longish graying hair and prominent mustache, used to be in law enforcement, a cop in Washington State, for over a decade when, as he put it, “I just burned out.” He is now a biker, and proudly showed us his business card which featured a picture of him on his Harley.

After dinner, they had a raffle of at least 30 items, and Rick won an A’s watch while I won a Mark Ellis-signed baseball cap. By the time we got back to the room at 9 pm, I was exhausted.
Spring Training, Day 3: Maryvale Tries Harder

Everyone in the breakfast line this morning had an opinion about the Congressional hearings on steroids. That is, the men seemed to have opinions about it, while the women were talking about comfort issues (the hotel, the food, complaining about the line, etc.). The man behind us felt strongly that all sports should adopt measures similar to the Olympics, because “everyone can make a mistake” once, but after that, they should be banned from the sport. Actually, most people we talked to about the steroid scandal leaned this way. The younger male fans were definitely interested in the testimony of the players, while the older male and most of the female fans thought the whole thing was an irritant, a plague on the sport, and wished it would just go away.

Today’s game was against the Milwaukee Brewers at their own stadium. So today Rick and I would venture out with mapquest directions in hand, looking for Maryvale Stadium. It’s thrilling to me that we’ll be able to visit four ballparks while we’re here: Phoenix, Maryvale, Scottsdale (where the Giants call home), and Surprise (Texas Rangers). It’s good to have a rental car, although most of the senior citizens on this trip do not. Candi is taking care of them: she has arranged for vans to take them to the game for a small fee. “I’m going to be switching to motorhomes next year,” she said, proudly. She wanted to make sure the boosters would make it to the stadiums in comfort.

We found Maryvale pretty easily, driving along 3 freeways past downtown Phoenix to a flat neighborhood along 51st Street. The stadium is recessed into the ground, and doesn’t rise above the walk-in level, except for the press box. We waited a good 45 minutes, however, to get in and have our bags searched, as security didn’t open the gate until 11:45 am. We had been told at the dinner last night that Maryvale security members really search the bags, and don’t allow food or water in. “You might be able to get a small water in,” said one booster who had been to spring training many times before. But that’s it. Security members looked into the bag, but didn’t disturb the two small waters we had. We were among the first ones in.

Maryvale Stadium is only used six weeks a year, just for spring training. It’s a wonderfully small, compact park, but the playing field and players seem much more accessible than Phoenix Municipal. Foul territory is skinnier, and those fans who pay $6 a pop can sit on the grass, a hill right beyond the outfield wall which goes around the entire stadium. We were able to walk completely around the stadium. While Maryvale seats 7,000, it seemed much smaller. About 7300 showed up for this game, but it didn’t seem completely full. This is so far my favorite baseball park. Warm, friendly, small like a minor league park.

They try harder, too. During every inning break, they threw t-shirts or bobbleheads or batting helmets into the audience. They passed out trading cards and certificates for a free ice cream sundaes to many fans as well. And the piece de resistance was a race between sausages. Women in huge sausage outfits ran by the fans (Polish won), and then signed autographs for the little kids on the concourse. Welcome to Milwaukee West.

The game itself was a pretty good one, especially if you’re an A’s fan. As before, we got to see several starters in the beginning, and they were gradually replaced by the 2nd string and then the Invitees. The starting pitcher today was Dan Haren, and he gave up only 3 hits in five innings, no runs, an outstanding performance. Another error was made by 2nd baseman Keith Ginter, who must be feeling the pressure. Eric Byrnes had a couple of hits. Huston Street did very well, pitching two innings of relief.

Every time number 22, Eric Byrnes, came up to bat, or even to the batting circle, the little old lady next to me, who was probably 75 years old or more with a Lucy Ricardo red-frizzy hairdo, would yell, “Yeah! You go, Byrnes!” Then she said to her friend sitting next to her, “Doesn’t he have the cutest tushie?”

I told Rick as we were watching that I was pulling for Jermaine Clark to make the club. He, like Bobby Smith, has been batting around the minor leagues for about 9 years. Time is running out. At that moment, a younger A’s fan sitting behind us said that he saw Jermaine at the bar at the Embassy Suites last night. “The Embassy Suites?” I said in disbelief. “Yep,” he said, “he even bought me a beer. He seemed like a nice guy,” went on the young fan, who seemed to be in his early 30’s and used to be a ballplayer himself. “He’s been around awhile. He seems to be treating this like a job. Which is too bad.” Jermaine was put in as a pinch runner, scored a run, and then had a hit two innings later.

The announcer told us that Prince Fielder was coming to bat in the 8th inning. “Prince Fielder,” said Rick, “had better be a good player with that name.” The young man in back of us told us that he was Cecil Fielder’s son, trying to make it to the big leagues. Cecil, of course, was the spectacular first baseman for the Detroit Tigers.

Rick was kidding with several members of the section about Prince Fielder. Rick told the group, “There’s no way he’s going to steal. He’s built like his father.” The fan in front of us turned to us and pointedly told us, “He’s going to steal second.” The A’s fan in back of us retorted, “Yeah, he’s going to steal….his lunch.” However, at that moment, Fielder took off from first and stole second, easily. The Mariners fans in front of us started howling and pointing at Rick, and Rick was a good sport about it. They loved it! It was a great moment in fan bonding.

After the game ended, we found Candi, who told us that she was going to run by Tony Roma’s for ribs tonight. If we wanted to join in for $8 apiece, she would purchase the ribs and bring them to the hotel pool tonight. “After all,” she said with a wink, “we wouldn’t want to take the boosters away from their happy hour.”
Spring Training, Day 4: Giants Vs. A’s

This morning after breakfast, we’re going to look for an internet connection. Although the Embassy Suites advertises wireless in every room, their server has been down the entire time we’ve been here. Rick also wants to look for a neutral or Giants sweatshirt; we’re going to a Giants vs. Padres game today, and he thinks wearing an A’s pullover would be a mistake. It’s rather chilly today and threatening rain.

It took us awhile this morning to find the Kinko’s I thought I saw on Thomas Road yesterday. But the Walgreen people helped us out. We both logged onto the internet in Kinko’s – what a neat deal. And they’re open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 20 cents a minute. I’ll have to remember Kinko’s when I’m traveling.

The mapquest directions for Scottsdale Stadium, home of the San Francisco Giants during Spring Training, took us east on McDowell Road, and then north on Scottsdale Road. It was only a few blocks from Scottsdale Rd, and we parked in a makeshift parking lot and walked across the small street to the stadium. In fact, we walked all around the stadium, as it wasn’t quite 11 a.m., too early to go in. Once we were behind the stadium, we climbed the “grassy knoll” and were treated with a view of the entire diamond. That grassy area was completely filled with squatters by game time.

We were seated in Section 121 lower box, which put us just off 3rd base, but only two rows from the smallish fence separating us from the field and the players. The Padres were warming up next to us, and a couple of them came over to the fence, right in front of us, to sign autographs for the small crowd: Klesko and Nady. One pitcher, Otsuka, was very friendly, and stayed until every last person at the fence had his or her autograph. We didn’t get any autographs, but if it had been Giants players, I know I would have stepped up with the unsigned baseball I kept in my bag.

As soon as we sat down in our seats, we recognized a couple of A’s boosters in the row. One gentleman, who was still decked out in his A’s bright green colors, was probably in his 80’s. He took one look at Rick when he said hi to him, and instead of returning the greeting he said, “Are you going to be quiet today?” Rick, somewhat taken aback, answered honestly: “No.”

The weather seemed iffy. In fact, it did drizzle a bit, and we felt a few drops all through the game. It was overcast all day and a bit windy, with the temperature in the low 60’s. But still good baseball weather.

The game itself was entertaining, but we both felt we were too far away from home plate, and the ability to accurately call balls and strikes, to really stay in the game. It was a hitfest. There were over 30 hits in the game, with the Padres winning, 6-4. Starting Giants pitcher Jerome Williams struggled, and was taken out during the 3rd inning after giving up three runs. Almost all of the Giants pitchers met the same fate, with several hits being charged against each of them. David Franklin pitched one-and-a-third inning and gave up 1 hit, the new closer Benitez gave up 1 hit and 2 runs in 1 inning, and Christiansen really got shelled, like Williams, with 4 hits and 2 runs given up in 1 inning. Eyre looked a bit better, but Brower gave up 1 run in 1 inning.

On the offensive side, however, things looked promising. J.T. Snow looked ready for the season with two hits out of three tries, including a double which ricocheted against the center field wall. Moises Alou looked good defensively but whiffed during his two opportunities. Infielders Edgardo Alfonso (1 hit) and Ray Durham (2 hits) looked effective defensively and with a bat. However, the absence of Bonds, who is out for several weeks due to more surgery on his knee, really showed in that there was no one with the big bat to knock runners in and protect Alou.

We kept getting line drives coming to our section from mostly left-handed hitters. In fact, I can easily say that most of the foul balls today landed squarely in our section, on someone or next to someone. The kids, so noisy at the start of the game, scrambled madly for the errant balls, but for the most part could not beat the 40-year-olds trying to recapture their childhood with a dive to the concrete. However, there was one touching moment when a 12-year-old boy, one of the rowdiest of the kids, caught the foul ball right in front of a little old lady. He stood up, turned, and handed it to her, and she hugged him to much applause from onlookers. There was one scary moment, however, when one man three rows above us took a line drive in the chest. The paramedics responded quickly to help him recover his breath, and gave him a cold compress for the bruise that was about to pop up on his chest.

Scottsdale Stadium was built in 1955 for about $72,000. The Giants announced at today’s game that they signed an agreement to spend spring training at Scottsdale Stadium over the next 20 years, through 2025. When I looked out at the field, I could imagine Ted Williams playing there so many years ago. But the stadium holds 10,000 people, 3,000 more than Maryvale, and with its old fixtures it reminds you more of Candlestick than a smallish modern spring training facility. It is definitely not my favorite of the parks we’ve visited.

After the game, we stayed in old Scottsdale and went hunting for a restaurant. We parked and walked over to the Pink Pony – a restaurant where legends Barry Bonds and Ted Williams had both eaten -- but they were booked until 9 pm. So we took a chance and walked across the street to the Italian restaurant called Buca di Beppo. We waited in Buca’s lobby for an hour while they waited for one of the limited numbers of tables that seated two, but finally we got in. The restaurant was quite a sight, with Italian memorabilia and photos pasted all over the walls. You walked through the kitchen to get to the restaurant rooms so that they could show you the specials. The rooms in the back were crammed with family parties, including little kids screaming for attention. The menu was filled with old-fashioned Italian favorites which felt like you needed an Italian interpreter to order. We took the advice of our waiter and split the chicken cacciatore along with the garlic bread. It was the best I’ve ever tasted
Spring Training, Day 5: Zito Dominates

There are probably a dozen small stadiums within minutes of our hotel, a fact I find amazing. The farthest we’ve had to trek so far is about 15 miles, to Maryvale, but you could take surface streets to get there if you wanted to. It helps that Phoenix/Scottsdale seems to be plotted in a grid. But every time we’ve driven to the next stadium, we might see two more on the way. However, as the parking lot attendant told us at Scottsdale, there’s a rule about minor league teams competing with another team within 30 miles. But this rule doesn’t apply to spring training facilities.

We passed Papago Park on our way to Scottsdale Stadium yesterday, and figured out that the Oakland Athletics pitchers who aren’t scheduled to pitch that day probably stay at Papago to do their workouts. That’s why we haven’t seen Barry Zito at any of the games so far. Hopefully he’ll be scheduled to pitch today.

Rick has a new belief, that Barry Bonds will use this “excuse” of having surgery on his knees to bow out of baseball and thus avoid the further controversy of the steroid scandal. However, my argument is that he’ll stay because of the home run record; his deepest desire, besides the World Series ring, is to eclipse Babe Ruth in home runs. Rick and I bet a carvery sandwich at the Club level at SBC Park. If Barry returns by the end of the season, I win.

Our early estimation of our two teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants, is that the A’s have the pitching, defense and hitting to compete well in their division, whereas the Giants look weak in pitching and in depth. We’ll know more today when the A’s take on the Giants. We thought it might rain, but it’s beginning to look like a beautiful day.

Rick spotted Mike Krukow, the former Giants player and current announcer, as he was parking in the same parking lot. Alongside him walked Duane Kuiper, another former player and current Giants announcer. Both of them are considered excellent announcers alongside Jon Miller, one of the best in the business. I grabbed Mike when he got closer to us, blurting, “Mike, could we get a picture of you and Rick together, with Duane?” Rick took the time to schmooze with his favorite announcers, quickly slipping off the A’s visor before they got to us. As they left, Rick blurted, “I’d listen to you on the radio today, but I forgot my radio this trip.” Kruk said as he walked off, “That’s okay – we’ll talk loud.”

While we waited for the game to begin, we saw Kruk and Kuip in the booth, and Jon Miller as well. In the A’s booth we spotted Ray Fosse and oldtimer Bill King, getting ready for the broadcast. One booster sitting next to us rushed over to see if he could get autographs. Unfortunately he was too late for Foss.

Rick saw that Norma and her husband were sitting in the sun five rows below us, and they weren’t happy. With my agreement, he went down and offered our seats to them in trade, which were in the shade. They happily accepted. As it turned out, we were in the shade by game time.

There was a row of about five women in their 40’s and 50’s right behind us. A couple of them were keeping score, and seemed to really know who the players were and what the plays were. What irked Rick, however, was when they were constantly yelling, “Down in front!” to the people walking in front of us. Since these people were just following the natural aisle, it was silly to assume they could move any faster, or stop walking in front of us. Still, they persisted, as these passers-by were distracting them from the game.

Zito was the crowd favorite today, probably because Byrnes wasn’t playing. He wasn’t even in the dugout, and the rumor is that Eric wasn’t feeling well today.

Zito vs. Schmidt. The actual game wasn’t that close. The A’s scored 17 runs on 17 hits, while the Giants floundered with 3 runs, most scored in the latter innings. Jason Schmidt was removed in the 5th; we feel he’ll recover from this devastating spring outing. Zito, however, used all his pitches and did very well, giving up only 3 hits (including a homerun) in 6 innings.

As you can imagine with 17 runs, the A’s enjoyed their day at Phoenix. Here’s a synopsis of hit totals:
Kotsay – 1 for 3
Kendall – 3 for 3
Suzuki (rookie catcher from Stanford) – 1 for 2
Durazo – 2 for 3
Daric Barton (rookie at 1st base) – 1 for 2
Chavez – 1 for 3 (and made a spectacular stop at 3rd base, throwing the runner out at 1st)
Rouse (rookie at 3rd base) – 1 for 2 with 2 runs
Dan Johnson (rookie at 1st base) – 2 for 5
Quintanilla (RF rookie) – 2 for 2
Swisher – 2 for 3
Bocachica – 1 for 2

The A’s seem solid in all aspects of their game. Swisher seems to be getting his swing, and even the rookies and invitees are showing their stuff. The Giants, however, are another question. There’s a lot of concern with Bonds missing, and the pitching seems suspect. We feel that Schmidt will get his tools working by opening day, but we wonder about the rest of the pitching staff.

A bright spot for the Giants was their new closer, Armando Benitez, who hasn’t given up a run in the last 2 games/5 innings. Another one is Jason Ellison, who appears to have won the backup right field position.

We heard that Ken Macha made the team bus stop at the Dairy Queen Saturday on the way back from the Tucson game. He let the players order anything they wanted, it was on him. The DQ workers weren’t sure if a softball team had wandered into their store, or if this was just a joke.
Spring Training, Day 6: Beer Guys and the Autograph Hunt

Rick told me he got his love of baseball not from his parents but from his grandmother, Marion Cornelius Brunson. She used to keep score for the local semi-pro team in Pooler, Georgia, when she was growing up, and loved going to the minor league games. In later years, she listened to the radio during every Atlanta Braves game, waving her homemade Braves “damn it” doll during an important play. Rick and his siblings treated her on her 89th birthday to her first major league baseball game, a trip to see the Braves in Fulton County Stadium. She was in heaven. She died four short years after that, a Braves fan ‘til the end.

Today the Giants and A’s meet at Scottsdale Stadium. We’re hoping the Giants make a better showing on their own turf.

The vendors are something to watch. Actually, there are very few wandering vendors, unlike at a regular season ballpark, and they only sell beer. At Scottsdale, they stand put, usually in the middle of the aisle as you’re about to walk into the seating area, and yell out the choices – “BudBudLiteCoorsLiteMillerMillerLite – it’s the same terrific beer you drank in high school!” They’re in competition with each other, so whoever yells the loudest or can attract the most attention will sell the most beer, or at least that’s the working theory.

At Phoenix Municipal, the only vendors you see are bucket-toting beer men. Each bucket is filled with ice and bottles of beer. As you can imagine, these guys are heavily muscled. “Mark the Beer Guy” has empty bottles of beer on cords around his neck to display his wares, and he gives out signed baseball cards with an image of himself on it to everyone who buys his beer.

Beer isn’t cheap. A Fat Tire (a dark ale) goes for $6 or $6.50. Beer sold in the stands at Phoenix is $6, while it’s $5.50 at Scottsdale. Some go as high as $7. If anyone came to spring training expecting cheap beer, go elsewhere. And if you try to smuggle in your own, it’ll be confiscated by stadium security (along with the peanut butter sandwich one of our boosters lost at Maryvale the other day).

Spring training is the ultimate immersion in baseball. When you go to breakfast in the morning or happy hour at night, you talk baseball with the people in line, even the service people. All the fans are wearing their “colors,” and, like peacocks, the men have the best outfits. Some even change for each event – breakfast, the game, happy hour, dinner. You go to the game hours before it starts, just to soak up all the baseball culture and to share with complete strangers your feelings on your teams and how they’ll do in another week when the regular season begins. Fans even select their choices for dinner based upon the restaurant’s baseball history. For instance, tonight we’ll be going to Don and Charlie’s on the recommendation from other boosters who say it’s a baseball fan’s dream – players and coaches in attendance, and memorabilia on the walls. It’s a place to see and be seen, all in the spirit of this wonderful cultural event called baseball.

Rick bought green Giants visors with an orange shamrock on the side for each of us when we were last at Scottsdale, a St. Patrick’s Day hat, so I wore that one this morning.

We got to the game two hours early, and stood in line for the security check. The security people at our gate decided to do the check of the bags while we were waiting, and went down the line, looking quickly into each bag. While we were doing that, we talked with the couple behind us. They were Fresno Grizzlies fans who live in central California. They were teachers on spring break, and just decided to get in their car, drive 8 hours, and buy whatever tickets they could for Giants games.

Rick and I found our seats, which were in the grandstand above where we were sitting Saturday. The seats weren’t as close to the field, but they afforded a much better view of home plate and the whole field, and we knew we’d enjoy the game more than our last visit. I went through Rick’s assortment of pens and picked one out that would look good as an autograph on a baseball, a fine-point blue sharpie. I ran down to the fence with my baseball and pen, and waited for the Giants players to finish their workout and come on over. Unfortunately, when they finished, they rushed to the dugout. I came back up to the seats.

But about half an hour later, the A’s began working out. Rick noticed that one of them, Eric Byrnes, had come over to sign autographs. He was the only one, and there were about 10 or so fans huddled around that point of the low fence. I ran down again with my ball and pen in hand, and waited, hoping he would make his way down the line towards home plate. He did exactly that, and, among the now 30 or so fans scrambling for an autograph, he reached for my pen and ball, and signed very neatly in the sweet spot. The woman behind me asked to borrow my pen, and I had to wait another five or so autographs before she got hers so that I could get Rick’s pen back. I ran back up the stairs to show everybody in my row the signed baseball.

Even though I like to collect autographs, I didn’t spend a lot of energy pursuing this hobby during the trip. You have to know the stadium well, I think, and the players’ habits to know where to stand, and you can waste an hour or two if you’re wrong. I found that some of the parks – Maryvale and Scottsdale especially – lent themselves to obtaining autographs during that point in the players’ workouts where they finished stretching and were about to start the game. However, Phoenix Municipal in particular was not autograph-friendly – there was too much foul territory and not enough gaps between the fences and the field that would allow a fan to stand with ball and pen in hand.

I went to look for food at that point, but when I returned, Eric was still signing. He was joined by two other players, but I couldn’t see who they were. I noticed that the three women in the seats next to me had had Eric sign the bills on their caps. Ethel, a Japanese-American woman in her 60’s who was sitting next to me, is a concessions worker at the Coliseum. She told me she’s been following the Oakland team since they were the Oakland Oaks, “a long time ago.”

The game was the exact opposite of the one yesterday. The Giants pitchers performed very well, as did their hitters, while the A’s pitchers and hitters couldn’t find their mark. Kirk Rueter, the number 2 starter for the Giants, pitched a perfect game through four-and-a-half innings, retiring the first 14 hitters, and left after one walk in the 5th. The Giants’ bats were uncontainable today. A’s starter Keiichi Yabu, a new Japanese acquisition, couldn’t find the plate. When the umpire gave him a balk, he seemed to lose his concentration. Righthander Seth Etherton, who appeared to be on track as the 5th A’s starter, allowed 4 runs in 4 innings.

Rick has been rooting for Lance Niekro to make the team. Lance is, we’re guessing, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro’s son.

Here’s a recap of Giants’ hitting:
Vizquel - 3 for 3
Niekro – 1 for 2
Alou – 1 for 4
Michael Tucker – 2 for 3
Feliz – 1 for 2 (with a homerun)
Grissom – 1 for 2
Alfonzo – 1 for 1

The A’s managed to score 4 runs at the end of the game, well after the regulars had departed. Giants won, 9-4.

We ended the day at Don and Charlie’s, a restaurant/bar in Scottsdale recommended to me by several boosters. “It’s where you meet the players,” they said, although I didn’t have a hope that we would, especially since our reservation was on Monday night and very early, 5:45 pm. We got there right after the game, and settled in the bar. But we couldn’t resist walking among the several rooms filled with baseball memorabilia. It was awesome. And everything was signed. The bartender told us that patrons would be about “9 deep” in about an hour, and she was rushing to get ready.

After a couple of drinks our table was ready, so we were shown to a corner table in the large, noisy room. The chatty guy next to us told us, “You’re in the best seat in the house! You can see everyone who walks in.” He was a local from Scottsdale, and normally just walks up for dinner. He explained that Don and Charlie’s is very busy during spring training, but a table can be obtained very easily during the summer. These 6 weeks bring in over $200 million to the Phoenix/Scottsdale communities, which means that his usual restaurants are abnormally busy.

We were eating our dinner when we figured out that someone at the table next to us was a Giants player. The first clue was when one of the owners (Don, I think), whose picture matched many we had seen in the bar, came over to meet him, shake his hand, and wish him and the Giants well for the season. But we didn’t know the player’s face. I heard him talk with his mother on his cell phone: “Mom, don’t you recognize your other son’s voice?” I also heard him tell her that he pitched well that day. (I didn’t mean to listen in, but, hey, when you talk on a cell, your voice gets louder.) WOW! He pitched today! We saw him play! I whispered to Rick, “He’s a pitcher.” “But who is he?” We started playing a guessing game, trying to figure out who this player was with the meager clues presented. Rick asked me, pointedly, “Linda, who is he?” I had no idea, but I had a couple of clues now: he’s a Giant, he pitched today, he’s in his early 30’s. Finally Rick said hi to him from across our small table, and asked him who he played for. “Giants.” What’s your number? “49, but I used to be 47.” Finally he asked him, “Well, what’s your name?” “Scott Eyre,” he said, and I kind of exploded. “Scott Eyre! We’ve seen you pitch for the last couple of seasons! You’re great!”

Scott introduced his brother and his brother’s friends to us, and added he was happy to have a home at this point, and really likes the Giants. In answer to Rick’s question about how the team might do this year, he said – after giving Rick a hard time about his A’s shirt – even without Bonds, they have a great group. “These are great guys. They went out and got guys who are great in the clubhouse, really fun guys who know how to have a good time.” While I had no idea how fun in the clubhouse equates to a good team, I nodded appreciatively.

At that point the waitress brought him a big ‘ol hot fudge sundae, and another for his brother’s friend. Both ate the ice cream like they would never see another. “Hey, I’ll just do another couple of laps tomorrow,” he said, laughing, as we teased him about it.

Rick asked the final question: How do you feel about the Dodgers, which turns out to be his brother’s favorite team. “I hate the Dodgers,” answered Scott. He turned to us and told us that when the Giants were playing the Dodgers in that last series last year, winner take all including the division title, “Some guy threw his inhaler at me. Hit me right in the head.” I explained to Rick that the bullpen at Dodger Stadium is right below several reserve rows. “And then somebody threw a quarter at me the next day. And at the end, when we lost, somebody dumped a cold beer on my head.” He looked disgusted.

He and his family left after Scott put the bill on his credit card, but not before saying hello to an arriving family: “Hey, Coach, looks like you’re following me!” It was Mark Gardner with his wife and two kids, seated a couple of tables down from us.

We wished Scott Eyre well, and I thanked him for allowing fans to talk to him during dinner. He was very gracious about it. And then we wished Mark well in passing. Mark Gardner was a premiere pitcher for the Giants in the ‘90’s, one of my favorites, and is now a coach for the Giants.

We felt like the week had been capped with this meeting of two Giants players. What a terrific end to the spring training experience for us!
Spring Training, Day 7: Surprise

Today is the last day of spring training. It’s hard to believe that the week is over, as the experience has gone by so quickly.

The plan this morning was to join Candi’s group on the bus, and let the driver take us to Surprise, Arizona, for our final game, A’s vs. the Texas Rangers at the Ranger’s spring training home.

We had breakfast with boosters Marge and Arlene this morning as they asked to share our table in the hotel's small patio. They were about to catch a shuttle to the airport. They were two of the women behind us the other day yelling “Down in front!” at Phoenix Municipal, probably in their late 60’s. They told us that they took a shuttle to the Fashion Mall yesterday. The driver of the shuttle they took told them that he picked up Barry Zito the other day. Zito was just sitting on the curb, strumming his guitar and waiting for a ride when the van driver pulled up. They also heard from the driver that Zito had rented a condo in Phoenix with his girlfriend.

Arlene told me that she had a private conversation with A’s manager Ken Macha the other day at a game in Phoenix. She told him that he needs to keep Eric Byrnes as a player because “he’s just so cute out there,” and “he knows how to run, on his tiptoes – Kotsay could learn a thing or two by watching Byrnes run.” Macha looked disgusted and replied, “You think Byrnes is cute?” Apparently he disagreed.

At that point, Marge left hurriedly so that she could get her luggage ready for the shuttle, due in 15 minutes. “She’s a Type A,” said Arlene, as she rolled her eyes and slowly continued to sip her coffee.

It was nice not having to struggle with mapquest directions to find the little town of Surprise since we rode on the fan bus. However, there was a lot of traffic on the little feeder streets to the stadium once we got off the freeway, and the bus sat in traffic at least half an hour before we pulled in.

I’m glad we took this 7th day, an extra one, because Surprise Stadium was the best one yet. It’s home to both the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. The office of the Rangers is off the 1st base line, while the offices of the KC Royals are off 3rd base. It has an antiquated feel about it due to its architecture, although the seats were nice and modern. Almost all the seats were on the field level, but there were two elevated grandstand bleachers, one on each side, right around 1st and 3rd bases, respectively. Lots of interesting food smells greeted us as we wandered around the stadium in search of Section 107. Rick and I had a corn dog, and he helped himself to a fried twinkie later. Section 107 was filled with Oakland A’s boosters, the only part of the stadium, it seemed, that rooted for the A’s. We were so close to the field that I thought I could reach out and touch any of the players. Taking photos was definitely fun.

The game started with the Rangers making mincemeat out of Rich Harden, scoring 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st. However, the A’s hitters came back as Rich settled down and they scored 7 runs (!) in the 3rd inning. After that, the A’s chipped away with their steady replacements, 1 run in the 5th, 2 runs in the 6th, until they won the game handily, 15-8. Justin Duchsherer did very well as a relief pitcher for three innings. The boosters were happy as we slept on the bus on the way home. We stepped off the bus at 5:30 pm, “just in time for happy hour” as one booster said, a smile on his face.

But no happy hour for us. Rick and I climbed in the car and set off for dinner before we went to the airport. We stopped at Bill Johnson’s Big Apple Restaurant, which boasts a steer and a palomino on the roof and sawdust on the floor. The waiters all wore six guns riding low on their hips (with straws stuck in the holsters). We had a nice dinner and went to the airport to drop off the rental car.

Going through security wasn’t as easy as I thought it should be. I dress for security, as I’m sure most travelers do these days. I wear a thin belt and tennis shoes, with no metal in my pockets. The TSA rep advised me to take off my running shoes, or I would face a 10-20 minute delay. “Is taking off my shoes required?” No, he explained again, but it would mean a delay in processing. I decided to call his bluff and kept my tennis shoes on.

It was no bluff. Even though the magnetometer didn’t beep when I walked through, he told me to go over to the side and wait. “What about my money?” I asked as I pointed to my fanny pack on the belt, a good 15 feet from me. “You can watch it from there,” he said. When the female TSA agent came over to process me, she asked the first agent if I was….something. Yes, he said, and I took that to mean that I was a suspicious target. He had answered no to the man in the secondary area before me.

She was very polite and explained every move as she wanded me, told me to unbuckle my belt when she heard the beep, and then patted down my sides. I have no idea why she ran her hands only along my sides, but it was over within about 5 minutes. Rick calls me a troublemaker, a TSA menace. I just like to observe the process, and I trust that American government security personnel are properly trained and will treat me with respect and dignity. I may be wrong one of these days.

As we were standing in line to board the aircraft back home, the passenger in front of us told me that his wife trips the magnetometer every time due to her underwire bra. She finally figured it out after several business trips. “You go through Customs – that’s what I call TSA – and you strip and they search you. We business people know what to expect, but it’s always upsetting when you get some newbie who doesn’t know how to read the x-ray, or insists that everyone is a terrorist.” Rick cut him off by saying, “I know Customs, and TSA, sir, is no Customs.”

But nothing could upset my good mood. I just did 7 spring training games in 7 days, journeyed to four charming ballparks, talked with players and fans alike in an almost total immersion environment, drinking in the experience as one magnum glass of champagne. I felt like I had just hit a homerun in the World Series, and now I was going to Disneyland.