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.

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