Wednesday, March 23, 2005

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.”

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