Wednesday, March 23, 2005

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!

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