Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring Training 2006: The Big Hurt Shows Up Big

On my 4th and last day of this short visit to Spring Training, I went to a terrific ballgame in spectacular seats at Phoenix Muni. I finally see what the other fans like about this stadium. It normally reminds me too much of McAfee (Oakland Coliseum) in that there’s too much foul territory, the players are too far away from the fans, etc. But today I was sitting in box seats in back of the Athletics’ dugout. Today I was up-close-and-personal to the field and the players.

And it was quite a game! Danny Haren was pitching for the A’s. His 2nd pitch was hit for a solid single, and every inning he seemed to have one man on base, causing Swisher to play close to the bag, but that was it. One homerun was the Rockies’ scoring, ‘cause that’s all they could get; they didn’t even come close to scoring again.

And we got to see Frank Thomas in an A’s uniform in his first official spring training game. Wow. I thought Vladimir Guerrero filled out a uniform. Marco Scutaro could fit inside one of Frank’s sleeves. This guy is the Hulk, and you can see why he’s called the Big Hurt.

After stretching a bit and running and chatting amiably with the other players, Frank casually walked over to the sideline where I was sitting and started signing autographs, just like that. Whoa!! All of a sudden, there were kids of all ages climbing over me to get to the fence. (I was one row back.) That wasn’t pleasant, but it was certainly understandable. The Hurt is here, he’s happy to be here, and he’s saying his first hello to the fans. Awesome.

And he didn’t disappoint on the field, either. His second at bat, he hit a shot so high, so fast, that I didn’t even see it clear the right-field fence. But it did. It certainly looked like his injuries were just memories.

This wasn’t a hitfest. It would seem the A’s are having problems hitting except that they’re making contact. And the split squad game yesterday was a 20-run rout in their favor – but this was the game I didn’t see, the one in Peoria. Eric Chavez is Oh-fer in his last 16 at bats. But he’s making good contact so I don’t think we should worry.

Nick Swisher hit a homerun, his second in two days. Jay Payton, who seems relegated to only part-time work, also hit a homerun. (I’m a real Payton fan. I think this guy breathes baseball, and has the talent to back up his swagger.) Those three runs were the only runs the A’s scored. The Rockies also scored their only run on the long ball. It was, outside of these homeruns, another pitchers’ duel, with both pitchers performing well.

I knew I had to leave early, but the game was running so fast that I was able to stay until the 7th inning. I found the rental car facility easily, driving down Van Buren all the way until 24th street, and then making a right. Took me right there. The plane ride, however, was the trip from (and to) hell. I’m thinking with all the time I invest in going to the airport, that shaves 3 hours off a 10-hour trip. I am thinking that, if I do this again next year, I’m driving. No more schlepping luggage to three different gates in an hour.

But before I leave, thanks to Candi again for organizing these trips for us. For spectacular seats. For her patience. After all, we seniors are rather grumpy at times, especially if we don’t get our beans.

Spring Training 2006: The Case of the Missing BBQ

Friday night, the game was at night at Phoenix Municipal. I got to the parking lot at 4:45 pm, 15 minutes before the gates to the park opened. I bought a new spring training hat in the shop (open from the outside). When the gates opened, I moseyed over to the BBQ, held in a fenced-off grassy area over by left field.

The folks at the BBQ were very friendly. We kind of had to be, as we all had to share the limited number of tables. As soon as others joined me, the gentleman with the old A’s cap in front of me immediately started in, telling me about the site where the Oakland Coliseum is today. “I worked for EBMUD back then. EBMUD sold that spot to the Oakland A’s back in 1966.” I don’t remember much about what he told me; there was so much noise around with the Boosters talking and the music from the live band next door, it was hard to hear. Something about the Coliseum’s lower levels being below 22 feet sea level.

The woman next to me – I’m guessing she was close to 80, as her husband will celebrate that mark in a year – told me she keeps score for every A’s game, even the away games. “I do it over the radio,” she said proudly. “Whenever my family wants to give me gifts, I tell them to give me score cards. You know, it takes 7 books to get through an entire year.”

When our table got up to go through the BBQ line, we were disappointed. They were out of beans. They were out of potato chips, mustard, catsup -- well, most things except for hot dogs and hamburgers. The seniors were starting to get angry (as angry as they get, murmurring in the crowd). The server when I was up there was murmurring, too -- about how much seniors eat. "The beans are all gone," he said, shaking his head and talking to nobody in particular. "These people -- they eat too many beans." Candi worked with the caterer, who promised to come up with more food in a hurry (but not beans, because, as we know, "the beans are all gone"). Finally the A's coordinator came up to talk with her. He explained to her that they hadn't expected to run out of food only halfway through the line. "Hey, these people can eat!" she told me later that she explained it all to him. "Have you ever seen my mother at a banquet? She brings her own doggie bag." She said she didn't want to piss off these people and lose the Boosters' $18 tickets and all the other perks they give us, so she tread lightly. The servers finally brought over all the brownies and grapes from the A's pre-game meal, but by then almost all of us had gone to the game. (The food was available from the A's because the players had to go to the game, too!)

I must admit that I left every game early, either because I was too hot, too tired, or I had to go to the airport (twice). Every time it looked like I was leaving, the people around me would frown and question me. While spring training urges a laidback attitude, apparently that doesn’t apply to attending the games. I would arrive two hours early before every game to be assured of parking and observe the players on the field as they loosened up, but I didn’t get any points for that among this tough crowd.

On this particular night (Friday), pitcher Barry Zito, the ace of the A's squad, did not look sharp. He gave up hit after hit. While it's hard to tell if Barry was working on something, it's tough not to be worried that Uncle Charlie (his nasty curveball) is suddenly hittable.

On Saturday morning, after my friend Val flew in to join me in one game for Spring Training, we drove to Hohokam for the A's vs. the Cubs. Hohokam Park is in Mesa, Arizona, a good 10 miles southeast of Phoenix. I’m sure there’s lots to see in Mesa, but when you’re standing in the stadium there, there doesn’t seem to be anything surrounding the place for miles. Just brownish-red mesas and blue skies. The park itself is 9 years old, has a little underground passageway behind the grandstand, a cool place to shop for souvenirs. And almost all the souvenirs were Cubs-related. LOTS of Cubbie fans strolling around. And you’d never know this was a spring training game, a game where not much mattered. The Cubs fans were out in their colors, and cheering on their team. The Cubs ended up winning this game, 1 – 0, in a pitching duel.

Rich Harden of the Oakland A’s looked particularly sharp, giving way in the fifth inning for Jay Witasick. Rich’s pitches were rarely even hit; very few balls had to be fielded. The A’s hitters couldn’t do much against the Cubs pitcher, flailing away at breaking ball pitches or trying to catch up to a steaming fastball.

I did get my first glimpse of Milton Bradley. Milton took his whacks, but ended up walking most of the time. That showed me that he wasn’t above the A’s philosophy, and as long as he could get on base, even in spring training when he’s working on his swing, he’d be satisfied. Marco Scutaro put in his first appearance since his injury (in the four days I have been in Phoenix), and looked fine. Bobby Kielty appears to be over his injury as well, and, although he didn’t get any hits, he did flag down a few tough fly balls.

Spring Training 2006: Watch Freddie Run

I mentioned that last night was a real treat for the Oakland A’s Booster Club, as we had Robert Buan and Freddie Bynum to talk to us. Robert, of course, is the silver-tongued announcer who gave away the cars last year and who runs Extra Innings after every A’s broadcast. He introduced player Freddie Bynum, and urged Freddie to answer his questions and ours.

Freddie grew up in North Carolina. He had no intention of going to college at all, figuring he’d join his father in factory work, but his grandmother offered him college. “I could go and not have to pay for anything. So….I went to college,” he said quietly as we all laughed. “While I was there, I discovered they had baseball. Might as well play as long as it’s there. I ended up paying for my years of school with scholarships.”

Freddie is a 26-year-old minor leaguer who has run out of options. If the A’s don’t pick him for The Show this time around, someone else can. And that would really hurt. Especially since Freddie isn’t making it easy for the Powers That Be to let him go. He’s batting close to .400 in the games he’s been in; it’s almost like the Athletics are trying to showcase this young player for other teams, or let him prove what he can prove.

Robert asked Freddie, “If the A’s picked you up, do you think you’d continue to steal bases? After all, they’ve had this philosophy for years which discourages base stealing.” Freddie thought a moment, and answered, “I’m thinking not.” When he heard a lot of disappointed groans, he continued that management wouldn’t want to leave the bases open for the A’s power hitters, as opposing pitchers would just walk them. But maybe at certain times he’d be allowed to steal, he mused.

This young man is out of North Carolina, soft spoken but full of confidence. “I don’t worry about what I can’t control,” he said more than once about what the A’s would do about his options. As he told the Boosters that night, “But I can tell you one thing. I’m going to try to take someone’s job.”

Looking at his production and the fact that a few of the regulars are injured (e.g., Kielty), I’m predicting right now that Bynum will be on the roster on April 2nd when the rosters have to be in. The A’s may not want to play Freddie full-time, but he’s lightning in a bottle, and I don’t think they’ll give him up for nary a whisper.

Spring Training 2006: The Super Halo & the Ample-Butt Women

It was an early wake-up to catch the flight to Phoenix. And the flight itself was rather miserable. It was pretty much sold out, and although I had an aisle seat, my neighbor was overweight and, once seated, she had no place to put appendages within that narrow America West seat. Luckily (for both of us, I think), I understand her predicament. We managed to overlap territory without much drama.

But the 6 am flight was a good way to go, as I could get in, rent my car at the new central facility, get lost a few times and then finally find the Embassy Suites, all before making my way to the ballpark. The hotel is only a few miles from the airport, but, I swear, it takes me at least half an hour to get to it.

I checked in early and headed out with ample directions to Temple Diablo Stadium. I have no idea why it’s called “Diablo” if it’s the home of the Angels. It’s a nice, small park, but the parking is still limited. I arrived at 11:45 for a 1 pm game, and I was shunted off to the third parking lot behind the outfield.

Tempe Diablo Stadium is the home of the Angels, and holds over 10,000 if you count the 2,500 on the lawn. This day all the seats were filled, but the lawn wasn’t quite. At $8 for my just-off-third-base seat, four rows from the fence, it seemed like a great deal.

By the time the game started, however, the sun had already started to cook the back of my neck. I had put sunscreen on before I left the hotel room, and put some more on in the 3rd inning, but I still felt hot. So I left the seat in the 5th and went to the covered area where the concessions were. “Seat?” Huh. They were marked numbers on a continuous bench. As the woman next to me couldn’t find area for her husband and son between us ample-butt women, she suggested I move to the end of the row. I got kind of stubborn – and how silly this seems now – as I didn’t want to be stuck if people showed up with those tickets. Nobody ever did, but the Boosters area did fill up a bit as that late bus pulled up. So her husband started a baseball conversation with his neighbor, and her son disappeared into the concession stands for several innings. And everything worked out.

It was weird to see Angels superstar Vladimir Guerrero show up, at least half an hour after the other Angels players had started working out. He’s twice as big as an ordinary player. I took several photos of him as he stretched on the sidelines and got ready to play. I saw our new shortstop Antonio Perez come up to talk to Vlad during this routine. When Vladdy made two rare errors in the outfield later on in the game, the 40’s-ish A’s fan next to me hooted and hollered. “How many millions per error is that?” he cackled, continuing to mispronounce “Vlad” as “Vald.” Those superstars are never going to get a break.

The A’s threw Triple A pitcher Danny Meyer out there, who went 5 innings. He looked just fine until the Angels hit back-to-back homeruns against him – one by Vladdy, a shot that cleared the entire stadium. The A’s bats looked pretty solid to me, but a Booster senior that evening remarked that the A’s went 4 innings without a hit and wondered when they were going to wake up. But spring training is a mixed bag, a mixture of veterans who are just loosening up and up-and-comers who are trying to impress, and you’re not going to get perfect games.

One of those up-and-comers is Freddie Bynum, an infielder who seems to be playing the outfield a lot. Freddie went 2 for 6 in today’s game of 10 innings, and stole two bases as well. Much to our delight, Freddie turned up at the Booster Banquet that night, introduced by Robert Buan, one of the A’s announcers. When I asked how he remained so consistent at the plate and what was his approach, he mumbled a bunch of usual rhetoric, but then finally threw in, “And I look for that fastball.” More about Freddie later.

I discovered that the Friday game is the only night game of the season at Phoenix Municipal. It’s preceded by a Booster Club BBQ by the left field at 5 pm. Since parking fills up quickly, it’ll be good to get out there early anyway. But I have no idea what I’m going to do in the afternoon. I had looked at the Giants game in Scottsdale, but it was sold out. I guess I’ll just try to stay cool.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Coronation of George

I answered my cell phone in a hushed whisper. It was Rick, talking about George's retirement party, a usual topic these days. "What's that screaming in the background?" he asked. The musicians are warming up, I replied. I'm at the symphony.

I have tickets for a plethora of events this year at Davies Hall, the magnificent home of the San Francisco Symphony. Today was Mozart's Coronation Mass. It's Mozart's 250th birthday this year, you see. Except that he only lived to see year number 35. Amazing that his work has been revered for so long.

Mozart composed this Coronation Mass for Easter Sunday in 1779. Since it's widely known he tended to compose on schedule (meaning, he waited until the last minute before he would finish), it's likely he finished the work only days before it was scheduled to be performed in the Salzburg Cathedral.

According to the program notes (Playbill, March 2006), "most of Mozart's Masses are of the Missa brevis (Short Mass) variety." As he described to a friend in a letter in 1776, "A Mass with all its parts -- the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle sonata, the Offertory or motet, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei -- must not last longer than three-quarters of an hour; this applies even to the most solemn Mass said by the Archibishop himself."

Applause for guest conductor Martin Haselbock, and we get under way. As Haselbock throws his arms out in boomerang effect, the musicians start. And Perfection begins.

But even in such heavenly company the mind drifts. In true Joycean style, uncontrollable and without punctuation, thoughts hurtled about at the speed of light, faster than sound.

George's retirement party. God, he's asked millions. Everyone he's ever met, clearly anyone he ever worked with in 35 years. Our little restaurant room isn't large enough. The Coliseum wouldn't be large enough. I wonder if I can get out of town before anyone notices...

Kyrie eleison.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

The 217-member choir shouts its praise to God in voluptuous harmony. I wonder why there are so many women in the choir. Couldn't they get any men?

George is driving us to drink. I won't drink at all during the party. I'll drink afterwards. I'll share a drink with Rick, or two or three. I sure hope our presentation is funny.

Credo! Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

The four guest soloists step up and begin. Three of them may just as well sit down and stare at the audience. The soprano voice of Cristine Brandes rises above the rest, hovers, and takes us on its angelic journey. She's incredible. I wonder if she speaks everyday Italian?

Maybe if we just have a cocktail party. But we have all that food. They have to sit down to eat the food. There aren't enough chairs. How are we going to squeeze...

Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in neccessitatibus nostris! Sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper.
Benedictus! Benedictus!

Some of those choir members are paid. Most are volunteers. I wonder which ones?

Agnus Dei! Qui tollis peccata mundi miserere nobis.

O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

I have witnessed, in my short life, some true perfect moments. This was one. I listened to Haydn just a moment ago, and he rarely took chances, risks, except in retirement. But Mozart lived for the risks, reached for the golden ring, each and every time. Everything he did was for the first time. And over 200 years later, we're still here, listening.

A full 45 minutes later, I applauded this exquisite performance by the San Francisco Symphony and its Choir. Five minutes later, I was walking towards BART, stepping deftly to avoid the three-foot tall women in my way, leaning on their canes and their bent-over men, as they move away from Davies Hall. The average age at these matinees is one click over The Golden Girls. They, like me, like to experience their music in the light of day.

A few moments in my life that have been Perfect. The Coronation Mass. A no-hitter. That chicken piccata at Francesco's. That retirement party for George.

Well, the last remains to be seen. In two short weeks. If we survive.

O Lamb of God....have mercy upon us....