For a baseball writer spring training can be a magical time. My first was in 1991, when I covered the Orioles. There was also time in Florida with the Yankees and Mets. All produced keeper memories, which flooded back this morning.
Things weren’t as stressful with the Orioles, mostly because there was only three or four writers. We showed up early, got our stories, wrote and played basketball. Larry Lucchino, then the Orioles president, played and chewed me out when I didn’t pass him the ball.
After that, it was usually seafood, a movie or the dog track. One night, Jim Henneman from the Baltimore Sun and his friend, nicknamed “Smoothie,’’ hosted us. We pooled our money and gave it to Smoothie to wager. Just as Smoothie was leaving the table, Rick Vaughn, the PR director of the Orioles, deadpanned: “I can’t believe we just gave all our money to a guy named Smoothie.’’
Another time Mark Maske of the Washington Post and Peter Schmuck of the Sun and I were talking with reliever Arthur Rhodes, who could hit triple digits. Maske asked Rhodes if he were to throw 100 fastballs how many times do you think we’d make contact?
He said, “Maybe 10 to 15. … What about you?’’
I was thinking maybe a foul tip.
But, it isn’t always smooth. Once a delicate story broke in the morning, but worked itself out during the game. Later, the Orioles manager, the late Johnny Oates, told us of the changing development. We were circled around him and he asked if we had a problem changing the story.
Nobody had an issue. When Oates got to me, I simply said, “I guess I have some rewriting to do.’’
What followed was a loud crash when Oates kicked a chair and screamed, “I knew it. I knew you’d be the one to write it.’’
He didn’t get I wasn’t going to print the original version. I simply turned and walked away as there was no purpose getting into it with him in public. As I was leaving the clubhouse, Brady Anderson said, “don’t worry about it, you’ve arrived when the manager rips into you.’’
Another Orioles favorite was Mike Mussina, who passed time with a six-by-three foot crossword puzzle in the corner.
Maybe my most memorable spring was spending nine straight weeks at the Tampa Westshore Marriott during the strike in 1995. It was like being Norm from Cheers, as everybody at the front desk greeted me by name. A supervisor even tried to get me my own parking spot.
The Yankees and Mets are different animals.
You arrive with a plan that often never materializes. In the spring of 1999, I had a plan every morning, but followed through maybe five or six times. That was when Joe DiMaggio died. Then, one day we were writing about Darryl Strawberry’s cancer when a Yankee staffer gave us a release that Joe Torre left the team to be treated for prostate cancer.
That day didn’t end until close to midnight.
That was the spring George Steinbrenner called Hideki Irabu “a fat pussy toad.’’ The Yankees were to fly to Los Angeles that day for an exhibition series with the Dodgers. Steinbrenner huddled with GM Brian Cashman, interim manager Don Zimmer and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre for hours on what to do with Irabu, who triggered it all by failing to cover first base for the second time in as many starts.
The meeting lasted so long the Yankees had pizza delivered to the clubhouse.
I should have known what kind of spring it was going to be when on the first day the Yankees traded David Wells for Roger Clemens.
The Yankees beat was always competitive, made more so by the daily Steinbrenner watch. It was by luck one day I caught him coming in from the parking lot. He answered a couple of questions and then spent ten minutes talking college basketball.
Say what you will about Steinbrenner, but he was colorful and brought something to the table. He could be infuriating, but you had to wait him out. The worst words a Yankees writer could hear on his voice mail was, “John, George Steinbrenner returning your call.’’
You knew you weren’t going to get him a second time.
Meanwhile, Jeff Wilpon, for his part is accessible. Fred Wilpon usually holds court once a spring, and once uttered the words “playing meaningful baseball in September.”
With the Mets, many stories are gathered on the backfields. That was when I met Sandy Koufax. I knew I wasn’t going to get questions answered, but told him of when my dad took me to Shea Stadium and said to me, “you need to see this guy pitch.’’
He asked what I remembered and I sheepishly told him Wes Covington homered and the Mets won. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yeah, I remember that, too.’’
I will always love Koufax for that.
And, I’ll always love the promise of spring training.