Feb 19

My Favorite Spring Training Memories

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.

Feb 18

Today In Mets History: Pitchers And Catchers Report For First Time

On this date in 1962, Mets pitchers and catchers had their first workout in St. Petersburg. It is the first time the Mets’ uniform was seen in public.

The Mets have always struggled to find their own identity in New York, and part of that can be attributed to the design of their home uniform and colors. Orange was taken from the Giants; blue from the Dodgers, and pinstripes from the Yankees. If you consider Shea Stadium, the walls were Dodger blue and the foul poles were Giant orange.

There have been uniform modifications over the years, but basically the same color scheme with pinstripes.

Pitchers and catchers report today, undergo physicals tomorrow and have their first workout Saturday.

Manager Terry Collins will be away from the team for several days after the passing of his father, Loren Collins, 95, in Midland, Michigan.


Feb 02

Today In Mets History: Traded For Santana

In 2008, the Mets pulled off one of the most stunning trades in franchise history with the acquisition of Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for prospects Deolis GuerraCarlos GomezPhilip Humber and Kevin Mulvey.

SANTANA: Became a Met today (AP)

SANTANA: Became a Met today (AP)

The Yankees and Red Sox were hot at the time after Santana in the free-agent market, but the Twins pitted them against each other until they got fed up and pulled out of the bidding. That opened the door for the Mets, but to seal the deal they were given a negotiating window and signed Santana to a six-year, $137.5 million contract.

It was a pricey deal in terms of salary and prospects, but it was supposed to put them over the top and return them to the playoffs. Santana’s first season was the only one in which the Mets had a winning record.

The fuel behind the trade was a late-season collapse in 2007 in which the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 remaining to reveal a lack of pitching. Santana’s best season with the Mets was his first when he went 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA in 34 starts, but underwent knee surgery following the year.

That would be a prelude of things to come, as he never again pitched a full season because of a variety of injuries and missed all of 2011 with a torn shoulder capsule. He returned in 2012 to pitch just 117 innings, but also author the only no-hitter in franchise history.

Santana re-injured his shoulder in spring training of 2013 when he rushed himself and threw against the program laid out for him and needed a second surgery. Santana went 46-34 with a 3.18 ERA during his tenure with the Mets, but his most important statistic was missing a potential 96 starts.

Santana is currently attempting a comeback with Baltimore.

Was it a good trade for the Mets?

In theory, they needed a pitching upgrade, but that wasn’t their only weakness. They especially needed to improve their bullpen. Of the players the Mets gave up, only Gomez became a viable player.

I thought the Mets gave up too much because there was no competition. With the Yankees and Red Sox gone, there was nobody else in the market. Plus, the Twins knew they had to deal him because there was no way they would re-sign him for anything close to what the Mets paid.

Nobody could question Santana’s heart, but I would have spent the money to fill other holes.

Jan 26

Yankees Ready To Spar With Rodriguez

The Yankees fired an interesting salvo in their on-going war with disgraced slugger Alex Rodriguez.

After refusing to hold a “clear-the-air’’ meeting with Rodriguez, the Yankees are reportedly bracing their legal defense to prevent him from collecting on any of the $30 million in bonuses he would get from his 2007 marketing agreement with the team.

RODRIGUEZ: Facing more legal hassles.

RODRIGUEZ: Facing more legal hassles.

Good for them, even though they are sure to lose.

With six more homers he will tie Willie Mays (660) for fourth place on the career list, which would be worth $6 million. He would also get $6 million for tying Babe Ruth (714), Hank Aaron (755), Barry Bonds (762) and passing Bonds.

Naturally, the basis for their argument is Rodriguez’s involvement with steroids. It would be a worthwhile fight except for several flaws, namely the Yankees knew what they were getting into when they signed him, and then re-signed him.

However, their case would carry greater weight if they were to sue him for money already paid and to get out of the contract entirely, which has three years and $61 million remaining.

Proving they had no knowledge about steroids would be difficult because it is largely assumed Major League Baseball was aware of steroid use as far back as 1998, when we were “treated,’’ to the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Going this way would undoubtedly reopen old wounds and possibly create new ones. Personally, I would like to see them go that route regardless of the fallout because maybe all the truth would come out.


Jan 09

Pedro Martinez Compares Mets Fans to Yankees Fans

It wasn’t a shot at the Mets as much as it was an assessment as to how things really are between the Mets and Yankees in New York.

Pedro Martinez pitching for the Mets was a big deal, but him starting against the Yankees while with the Red Sox was an event.

“Coming over to the Mets really got me to understand the New York fans and fan base,’’ Martinez said. “I would say Queens is a little bit different than the Yankees fans. In Queens, they’re wild, they’re happy. They settle for what they have. The Yankees fans do not. It’s `Win or nothing. Win or nothing.’ ’’

He’s right. There’s a sense of entitlement from Yankees fans. Mets fans take was ownership gives them.

Martinez won 15 games his first season with the Mets in 2005, but injuries sapped his following years with New York. In 2009 he pitched against the Yankees in the World Series while with Philadelphia.

“I learned a lot while coming over to New York as a visitor with the Red Sox and also coming later on and dressing in the uniform of the Mets,’’ said Martinez. “Yankees fans were really good at trying to intimate you as a Red Sock when you came over.

“As the opposition, they wanted to intimidate you. But deep in their heart, they appreciate baseball. They appreciate everything that you do. They recognize greatness.

“And they’re gonna boo you and they’re gonna call you, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ They’re going to chant until you just go away.’’

The operative word in all that is “settle,’’ and he’s right. For the longest time Mets fans were forced to settle, to accept what ownership and management gave them.

And, it hasn’t always been good.