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Mar 14 2000: Spring Training Day Two – Legends Field

On March 7th we got up early with the intention of getting to Legends Field in time to see morning batting practice. We really didn’t know what to expect, only that we’d heard that practice started 3 hours prior to games. So we pulled our rental car on the gargantuan parking field adjacent to Raymond James Stadium (they tell me they play pro football there) at the bright and early hour of ten a.m.

We went up the pedestrian bridge to cross to the Legends Field side and caught our first sight of the Yankees winter home. “It’s a mini-Yankee Stadium!” I exclaimed, and it is: same blue seats, same old-time facade along the roof, only it’s one fifth the size. After the dusty, low-rent digs of the Cleveland Indians, the 10,000 seat concrete coliseum in front of us looked quite impressive. Legends Field is also surrounded by beautiful landscaping (“xeriscaping” using native plants and watered with an ecologically sound water-reclamation system…), two practice fields that looked nicer than some big league fields, a large Yankee souvenir shop, and a mini-monument park: a “field of legends” showing all the retired numbers with plaques.

Two of the retired numbers, 44 and 23, we’d see again later in the day, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were also happy to find a large, clean, public restroom by the practice fields. Other Yanks fans wandered around and in and out of the shop. Aha–the shop. Julian resolved his baseball dilemma (see a few entries back) by buying New York Yankees commemorative baseballs–they bear the American League Prez’s name and the Yankee red, white, and blue tophat logo. I continued to be astounded at how expensive the items like name jerseys and sweatshirts are ($70! As the Scooter would say, Holy Cow!).

After killing time in the shop, and wandering around a bit, Julian went up to the ticket window to ask what time the gate opened. “Five fifteen,” he was told. “Five fifteen?” “Yeah, the game is at 7:15pm.”

Oh. Well, we wanted to arrive early, but not eight hours early…! We promptly turned around and headed for the beach for a lovely afternoon in Dunedin, figuring to return around 4:30 and try to catch practice then.

As we were packing up our stuff on the beach to leave, some of our napkins blew away in the wind. I chased them over to the blanket of the couple next to us. They looked up and saw the three of us, all wearing our Yankee caps, and said “You guys Yankee fans?”

“Could you tell?” I replied.

“Going to see some games this week?” the guy asked.

“Yeah, we’re going to Legends Field tonight, in fact.”

“Oh, you’re going to love it,” the wife enthused. “It’s just like a mini-Yankee stadium. And they practice right out on the field–you’re like ten feet from them. Go early and get autographs.”

We assured them that was exactly what we were on our way to do.

She was not wrong. We pulled into the parking field, this time manned by a small army of Adidas-shirted staff (I wondered if they were volunteers?) and crossed the pedestrian bridge once again. At the end of the bridge, a vendor was just setting up his boxes to sell the program. Only two bucks! We bought two, so both Julian and I could have one. It’s a very nice program, too, four color glossy printing, perfect bound, featuring color photos of all the players and their career stats. Way nicer than any of the other programs we’d acquire on the trip, and cheaper, too.

Below the walkway on the right was the seven-mound wide bullpen. On the left, a patch of grass fenced off from a walkway and the main practice field. About two dozen fans were already there along the walkway, balls and Sharpies in their hands. It looked like we had come to the right place.

About five minutes later, players started to make their way along the walkway to the field. Some of them walked behind a taller fence, about two feet further away. It looked like mostly rookies and prospects coming out first. Some of the savvier fans also knew the names of the rookies–or, more importantly, were able to recognize them by face. (As they walked toward us, we couldn’t see the numbers on their backs.) Clay Bellinger, who played utility infielder last year, was the first player I recognized. He crossed to the field first, and then came to the high fence and began to autograph. Julian and I both got his autograph on our programs, and then went back to the low fence.

Then the players we knew better began to come out. There went Andy Pettitte. Mariano Rivera. Goose Gossage. Goose Gossage! There’s more gray in that handlebar moustache, but he was still the Goose. Scott Brosius. Jeter and Knoblauch. Roger Clemens. Fans were yelling things to them–several of the guys waved back or yelled back answers as they went by. I took a number of photos of the guys walking by, but my hands were shaking so much from the excitement (and fans jostling me) that most of them came out blurry.

Then came El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, who came right along the low fence and signed autographs. There were quickly fifty or sixty people at the fence, and he couldn’t sign for everyone. At first he signed a few balls, but then appeared to be picking out the more unique items in the crowd. He signed a photo for a man a few elbows down from me. I held out my program and he signed it right at his photo/stats page. I mumbled a few awed words to him in Spanish –basically, thanks, and good luck in the season this year–and he smiled and then went to join his teammates already on the field.

Yogi Berra went zipping by in a golf cart. Yogi Berra! Then Reggie Jackson! And Don Mattingly! There’s three retired numbers right there. Julian got the Goose’s autograph while I watched the players start their warm ups.

The whole team, including all the non-roster invitees and so forth, comes to about sixty guys. They split into two circles on the field, the group closer to the fan’s patch of grass being the “name” players. Nearest to us were Jorge Posada, Shane Spencer, Knoblauch, Jeter, and El Duque. Each player followed the instructions of a conditioning coach in the center of the circle. They did back stretches, windmilled their arms–Dad did the exercises along with them. Then they got down in the grass and each player used a giant rubber band to help stretch his legs. (Note: Chuck Knoblauch looks like he’s a good sight more flexible than any other guy on the team.) When they were done, Roger Clemens was the first one to lie on his back, stretch the rubber band over the soles of his feet, and shoot the thing into the center of the circle. Several other Yankees followed. El Duque didn’t release both hands at the same time and the rubber band flopped at his feet. The guys around him kidded him about it.

The next order of business in the warmups was a massive game of catch. Thirty pairs of guys go their gloves and started throwing back and forth. Knoblauch and Brosius were partners and it was obvious they were having a good time, laughing and smiling even when they got too far apart to hear what each other were saying anymore. They made being baseball players look like the absolute best thing in the world, which maybe it is.

Then the first group went to the cage to take batting practice, infielders Knoblauch, Jeter, Spencer, and Brosius. We followed.

On the practice field, unlike the main field, there’s only about ten yards separating the batting cage from the fence/edge of the field. We stood at the fence, close enough to hear what the guys were saying to each other as they stood around waiting their turn in the cage.

I had to keep putting Lifesavers into my mouth to keep it from hanging open. Jeter pulled five rocketing shots in a row to the opposite field, then started turning on the ball and laying line drives into the left field gap. He and Knoblauch were like line drive machines, spraying uncatchable balls all over the field. In the next group we had Tino Martinez, Paul I’Neill, Jorge Posda, and Jim Leyritz. Posada batted lefty. Leyritz was taking DH swings and sending balls into the parking lot.

Then came an outfielders group, Ricky Ledee, Bernie Williams… I can’t remember who else. Bernie warmed up hitting a ball off a tee into a net right at the fence, facing the crowd. I went to try to get a picture, but with the sun setting my flash came on, and I figured the last thing he wanted was blue flash spots in his eyes while trying to hit the ball. (No sooner had I returned to my spot on the first base side of the fence than I saw someone else do exactly that…)

Reggie Jackson and Chris Chambliss put heir heads together, giving Posada advice. Then along came Joe Torre, accompanied by a short, gray-haired guy in pinstripes, not a practice uniform. The fact that they were followed by a swarm of reporters and photographers seemed to indicate this was someone famous, but who? Not Yogi Berra, not Don Larsen… it was, Regis Philbin! Here’s a photo of Regis, Joe Torre, and Bernie Williams!) That was obvious as soon as he said something to the crowd. “I’m here to save the Yankees!” he said. People began yelling to him about wanting a million dollars…

As the next group came up, and Willie Randolph took over pitching BP, Regis borrowed a batting helmet from someone (Shane Spencer, I think) and got in the cage. People were fairly impressed with the fact that he could hit the ball at all! Willie didn’t look like he was soft-tossing either. Reege hit a few out of the infield.

Later, he would be introduced at the game to throw out the first pitch. And he threw from the mound. Who’dda thunk it? Garth Brooks, eat your heart out.

As BP was beginning to wind down, we went to get our seats in the stadium. We were stopped by security guards at the top of the steps: no outside food allowed in Legends Field. What! I said to the security guard: “You know, they let us bring our own food into YANKEE STADIUM…”

“I don’t make the rules, ma’am,” he replied.

So we sent Julian back to the car with our bag of munchies. Dad and I stood at the top of the steps and waited for him. And waited. And waited. “Do you think he’s getting autographs?” I said, thinking that was the only thing that could have been taking him so long.

As it turned out, he’d come very close to getting Derek Jeter’s autograph along that same walkway as the players left the field. But he didn’t get picked. Julian’s theory now is that the optimal number of people to have at the fence with you is four, as the players often seem to go to about every fourth person. Also, women and kids are more likely to get picked (not just by Jeter).

Anyway, we returned empty-handed, and into the stadium we went. We’d have more adventures in autograph hounding later in the week.

My impression up to that point was sort of contradictory. On the one hand, it seemed like the players were really relaxed, having fun, but on the other hand the whole practice set-up also had the feel of a produced entertainment experience. There’s a reason they call the big leagues “The Show.” Maybe my conclusion is that the Yankees are the most comfortable when they are on stage. The psychology of the team is such that they perform better when there’s pressure and spectators. Maybe.

Once we were inside Legends Field it was clear this was The Show. Mini-Yankee Stadium featured a mini-Diamond Vision monitor in center field, and many other features of a big league game at Yankee Stadium. From pre-programmed game music to the intro songs they played for each player as he came up to bat, from the ‘shell game’ between innings to the “YMCA” dance the ground crew does after the sixth inning. Actually, the ground crew for the Indians (and later in the week, the Reds) also did the YMCA dance while dragging the infield. But they didn’t do it very well (a little out of sync, etc…). All this made me wonder, do groundskeepers, like umpires, start in the minors and work their way up to the majors?

It’s clear why Steinbrenner would like to build a revamped Yankee Stadium, though, since I’m sure he thinks it would be more like Legends (only bigger). But the truth of the matter is that one of the reasons Legends is so pristine and clean is that they only play a dozen or so games there. Also, it’s only five years old. We also couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was overwhelmingly white, which is quite different from the Bronx experience of Yankee Stadium. I would have thought there would be more Floridian latinos there, at least. But the crowd seemed mostly like families on vacation, like ours, and “ex-patriate” New Yorkers now living in Florida.

After the day before’s 15 run debacle (and all the other losses of the spring), this also felt much more like a real game. There were no bases-loaded rallies or other humiliations, and also no errors in the game. If you don’t care about what actually happened in the game skip the next paragraph.

The Twins got off to a hot start, when Jacque Jones hit a triple to lead off the first. Cristian Guzman scored him with a sac fly. Matt Lawton then went to first with a walk, to second on a passed ball, and to third when Butch Huskey singled. Corey Koskie scored him with another single, while Huskey was forced out at second. Hot rookie pitching stud Jake Westbrook (who pitched the spring opener when El Duque and Ed Yarnall went down with back spasms) then got himself out of the inning getting Javier Valentin called out on strikes. The Yanks responded with two runs of their own, hitting four singles in row, Jeter, O’Neill, Williams, and Leyritz. The Twins scored twice in the second, Midre Cummings got on with a double, and then Jacque Jones hit another triple! Guzman scored him with a single. The Yanks needed a rally now, but Roberto Kelly went down looking, and Tom Pagnozzi went down swinging. Fortunately, Scott Brosius homered for a single run shot. the game remained close, with no pitcher facing more than 5 batters in an inning, and no more than 2 runs being scored in an inning. After 3 innings, Westbrook was relieved by Mendoza (coming back from bronchitis) who pitched for two, then Todd Erdos took two, Ryan Bradley took one, and Mr. Automatic, Mariano Rivera took the ninth. What a treat to see him strike out the last two Twins he faced. Unfortunately, despite a ninth inning leadoff homer by catcher prospect Chris Turner, the Yanks came up short, 7 runs to 5.

But who cares if they lost? It was a pretty exciting game, and we were on “home turf” once again, cheering familiar cheers and talking with the fans around us. George Steinbrenner sat on the “porch” of his luxury box a few yards from us and talked with the fans in our section. One guy yelled “Hey George, how come we didn’t get Griffey?” “‘Cause I’m broke!” Steinbrenner yelled back. Regis Philbin joined him in the cool Tampa air and also joked with the crowd.

At the end of the game, we wondered if they would play “New York, New York.” “No,” Julian said, “they play ‘Tampa, Tampa.'” As it turned out, the game ended with a fireworks show in center field, and they did play “New York,
New York” (the Sinatra version, as usual). We left the stadium singing it, as usual, with other fans, as we walked to our cars. “The Show” was over for another day.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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