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March 22: Right Place, Right Time (Blue Jays at Yankees)

jays-at-legendsAnother day, another trip to Legends Field, right? Wrong. Because this time the weather finally turned clear! It was still chilly for Florida, but the sun was bright and the breeze snappy as we pulled into the parking lot a good three hours before game time.

Surely there was no excuse for the Yankees to cancel BP today, or to keep it on the main field? A crowd four people deep lined the walkway from the main field to the practice field. But from the bridge we could see the Yankees, including Derek Jeter and Shane Spencer (both still battling injuries) doing their team catch on the outfield grass inside Legends.

Not only that, we could catch a glimpse of some guys taking batting practice in a batting cage under the stands at Legends Field. From the bridge we saw Bernie Williams trot from the field toward the runway with a bat.

“Hey Bernie!” my Dad yelled and waved. Bernie waved back, then stopped and backed up a step as if trying to see if the person who yelled was actually someone he knew. Then he went on to the indoor cage.

I caught sight of Yankee Mike, another acquaintance from the land of Yankee Internet fandom, talking to two folks I am pretty sure were JP and Ally. Mike introduced me to Mish and some of the rest of the yankees.com crew. The mood of the group was one of frustration. “They’re teasing us,” Mish said. Every day that week it had looked like the Yankees might take to the practice field, and every day they stayed inside.

The standing rumor was that some kind of security incident had taken place earlier in the spring, before we’d arrived. Now, even inside Legends Field, they wouldn’t allow people to stand right along the rail in the first row of seats, but made folks stand in the second row. When we had gotten Alfonso Soriano’s autograph the other day, they had let people come down to the front row while he was signing, and then they chased us back again when he left.

Jorge Posada, Joe Oliver, a bunch of the catching prospects, and Tom Nieto, the catching instructor then came trotting by, but did not pause to give any autographs. They went onto the practice field, but very few fans followed them.

“What time are they letting us in?”

“Five-fifteen.”

At about five, some teenage kids in Yankees T-shirts, carrying gloves, came along from the main field to the practice field, and didn’t attract much attention to themselves. We should have paid them more attention. At 5:15 we gave up and decided we’d have better luck inside and that there wouldn’t be any show out here today.

As I made my way toward the main gate, I saw my Dad in a knot of people clustered around a tall, older black man. The man was just waving goodbye to the crowd and turning back into the building.

“Who was that?” said I, who has no television and missed pretty much the whole Don Mattingly era of baseball.

“Ken Singleton!” my Dad enthused, showing me the autograph he had just gotten. “And look, there’s Jim Kaat!”

Jim Kaat I knew better, though I still wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a crowd. He was easy to pick out of THAT crowd though, easily the tallest person there, and also the only one signing his name on things. As we gathered around him we could hear people were talking with him, about the weather, about baseball, about all kinds of things, just pleasantries, nice and relaxed. There wasn’t the frenzy that surrounds the current players. I commented that he had surprisingly neat penmanship. “Having a short name really helps,” he said, and everyone laughed. “How about Derek Jeter,” Kaat said, “Is he still signing with all those loops? I don’t know how he gets ‘Derek Jeter’ out of that.” He said this as he signed his own name on my program book.

Maybe Jim Kaat is a little bit prophetic or brought me a little bit of luck. You’ll see why in a minute.

Meanwhile, as we went into the stadium, I could see down to where we had been standing previously and a portion of the practice field. A man in a windbreaker, carrying a bat trotted onto the field and toward home plate. Hey, is that… I got out my binoculars. The teenage kids we had seen were taking positions in the outfield to shag fly balls. Paul O’Neill was taking batting practice.

I could have gotten my hand stamped and gone back outside to watch Paulie hit from right by the cage. But by then, well, I figured I was inside and should stay there. I wandered around the food vendors a little, and then went down to my customary place along the first base line (in the second row of seats, as per usher’s directions) to see if anyone other than Soriano might sign today.

A coach–I’m not sure which one, i know most of them by sight but this was a guy I didn’t recognize–came walking along. “Sir?” I yelled out. “Can you tell me how Clay Bellinger’s knee is doing?” He waggled his hand back and forth as if to say “iffy,” but then said “He might play in the game tonight.”

I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but one of the things I was looking forward to seeing in the spring (besides BP and a lot of Chuck and Derek…) was Clay Bellinger playing. If you follow the Yankees then you know he spends a lot of time on the bench. He’s the one guy they have who can play any position, infield, outfield, or catch. He’s got a great attitude and made some serious contributions to the team last year, playing a great centerfield and also swinging a hot bat while Bernie was hurt, and plugging a lot of infield holes during the many DL stints of April and May, Brosius, Jeter, Knoblauch, etc. And, if I may be a girl for just a moment, he’s got gorgeous eyes. Not only that, he was one of the Yankees last year who really tried hard to sign a lot of autographs when people were hungry for them. Result? He’s one of my favorite Yankees. With the blossoming of some of the infield prospects, the return of Luis Sojo, and a kneecap injury, though, I worried Clay might soon be out of a job.

My dad came up to me again. “They’re interviewing Derek Jeter over there.” TV cameras were set up over by the Blue Jays dugout, and we could see the lights, and a knot of 25 to 50 fans clustered as close to The Jeet as they could get. (Side note: will someone tell me why Derek Jeter doesn’t have a real baseball player nickname or epithet yet?) “Come on,” he said, still all excited from having gotten both Ken Singleton and Jim Kaat’s autographs. “Let’s go over there!”

We started making our way around the stadium, but our destination was all the way around the field from where we were. Dad, Mom, and me tried to hurry without running. But then we saw the people in the knot begin to move toward us, making their way around toward the Yankee dugout. “Where is everyone going?” my Mom asked one fellow.

“Derek said he’d sign over on this side,” he said, and hurried past.

jeter-signsReverse direction! We started back toward the Yankee dugout, too. A large cluster of people were already in the second row behind the dugout. As I got to the stairs at the edge of the backstop, though, I saw the Director of Yankee Media Relations, Rick Cerone, talking with an usher. I stopped dead in my tracks and heard him say “Derek told some people he’d sign over here, try to keep it under control.” Two seconds later I was the third person in line and Derek Jeter was standing at the wall.

I hurriedly dug a fresh baseball out of my bag, along with a Sharpie. The man behind me in line said into my ear, kind of desperate-sounding “Can I borrow your pen? I’ll give it right back.”

“Sure,” I said, and then I was standing in front of Jeter. Behind me I could hear all pandemonium was starting to break loose, as more and more people tried to join the mob and the usher tried in vain to keep people lined up on the stairs. I handed Derek Jeter the ball, and then the pen.

Derek Jeter”You know, I was supposed to meet you last year, to do a piece on you for Teen Health and Fitness,” I said.

“Oh, yeah?” he answered as he rotated the ball to the spot he wanted to sign.

“Yeah, but every time you came near me in the dugout I almost passed out.”

He looked up with a smirk. “Well, are you okay now?”

I just nodded, took the ball, handed the pen to the guy behind me, and then stepped back out of the way. I snapped a picture, but as you can see, it isn’t very good. My mom, who was behind the dugout, also took a picture while he was signing for me, but she thinks a big guy jumped in her way. I’ll see when she gets her film developed. At that moment I was too stunned to really be worried about how the pictures would come out. I had the signed ball in my left hand, the camera in my right. And my hands were shaking.

“You got it! Celia, you got it!” My dad was slapping me on the back. If you’ve never met my Dad, and I know most of you haven’t, imagine a cross between Mr. Spock and Ricky Ricardo. Sometimes very analytical, but also extremely excitable. (Love you, Dad!) I kept staring at the ball in my hand and thinking, “Well, this time, I didn’t faint.” The next time I looked up the ushers were dispersing the crowd–Derek only signed about twenty before they had to break it up. I was lucky, and I know it.

the-goodsI think it was about a half an hour later that my hands finally stopped shaking enough for me to wrap the ball up in tissue paper and put it away.

Oh yeah, and then came the baseball game. Much to our disappointment, Jeter did not play. Neither did Chuck–in fact, when Knoblauch wasn’t there for infield practice we were pretty sure he had played in a minor league game that day. The rumor in the stands was that he had DH’d the day before, but that today he had played in left field.

Roger Clemens was pitching and he was making it an adventure for Jorge Posada. His pitches had so much movement on them that several of them were in the dirt or skipped past the plate. It didn’t really hurt Clemens, though, who, despite giving up four hits and two walks, didn’t earn a run in six innings of work. He induced a ton of pop ups. The one run he did give up was on a D’Angelo Jimenez error. I can’t even remember which one of Jimenez errors it was now–he had another one in the second inning, plus I remember seeing a few in other games this week… hmmm. Somehow Soriano has overcome his jitters and is making the plays and now it’s Jimenez’ turn to struggle.

The Yankees offense didn’t do much this game, either. The first “rally” was when, with two men out, Jays pitcher Chris Michalak walked Paul O’Neill and then Bernie Williams on eight straight pitches. But Tino grounded out to end the inning. Bernie had a single in the fourth but was caught snoozing and was picked off and had to run to second where he was tagged out. Tino drew a walk but was out on the force play to end the inning. Michael Coleman, the new #13 who came with Drew Henson from the Reds, struck out three out of four times at the plate, with one long fly out to left.

It surprised no one, then, that the first Yankee run was scored by Soriano, who has just been Mr. Hot all spring. In the sixth he led off with a double, then stole third base, and scored on a Paul O’Neill single. The only other excitement in the game (other than Tony Batista’s three run homer off of Doc Gooden–I don’t know if Doc really has what it takes anymore…) was Scott Seabol hit a home run in the ninth. Unfortunately the other three batters that inning all struck out against Hector Carrasco, meaning the Yankees lost 4-2. But well, I’d had plenty of excitement that evening.

That was our final visit to Legends Field for the year. The next day corwin and I planned to make an early morning drive to Port Charlotte to see the Yanks play the Rangers, and then Saturday would find us in Clearwater for the Phillies. Would we really see Chuck play in left? Would we ever see Derek back on the field? Would Michael Coleman ever get a hit? These questions and more to be answered next entry…

P.S. Clay Bellinger did get to put three innings in at third base and made a fabulous pick to get the first out of the seventh.

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

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