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March 24: Close Enough to Touch (Yanks At Phillies)

Our last game of the trip, right in nearby Clearwater. This was the field where, last year, I almost blacked out when Derek Jeter walked by. Well, having had my close encounter with Jeter for the year already, I figured my health was in no danger this time around.

The weather was perfect, sunny, clear, and a little breezy. I arrived at Jack Russell Stadium early with corwin, while Julian and Heather slept in–so early, in fact, that the Yankees weren’t even there yet. The first guy I saw as we walked up to the still-closed gate, was a man with a red beard and a gray Yankees shirt who looked rather familiar.

“Hey,” I said to him as I approached. “I have a photograph of you and Derek Jeter.” I dug out my little traveling photo album, which I’d been showing to people during dull moments throughout the spring. Sure enough, wearing the same gray shirt, that guy was in the shot I took of Derek picking out a bat, standing at the fence where it jutted out a bit beyond the dugout wall, meaning that whoever stood in that spot could see everything that happened in the dugout, and chat with any batter approaching the bat rack.

I took the photo out of its sleeve and gave it to the guy. “Wow,” he said, “I must like this shirt a lot!” He and his friends then picked out the other people they knew in the background. I never did find out his name, though. (Here’s the photo, though in the original you can see the whole guy, and the color is better….)
We could hear the Phillies taking BP, so we went around the field to the back, where beyond the advertising billboards in the outfield stood a couple of guys and kids with gloves, trying to shag home runs. One of the billboards is a giant owl advertising Hooters, whose original location was in Clearwater (and still is). The owl had holes for eyes, with nets behind them–we speculated that anyone who hit one through the eye got a prize of some sort. I put my glove on just in case.

Shagging home run balls is pretty difficult because you can’t see the batter at all. You hear the crack of the bat, and some seconds later, you realize a ball is sailing out of the clear blue sky. One popped over the fence and the guy nearest to it missed it. It rolled toward a parked car and I and a chubby ten year old leaped on it. I got it in my glove but the kid got one hand on it. We tussled around for a while before i came up with it, and then handed it to the kid. He? She? I’m not sure. The cherub-faced kid said “Wow, thanks!”

“Yeah, I just wanted to be able to say I got one,” I said. “Maybe that’ll be your lucky ball. You can try to get autographs on it.”

The real reason I didn’t want the ball that much was, of course, it was a Phillies BP ball. Besides, I just knew I was going to give it to the kid, even if I’d gotten there first. It’s pretty much a rule if you’re an adult and there’s a kid there to give it to the kid. Plus, it’s not every day you get to make someone that happy, why miss the opportunity?

chuck-formA few minutes later, in came the Yankee buses, and we went back to the gate. It was almost all Yankees fans in line waiting to get in, which surprised no one. They opened the gate, and in we went. Remembering the photo, I headed straight for that little corner of fence by the dugout.

A little old lady was more fleet of foot than I was, and she got the prime spot facing into the dugout. Next to her was a tall guy I thought I recognized–I did recognize him! Last year, during the postseason and World Series, I was spending my weekends working at King Richard’s Faire, a renaissance festival on Cape Cod. On Friday and Saturday nights we baseball nuts would go to a sports bar in Wareham where the bartender was a huge Yankees fan. Of course just about every other guy in the bar was a Red Sox fan, but Steve (along with his wife) just loves the Yankees. I had remembered him saying he wanted to go to Spring training this year, and I’d told him he should absolutely go. And there he was!

Next to him was an older fellow, a guy who looked like he was quite the veteran of Spring Training for fifty or sixty years. And then there was me.

Did I mention how much I love BP? I just love it. I do so wish they would open major league stadiums an hour earlier so that we could watch the home team hit as well as the away team. I guess that is one of the bonuses of going to see the Yankees in “away” settings, then.

bernieDerek Jeter was again absent, and the rumor was that he was set to DH in a minor league game. But there was Bernie, Jorge, Glenallen Hill. Luis Sojo. Clay Bellinger. And Chuck Knoblauch, set to play left field again.

Chuck is in rare formIt would be Knoblauch’s second ML spring game in left and he seemed determined to remain upbeat about it. At one point he was standing right in front of us, and got talking with some of the baseball writers, along with Michael Kay (the radio announcer).

Kay asked him something about the outfielder’s glove Chuck had switched to, and Chuck showed it to him.

Kay then asked him, in all seriousness, “How long did it take them to send you that glove?” I suppose in reference to the glove manufacturer.

Chuck waved the glove and cracked a big smile. “Tom Hanks brought me this glove!” Then, quoting the movie Castaway: “Forty Eight Hours! Time Is Money, People!”

Kay and the writers all chuckled. “Still,” Kay said, “It’s really something to see you out in left field.”

“Awwww,” Chuck said, glancing around the group of them, “Am I putting a big ol’ tear in your eyes?”

I’m not sure how it started, but then Chuck started goofing on Kay, about how today Michael was much more cleaned up and clean-shaven than the day before. “What, you got a banquet to go to after this or something?” Chuck asked.

Kay laughed. “No, I’m not going to a banquet!”

Chuck turned to the writer next to him. “‘Cause you know you have to look good to be on the radio.”

Kay was a little taken aback by the joke. He finally said, “Wow, Chuck, you are 100% here today, aren’t you.”

“Ready to go, man,” Chuck said, pounded his glove, and ran out to take flies in left. He would go on to record one put out, no errors, and went four-for-four in the game.

Bernie WilliamsNow, I never did quite figure out what the story was with the little old lady, but after a while we began to think maybe she was working for a memorabilia dealer. She didn’t know any of the players names, and was constantly asking the rest of us (all Yankees fans) who was who on her roster sheet. Each time a player would come to the bat rack she would sweetly ask them if they would sign for her. Very few of them said no, after all, how could they say no to this white-haired four-foot-tall granny? Each new player she got, she would carefully wrap the ball in paper and then stow it in her bag, then marking his name on her roster sheet and getting out a clean baseball.

After a while she started to get on the nerves of some of the other autograph seekers, as often players would sign only for her, just a quick moment as they were getting their bat, and then going out to take BP. Meanwhile we saw Jorge sign a few down at the opposite end of the dugout. I think Bernie might have, too.

Up at our end, number thirteen, Michael Coleman came walking up to the bat rack. He pulled several bats out by the handles, then put them back in, before settling on the one he wanted. “Looking for the one with some hits in it!” he joked to the crowd. When he came back from taking his cuts I said, “Hey, nice home run yesterday!”

“Thanks,” he answered, and then signed my ball. (Take that, granny!)

“Do you feel more like a Yankee now?”

“Let’s see what I can do today.” For the record, although he struck out looking in the first, it looks like he found a bat with some hits in it. He singled in the third (and was caught stealing–who knew he could run?) and had an RBI double in the fifth.

Then along came Glenallen Hill. He signed for quite a few of us, there by the bat rack, including me–I had him sign on the same ball as Michael Coleman, since Coleman kept reminding me of him–linebacker build, big home run swing. Hill chit-chatted a bit with the fans before he was grabbed by a writer. At that time, Hill already sensed his days with the Yankees were numbered–since the shift of Chuck Knoblauch to left field, the acquisition of Henry Rodriguez in the offseason, and the imminent return of Shane Spencer, he knew they had too many LF-DH types hanging around. A few days later he was traded to the Angels, but we’ll always remember all those monster home runs in 2000.

Game time was approaching, and the last few groups were taking their BP. The little old lady was the only one on our side who got an autograph from Bernie Williams. Then Knoblauch came in from the field briefly. He saw someone he knew above the dugout, called out his name, signed something for him and then turned away. Granny called out to him, “Would you sign this ball for me?”

Maybe he was onto her. Chuck looked her straight in the eye, and said, with a little shake of his head, “Absolutely not,” and ran back to left field. She gave up after that and decided to get out of the sun.

Clay Bellinger, wearing number 12 this year because Mike Mussina took the number 35 when he arrived, came to the bat rack then. I think I’ve detailed before how much I admire Clay. From my better position I could talk to him.

“Hey Clay,” I said, “would you touch my glove for luck?”

He looked up at me sideways, like what the heck are you talking about?

“Not for you, for me. I’m trying out for the New England Women’s Baseball League this year.” If I have any hope in heck of making a team, I figure it will be as a utility player, the last woman on the roster, and I had been hoping to connect with Clay all week for just that reason.

“Oh yeah?” He busied himself for a few more moments with the bats, and then, as he went up the dugout steps to the field, he took hold of my glove in one hand, gave it a little tug and shook it back and forth a few times, and then went to the cage.

NEWBL tryouts are next week (April 8, my 34th birthday) and I’ll be sure to write about whatever happens, whether I make the team or not.

My goal fulfilled, I went up into the shaded part of the stands where our seats were. As I was looking for my seat, I heard a voice, “Hey Yankee fan!” It was those two guys we’d seen at Wide World of Sports, whom I’d recognized from last year. After we talked baseball for a while I said, “You know, guys, I’m going to have to mention you in my spring training write ups.” And I gave them the URL. So, Hi Wayne! Hi Barney! See ya next year!

There’s one other guy I saw at pretty much every game, who I just have to mention, because I really wondered about him. Pretty clean-cut looking guy, we first noticed him in Dunedin. The next day at Legends Field he was selling tickets to the game to folks as they stood on the bridge watching Clemens in the bullpen. Once we got inside, he was a peanut and beer vendor. We saw him selling (scalping, I suppose) tickets a couple of times, and then always inside the park hustling concessions. When we got to Port Charlotte, who do we see in the parking lot, but this guy, saying “Hats, five dollars, both teams…” and selling hats out of his car. He was in the parking lot in Clearwater, as well. Either he really loves the Yankees, since that was clearly the team he was following, and needs the dough to finance his spring training trip, or maybe Yankee dans just spend the most money. Who knows? Maybe if I see him next year, I’ll ask him what his story is.

The game got off to a very good start. Robert Person, who is supposed to be one of the Phillies’ best pitchers was on the mound. Chuck singled on the second pitch, was out at second on a force, allowing Jimenez to reach base. Then Bernie stroked a single, and then Jorge, scoring Jimenez. Coleman struck out looking, but then Andy Morales poked an RBI single, scoring Bernie. Luis Sojo tried to keep the first inning party going, but hit into a force. We only got two runs out of it, but every Yankee (except Coleman) had hit the ball hard. It was like batting practice had been extended into the game.

Meanwhile Christian Parker pitched for the Yanks again and the first was relatively uneventful.

In the top of the second, the Yankee hitting fest continued, as Carlos Garcia singled, Parker, batting in the #9 hole in the NL park, bunted him over, Knoblauch had his second single of the day, scoring Garcia, and then moving to second on the throw to the plate. It didn’t really matter which base he was on, though, since D’Angelo Jimenez hit a home run. Not bad, 5-0 Yanks.

I felt so good I had a Philly Cheesesteak. Here’s one of the things about a tour of the spring training parks. It’s a little bit like touring the home cities of the teams who play in them, at least as far as concession stand food is concerned. In Toronto’s Grant Park they serve Labatt’s beer, and in Port Charlotte Rangers fans enjoy Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue. So I was happy to avail myself of a cheesesteak sandwich, here at the Phillies’ yard.

Parker didn’t really get in trouble until the fourth. He’d given up one run in the third, when Person, the pitcher of all people, stroked a double into left center. Person went to third on a wild pitch, and scored a few batters later on a fielder’s choice by Bobby A’breu. It would have been worse had Parker not made a great defensive play on a comebacker that looked like it could have really hurt him if he hadn’t gotten his glove up. In the fourth he wasn’t quite so lucky, He struck out Pat Burrell looking, but three successive singles from Lieberthal, Anderson, and Tomas Perez, followed by a ground rule double by pinch hitter Rob Ducey, gave the Phils three runs. Still, Parker pitched a scoreless fifth and left the game with a 5-4 lead. The lead was preserved when Jorge worked out a leadoff walk in the fifth, scoring on Michael Coleman’s second hit of the day, a double, to make it 6-4, and then singles by the pinch hitting H-Rod, Knobby (his fourth of the day), and Jorge, made it 7-4. The Phillies answered with one run in the sixth, a triple by Marlon Anderson who scored on a ground out, off Darrell Einertson. But that was all Einertson and Mariano Rivera would give them.

We had a few nail-biting moments in the ninth, when they brought in Kevin Lovingier to close out the game. Deja vu to Wide World of Sports began to set in and we braced ourselves for another blown save. He recorded two quick outs, but then Kevin Jordan (PH) singled, and then Pat Burrell,with two strikes on him, fouled off five or six pitches in a row before getting a base hit that sent Jordan to third. Lucky for us, though, seventh inning 3B replacement David Newhan hit a grounder to second, which Jimenez fielded cleanly (he made us worry almost as much as Knobby with his errors this spring) and threw without incident. Ballgame over, Yankees win!

But wait, the day, and the vacation were not quite over yet. Julian caught sight of Michael Coleman and Erick Almonte signing along the third base line as the crowd was filing out. He went down to them and got Almonte’s autograph. We followed the players toward the visiting clubhouse, out behind the left field stands, and took up a spot behind a fence where some ten-year-old boys were standing on lawn chairs trying to get the attention of players coming by. Most of the guys were done already, but a few were still taking showers, and Almonte was the last one to come along.

“Who is that?” The boys asked. We told them and they called out his name. He signed for all of them. The fence we were behind was eight feet high, and covered with a screen so that we couldn’t see directly into the locker room, but we could see who was standing directly on the other side. A news camera crew from Fox Sports Spanish language division interviewed Almonte — the bits of it I could catch were, he said playing in the American minor leagues was great, and playing with the major league players here at ST didn’t seem like such a big jump, because there are so many talented players at all levels in America.

The boys asked the cameraman who was left in the locker room. “Mariano,” he answered. A few minutes later, out came Mariano Rivera — he was somehow much taller than we expected, though still skinny as a greyhound. The kids started to clamor for him, but the tv guys told us we had to be quiet during the interview.

Mariano is characterized in the media as soft-spoken. Well, I can tell you he is so soft spoken that even though he was not even two whole feet away from me, I could hardly hear a word he said. But I did catch some of the spanish language interview. Translated, it went about like this:

Interviewer: So, who is the most important person in your life?

Mo: For me? God. God is the most important person in my life.

Interviewer: Um, well, but speaking of your career, your life as an athlete, was there any one person you’d say…?

Mo: Oh! Michael Jordan.

Then he waved to the fans, and made his way to the bus. Mo had closed things out for us, as he so often had, in style.

As I write these words, we are on the verge of another baseball season, another year that could be historic, another year that is sure to amaze, delight, and captivate us, not matter whether the team we love wins or loses. I’m looking forward to it with my heart in my throat already. But you know something? I almost wonder if I’m not looking forward even more fondly to next spring, when hopefully I’ll join the snow birds and fan faithful once again in baseball’s sweetest season.

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