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March 30 2006: Yearbook Entry (Last day of spring training)

Carl Pavano has a sore ass. Boo boo on the bum, sustained when he tripped and fell trying to field a ground ball and made a play at first base the other night. That is the final tidbit of news from Yankee camp this year. As I write this, the Yankee bus is visible from the press box at Legends Field, making its way to Tampa International Airport where a charter awaits the players and staff. They are on their way to Arizona for two exhibition games (supposedly make-goods attached to the Randy Johnson deal), and in usual Yankee style each player and coach is decked out in his finest leisure suit.

It’s funny how a suit makes some of these guys look older and some look younger. Larry Bowa looks positively ancient when he is in uniform, embodying the spirit of every crusty third-base curmudgeon who ever coached the game, but put him in a silk shirt and sport jacket? He could pass for forty something. The opposite happens with Tanyon Sturtze, who if he wasn’t so tall could play the part of overgrown Little Leaguer. In the clubhouse Sturtze is full of smiles and his eyes are round in mock surprise whenever a prank is pulled. Put him in a suit, though, and it gives him a thoughtful bridegroom aspect.

The last day of spring training is a lot like the last day of school. Instead of signing yearbooks, these guys sign autographs for the local staff and coaches, and for each other. Everyone has to clean out their lockers, take down their photos, and figure out what to carry home.

Today, a couple of players even skipped out early (though they had permission, of course). Jason Giambi had so much packing to do, that after one at bat (he walked) he was replaced with a pinch runner. Mariano Rivera, on the other hand, was not happy with the one inning he was scheduled to pitch. He came in early to do extra credit, threw 50 pitches in the bullpen, and then was done for the day.

The Yankees could have used him in the ninth inning, when, clinging to a 4-3 lead, they handed the ball to Matt Smith. Smith gave up line drives to the first two batters he faced, then got a pop-up and faced speedy Carl Crawford. A double-play was probably too much to hope for with the speedster at the plate. In the clubhouse, the players who were not in the game continued their packing. One of them, pitcher Mike Mussina (who had started the game), stood riveted to the clubhouse televsion showing the action on the field. Already in his earth-tone travel suit, Moose couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Smith threw slider after slider to Crawford, but he fouled some off, tipping one low in the zone that would have been strike three if only catcher Wil Nieves had held on. Then after four straight sliders, Smith finally came back with a high fastball, and Crawford chased it for strike three. One more out, and the game could be over, stranding the two runners. “Tough out to get,” Mussina mumbled, the brown of his suit seeming to bring out the dark circles under his eyes.

Moose was right. Jorge Cantu stepped to the plate, and hit a ringing double to bring in two runs. 5-4 Rays. Mussina quit watching after that.

The Yankees went quickly and quietly in the ninth, no chance of staying after school when that bus is set to leave. It wouldn’t have been unusual for the players’ kangaroo court to fine any batter who took a pitch, in fact. Bernie Williams, the ultimate upperclassman for these Yankees flew out on the first pitch, and in no time, the whole team was in the clubhouse, taking hurried showers and cramming the final bits of their possessions into boxes, bags, and suitcases.

Now the jocks are gone, and the honor society are next. After the final postgame chat with Joe Torre, the beat writers repaired to the press box where one by one they are filing their stories, packing their computers, and hightailing it to the airport. (The delay for some seems to be the challenge to come up with a way to write “Carl Pavano has a pain in the ass” without offending either their editors or their readers.) Some are off to Arizona to follow the team, others to New York to wait for the home opener.

Me, I’ll be on a flight back to Boston at the crack of dawn, so my spring training is over, too. And everyone can’t wait for summer vacation.

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