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March 25, 2006: Simple Pleasure

Baseball travelogue: Saint Pete. Today’s travels took us to Al Lang Field, spring home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This venerable old park was built in 1916, and the grandstand has been variously rebuilt at different times through the years. The Braves, Yankees, and Cardinals all used the park during their tenures in St. Pete, but nowadays it belongs to the Rays, whose home ballpark is just on the other side of downtown.

I hope the Rays have some fun this year. Lou Piniella is gone, and they are young, well-paid, and living the major league dream. You know they are not going to win very much. They are in a division with the two Beasts of the East, the Yankees and Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays are also much improved. The fun isn’t going to come from winning streaks and the pennant race. It is going to have to come from the simple pleasure of playing baseball.

Rays fans, I imagine, must take a similar approach to the season, which is to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching baseball played. In fact, this is what spring training spectation is all about. Much of the time you don’t know the players you see, and of course the outcome in wins and losses does not matter at all in the spring. So you watch and you enjoy what you see for the simple fact that it is baseball.

This isn’t to say there isn’t enjoyment to be gained from seeing favorite players, or from winning. Today, in fact, if not for two little things, we might have seen the regular A-list of New York Yankees on the field. The two “little things” were that pitcher Mike Mussina just had a spring start against the Rays a few days ago, and they didn’t want the hitters to get a second look at him so close to the beginning of the season. The other was that catcher Jorge Posada just got out of the hospital after suffering one of the most ignominious baseball injuries ever. While playing catch with backup catcher Kelly Stinnett before Wednesday’s game, Jorge took his eye off the ball–it looked like he might have been distracted by a throw from a different game of catch–and got the ball right in the kisser. His nose was broken and today, three days after the injury, his eye is still swollen up. Hence his absence from the lineup.

It was a perfect day to watch baseball. On the cool side, mid-sixties, with brilliant sun and pleasant breezes. More on the breezes later. We arrived in St. Pete about an hour before game time, crept slowly through the pre-game traffic to a parking lot, and settled the car for the bargain-basement price of five bucks. (I hear the Rays’ latest enticement to get fans to come see them during the regular season will be Free Parking, but this doesn’t apply to the neighborhood business lots around Al Lang Field.) We had two pieces of business to take care of before game time–sell our extra tickets and buy a hat for my brother Julian.

We are accustomed to a sort of gray market carnival following the Yankees from place to place. Whether in the Bronx, Tampa, or on the road, there are the bootleg T-shirt vendors, cap sellers, and ticket scalpers who follow the money. There is one fella we have nicknamed Mr. Shyster who for several years we used to see selling beer inside Legends Field, then we would see him in the parking lot after games selling hats for five bucks, and then we would ALSO see him selling hats, shirts, and other Yankee-related souvenirs in the parking lots in Dunedin, Clearwater, and St. Pete. This year, apparently, he was at Legends for the first few weeks but he has since disappeared. Either he’s found a better racket, or the Yankees ran him off for some reason.

If only he were there today. Bypassing the obvious scalpers holding up professionally printed signs proclaiming “I NEED TICKETS,” we looked for genuine fans in Yankee gear who needed tickets. We had three to sell, quickly found a fella holding up three fingers, and sold him our extras for face value. Then it was off to find a hat for my brother. But sadly, it is late in the spring season, Mr. Shyster was not in attendance, and the only cheapo outside seller we found had a single style of hat that was not to Julian’s liking. He got a sunburn instead, which if you are my brother–and therefore macho about both your sun exposure and your headwear–is an acceptable tradeoff.

In the stadium we found the crowd heavily Yankee-partisan, which is not really a surprise. When the Yankees play the Rays in the regular season, the situation is much the same. Still, most of the cheering had a distinctly pinstriped feel to it. That might have also been because it was a complete drubbing of the Rays, as well.

The fun started in the top of the first, when Johnny Damon, still new to the Yankees, strode to the plate. “I’m still not use to this,” was corwin’s reaction to seeing the former Red Sock in a yankee uniform for the first time. “It’s just weird.” I told him what Joe Torre said the other night during his press conference. One of the beat writers from Boston asked him if it was going to be strange to be playing Boston that night and having Damon lead off for him. “Yeah strange,” Joe replied. “Nice and strange.”

Damon walked, and Jeter immediately followed with a triple. Ding! One run on the board. Torre has been saying all along that having Damon and Jeter at the top of the lineup together is going to drive the offense and “make things happen very fast out there.” There it was in action.

Damon was also playing his first game in center since tweaking his shoulder during the World Baseball Classic, and meanwhile Bernie Williams was playing right field (while Sheff DH’d). On the very first play of the day, Joey Gathright hit a pop fly that at first looked for sure like it would be Robinson Cano’s ball. But remember the breezes I mentioned before? They played havoc with pop flies all day, suddenly pushing the ball deeper than expected, until Bernie apparently remarked to Johnny, “I think you better catch that ball,” but by then it was too late and it dropped between the three of them. Damon, though chagrined, stuck by his spring training mantra, which is “just don’t get hurt, just don’t get hurt.” As he told reporters yesterday during a chat with the writers around his locker, “Spring training stinks. We’re ready for the season now. Now all we’re doing is trying not to get injured.” As he imagined the collision between himself, Bernie, and Cano, Damon apparently saw the pennant flash before his eyes. He let it drop, but the Rays did not take advantage.

In fact, the only run the Rays got, despite the fact they ended the day with 10 hits, was a solo homer by Travis Lee off righty side-armer Colter Bean. The Yankees, by comparison, had eleven hits, yet scored 10 runs. The steady diet of supremacy kept the fans smug and contented in the stands. Meanwhile, some kind of sailboat regatta was running in the harbor, and in slow moments we could see tiny sailing vessels threading their way in, one after another. The sky was cloudless, the beer was cold, and there was baseball.

In the sixth inning we ate ice cream. If you are waiting for anything more exciting than that, you are reading the wrong article. Come back in a few weeks when the regular season gets going. For now I encourage you to bask in the simple pleasures, as I am, because the pennant race will come soon enough.

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