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Mar 13 2000: At Last, At Last – Spring Training Day One

I don’t even know where to start. It’s Monday, March 13th today, and I’m in denial about the fact that I am in my office in Boston, it’s 39 degrees outside, and I’m not going to see another baseball game until April 13th.

More specifically, I’m finding it hard to believe that today I’m not going to sit in the warm sun, watch Derek Jeter stretch his legs with a giant rubber band, or play catch with my brother on the beach. This trip to Spring Training was less like a vacation and more like an immersion into a different way of life. (“Florida is a state of mind” perhaps?) Yesterday Julian (my brother), corwin (my significant other), and I were playing catch on the grass above the beach, while the sun set behind us, and I thought: I can’t imagine that tomorrow we’re going to do anything other than get up, eat breakfast, load film into the camera, drive to another minuscule ballfield, get autographs from Yankees, watch a carefree game, and play catch on the beach before having a delicious dinner somewhere. Because that’s pretty much what our routine had been for the previous week.

There’s too much to tell in a single installment. Our pilgrimage to Legends Field. How Julian finally bought baseballs. How we sold one. Getting El Duque’s autograph. Being unimpressed by Ken Griffey, Jr. What happened to my tongue while I was in the Yankee dugout. (Yeah, the dugout.) And so much more.

I guess I’ll start at the beginning, and our March 6th hike to Winter Haven to see the Yanks trouncedby the Cleveland Indians.

My adventure starts in Orlando, where my Dad was playing golf with his buddies, and where I rented a car to be our transport to and from the many games we’d see spread around the Gulf Coast and Central Florida. Drove two hours from there through Tampa to Crystal Beach, where Mom and Dad recently bought their retirement home. Being as they ain’t retired yet, we used it as a vacation home instead. Dad and I had a nice dinner at a local restaurant and hit the sack early. The plan for the next day was to snag my brother at the Tampa airport and then head directly to Winter Haven for the Indians game, which started at 1pm.

Now, according to the Sporting News’ Spring Training Guide, it takes one hour to go from Legends Field (which is right by the Tampa airport) to Chain of Lakes Park where the Indians play. According to Mapquest, it should take an hour and forty five minutes. Often Mapquest estimates are way off, usually by overestimating. But not this time. After rendezvousing with Julian, and futzing around with the rental car people to add him as a driver, and then driving to the middle of nowhere Florida… it was half an hour to game time when we got stopped dead in traffic half a mile from the field.

At twenty minutes before the first pitch, the anxiety level in the car began to hit critical levels. We jockeyed in the traffic trying to determine if there was a better lane to be in. But everyone on that road was trying to get to the same place: Chain of Lakes Park. We flipped the radio dial to see if by chance the game was being broadcast. It wasn’t, as far as we could tell. I vaguely contemplated pretending the car was broken down and just walking the rest of the way… So close, and yet so far!

I turned to Julian then, and said “Here it is, the first baseball we’re going to see in months and we’re all afraid we’re going to miss it.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe we’re getting all greedy about it,” Julian laughed.

“I mean,” I went on, “really we should be ecstatic about any baseball, right?”

This would turn out to be true, given how badly we lost, and yet how happy we were.

The traffic mishegoss, as it turned out, was due to lack of parking at Chain of Lakes Park itself, which just didn’t have the capacity for the sold out crowd, and we ended up at the roller rink across the highway, where they gladly charged each overflow car $3.

Even having bought our tickets months in advance, the best tickets we were able to get were in the bleachers. But did we mind? Heck no! We were sitting about ten feet from a three foot high brick wall. On the other side of the wall, in folding chairs, sat the entire Yankee bullpen.

By the time we sat down, it was the top of the third, and David Cone was on the mound. He was approaching his 45 pitch limit though, and after walking Omar Vizquel, went to 3-1 on Roberto Alomar… then Alomar rocked a home run out of the little ballpark, and Coney had had enough. Really that wasn’t so bad compared to the fifth inning, when Jeff Juden got up to pitch. At least, we’re pretty sure it was Juden, since the Indians’ scorecard rosters were not 100% accurate and we didn’t know what most of the prospects looked like. Juden walked Vizquel again, Alomar hit a single, then he walked Ramirez to load the bases…

A lot of Yankee fans were in the bleachers with us, and we got all excited when Allen Watson began to throw in the bullpen. Really, it’s a euphemism to call it a bullpen–it was a lump of dirt in front of the wall with a worn out spot about 60 feet away where a catcher could squat on the grass. Watson was so close to us while he was warming up that you could hear the air hiss as he threw his fastball.

We figured that if Watson could pitch out of a bases loaded situation in October, he could do it in March. He went to the mound. Then big Jim Thome came to the plate. Watson went up on him 0-2. The Yanks fans around us began to buzz, though none of us were organized enough to start a two-strike clap.

Then Watson worked a full count, and then, walked in a run. What!

In a regular season game, you never would have seen the kind of bloodbath that followed, because Stottlemyre or Torre would have been out there to the mound yanking pitchers long before they’d get socked for five, six, seven runs… But not in the spring. With the bases still loaded, Sexson whipped a double. Then Fryman walked. Then Whiten hit a double. Then Diaz hit a double. At some point Watson was out and Jay Tessmer came in, but you know, it really didn’t matter. 8 of 9 Indians in the lineup scored that inning.

Normally, that type of situation can induce apoplexy in Yankee fans. But not in Florida, and not in Spring Training. What seemed to matter most was that we were there, sitting at a field smaller than a lot of high school stadiums, enjoying the sun and watching Jeter and Knoblauch and Cone and Posada walk right past us on the way to the bus after they turned the field over to the rookies and prospects for the final innings of the rout. No one ever went out to visit Darrell Einertson on the mound when he was in trouble–they just let ’em play, see what happens.

In the top of the ninth, the Yanks had their last at bats–which really confused those of us who had never seen the Yanks in an “away” setting. In fact, it was generally confusing to us not to clap when the majority of the crowd clapped. Fortunately, we weren’t completely surrounded by the enemy–there were a lot of blue #2 shirts in our section. Felix Jose, a potential backup outfielder, came up first in the 9th and singled. Our section went wild, starting the “Lets-go, Yan-kees” cheer/clap. Went through about eight rounds of it. Then someone behind us, Indians fan or Yankee fan we don’t know, shouted out “Wake-up, Yan-kees” and we all laughed. It was about the loudest we, or any of the crowd, had been all day. There were times when it was so quiet, it was like watching a tennis match. Quiet enough to hear the fielders actually calling for the ball.

We walked back to the roller rink suntanned, relaxed, sanguine about baseball and the state of the world, even despite the Yanks “perfect” 0-5 record. After the game, Joe Torre signed autographs for a bevy of kids under the age of twelve before getting on the bus. Between the tininess of the field (seats 6000), the closeness to the field, the quietness of the crowd, and the game’s complete lack of intensity, it was about the furthest thing from a big league game I had ever experienced.

The next day (March 7), though, we’d go to Legends Field, and it would be, as they say, a whole new ballgame. (Tune in tomorrow for the next installment, starring El Duque, Goose Gossage, and Regis Philbin. Yes, that Regis Philbin.)

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