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Mar 16 2000: Spring Training Day Four – Sarasota

After the game in Clearwater, we dropped Dad off at the airport and he went back to New Jersey (he’d already been on vacation when we met him, playing golf in Orlando, so we had to let him get back to work). That evening we were supposed to pick up corwin (my significant other) and Heather (Julian’s), but as things turned out, Heather’s flight to Atlanta was delayed, meaning she’d miss her connection. Instead, the airline switched her to a flight the next day, but that wouldn’t get in to Tampa until five in the afternoon–about the time we hoped to arrive in Sarasota to see BP. At least corwin came in, but a bit delayed also, meaning our only food choices by the time he arrived were Denny’s or Bennigan’s. (We chose Bennigan’s.)

Heather’s mom is a travel agent, so, savvy to the ways of airlines, she went early to the airport and got herself on a flight to Orlando. Julian was then to drive out there to pick her up at like 10am. It was a split squad day for the Yanks, with another game against the Phillies, this one at Legends, and then that night in Sarasota against the Ken Griffey Jr. Reds. Joe Torre was going to manage both games, I knew from overhearing him discussing it with a staffer in the dugout yesterday. corwin was dead asleep, having not been able to get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. So at 8am, Julian and I set off toward Tampa–he dropped me off at Legends Field to try to pursue the interview further, and off he went to Orlando to get Heather.

It was a brilliant, sunny morning, in the 70s — in fact, if I haven’t pointed it out before, the weather was perfect every day we were there. Florida was having a drought, so bright sun, low humidity, comfortable temperatures (in the 50s at night) every single day. I am so brown right now.

I tried calling in to Media Relations to tell them I was there and didn’t get anywhere on the interview. So I went back out to that patch of grass between the clubhouse and the practice field, and spent the next two hours having fun with Yankee fans. If they did what they had done the night before, I’d probably snag an autograph or two, maybe some photos. The fellow standing next to me at the fence was from Springfield, MA and we commiserated over how tough it is to be a Yankee fan in Massachusetts. He had a batting helmet on with about twenty autographs already on it in silver outliner pen. A guy and his kid nephew came over and bought a baseball from him–two actually, one for autographs, and one to play catch with while waiting. Two women from New York wearing Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill t-shirts came and showed us the great photos they had taken at the victory parade in 1998, with disposable cameras, no less. (“It was all about getting up at six o’clock in the morning,” one of them said. “And about being tall.”)

But the best baseball player we saw that morning was a three year old playing with his dad. This kid was amazing. His dad would stand with a small size souvenir bat about ten yards away. The kid would then go through a routine and pitch to him–he’d throw the ball into his glove, scratch his crotch, set, look at the batter, wind up, and throw. He had picked up all these mannerisms of big league pitchers! It was quite amazing to watch, and if he was old enough to write his name, I bet someone there would have had him sign a ball, just to see where he’d be in twenty years…

The Yankees, though, they had faked us out. They practiced inside the stadium that day–we could see them in the outfield–and the Phillies did their warmups on the far side practice field. The field where we’d seen Regis Philbin and the jaw-dropping BP remained empty. At about 11:15, when the main gates into Legends opened for seating, a staffer came and locked the gate to that practice field, and we all gave up.

Julian wasn’t due back from Orlando to get me until noon at the earliest, so I poked around the souvenir shop some more (now crowded with fans and doing a very brisk business, with every register manned), and listened to the steel drummer they had outside to entertain the crowd. The Show was on. I could have bought a $10 ticket and gone inside to look around and try to get autographs over the dugout, but by that time I was tired of standing around. That guy and his nephew had the right idea, I decided, playing catch… While I was sitting there, the nice couple we’d met on the beach recognized me and came and said hi. Did I mention we made friends with Yankee fans pretty much everywhere we went all week?

Eventually Julian navigated his way back to the stadium and picked me up. We went back to the house and collected corwin, and by 3pm in the afternoon (when the Yankee bus was due to leave Tampa), we were on the road to Sarasota.

When we got to Ed Smith Stadium, they weren’t letting people in yet, and we’d beat the Yankees there. Some Reds were on a practice field outside the stadium, but not knowing their numbers and not being able to see their faces (we were behind the outfield fence) we couldn’t really tell who was out there. Ed Smith Stadium, it turns out, also doesn’t allow outside food or drink in, and so we had a little tailgate in the parking lot and ate our beef jerky and hard boiled eggs. The crime of not being allowed to bring our own food in was that the concession options inside were rather meager. Hot dogs, cotton candy, snow cones, and lemonade, basically. At least at Legends, there was cuban food, and an Outback Steakhouse stand, among other things. Fortunately, we planned to eat dinner after the game…

Then in came the Yankee bus. If you think rookies are hard to recognize in uniform, how about in street clothes with no numbers? We knew most of the regulars had played that day at Legends, but Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Shane Spencer and Ricky Ledee were there, as was our now favorite utility infielder, Clay Bellinger (for signing those autographs). Ramiro Mendoza was the starter, and provided us with the incredibly weird sight of seeing him take BP. (Even weirder, Don Mattingly pitched BP!)

The Reds, meanwhile, started their big guns: Barry Larkin, Ken Griffey Jr., Dante Bichette, et cetera. We were prepared for another bloodbath like Winter Haven. Especially when the reds led off the bottom of the first with back to back doubles, and then after Griffey struck out (ha ha!) two more doubles!

But no.

The rookie Yankees, not overshadowed by too many stars, rose to the occasion and played well as a team. Posada was looking impressive behind the plate, too: you could see he’d really worked on throwing off the mask and intimidating baserunners. I still miss Joe Girardi, I have to say, but Posada may have the stuff… And Mendoza seemed to go up 0-1 on every batter, sneaking that first strike in every time.

The Yanks tied it in the second with a single from Felix Jose, and then Nick Johnson was hit by a pitch. Rafael Bournigal hit a double to score them. The Reds came back and scored two more in the fourth, on two more doubles, Sean Casey and Eddie Taubensee. But the Yanks again responded in kind in the top of the fifth, when Alfonso Soriano walked, and then Bernie Williams hit a two run homer. It was a beautiful shot. From our incredibly great seats right behind home plate, you could see from the moment the ball left the bat that it had the right angle and power to be outta there. (Or, as corwin later said, as soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand…) So, tied again. There was a tense moment in the sixth, when Felix Jose, playing left, made an incredible play for a ball and seemed to injure himself. He was slow in getting up and Bernie Williams ran over from center to see if he was okay. The trainer then came out and they made Felix and Bernie do a little catch before leaving him in the game. Felix made the next out, too, and also the first out of the seventh–the other two were strikeouts by pitcher Brandon Knight.

In fact the Yanks pitchers held the Reds there, combining for six strikeouts and only three earned runs (one unearned on a fielding error). Excited as we were to get to see Ken Griffey Jr., we were even more excited to see he was held hitless: struck out, grounded out, and flied out. The Yanks would win it when Donzell McDonald came up in the eighth, singled, then stole second, and was scored when Felix Jose, the real hero of the game after that play, hit a double, or maybe it was a fielding error by the Reds left fielder Dmitri Young. (Just a touch of irony there, for the guy in Jose’s position to not be able to make the same amazing play Jose had…). Either way, that put the Yanks up 5-4, and although Reds pitcher Danny Graves got everyone to ground out in the ninth, Todd Erdos kept the Reds scoreless in the ninth. For a moment we were afraid that Chris Stynes long ball was a home run, but no, it was the final out, caught in right field by Ricky Ledee.

We’d finally seen a win!

After the game we watched a strange Ed Smith Stadium ritual, but one that was really charming, too. They let kids of all ages line up during the ninth inning near the first base dugout, and after the field was clear, they had them run the bases. Everything from toddlers who could barely run to young little league studs (and girls, too) took rounds of the bases. One kid coming in pretty fast was encouraged by the crowd to “Slide! Slide!” but he slid about 45 feet too early and had to get up and run the rest of the way to home plate. We were too distracted by this spectacle to do any autograph hounding, and when it was done, we went into downtown Sarasota for an incredibly great meal at the famous Columbia Restaurant. Good food, good friends, good wine, good sport. We could have stayed there forever.

Still to come, Heather meets George Steinbrenner, Cecilia plays her first game of catch in twenty years (twenty years!), and Ed Yarnall gets torpedoed.

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