Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spring Training Weekend in Review

Well, it's about freaking time, isn't it?


My flights (Cleveland-Charlotte, Charlotte-West Palm Beach) were fairly uneventful. I sat next to a young father on the first flight and an older gentleman on the second. The elderly man napped the whole time, only waking up to give his wife death stares and angry mumbles when she turned around from the seat in front of us to pass him something he didn't need. In between flights, I stopped for lunch at a Sbarro's, but convinced myself $5 was too much to pay for a bottle of Heineken. So, what did I do next? Stop by the sports bar and pay $6.50 for a tall Sam Adam's draft. Way too much for beer, but I'll live.
Dave had a direct flight to West Palm Beach, and a few hours to kill before I got there. So, he staked out a spot at the sports bar to watch basketball. While he was there, the bartender made a phone call to his lady friend. The bartender displayed his mastery of pickup lines with the question, "So, are we gonna have sex tonight or not?" Everyone at the bar let out an empathetic groan as the bartender gave a disappointed look to the reponse to his question.
Dave and I next took a shuttle to the car rental office. Of course, we were offered an upgrade from the Cheap Bastard class, and of course we declined. We were still given a sky blue PT Cruiser - an unusual car, or so we thought. It was still a nice car, and the lesson is: never ever pay for an upgrade.
Now, why was the PT cruiser not as unusual as we thought? Because every other Floridian owns one. That, or it's some kind of joke by the car rental companies to help the locals spot tourists easier.
We first went to the Mets-Braves game at the Mets' spring home - Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, FL. The ushers at Tradition Field were all retirees wearing Hawaiian shirts. And you wondered what Notre Dame Stadium ushers did during the offseason. (By the way, if you're looking for Dave or me after retirement, this is what we'll be doing.)

We showed up in time for Braves batting practice, and got to see Atlanta's hitting coach, Terry Pendleton, and their new pitching coach, Roger McDowell. Good times.
Our section was a lively one. Right behind us was an unnecessarily loud speaker. To my right was a new personal hero. Wearing a Southern Illinois U tshirt, he was 30/40-something man who brought his own scorebook and a copy of the Baseball America 2006 Prospect Handbook. As it turned out, he was a Cardinals fan touring the spring training parks on Florida's east coast. Every time a prospect came into the game, he would ask me the guy's name, and then look that player up in his handbook. Good times. Ahead of us was a group straight off of The girl right in front of me had - not that I was staring or anything - the most unusual thong I have ever seen. Basically it was three strings, connected at the tailbone area by a diamond-encrusted silver heart loop (or a clear stone-encrusted silver-y heart loop). Made to be seen, no doubt. A few rows ahead of the convention were Dave's Uncle Joe and Aunt Ann McPartlin, fired up as usual. Unfortunately, since we didn't have our own scorebooks, Dave and I had to make due with the ones in the program - even though they didn't have a space for pitcher stats. The large, dark logos right in the middle of the scoring area didn't help either. Weird.
The game itself was a good one to watch. Of course, how can any game with Julio Franco playing be bad in any way? Jose Lima started for the Mets and started well. Lima Time made it through three innings unscathed, then completely fell apart after giving up a leadoff home run in the fourth. The Mets comeback started when Clifford Floyd hit a monster 2-run home run to center in the 6th. Like my trip to Shea last August, the game ended when Ramon Castro hit the winning single in the 9th.
After the game, we drove to our resting place for the night - the Ft. Pierce Motel 6. We got there around 10 PM, and couldn't check it. Because it was shift change. What? While we were waiting, who should show up looking for a room? Baseball America Handbook Guy. Small world. Checking into Motel 6, once we were finally allowed, required our vehicle's license plate number. So, I went out to the parking lot, and got the license plate number off of the wrong PT Cruiser. Dah.


We woke up Friday morning and walked over to the Cracker Barrel that was next door. Dave purposely picked the Cracker Barrel so we could be the two skinniest people there. We were. Forgetting it was Friday, I ordered a plate that included bacon. Well, let those two extra dollars be my lesson for forgetting. The waitress, who apparently could not understand a New York accent despite working at a restaurant 15 minutes from the Mets spring training facility, gave up on trying to understand Dave's order and just assumed he asked for the same plate I did. Good good.
After breakfast, we had a long drive to Tampa. Little did we know then how long the drive was. The directions said to follow Route 60. Well, it's a cross-state road, right in the middle of the state, passing through Orlando and Tampa, and one of the few east-west roads that go from coast to coast. So, it's a major highway, right? Nope. It's a two-lane country road that passes through every city along the way. Finally we got to a bridge that was heavy on the traffic, and assumed we were close to the Pirates park in Bradenton. We were. McKechnie field is an old-style stadium: carved out of a downtown city block right on the only road that leads in and out of the city. The facilities are a little undersized (read: there was a line for the bathroom), but it was a nice park. So, traffic was a minor concern, as was parking. We drove two blocks past the $8 parking (and the "Cheif Woo Hoo" Parking) and found a $5 lot. Good times. Unfortunately, the volunteers running the lot seemed a little overwhelmed that cars were coming more often than once every five minutes, but we survived.

At the game we met Dave's friend Steve, who lives in the area. The Pirates/Indians game wasn't much to write home about. Paul Byrd, Bob Wickman, and Steve Karsay pitched well. Scott Sauerbeck and Danny Graves - not so much. Steve got Victor Martinez' autograph. McKechnie Field does win the award for best scoring pencils, as they included full erasers. Tradition Field's were your basic golf pencils, and at the Indians park you had to buy your own full-sized pencils. That's about it.
After the game, we drove to Steve's apartment. It was very nice, and was full of "cool wrestling shit" (says Dave). While waiting for Steve's girlfriend to stop by, we spent some time in the pool, located next to the putting green (both are mandatory for Florida apartment complexes). We had dinner at a seafood restaurant, a rareity for me. I asked all the dumb questions, including whether my salmon skin was edible. I was able to wash down my salmon with a green beer from a local microbrewery. (I was a little bitter, though, that my St Patrick's day drinking didn't start until 7 PM, especially when some people got to start at 5 AM.)
After dinner, we walked to the bar near Steve's apartment. The place's name was BJ's, but the strip mall facade simply read "Bar." I should mention at this point that I ran out of money earlier that day. I didn't think much of it, fully expecting the bar to have an ATM. It didn't. So, Dave became my ATM. Dave started a tab, and we ordered the most Irish-y beer they had on tap - Amber Bock. Dominic Yonto showed up a little later, armed with fresh Yonto stories. As Dave put it, you could tell Yonto had been waiting for someone he could tell his stories to. As Steve, his girlfriend, Dave, Yonto, and I played pool, Yonto told story after story. There were the tales of his rag-tag basketball team nearly beating the best team in the league (Yonto had the perfect play drawn up, but their best player missed a wide open tying layup at the buzzer) to their eventual first win. There were stories of classroom discipline and favorite music styles. When one girl admitted she wasn't familiar with Yonto's favorite music style - polka - she was assigned a research project. (The other version of this story has a student replying, "oh, you mean like Steve Urkel?" when Yonto mentions he likes polka.) Now, Nick is coaching his school's softball team, including a girl who keeps showing up even after she was cut. At the end of the night, Dave cashed in his tab for $22 - or so he hopes. Finally, it was drunk dialing time. Fortunately, we were sober enough not to use the numbers programmed into Yonto's phone. Yonto showed me the names on his list. First, it was the nuns at his school. Next, an entry simply labeled "Bishop." Then, "Sam Sanchez." "Wait, wait," he said, while scrolling to "Mr. Weaver" and "Dr. Dye." Oh, if only a very drunk Meg had been there....
We decided to go with the names in Dave's phone. We started with Klondike, and everyone took turns leaving a 5-minute message on his voicemail. (You might want to check that if you haven't yet, Klondike.) Emily and I exchanged salutations in Slovak. As soon as F-Bomb answered his phone, he gave Dave a new definitition for "jelly donut." Katie Alpha, as student life staff at Michigan State, volunteered to work Friday night. Katie, Katie, Katie.


Saturday morning was the drive to Winter Haven to see the Indians host the Astros. It was back along Route 60, but fortunately we new that road a little better this time. We got to the Chain O'Lakes complex early, but again forgot to buy sunscreen (I'm still peeling as I write this). Since we were there early, I were able to do some souvenir shopping, and pick up a program (the best of the 3 - it had pre-drawn baselines) and media guide. The Indians media guide was Dave's idea, and Dave's money since I still hadn't found an ATM, so I didn't complain.

We got into the baseball stadium itself, and there signing autographs was Bob Feller. The line wasn't too long, and my grandpa is a huge Feller fan, so I knew we had to get him to sign something. Now, "Rapid Robert" still goes all out. He was dressed in a current Indians uniform, but with his old stirrups (blue with red stripes), and old pair of spikes with his number 19 markered on, and an old mitt that also bore his number 19. We got to the front of the line and found that, for $5, Feller would personalize one of four pictures he provided and sign one other thing. All of the pictures were pre-signed the way Feller always signs: "Bob Feller H.O.F. 62" in blue marker. Why blue? In the old days, National League baseballs had their red stitches laced with a few black threads. American League baseballs had blue thread intertwined with the stitches. Feller, who played for the Indians his entire career, refuses to sign with anything other than American League blue. The four pictures each had a different scene - a young Feller at old League Park in Cleveland, one of him at Yankee Stadium, one at Fenway, and one of him pitching in the 1948 World Series. The World Series photo read, in typed letters, "Bob Feller 1948 World Series." Next to "1948 World Series," on each of these pictures, Feller had written in the word "Winners." To put it mildly, Bob Feller is outspoken. But, he could always back it up.
Just as we got to the front of the line, Feller got up and excused himself. "I'll be back in 10 minutes. I need to go get announced." That left his 76-year-old bodyguard/assistant/money man - a former Marine with the tattoos to prove it. The assistant bided the time by performing all of the classic "grandpa" magic tricks for the kids behind us - quarter behind the ear, torn napkin - you get the picture. As he did this, we heard the following announcement over the PA system: "Now introducing, warming up in the Indians bullpen, Bob Feller!" Not only did Feller have to throw out the first pitch, he also had to show up in full uniform and throw out the first pitch. He's 87.
When Feller got back, he explained to the line that he didn't have much time (he wanted to watch the game, of course). He made out the picture to my grandpa, then signed my media guide. Dave stepped up and asked if Feller could personalize his picture. Seeing Dave's Mets cap, "Rapid Robert" gave a rapid, "no."
The game was an amusing one. We sat close to the Astros bullpen, but unfortunately Brad Lidge wasn't working that day. CC Sabathia had another rough outing, giving up 5 runs on 8 hits. The Astros outhit the Indians 12-5, but 6 walks and 3 Astros errors gave the Indians a 6-5 win.

After the game, we drove back to the Motel 6 in Ft. Pierce. When we got there, there was another light blue PT Cruiser in the parking lot. I'd better not park next to that, I thought, or we'd never be able to tell which was which. We checked in (right away this time), and went to the room to watch the NCAA tournament. Or so we thought, as the hotel room didn't get CBS. Waaa? I called mini-Kanka to wish him a happy birthday, and mom informed me that he was very fired up with his new golf bag. At this point, Dave and I were both out of money, so we stopped at a gas station to hit the ATM. Go figure the ATM wouldn't process Dave's card (although we wouldn't be surprised if it still gave him three service charges). We then stopped at the Steak 'n' Shake for dinner. I had a banana shake.
After dinner, we came back to the room with the hopes CBS would finally come in. It didn't, so we were "stuck" watching Japan/Korea in the World Baseball Classic. Dave claims I was secretly happy that CBS wouldn't come in and we were forced to watch baseball. I claim that my happiness wasn't so secret. Peter Gammons was a dugout reporter for the game, so that was a definite must-see.


I don't know what was worse - waking up Saturday with hangover, or waking up Sunday with terrible sunburn. Showering (not together, sorry everyone) was an experience, and I also made the decision to shave that morning. I believe shaving while sunburnt is punishment for shoplifting in some countries. We stopped by St. Mark's in Ft. Pierce for mass on Sunday morning. The church was full to the brim with retirees. Well, it was mostly retirees. The pianist was an attractive young female with a beautiful voice. Dave and I agreed that this girl probably made mass the highlight of many a creepy old man's week. After mass, I picked up a bulletin for my grandparents and we headed to the Mets/Marlins game in Port St. Lucie.
As the usher took Dave's ticket, he asked Dave how he was. "Good," Dave replied. "Good?! You should feel great!" The giveaway that day, the only one that weekend, was a pin commemorating the game. Now, crazy old men with pins in their hats are to spring training what crazy old men in sweaters are to college basketball. So, Dave and I immediately put the pins on our hats. Appropriately, our seats for this game were in (or near, but who's counting) the Auxiliary Press section. Again we were there in time for batting practice and got to see Marlins manager Joe Girardi out by the cages. We also got to witness an usher fight (verbal only) as two ushers argued how a young family should get to their seats.

We didn't keep score for this one, but there are a few things I remember from this game. Starting for the Marlins was Scott Olsen, #3 on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list. Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida had a rough day at the plate, and may have played his way off my fantasy team. Jorge Julio showed why he had an ERA of 5.90 last year. Lenny Harris, who will probably make the Marlins, had a pinch hit appearance. Catcher Sandy Martinez showed why he shouldn't make the Mets. First there was a passed ball. Then, Mets top outfield prospect Lastings Milledge threw a perfect strike from left field, but Martinez let the ball go right by him. When Dave got back home, his dad started the following exchange:
"Boy, is that catcher awful!"
"Sandy Martinez?"
"Yeah - I'm pretty sure Omar's [Mets GM Omar Minaya] the only one who would even let him into camp."
After the game, the only thing left was the flight home. On the flight from Palm Beach to Charlotte, I sat between a Jewish woman and her sweet mother - who was flying for the first time. It was an amusing hour and a half, especially when the mother started making faces to her daughter whenever the boisterous businessmen across the aisle from us (each ordered at least 3 mixed drinks on the flight)started talking loudly. I also got to share their snacks with them, so that was nice.

The end.