From: Spring Training: Welcome to Next Year
I want to get up and be at the practice fields by nine. I expect it'll be just me and Steph, but Trudy comes too, driving while I navigate. We peel off the Tamiami Trail and in a few blocks we see City of Palms Park. According to the website, the training complex is two and a half miles straight down Edison, but there's no parking. You're supposed to park here and ride a shuttle bus to the practice fields.
City of Palms Park is understated and classic from the outside, a plain white concrete facade three stories tall, with flags for all the AL teams flying atop the roof, and one window-sized Sox logo over the green main gates. There's no one on the plaza in front, just the stalky palm trees. I don't see anywhere to park, so I tell Trudy to go ahead and cruise the practice fields.
We get lucky -- the lot for the practice facility is half-empty. The clear-coated monster trucks and chrome-wheeled Escalades are obviously the players'. We park in a far corner and head for the nearest gate. AUTHORIZED ACCESS ONLY, a sign says. As we walk through, I look for other fans, but only see a few people who might be players' relatives.
There are five fields and, closest to us, a roofed arcade. Someone's in there smacking balls, but it's too dim to see who, and we're trying to act cool. We head for a field where the players are stretching. No one challenges us. When we reach the team, we see why -- it's not the big club but the rookie and minor league invitees, guys with no shot this year, but who may develop and move up through the system.
The pitchers run bunt drills. The outfielders handle line-drive singles silently fired from a rubber-wheeled machine. Former players Luis Alicea and U L Washington coach the infielders, tossing short-hops the players have to backhand barehanded. The range of skill is evident. Some never miss while others are lucky to pick one cleanly.
Summers, we see a lot of the triple-A PawSox over in Pawtucket and the double-A Portland Sea Dogs when they visit New Britain, but the only player I recognize is Hanley Ramirez. He's the number one prospect in our farm system, a shortstop with speed and power. He's only twenty, and rumor is he might be promoted from single-A Augusta to Portland, with an eye towards taking Nomar's place in 2005. One problem is he made 36 errors last year and hit only .275 after batting over .330 at lower levels. Another is that he's a hothead, earning a ten-game suspension for making an obscene gesture to the crowd. Here, in practice, he moves like he's already a superstar, cool and loose and slouchy.
There are three seniors watching with us, a woman and two men, one of whom is wearing a Springfield Elks cap. The woman has a camera, a couple signed balls and a handful of minor league cards. She wants to get Jamie Brown to sign his. She knows all the players taking batting practice. This is what they do, she says. They're mad at the Sox for forcing them to buy ticket packages that include three crummy games to get the one good one against the Yanks, so now they just come to the complex and watch the kids.
BP wraps, so we ramble along the road beyond the last field. It's hot, and Steph's cheeks are red. We've circled the entire complex, and walk through the lot just as two women in a '69 Firebird convertible pull up. They're older than any of the guys here, but beach-tanned and gym-tight. I don't think Steph's seen Bull Durham or knows what a Baseball Annie is, but he probably wouldn't be interested anyway.
We come back in the players' entrance, which has a Boston Globe honor box beside it. The batting alleys are full of guys getting extra swings in. By the backstop, the old lady is getting Jamie Brown to sign. We've only been here a few hours, but it's enough. It's only our first day and we're already wilting.
After putting in some beach time, we get caught in traffic and are nearly late for the night game. Hammond Stadium holds only 7,500, but it seems they've all brought their cars. The Twins have elected to park the overflow on the outfields of their practice facility. We just shrug and follow the soft ruts in front of us and nose it in against the 330 sign by the foul pole.
"The temperature at game time here in Fort Myers is seventy-nine degrees," the PA announcer informs us, to applause. "In Minneapolis, it's thirty-four with a mix of rain and snow."
Besides the ailing Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon sitting out, the starting lineup is most decidedly the A-team. Gabe Kapler, a solid backup outfielder, leads off, followed by last year's surprise batting champ Bill Mueller, Manny, Nomar, David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Jason Varitek, PawSock Adam Hyzdu subbing in right for Trot, and in the nine-spot, Pokey Reese.
The Twins roll out their postseason lineup, including outfielders Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter, and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, as well as phenom Joe Mauer at catcher.
It's the first inning of the first exhibition game, but when Bill Mueller launches one to deep center, Torii Hunter gets on his horse and runs it down, diving at full extension like it's the playoffs.
The intensity only lasts a couple of innings. By the fourth the substitutions are wholesale and the game takes on a double-A flavor. The Sox win on a broken-bat bleeder by prospect Jeremy Owens, and we leave happy, picking up our free grapefruit, two each in a yellow mesh bag. In the lot I spy an old orange VW bus with RED SOX NATION handpainted in red across the back window. Three guys in their early twenties are piling in the side door, and for a second I envy them the trip. Then I remember that I'm on it too.
It's sunny and eighty-four in Fort Myers, the sort of faux summer day that fills Florida's west coast with tourists in the month of March and makes driving a pain in the ass -- often a dangerous pain in the ass, as many of the people with whom one is sharing the road are old, bewildered, and heavily medicated. All the same, I'm in a chipper mood as I stash my car among the Hummers and Escalades in the players' parking lot (I have a special dispensation from Kerri Moore, the new Public Relations gal). It's a perfect day for my first game of the year.
Well, okay, so it's not really a game; more of a seven-inning scrimmage against the Boston College baseball team, which is down to take its annual pasting from the experienced teams along the Sun Coast and Alligator Alley (Florida college teams get to play and practice year-round, which hardly seems fair) before swinging north to play under usually cloudy skies and in cutting winds that make fifty degrees feel like thirty. But they are naturally juiced to be playing against the big boys, and in front of an audience that numbers in the thousands instead of the hundreds or -- sometimes, early on -- the mere dozens.
City of Palms Park in Fort Myers is Fenway's sunnier-tempered little brother. The aisles are wider, the concession lines are shorter, the prices are saner, the pace is slower, and the mood is laid-back. One hears the occasional cry of You suck! -- these are Boston fans after all -- but they are isolated, and often draw disapproving looks. This is a mellow crowd, and hey, why not? We're still in first place -- along with the Yankees, and the Orioles, and even the Devil Rays, who dwell in their somehow dingy dome up the road in Tampa -- and all things are possible. Curse? What curse? As if to underline this, a grinning bald guy holds up a sign for Pokey Reese. OKEY DOKEY, POKEY, it reads.
It's an afternoon for saying hello to old friends from previous springs going back -- can it be? -- six years, now; everyone from the parking-lot attendant and the elderly security guard outside the elevator going up to the offices and the press boxes to a laid-back Larry Lucchino, who wants to know if I'm over my bout of pneumonia. And Stewart O'Nan is here, looking exactly as he did last October during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Maybe a little more gray in the goatee -- being a Red Sox fan will do that to you -- but otherwise he looks like the same old Stew. He could even be munching from the same bag of peanuts. The wonderful Kerri Moore (who I still haven't met, although I did leave her a signed copy of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon as a thank-you) has gotten us seats directly behind the screen, and the grass is so green it almost looks painted on.
Tim Wakefield starts for Boston and gets a solid round of applause: these people remember the games he won in postseason, not the catastrophic season-ending home run he gave up to Aaron Boone. He throws more hard stuff than I'm used to seeing, but Wake's bread-and-butter pitch is the knuckleball, and to him the really hard stuff is a heater that clocks in at 81 miles an hour (the scoreboard down here gives no radar-gun readout, so we just have to guess). The top of the BC lineup hits him pretty well, and after half an inning they've put up a two-spot on four hits. This is a pretty typical early-spring outing for Wakefield, who just throws the one inning. At thirty-seven he's not only the dean of the Red Sox pitching staff, but the player who's been with the club longest.
A lot of the guys who see action in the Sox-BC scrimmage (which the Sox eventually win, 9-3, big surprise there) are a lot less familiar. There's Jesus Medrano, for instance, and career minor leaguer Andy Dominique; there's Tony Schrager, who is wearing the highest number I've ever seen: 95. Holy shit, I think, that could almost be his temperature. These guys and plenty of others will undoubtedly be on their way back to the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Portland Sea Dogs, and the Lowell Spinners (where the team mascot, Stew informs me, is the world-famous Canalligator) when the forty-man roster starts to shrink. For others, so-called invitees like Terry Shumpert, Tony Womack, and the world-famous Dauber, things are more serious. If it doesn't work here for them, it may not work anywhere. The career of a pro baseball player is longer than that of the average pro basketball or football player, but it is still short compared to that of your average account executive or ad salesman, and although the pay is better, the end can come with shocking suddenness.
But no one worries too much about stuff like that on a day like this. It's only the second game-day of the short spring season, the weather's beautiful, and everyone's loose. Around the fourth inning, Red Sox radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione comes down and sits with Stewart and me for a little while. Like the players, Joe looks trim, tanned and relaxed. He has his own book coming out in a month or so, a wonderful, anecdote-crammed trip down memory lane called Broadcast Rites and Sites, subtitled I Saw It on the Radio with the Boston Red Sox. (One of the best is about the grand slam Boston catcher Rich Gedman hit off Detroit screwballer Willie Hernandez back in '86.) He tells us more stories as he sits on the step at the end of the aisle, watching Boston College bat in the top of the fifth. Baseball is a leisurely game, and those of us who love it fill its pauses with stories of other games and other years. When I mention how hard I'm pulling for Brian Daubach to find a home with the '04 Red Sox, Joe tells us how he set Dauber up with the woman who became his wife. "She said she didn't like ballplayers because they were always hitting on her," Joe says, smiling in the warm afternoon sun. "I told her she ought to meet this guy. I told her he was really different. Really nice." Joe's smile widens into a grin. "Then I sent Dauber in to get his hair cut," he finishes. "Case closed."
Stew and I look at each other and say the same thing at exactly the same moment: What hair? The Dauber's got a quarter of an inch, at most. And we all laugh. It's good to be laughing at a baseball game again. God knows the laughs were hard to come by last October.
I ask Joe if the college kids get excited about these games with the pros (I'm thinking of the BC pitcher who struck out big David Ortiz in the third, and wondering if he'll still be telling people about it when he's forty-five and paunchy). "Oh, like you wouldn't believe," Joe says, and then goes on to tell us the Red Sox player the college kids liked the most was the much maligned Carl Everett, who was dubbed Jurassic Carl by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy (for his temper as much as his fundamentalist Christian beliefs), and who has since been traded to the Montreal Expos. "He was great to the [college players]," Joe says. "He'd spend lots of time talking to them and give them all kinds of equipment." He pauses, then adds, "I bet he prospers in Montreal, because there's no media coverage. People won't be watching him so closely."
By now it's the bottom of the sixth, and Joe excuses himself. He and his broadcast partner, Jerry Trupiano ("Troop"), are doing the evening game (another slo-mo scrimmage, this time against Northeastern, with a fellow named Schilling starting for the Sox), and he has to prepare. But, like everything else that happens this day, the preparations will be leisurely, more pleasure than business. Joe knows a lot of people back home in New England will be listening, but not exactly paying attention -- it's the Sox versus Northeastern, after all...but it's also baseball, Schilling on the mound, Garciaparra at short, and Varitek behind the plate (at least for a while, then maybe Kelly Shoppach, another guy with a high number). It's the fact of it that matters, like that first robin you see on your still-snowy front lawn.
It's too early to play really hard, and too early to wax really lyrical, either (God knows there's too much labored lyricism in baseball writing these days; it's even crept into the newspapers, which used to be bastions of statistics and hard-nosed reality -- what sports reporters used to call "the agate"). But it can't hurt to say that being here -- especially after a serious bout of pneumonia -- feels pretty goddamn wonderful. It's like putting your hand out and touching a live thing -- another season when great things may happen. Miracles, even. And if that isn't touching grace, it's pretty close.
Oh, shit, that's too close to lyrical for comfort, but it's been a good day. There was baseball. So let it stand.
Excerpted from FAITHFUL © Copyright 2004 by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season