A Kid In A Clubhouse In Spring

Baseball's foggy, fussy mythos remains one of its biggest selling points, for better or worse. But even heroes are humans in the spring.
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While one city celebrates and shakes off its post-victory hangover, the fans of every other team—the non-celebrants, baseball's hopeful and vanquished majority—take to social media or some other means of communication with the same news. "Pitchers and catchers report in ____ days," they say.

Is this a way to proclaim a lack of disappointment, or a statement of profound optimism? Is it, simply, an increasingly standardized way for fans to show their passion for America’s Pastime while others grieve a difficult postseason exit? There's nothing that says it has to be just one, and with piles of snow lingering on the lawns in cold-weather cities, Spring Training does have an undeniable specialness. It holds out the promise that there are (literally) greener pastures awaiting, and tantalizes with the promise—which can seem distant in the face of a snowy 5pm sunset—of a well-manicured outfield, a short-sleeve shirt, and a sun-soaked day. Spring Training comes and actual Spring follows. It always does.

I, too, watch the clock for the arrivals down south. My interest oscillates between non-existent, casual, and "Well, I’m still up and the Sox are playing in Seattle" until the playoffs, but spring still works. After a winter given over to hot stove speculation and the increasingly sour spectacle of Hall of Fame voting, it's a relief.

The vote to induct three new players into the Hall of Fame this year was, as it generally is, overshadowed by the usual bad vibes and armchair viciousness. But Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas all crossed the 75% threshold needed for induction, and were all deserving. As the earliest and least meaningful Spring Training games approach, we are still in the storytelling period where these three new Hall of Famers are concerned. Most of this is fan non-fiction, stories about ballgames with fathers or grandfathers. Some are first-hand accounts from teammates, legends of their greatness, or, in better moments, of the human beings under and inside those legends. I have a story about them, too.

***

I was 19 and in my first year studying journalism; most of my classes began with the words "Intro To", and there was freshman comp. Walt Disney World offered students the chance to take classes that fulfilled requirements through a local university, and to do so outside the usual setting. I pursued the internship, and I got it.

While there, I cold-called a man named Bill Hofheimer, who is now doing public relations for Monday Night Football. The Atlanta Braves conduct their Spring Training at the Disney-owned Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. More than anything, I wanted access to a professional locker room. I wanted to talk to media professionals. I wanted to talk to athletes. What a great thing this would be, my academic advisor and I both agreed, to put on a resumé. I called Hofheimer to get a sort of internship within my internship.

We filed the requisite paperwork and without even an interview I was given a press pass and unlimited access to the Atlanta Braves. It is a charitable understatement to describe myself as woefully unprepared for this. I had little media savvy, I knew nothing of locker room or press box etiquette; I knew nothing of how to dress to how to speak with people. I also wasn’t writing for anyone in particular, so my notes were simply notes, a way to keep and look busy while the media members were tapping away at their laptops.

When I asked questions of the athletes, it was because I was curious—I wasn’t writing for anyone, let alone the major metropolitan newspapers of my neighbors in the press box. If you'd guessed at why I asked the questions I did, you would assume I was writing the backs of the trading cards in Sports Illustrated for Kids. So: "Mr. Maddux, what’s your favorite kind of pizza?" That isn’t really a question that I asked, although I’m mildly interested to know the answer and sort of wish I had.

Both Maddux and Glavine turned 35 that season, less than 30 days apart; they were coming off a 2000 campaign in which they finished second (Glavine) and third (Maddux) in National League Cy Young voting. The Braves had last year’s Rookie of the Year Rafael Furcal at shortstop; he was an Adonis, but otherwise looked not much older than I was, mostly because he wasn’t. Chipper Jones had hit .330 the year before with 38 home runs. In centerfield, Andruw Jones, then just 24, could make catching a paper plate falling from the sky on a windy day look routine. To walk into that Braves locker room was to be surrounded by world-class athletes, many of them in the square of their prime.

Astonishingly enough, they made me feel as if I belonged there. This may have been because I looked—as I felt and, to some degree, was—so wildly out of place. I was surrounded by—and largely ignored by—media veterans; many were gracious and generous with advice, but they had deadlines to hit. My face was an unfamiliar one to the Braves, one that didn’t bring with it memories of a dismissive column or other unflattering portrayal. Brian Jordan, the left fielder, asked the crowd of reporters, "You again?" shook his head, and crow-hopped into a jog. It's possible that the team, sensing my reticence and unmistakable misfit status, felt some fraternal bond. It's also possible that I’m remembering it the way I would like to remember it.

But I remember it. There’s Eddie Perez, backup catcher, telling me he wishes his hair was cut like mine, but his wife wouldn’t have approved. There’s Chipper Jones, with his massive arms in a sleeveless shirt, carrying two mammoth bats in one hand, walking across the playing field—I was later spoken-to about this—with just me as I peppered him with questions, none of which were important or relevant to any story I was writing. There's John Rocker gripping the back of my head as if I was a lion cub, playfully shaking it in the locker room whenever I asked him for comment.

There was a magic just to being near it. Bobby Cox, another Hall of Famer, five feet from me, regaled captivated media members with stories about Hall of Famer Eddie Matthews, who had passed away the previous day. Andrew Young, the former Mayor of Atlanta and a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., came through. Tracy McGrady threw out a first pitch and Mark McGwire, in the final season of his Paul Bunyan-esque career, was simply and stunningly huge as he went about his business.

I smiled the entire bus ride home on many of those days.

***

Somewhere in there, I found myself in a near-empty locker room with Maddux and Glavine. Maddux was on his phone securing a tee time for that afternoon. Glavine was next to him. Both of them looked so ordinary, less like deities in a baseball locker room than thirtysomethings in the locker room at a golf course.

I grew up just a few towns over from Glavine’s hometown of Billerica, Massachusetts; our towns played sports against each other. I mentioned this, and Glavine and I shared stories about the area in which we both grew up. We talked about coaches still in the area, guys with whom Glavine and I shared a past. Maddux hung up his phone, assessed me, and asked me what my story was.

I told him I went to Springfield College, that I was down here doing an internship and trying to get some experience. He nodded in vague affirmation, looked up and asked me if I were, by any slight chance, Mormon.

"No, why?" I asked. 

"No reason," he replied.

"That was a random question to ask," added Glavine. The conversation continued a few minutes more.

I didn’t have many more meaningful interactions after that first one, though they were gracious and pleasant in passing after that. That is the memory that’s stuck with me since, and it has stuck—a song from an otherwise routine Tuesday afternoon that comes back, clear as a bell decades later.

When I returned from my semester in Orlando, I wrote a lengthy column for the school newspaper; it was a running, if hugely fragmented, diary. It’s probably at the bottom of one of those bins full of old clips, collecting dust under the stairs to the basement. The writing is almost definitely of poor-quality, and there is likely little depth to the reportage. I don't feel terribly compelled to dig it up.

There’s a wonderful article, written by Frank Deford for Sports Illustrated, about a meeting between the author and his boyhood hero Johnny Unitas. Unitas, whose playing days were past, greeted the sportswriter by saying, "It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Deford."

"That threw me into a tailspin," Deford wrote. "No, no, no. Don’t you understand?  I’m not Mr. Deford. You’re Mr. Unitas. Johnny U. You’re my boyhood idol. I can’t ever be Mr. Deford with you, because you have to always be number 19, so I can always be a kid."

Our heroes shrink and we grow and at some point we meet somewhere near the middle, all a bit thicker about the waist and slower than we were. For all that we know about baseball and the people who play it, a nostalgia governs and inflects what we see when we watch baseball and how we see it. We want to think about a sunny day at the park, the sound of a ball on the sweet spot of a wooden bat. These things are still there to be found, of course. Ten years ago isn't that long ago, really. Maddux and Glavine and Jones and Bobby Cox are all gone from the game; I am no longer 19 years old. This is all as it must be. But those were my good old days.


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