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I spent the weekend in Tampa, in and around a hive of Yankees activity. While I didn’t visit St. Jetersberg or eat popcorn with Cameron, here are my takes:
First, it’s warm in Florida. Based on the forecast for Opening Day later this week in New York, I recommend all teams just stay where they are and play the first month of the season down south. The players would get off to better start playing in 80 degree weather, and fans can happily watch the games from heated living rooms. There’s no reason for the words “40 degrees” and “baseball” to be in the same sentence.
I haven’t been to a spring training game in over 10 years, but I was reminded that even for a franchise as big as the Yankees, the whole atmosphere feels a lot more like a minor league game than a big league camp. You don’t know half the players, the atmosphere is relaxed, it’s as much about getting some sun and just being there than focusing on the game. I’ve never totally understood baseball’s ability to drive food and beverage consumption, but baseball fans, even at spring training, arrive at games as if they’ve crossed a desert to get there. Big drinks, dirty water dogs and boxes of Cracker Jack are attacked like 2-0 fastballs. I bet half the fans never actually find their seats, instead forming a nonstop parade of people shuffling from food vendors to souvenir stands to arcade style games. Every now and then, a play on the field will send a jolt of noise echoing down the concrete corridors, and everyone turns to see what they missed. On Saturday, Alex Rodriguez blasted a home run over a tall black wall in straight away center, had to be a 450 foot homer. Maybe half the fans saw it.
I do have a baseball item: in both games I saw, Brett Gardner batted first and Jeter batted second. I’m not sure if this lineup will be permanent, but I like this lineup more than Gardner in the 9th spot. Batting leadoff will give him 150 more at bats, and his speed will allow for more stolen base and hit and run opportunities. Jeter will have to sacrifice a bit more, focusing on moving Gardner to second for the middle of the lineup to drive in, but he’s made a nice living hitting to the right side anyway. It may even help him lay off the first pitch groundouts.
On Sunday, an ambidextrous pitcher named Pat Venditte made a relief appearance. Think about those words: “ambidextrous pitcher.” Yes, he throws left-handed to lefties and right-handed to righties. If I had that talent, I’m not sure what my strategy would be, switching from left to right based on each individual batter, or pitching 100 pitches one way, then turning the glove around and being my own relief pitcher, finishing the game with the other arm. Here’s a NYT blog post about Venditte’s appearance.
Finally, thanks to my very awesome hosts, I had the chance to meet a few Yankees. Hall of Famer Goose Gossage, manager Joe Girardi, reliever Joba Chamberlain and outfielder Curtis Granderson couldn’t have been more hospitable, spending time, signing autographs, patiently posing for picture after picture. Granderson in particular has to be the nicest guy in the majors. Just a fabulous guy. Joe Girardi, upon seeing my two year old, was more interested on when she would be coming out to the Stadium instead of talking shop. Definitely a real family guy. Goose still sports the Fu Manchu but has no trace of the gruff that intimidated batters for 20 years, signing anything fans wanted and telling war stories about the Yanks in the 70s. Joba is the class clown, but as he told a story about helping kids from his hometown get to Disneyworld, you realize there’s a thread to all these guys, an understanding that with the privilege of playing a boys game for a boatload of money comes the opportunity to be a decent guy. It’s good to see they’re not blowing the opportunity.
Outside Steinbrenner Field, there is a small version of Monument Park. I took my daughter to see all the plaques, trying to get her to call out the great names. Scooter, Yogi, Babe, Lou. But it was Thurman’s plaque that got the most traffic, a place where me and other guys my ago who remembers August 2 stopped to take a picture.