Spring training brings out the kid in every baseball fan.
Thursday, April 3, 2003
Photo by George Kassal: Play Ball: Signing autographs is all part of spring training.
Every March, while the gray whales are swimming back north, thousands of people migrate south to Arizona and Florida. The reason for this mass human migration is baseball-specifically, spring training.
My own annual trek has taken me to Arizona for the past 12 years, except for the spring following the strike year of 1994. Of course, baseball isn''t the only reason I head south. There''s also the great warm weather, too many golf courses to count, and the surreal desert colors at sunset. But really, it all comes down to one thing: baseball.
My first trip to watch the San Francisco Giants play exhibition games in what was then the tony town of Scottsdale put me in a drug-like haze. I got hooked. I was taken in by the charm of the old wooden Scottsdale stadium, built over 50 years ago. Even the mile-long lines of people waiting to use one of only two bathrooms during the seventh inning became a lasting memory.
Today Scottsdale boasts a beautiful modern stadium that can handle 10,000 fans without a problem, but they still serve cold beers at your seat like in the old days, and the grass is as green as ever. The town itself has grown like a weed. On my first few visits, it was a ghost town after 10pm; now there are nightspots for all tastes, which can make it tough to answer the bell for that 7am tee time.
During the years that my buddies and I have been coming to Arizona we have developed many great friendships. It started 15 years ago with a chance meeting with Gary, the owner of the Italian Grotto restaurant on Main Street and Scottsdale Road (say hi to him if you stop by). We met at a game, and he invited a couple of my friends to his joint for a drink afterwards. From that point on this became the post-game place to be. His restaurant is near the ballpark and has a good vibe, which I cannot say about the rest of Phoenix.
What the city does have, in a big way, is spring training baseball. At last count at least 12 teams train there for the upcoming baseball season.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I am like a kid in the candy store once March rolls around. Some fans are always looking for that rookie trying to make the team, in hopes of predicting, "this kid is going to be big someday." Then if he does become an all-star, those fans can brag, "I saw that kid when he first came up and I knew he was a sure thing." Other fans just want to see their favorite players, and lose interest when players they have never heard of are in the game.
The best thing about spring training is the relaxed atmosphere that allows the fans a chance to buttonhole the players. During the regular season, when the games count, opportunities to get those precious autographs are much more remote. There is nothing better then seeing the excitement of kids trying to get a player''s John Hancock. The kids these days have it down: "Mr. Snow, may I have your autograph?" is all I heard when World Series Star J. T. Snow walked on the field before a preseason game. The youngsters have pens in hand and hats and balls for the players to sign.
One fan got so excited when a player stood up in front of the dugout he threw the pen over the player''s head and it landed on the field. I retrieved it for him-just trying to be helpful. I''m sure the young players trying to make the team for the first time must enjoy signing autographs, since it is still a new experience for them.
During a preseason World Series rematch between the Giants and Angels, one of three young Angels fans was talking it up about an autograph he got from a guy that was pitching late in the game. He was predicting the player''s future stardom, along with the future value of that autograph. Unfortunately, two pitches later the star-to-be gave up a two-run double, and the over-confident fan got a good ribbing from his buddies along with his now-worthless piece of paper.
Autographs-personally I don''t get it. When I was a kid I got all excited when Willie McCovey, one of my favorite Giants, was at a local discount store. I begged my Dad to take me there, and I got his autograph. That piece of paper is long gone, but what I remember the most is the moment when Willie looked me in the eye and asked my name and how I was doing. That was when I discovered these guys are people just like everyone else, and all I needed was a simple, "Hi kid, how ya doing?"
George Kassal leaves his Monterey home each spring to watch spring training. The Giants play their home opener against the San Diego Padres on April 7 at 1:05pm in Pacific Bell Park.