Larry Stone’s favorite sportswriting day of the year is always the same: The one in which he arrives for spring training.
My favorite sportswriting day of the year is always the same: The one in which I get off the plane in Phoenix, feel the rejuvenating warmth of the desert sun and head to the utopia called spring training.
I figure I should be an honorary Arizona citizen by now. When I take that glorious desert trip Wednesday, it will be my 30th consecutive excursion to the land of cactus, Circle K’s and exhibition baseball. That’s about three years of my life in the Valley of the Sun, more or less.
First of all, that makes me old. I was a newlywed with my first child on the way when I headed to Tempe to cover the Mariners of Alvin Davis, Mark Langston and Spike Owen for the Bellevue Journal-American in 1986. That unborn child is now married and older than I was back then, and the Journal-American, alas, has been out of business for years.
But it also makes me an extraordinarily lucky man to convince four different newspapers to send me to Arizona over an uninterrupted three-decade span (and I’m not even counting the 15 or so years in which I also went to Florida to scrounge up stories in the Grapefruit League).
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Spring training remains a sheer delight, with the lone exception of the distasteful replacement spring of 1995. But mostly I look back at those 30 years — covering first the Mariners, then the Giants and A’s during a 10-year stint in the Bay Area, and then the Mariners again for the last 19 years — with nothing but warm memories.
There was the time Giants manager Roger Craig overheard the San Francisco beat corps talking about their daily basketball game at a local Scottsdale park after our work was done. He kept threatening to show up and play with us, which no one really believed. But one afternoon while we were playing, a pickup truck pulled up and out popped Craig in shorts and tank top. Out popped his wife with a cooler of beer.
Sure enough, Craig — in his late 50s or early 60s, mind you — played full court with us for half an hour. And then we all enjoyed the refreshments he had brought.
I was there when Barry Bonds arrived for his first day in Giants camp in Scottsdale after signing as a free agent — and blew off the army of reporters waiting to speak to him.
Covering Ken Griffey Jr. deserves a column all its own. I wasn’t there when Griffey put a cow in Lou Piniella’s office, but I was there nearly two decades later when he blew up a photo of himself and his former minor-league teammate, Roger Hansen, and displayed it, billboard-size, on the batter’s eye on one of the back fields in Peoria. His payoff came when Hansen, then the team’s catching coordinator, saw it for the first time, mouth agape.
I was also there for Griffey’s first day with the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota, Fla., where he granted me an exclusive interview to get a few things off his chest. While a huge horde of reporters watched from a respectful distance, I talked to Griffey for 20 minutes, ecstatic about my scoop. But to my horror, I had been so absorbed in Griffey’s words I hadn’t realized that a nearby clubhouse attendant was cleaning off cleats throughout the entire interview. Every time he struck a shoe with a metal pipe, it made a “thwack” that obscured Griffey’s words when I went to transcribe the tape. After a few moments of panic, I realized I had scribbled down enough notes to reconstruct the interview.
The training-camp arrival of superstars, from Griffey to Ichiro to Felix Hernandez, is always a highly anticipated event. But I also savor the chance to get reacquainted with lesser stars who are no less engaging. There’s a “first day of school” feel to the start of camp that never fails to be reinvigorating.
One of the greatest events I’ve ever witnessed in baseball came in a meaningless spring game in Scottsdale in 1991. Angels pitcher Jim Abbott, born without a right hand, made what might have been his first professional at-bat against Rick Reuschel, a very good Giants pitcher. Swinging one-armed, Abbott sent a screaming line drive off the right-field wall and raced around the bases with a triple. As I once wrote in a blog, no crowd I’ve ever witnessed — not after Kirk Gibson’s homer, or Joe Carter’s — has ever erupted in such pure, unadulterated joy.
Such sweet memories, from meeting my idol, Sandy Koufax, in Tommy Lasorda’s office in Vero Beach, Fla., to watching an emotional Piniella, in Peoria, put his arm around a crestfallen Japanese reporter who a day earlier had been the subject of Piniella’s anger for pestering him with Ichiro questions. The humanity of Piniella’s attempt to make amends will never leave me.
Nor will the hilarity of watching the Arizona Diamondbacks prank new Mariners manager Bob Melvin, their former coach, over his well-known coulrophobia (fear of clowns). They hired two clowns to make repeated appearances at Tucson Electric Park during their exhibition game with the Mariners. The clowns were introduced as “Bob” and “Melvin” and stood near Melvin in front of the dugout. Melvin’s annoyed reaction was priceless.
It’s all been priceless, in fact, right down to the wonderful monotony of PFPs — pitcher’s fielding practice. And I can’t wait for Wednesday, to soak it all in again.