by Marty Appel
Maybe it’s the palm trees. There’s just something about spring training.
With all the hard work and jobs-on-the-line pressure that goes with spring training, the memories of this annual baseball rite are often of just the good fellowship and renewal of spirit associated with it.
Yes, there is pressure, but there is also the feeling of old-time baseball, when airline travel was not a part of the routine, when the team and its assemblage of front office people, local temps, media, and extended coaching staffs form a six-week community sharing in common the love of the game.
For the players, there is the satisfying feeling of the sweat and exhaustion that comes from a well disciplined workout, feeling each muscle getting closer to opening day readiness. For others, there is that day’s chore, whether it is the clubhouse men sorting uniforms while preparing lunch, or the publicity people getting last minute yearbook photos, or the media chasing after a trade rumor.
There was a time when planning the evening’s restaurant could occupy a good part of the day, but then came night games and sellouts, and with that, the end of the simpler time.
When I think of the simplicity that was once spring training, I am taken back to the rickety ballpark in Pompano Beach, Florida, home of the Washington Senators. The Yankees played the Senators a lot when I was doing public relations for the team, mostly because they were just five miles down the road. If you had a slot for a “B” game, why not the Senators?
Most games were day games back then, and on this particular day, we had a split squad at Pompano. After nine innings, we had run out of pitchers; we had only brought enough to take us nine. And the game was tied.
What to do? Anyone with Little League experience could have figured it out. We “borrowed” a Senators pitcher, Bill Gogolewski , and in his Washington uniform, he took the mound and faced his own teammates, with the Yankees behind him. What a sight! But it gave the fans a full game, gave Gogolewski his work, and no one seemed to mind.
Yes, spring training was a lot simpler then.
The Yankees spent more seasons training in Ft. Lauderdale (34), than in St. Petersburg (33) because World War II restricted travel during the St. Pete years, and because in 1951, Mickey Mantle’s rookie season, the team swapped camps with the Giants and trained in Phoenix. (Tampa is now in its fourth season.)
I was barely out of college when I reported to spring training as Bob Fishel’s publicity assistant in 1970, and what a beautiful site Ft. Lauderdale Stadium was. The locals called it Yankee Stadium during spring training, and Ft. Lauderdale Stadium the rest of the year. There you had palm trees and blue skies forming beautiful backgrounds for photography. In St. Petersburg, the background had often been the thick trees of a more northern breed, but nevertheless, unmistakably Miller Huggins Field, where the team worked out. (They played their games at Al Lang Field, which they shared for many years with the Cardinals).
All of the rituals, so well planned, defined what spring training was. The soup of the day and hard boiled eggs in the clubhouse; the snakes, occasionally spotted in the distant practice field beyond left field; the prisoners who served as grounds crew on work assignment; the ferocious storms that would pass in 15 minutes; the way the press box would vibrate in heavy winds (or when corporate jets buzzed overhead), the planning with clubhouse chief Pete Sheehy over when to get the players into home whites so the photos would look better, the media attention when the new superstar first reported, the lap around the field followed by calisthenics to open each day, Lou Piniella agreeing to serve as translator for Mexican infielder Celerino Sanchez during a contract negotiation, Mickey Mantle, a coach, posing for pictures with rookies (who never had the courage to ask him for batting advice), and Sparky Lyle, as a gag, showing up with his leg in a full cast.
Bob Fishel used to hire the cocktail waitresses from a Polynesian restaurant, in their sarongs, to serve drinks in the press box when the Mets came to town, as though this went on every day, and this was how to run a press box.
The national columnists would swing into camp one at a time and of course, expect time with the manager, time with the superstar, and some banter with whoever the oldest coach happened to be, someone they probably went “way back with.”
One spring Jesse Owens, the Olympic legend, was a guest instructor. Another year Mayor John Lindsay showed up, running for President in the Florida primary. Spotting Mantle, the only familiar face he could pick out, he shook his hand and said “luck, luck, luck!!!” Mantle was a spring training instructor; he had no idea what Lindsay was talking about.
Ft. Lauderdale Stadium’s first use was not in spring training of 1962, but in the weeks before that, when Mantle and Roger Maris filmed “Safe at Home” there, a terrible movie appreciated today only by Mantle and Maris collectors. And then, the new ballpark was opened with all the glamour one would expect following the great 1961 world championship, home run record season. It was state-of-the-art at the time, and it helped put Ft. Lauderdale on the map; that, plus the “Where the Boys Are” movies and the spring break traditions on the beach.
There were recurring spring training traditions. Foreign players always seemed to have visa problems, causing them to be a few days late. Mickey Rivers always had some form of visa problem as well, but he lived in Miami, a half-hour away. He was always a few days late too.
You could be sure that someone who had played winter ball looked like the next Joe DiMaggio. And that someone would say “pitchers are ahead of the hitters” or “hitters are ahead of the pitchers.”
Every year there was some shortstop who was going to take Gene Michael’s job. One year it was Jim Mason. Mason’s first time in the batting cage he failed to connect on a dozen swings. Michael was the opening day shortstop.
The sales representatives from sporting goods companies would drop by. The word “free” was used a lot. The Associated Press would send a photographer to make sure they had a head shot of everyone. The New York television stations would send their sports reporters down for a few days, and how odd they would look in short pants.
Trips were done the old fashioned way, on a bus. One year a driver was making turns on two wheels and exceeding the speed limit by about 40 miles an hour. We were all starting to panic when manager Bill Virdon told him to knock it off.
“I’m driving for the Lord,” said the bussy.
Virdon, a religious man, wasn’t buying it.
“You’re driving for the New York Yankees,” he said, “and you’re taking this down to 30 miles an hour.” Everyone cheered.
There was the sadness of a veteran getting released, the excitement of the 25th man being some kid who was out of options. Or a long shot, non-roster player who made it.
It all happens so fast, and with a world championship club like this year’s, with few jobs open, the competition is the least of it. But there is something magical in the Florida breeze that says, “162 games to go, and ain’t life great.”