Friday, April 15, 2016

Green Grass in Arizona

Green Grass in Arizona – A Day at Spring Training
travel commentary
Gregory E. Larson

           Alcides Escobar, the first Royals batter of the day, walks up to home plate and steps into the batter’s box at the sun-drenched ballpark in Surprise, Arizona. I’m overcome with feelings of nostalgia as I look out over the verdant field and see a stadium that could be in Memphis or Chattanooga, you know, one of those AAA-sized ballparks. It’s an intimate setting for 10,000 fans, but big enough for the bigs. After fouling off a few pitches, Escobar hits a high, pop fly.
          While the ball hangs in the air over the center fielder, the woman seated next to my wife, Gretta, states matter-of-factly, “Can o’ corn.”
          The old-time baseball term for an easy catch was one I’d not heard in decades. It said so much about the crowd at the spring training game in the Cactus League. Most of the 8,800 fans who come to see some baseball are retired folks from all over the United States. It’s a crowd that has a deep knowledge of the game but most of the fans are out to have a good time. The stress-o-meter in our section in the shade of the upper deck is next to zero. During the course of the game we share where we live and who we’re routing for. We’re there for the love of the game and to appreciate the talent on either team.
          I have three items on my checklist: (1) Have fun. (2) Get some stats for my brother who is setting up his fantasy baseball team. (3) Make an executive decision selecting food and drink.
          I descend the stairs from the small upper deck and look towards the plaza along the first-base side of the field. The food and trinket tents are set up like a state fair. What should I get? Funnel cakes? Corn dogs? Craft beer? Lemonade? Brats? Maybe all of the above. I gravitate to the fresh-squeezed lemonade stand (Gretta will like that) and order two giant lemonades, one with strawberries in it for me. I add a corn dog and curly fries. The gal taking my order finds a small, beat-up cardboard box to serve as a carry-out container.
          The daytime game takes me back to the old traditions when games were played in the afternoon, and school boys hid transistor radios in their classroom desks to listen intently through the earpiece when Maris and Mantle were at bat.
          The solitude at the spring training game hits me in the second inning. There’s very little PA noise. No flashing lights. No chants with pounding drum noise. The announcer identifies each batter as they come to the plate. Nothing more, except when Row N in Section 115 is told they’ve won Papa Murphy’s Pizza Coupons to be redeemed at the local franchise.
          Some late-comers to the game get some friendly haggling as everyone in their row stands up to let them get to their seats. A lady at the end of the row announces to the new arrivals, “We’ll let you in this time, but you get only one potty break.”
          When the Royals are up to bat, I recognize Rusty Kuntz, the Royals’ first-base coach down on the field. He’s always got a smile on his face and talks to all of the players within earshot. He’s an old-timer, but he acts like a young coach at a little league game. Heck, I wish I could hit the ball and run to first base just to get a slap on the back and an encouraging word. He’s a one-man welcoming committee for any Royal that makes it to first base.
          I frantically write the players names on my dollar program and score sheet, then use some custom hieroglyphics to keep track of what happens. Interpreting the chicken scratches becomes more difficult as the game progresses. What the heck, we’re here to have fun.
          The Royals are looking good in every facet of the game. They’re hitting the ball with authority, making home runs, triples and singles with ease. They’re bird-dogging the ball when the other team is up to bat. Double plays seem routine and the over-the-head catches in the outfield draw big cheers from the crowd. The pitchers are moving the ball around the plate and changing speed on different pitches. This could be another good year for the boys in blue.
          Everything is easy-peasy in the stands, but I can’t imagine the stress on the players, especially the Roster Invitees, those from the minor leagues selected to participate in spring training due to their promising talent. This might be their only chance to break into the majors. Each crack of the bat, each bounce of the ball could mean success or disaster to their statistics. Fate could give them a life of multimillion-dollar contracts or ride on the bus from Spokane to Redmond. I think of the years each player has donned a uniform, from little leagues to now, always hoping to make it to the big-time. Both teams substitute players at a torrid pace as if there are revolving doors on the dugout. My score sheet has become illegible.
          Bubba Starling comes to bat for the Royals. Hey, maybe we could start a Bubba fan club. I turn to Gretta. “We could get a chant going for this guy. How about Hubba-Bubba, Hubba-Bubba?”
          Well, it seemed like a good idea. We’re having fun in this make-believe summer in the middle of March. At the seventh-inning stretch I keep my tradition of singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game by singing it one syllable out of sync: Me out to the ball game, take . . .  me out to the park, buy . . . Gretta laughs as she gives me a weird look, just like she always does when I sing it that way.
          All too soon the game is coming to an end. With a 7-1 lead, a Royals pitcher, a Roster Invitee named Moylan serves up a fat ’tater to an Angels batter for a three-run homer in the top of the ninth. That’s not going to look good on Moylan’s pitching summary. But shortly thereafter the Royals record the third out and the game is over.
          Say it ain’t so. The grounds crew rushes out onto the field and the crowd files out. I take one last look at the lush field before we walk out into the parking lot in the desert.
          The rental car thermometer reads 93 degrees. I pull out of the gravel lot and Gretta says, “I heard the forecast is for snow in Kansas City – about the time we get back home.”

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.