Rites of spring

Even for Hall of Famers, Spring Training remains baseball’s proving ground

March 03, 2011
Peter Gammons was the 2004 J.G. Taylor Spink Award honoree by the BBWAA. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

There are condominiums where the Ramada Inn once stood in Winter Haven, Fla. There are a couple of new fast food restaurants, and a strip mall with a Chili's is across the street where orange trees once stood back in 1974.

In the back of that Ramada Inn was a single tennis court, and in March 1974, a good three dozen fans watched an unusual match. On one doubles team was Ted Williams; on the other, Carl Yastrzemski.

Ted was 55 and already a Hall of Famer for seven years. Yaz was 34 and very much an active member of the Red Sox. Some of the spectators were in the Red Sox organization at the time, some were in the media, some were just fans who heard about the game. Ted didn't move too well then. Yaz ran around every shot so that he could hit backhand, never changing his bottom hand (baseball bat) swing. When Ted missed a shot, there was the expected expletive shouted out, while Yaz would grimace and mumble and look down. They played for more than 70 minutes as if they were trying to be transported 34 years in time to Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon.

"Ted can't take losing to Carl," said once spectator, Red Sox vice-president Haywood Sullivan. "And you know Carl wasn't going to let Ted beat him, not at this point in his career. What makes them Hall of Famers is what makes this so much fun."

Yastrzemski's team eventually won. "Every (---) gets lucky sometime," said Williams.

Spring training was so simple back then, especially in a Tennessee Williams town like Winter Haven. They'd be lucky to get 1,000 fans at a game. Players went to barbecues at locals' houses. During morning practices, players and fans mingled with one another. The Grapefruit League dominated, as 17 of the 24 teams trained in Florida, and word of phenoms – from Walter Bonds for the '64 Indians to Mike Anderson of the '72 Phillies – spread by landline phones, or word of mouth. So would home runs you thought you'd never see, like one Bobby Darwin hit in Orlando for the Twins or another Mark Corey hit for the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale.

Teams often had to bus to separate minor league fields for detail work, like the "back field" in Miami where Earl Weaver taught all his trick plays. Parking was never a problem; there was a designated spot at the Miami stadium for the newspaper Cuban Star, but Mike Cuellar thought it was for him and parked there every morning. Drills were simple, easy, and one time during batting practice Boston Globe scribe Clif Keane noted Mike Torrez as not moving from one spot for 42 minutes. Writers could hang out with players in the clubhouse during games.

Spring training now is big business. The Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox sell out most of their home games in Mesa, Tampa, and Fort Myers by New Year's Eve. Travel companies book spring training packages, with player appearances. Taxpayer dollars have paid for lavish 21st century complexes as Arizona has now gained 16 of the 30 major league teams, and Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Vero Beach ("Dodgertown"), and Miami have long since given way to complexes with dozens of fields for major and minor league players.

Fans' access to players is more limited now than smaller regular season parks like Camden Yards and the media gets but limited minutes in the morning and after games. When pitchers leave games, PR people announce "Padilla will be available for ten minutes in ten minutes."

Still, for all its changes, Spring Training remains the break from many a winter back North, a joyride for people who love baseball. Last spring, fans in Central Florida fell in love with a 20-year old Braves rookie named Jason Heyward, whose first spring home run was pictured on ESPN.com less than an hour after he hit it. Marlins rookie Mike Stanton had a BP round of homers in Jupiter that was up on YouTube 35 minutes after his session. Phenoms Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman sold out every Nationas and Reds game when they were scheduled to pitch.

These fresh memories are now part of my Spring Training vault, like the Williams-Yaz tennis match. I remember a Yankees 10 a.m. "B" game in Fort Lauderdale in which there were so few fans that I heard the "zzzzzzz" of Dave Righetti's curveball. I remember watching a 50-something year old Sandy Koufax throwing BP in Dodgertown.

Then there was the time I was on the back field in Fort Lauderdale watching pitchers' fielding practice with manager Buck Showalter, noting how unathletic their phenom, Brien Taylor, appeared, then marveled at a kid I thought should play shortstop.

"Remember the name," Showalter told me. "It's Rivera, Mariano Rivera." That was 18 years ago, spring training then, now Mariano is in a waiting room in Cooperstown. The road to The Hall still runs through spring training, as different as it may be.

The 2004 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, Peter Gammons is an MLB.com columnist