Tuesday Cousin and I are early to the stadium, arriving at 0700 for a 0715 scheduled opening. There are thirty guys ahead of us. The weather is cold and crisp, there’s lots of nervous energy from first timers, and lots of knowing smiles from alumni campers. This is a traditional moment of awe as we enter the NY Yankee spring training locker room for the first time.
The day before we were given a diagram of the locker room and our assignments, and Cousin and I are right in the middle of the room. Great zish, as we used to say.
Seeing our names over the lockers, a full pinstripe uniform hanging just right, some good swag there, too. Hell we paid for it all and we are not disappointed.
Of course, my shirt is too tight. Cousin’s pants pinch his crotch. I walked up to the uniform attendant, yes the real guy in charge of the NY Yankees uniforms and start to show him my belt, which is too tight. Just before I complain I see that the belt is easily adjustable. He looks at me expectantly, and I mumble thanks for all of this or words to that effect. I wonder if he knew how close I was to being THAT GUY again.
After breakfast in the team dining facility (the Yankees do not cater food… they have a chef who prepares all meals, even for a large crowd), we all make our way to the first camper meeting. Each morning the powers-that-be randomly raffle off unique swag. Cousin gets the very first pull from the hat, a Nasty Nestor signed color pic with him in motion at the release point. It is awesome.
Cousin is now the envy of the moment.
We are off to Himes Field for Game number 1, a short three block bus trip from the stadium. Sun was high now at nearly 1000am, in the seventies with no clouds, and getting warmer.
We did okay but lost by two runs. Big learning curve for me. I caught five innings and played two in right. Sat for one inning, gratefully.
I struggled mightily with the gear, a different and old set at each field. There was no XL option, and the first couple times I felt like a sausage and told our manager, Ron Blomberg, this a few times, laughing through it.
I had a tag play at the plate in the first inning, bang-bang. It would be the high-water mark for me. There is no sliding or I would have been killed, as the runner was bigger than me. I had a couple unmemorable weak hits which were fielder’s choices and errors and maybe one was legit. I was too busy running to watch the action.
Cousin had a dynamite play in left field, nabbing a hard hit ball in the alley and turning gracefully to fire it in to the cutoff. He was an all-state ballplayer 40 years ago, and he was showing his chops.
The inning over, Cousin gets hugged by Nick Swisher who yelled in sheer joy about his excellent play. Nick was just passing through and caught the moment, and we appreciated it.
About my catching, it was a good place to hide me. There was no stealing or pickoffs or passed balls. Most teams did not field a catcher, and I counted only two with a regular backstop. Most teams used a staff catcher, a mix of minor leaguers and paid personnel. This use of staff to catch and pinch run would become a key strategy for many teams.
Two crucial ground rules: First, coaches pitched the first six innings and campers could pitch the last three at the team’s discretion. Most teams did not have a pitcher, but we sure as hell did, and he was unerringly dynamic. Our pitcher threw a scoreless no hit eighth in the losing cause.
Second rule? Four outfielders. Sounds easy, but we’d still be out there a week later if it was the regulation three.
Here’s the math: on a 12 man roster if I caught then only two teammates could sit and rest. If I take the field instead, then three can rest, and every swinging thing need a rest now and then.
So catching was a selfish luxury on my part. Sure, I wanted to catch only but the nice guy thing to do was probably take a position on the field.
But my teammates never said a word, never complained, soldiers all. I was a bigger liability on the field, anyway.
Game two began at about 130pm on the least favorite field adjacent to the stadium, Field 3. We lost this game by one, going the whole nine, coming back from an 8 to 1 deficit, 16 to 15. We gave up extra outs per inning which didn’t help matters. I had a couple decent singles but still hit mostly off the end of the bat, real weak stingers. The only thing I can say is that I didn’t strike out all week. I swung at everything.
Bad stuff happened in Game two, also. Cousin injured his Achilles in his first at bat and he’s out for the rest of the game. The adage you can play hurt but you can’t play injured applied. Each Field had a real trainer on deck and this one was all over Cousin and did the ice elevation thing back in the training room. Impressive reaction and decision making on the Yankee coach and trainer part… they never hesitated, diagnosed and applied treatment, and definitely saved the week for Cousin.
Great stuff happened, too. Our Ace pitcher threw three scoreless innings. Lotta respect for this guy from players, coaches and especially umpires. Umps love a pitcher who throws strikes.
Man, it was hot out in the afternoon. I caught seven, outfield one, sat two. Unbelievably, I played the entire day with my cup going sideways, something that never happened half a century before. I spent all my bench time struggling with both the old gear and digging my hands into my crotch to correct the orientation of my cup. If there were kids in the stands I would have been arrested.
After the game, all I wanted to do was take one of those magical and mysterious ice baths – a square tub that could handle five or six big guys, almost everyone standing in 58 degree water. Doesn’t sound too bad, but they advise ten minutes. Fifteen minutes and you are a popsicle.
I saunter up to the tub, do the hey how you doin’ thing to four strangers and throw my leg over the ledge thinking I’m gonna catch a bench around the periphery.
Only there’s no bench. It’s three plus feet deep and I do a half cartwheel – oh did I tell you it as really really cold? – and my cartwheel turns into a belly flop – did I tell you it was really really cold?
A couple guys catch me and ask the obvious, “Are you okay?”
I am in more shock than embarrassment, as my testicles are somewhere in my liver and I will have to urinate seated for the rest of my life. I squeak the only thing I can think of: “THIS WATER IS FREAKING COLD.”
“Are you okay?” Lots of concerned stares.
“THIS WATER IS FREAKING COLD,”
One camper starts laughing, thank goodness, and says, “You must be THAT GUY.”
I told him, laughing, “No, I was THAT GUY yesterday.”
I fixed that dude with my best malevolent stare.
“Okay what score do I get for my dive?”
He sneered at me. “Ah, a 4.2. You didn’t stick the landing.”