John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Ah, spring training. In some ways it's the best time for baseball writers, a time when players, managers, and executives are more relaxed and willing to talk before the pressure of the long season takes hold.
I first went to spring training in 1982, and suffice to say we writers were a lot more relaxed as well in those days, before Internet deadlines and social media changed everything about the job.
The quotes aren't nearly as colorful these days, when players seemingly live in fear of the Twitter reaction to even the smallest misstep, but as I head to Florida to write about both the Mets and Yankees for SNY, there's still nothing better than baseball and sunshine in February.
With that in mind, I offer four of my favorite or most memorable experiences covering spring training over the years. Time and space restrictions meant leaving out some gems, from Sid Fernandez pointing a gun in my face one year, to John Franco leading a team-wide media boycott, to getting wind of Sandy Alderson's then-laughable 90-win prediction.
Maybe some other time. For now I opted for these:
1. The Picture-Day Fight, 1989
Talk about a godsend for a beat writer. On an otherwise sleepy spring training morning, chaos erupted out of a routine team-picture gathering when Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez squared off and started throwing haymakers.
In truth, nothing was all that surprising from those 1980s Mets, but there was a back story that made this drama especially fascinating.
By September of the 1988 season, Strawberry had emerged as the favorite to win the NL MVP Award. He would ultimately lose out to the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson in a vote that would never happen today, as it was based largely on intangibles. But it didn't help that teammate Kevin McReynolds finished third, taking four potential first-place votes from Strawberry as well.
Late in that '88 season, Hernandez privately had told some of the beat writers that he thought McReynolds was more deserving of the award, saying he'd been more clutch. You had to factor in the love/hate relationship Keith had with Darryl, but as one of the most analytical players of his time, his word still carried weight.
Fast-forward to spring of '89: Then-Daily News writer Bob Klapisch felt Hernandez was trying to run him off the beat because of his infamous ghost-written David Cone column that riled up the Dodgers in the '88 NLCS. So one day early in camp, he made a point of telling Strawberry how Keith had been politicking against him.
That same night the two players had words at a local bar, and had to be separated by teammates. Strawberry didn't reveal the source of his anger, but it spilled over the next morning on picture day, as all hell broke loose.
I was the beat writer for the Post at the time, and I remember walking into the clubhouse after the dust settled, seeing Hernandez and Klapisch going nose-to-nose, screaming at each other until Davey Johnson finally intervened.
Yep, by then word had gotten to Hernandez that Klapisch had whispered in Strawberry's ear.
"Don't ever come near my locker again," Keith yelled.
These days, with players ever wary that confrontation could land them in a viral video, such writer-player fireworks rarely happen. In those days, especially on those raucous Mets' teams, it was practically business as usual.
2. The Lockout Basketball Games, 1990
As something of a pre-cursor to the 1994 players' strike, MLB owners locked players out of each team's facility in 1990 just as spring training was about to begin.
With several Mets' players already in Port St. Lucie, their workout options were so limited that they gathered daily at a Little League complex just up Prima Vista Blvd., mostly just to throw the ball around a little before heading to the nearby outdoor basketball court for some full-court pick-up games.
I talked my way into the game, along with a couple of other beat writers to help fill out five-man teams, and we went up and down the court for more than an hour. I was instantly reminded these guys weren't professional athletes for nothing, as some I hadn't thought of particularly athletic showed off some serious game.
Not everybody, but, heck, even Mackey Sasser could shake and bake.
Anyway, what I remember most was Ron Darling being the best player on the court, at least for the first couple of days. Then a minor-league pitcher named Terry Bross showed up to play -- the same 6-foot-8 Terry Bross who had started for St. John's a couple of years earlier.
Much to his chagrin, Darling had to match up with the big guy on both ends, and, well, he wasn't heard from quite as much.
In any case, for four or five days, the beat never seemed so much fun: Show up at the Little League field, play full-court hoop and then grab a player for an interview to write a feature for the next day's paper. No Twitter, no video, no internet deadlines, and the players didn't even mind having us around.
But then Strawberry showed up. This was only a few weeks after he'd made headlines by reportedly pulling a gun on his then-wife at his home in Los Angeles, and when he arrived in Port St. Lucie, he wasn't in the mood to talk about it.
So someone made arrangements and suddenly the basketball game was moved inside to a local high school -- off-limits to us writers.
Too bad. I heard Straw could really play, but I never got to see it, and I kid him to this day about getting us booted from the game.
Soon enough, the owners relented, camps opened, and it was back to the grind of covering a real spring training. I know, I know…nice work if you can get it.
3. Joe Torre Unplugged, 2006
As I noted in a column for SNY recently, getting to write the late Mel Stottlemyre's autobiography was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. One small part of it was the rare opportunity to sit and talk with Joe Torre as something closer to a confidant than a newspaper columnist.
Or at least that's how it seemed to me.
By the spring of '06, I'd written countless columns about Torre, and while we had a good relationship, it was all business.
Unlike some other managers over the years, Torre didn't do many individual interviews, and rarely if ever did he go off-the-record to make a point or curry favor with a writer. Yet he was so good at charming us with his storytelling in group sessions that he was great writing material.
When I sat down with him in the dugout that morning before a spring training workout in '06, I wasn't really looking for anything but detail on his relationship with Stottlemyre, whom Torre had come to love like a brother during their years together as manager and pitching coach.
However, Mel apparently had told Torre that he could trust me completely, and so from the moment we began talking I realized this was anything but the media-session Torre. Instead it was as if he'd granted me access into his inner circle, and suddenly he was dropping F-bombs left and right, and dropping the hammer on certain people he didn't necessarily care for.
He never felt the need to tell me anything was off the record, clearly trusting that this was information to be used as background for the book, or not at all in some cases.
Not that it was anything scandalous. More memorable was Torre's tone, as he routinely offered unfiltered opinions in a manner unlike anything I'd ever heard from him. He talked that way for some 45 minutes as I sat practically spellbound.
Finally, we were done, and after I thanked Joe for his time, I walked away wondering if I now had a different relationship with the Yankee manager that might benefit my column writing as well.
Turns out I didn't. Torre was cordial as always when we spoke after that, but even when I managed to grab him occasionally on the side after a group session, I never heard anything even vaguely resembling that day in spring training of 2006.
Yes, being in the inner circle proved to be fleeting. And quite remarkable.
4. Catching Santana, 2010
I had just finished putting the gear on, ready to go behind the plate, when Johan Santana let me know this was more than a publicity stunt for him.
"Cup check," he said as he smacked me in the groin with his glove. "I'm going to have to bounce a slider in the dirt to get Ryan Howard out, and I'm going to need you to block it."
Wait, what? Fortunately, I was indeed wearing a protective cup, but suddenly I wondered what I had gotten myself into, asking for the opportunity to catch Santana and write about it for the Daily News.
Actually, I was shocked that Jay Horwitz had talked his bosses into letting me do it, but the Mets had bottomed out in 2009, and I guess they figured they could use anything resembling good publicity.
So there I was in Fort Myers, Fla., where Santana lived, a couple of days before he was to report to spring training, on a ballfield at Florida Gulf Coast University about to get an up-close look at what it was like to catch the Mets' ace.
I was counting on my old college shortstop skills to get me through it, and I was pretty confident because that winter I had been catching bullpen sessions for my son, Chris, who was pitching at Muhlenberg College.
That said, I hadn't expected Santana to ramp up the expectations for me by announcing that he was treating this as if he were pitching a simulated game against the Phillies lineup, going batter-by-batter against Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Howard, etc. as he would for real in a couple of months.
"You're calling the pitches," he told me. "You have the scouting report?"
In truth, Santana was being a great sport about the whole thing, but he did want to get something out of this throwing session, and he brought an intensity that had me feeling pressure not to screw up behind the plate.
And with that Shane Victorino stepped into the batter's box, at least in Santana's mind, as the two-time Cy Young Award winner went to work.
He was throwing about 88-90 mph, he estimated, but as I saw from behind the plate, the left-hander threw with a short-armed delivery that made it look as if the ball was coming right out of his ear -- creating deception that made him sneaky-fast.
Also, I saw that his trademark change-up came out of the exact same slot with the same arm speed, making it look like a fastball until it hit the brakes in flight and dived downward as it neared the plate. No wonder nobody could hit that pitch, I remember thinking.
Anyway, all was going well until Santana, trying to be precise, walked Utley with two outs, bringing up Howard. As promised, he threw a slider in the dirt that the Phillies' clean-up hitter may or may not have chased, and though I blocked it, the ball caromed far enough off me that Utley would have been able to advance to second base.
"What'd you think, I was going to throw him a cookie?" Santana barked as I scrambled to retrieve the ball. "Now I'm in a tough spot."
I was pretty sure he was kidding, but he wasn't smiling. Fortunately, he went on to throw a perfect slider on the corner to strike Howard out and escape the inning.
At that point Santana did smile as he walked toward me, and, sensing he was done, I asked, "You good?"
I think he misinterpreted my comment, as if I was asking for feedback on my performance behind the plate.
"It was painless," he said with a shrug.
I took that as a compliment.