Saturday, February 26, 2011
Life's Mysteries from the Twilight Zone
The Minnesota Twins Spring Training Complex is located in the heart of Fort Myers. There are several baseball fields, a main stadium, and other locations for players to ply the trade. You enter the ball park off Six Mile Cypress Expressway, and you can park at any of the crossroads, named after Twins’ great players: Carew, Allison, Perry, and Blyleven, to name a few. (Bert Blyleven is one of this year’s inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
I watched talented outfielder Michael Cuddyer stroking balls in a batting cage under the grandstand of Hammond Stadium. Although only the pitchers and catchers are required to report first to spring training facilities, other players come to get an early jump on the season. One of the coaches lobbed balls underhanded to Cuddyer, who was trying to tweak his stroke.
On one of the practice fields, the coaches had positioned the gun at home plate to work with the catchers. Balls were rocketed into the heavens, much like the recent launch. (That’s a bit much! Sorry about that!) Catchers lined up for their turn to catch these artificial foul popups. Years ago, these were done with fungo bats. Nowadays, such a beast is not in evidence anywhere.
Manager Ron Gardenhire supervised this activity. One by one, the catchers were required to work the drill: remove the mask, fire it out of harm’s way, shield the sun with the glove, circle under the ball, and catch it. A five step exercise. Several got to number four, and dropped the ball, especially if it landed next to the screen. Rookies and veterans alike participated in the exercise: # 27 Steve Holm, # 32 Rene Rivera, # 79 Danny Rams, # 80 Jair Fernandez, # 81 Danny Lehman, # 82 Chris Herrman, and # 7 Joe Mauer. Rookies usually get the higher numbers. Mauer can wear Mickey Mantle’s number because he is an exceptional player, and he has 23 million reasons to acknowledge that fact in his bank account this year.
Gardenhire barked words of encouragement at his catchers. From behind the screen a fan shouted: “Show them how it’s done, Ron!” Gardenhire replied: “No way. It would probably hit me on the head.”
Fans line a gauntlet, perhaps ten feet wide, to seek autographs from players and coaches. One coach signed for a few people, and I enquired as to who he might be. I was told his name was Phil Roof, which I recognized. I wrote his name on my pad. A minute or two passed, and I decided, for all the time it takes, to get his autograph. I passed him my book, and a pen.
He said: “I’ve already signed this,” and returned the book to me. Stunned, I replied, “No, I wrote your name there in my book.” He looked at it carefully, then stated; “I can’t believe it. Pretty darn close.” He signed his name below. It was in fact, spooky close. He moved on, shaking his head.
Roof spent fifteen years in the Major Leagues, primarily as a catcher. He finished his career with the Blue Jays, after stints with the Milwaukee Braves, California, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota, and the Chicago White Sox.
Mauer and the rest of the backstops also ran the gauntlet, signing here and there for young and old---baseball fans gearing up for another summer to enjoy the “great game of baseball”.
February 26, 2011