Monday, March 24, 2014

More Spring Training-2014

                                               In Port Charlotte, with Joe Garagiola, Jr.

All the talk around the pool, along the beaches, and in the barbershops in South West Florida nowadays, deals with the teams that are trying to dance their way to the Sweet Sixteen. Those are the sixteen schools of learning that will play for the National Championship of Basketball in the United States. Millions of Americans have completed their “brackets”, hoping to select the winning teams in the newest science of “bracketology”. Yes, Mildred, they have coined such a word.

In the meantime, Major League Baseball is winding down  to prepare for the upcoming 2014 season. In their efforts to extend the boundaries of the game, the powers-that-be have decided to open the season in Australia! It is part of the ongoing mission to make the game an international affair. Remember the World Classics of baseball? You’ve forgotten? Heavens! Truth to be told, most of us can’t recall the details of those events. Thankfully.

But there are still plenty of games to play to complete the Spring Training schedules here in the Fort Myers area. I was fortunate to see the Jays for the second time, but in Port Charlotte, a half hour from Fort Myers. The Tampa Bay Rays hold their training camp in that area, and they play their games in a delightful stadium. It is always a pleasure to tie in with a couple of cronies from back home, slather on a little sun screen, settle back with a couple of cold ones, and enjoy the “Boys of Summer” in late March.

                                               A little tailgating, from the Peterborough area.

We were greeted with a fine home run from Colby Rasmus, his first of the campaign, great fielding plays, and bonehead mistakes by veterans who should really know better. I try to enhance my knowledge of the game by chatting with fans who are seated in our area. I was fortunate to discover I was seated beside a man of considerable baseball wisdom, Joe Garagiola, Junior.

At times such as these, I work hard to restrain myself from being unrestrained. That is to say, occasionally, I can be somewhat humble. For those of us over fifty, the name Garagiola is synonymous with baseball. Joe Garagiola was our friend, every week, sharing his baseball insights. He was funny, outrageous, and knowledgeable. We knew he had been a catcher, and that added to his credibility. Anyone who stands behind the plate as a career, blocking wild pitches, guarding the plate with large runners steaming in from third base, shaking off the pain from careening foul balls: that’s the stuff that men are made of. And I think you have to be a touch crazy to make a career of it.

More about Joe Senior, next week. During my conversation with his son, I learned that he was the General Manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and that he was with them when they won the World Series a few years ago. He was sporting a ring that Zsa Zsa Gabor would have admired. (That dates me, n’est-ce pas?) But he turned out to be the nicest guy: affable, and willing to chat. Most other press box cronies are embedded into their lap tops, or are on cruise control, not wishing to be disturbed.

                                    Quinte Area sports fans: John Emerson and Doug Townsend

An old hockey referee and sometime umpire, John Emerson, joined us for the last few innings. Joe is now responsible for discipline in baseball, working for Major League Baseball. Basically, he is there to take care of all of the sins in the game. “I’m the Brendan Shanahan of baseball,” he told us in a language that he knew that we would understand.  But our conversation continued in the hockey line. He told me he loves the game, and added that he believes that hockey players are the best athletes. Emerson got a chuckle out of Garagiola when he told him that hockey referees had it best: the guys in the other sports can’t skate away when they make lousy calls!

Joe  added that it is unfortunate that hockey translates the least well to television, hurting the general appeal of the game in the United States.( I have been informed that the new larger televisions, and HD make the game better to see.) He told me that one of his greatest moments in sports was when he happened to be in St. Louis when the Blues were in the Stanley Cup final against the Bruins. He was lucky enough to pick up a ticket for the game, and watched Bobby Orr sail through the air after scoring the final goal of the season. Quite a thrill.

As a kid in Scarsdale, New York, he skated on a lake in a small subdivision about half a block from his house. He explained that he had difficulty getting the puck off the ice with his shot, and he added that he respects the puck control of NHL players. Now and then, baseball entered the conversation, especially when the Rays’ second baseman threw the ball in the dirt on an easy throw to get a runner at first. I mentioned that I thought Steve Saxe had some difficulty with that at one time. “Chuck Knoblauch also had it. In golf it’s called the yips. In baseball, we call it “The Thing”. Some catchers get it, can’t throw the ball to the pitcher. We tell ‘em, ‘Just pretend you are throwing to second base.’ That usually helps”.

Take me out to the ball game. Any time!

James Hurst
March 24, 2014.

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