With a snowstorm quickly approaching Colorado, I packed a bag (ok, four bags) and hopped in a rental headed south towards the sunshine with my little pup by my side. My destination was the year-old MLB Spring Training facility, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, AZ. This 2011 MLB “Ballpark of the Year” (according to Ballpark Digest) is the first to be built on Native American Land and the first to win a LEED Gold Certificate — color me impressed.
I had two goals –- to get my jersey signed by Colorado’s star outfielder “CarGo,” and a baseball signed by “Tulo” (as a surprise for my nephew).
The two time all-star Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzski always seems so driven and focused in his interviews. His intensity was apparent the two days I tried to get him to sign a couple of balls.
Well, I didn’t actually get a chance to try. I waited to see Troy’s reaction as I let a nearby snot-nosed nine-year-old kid bait him. (The kids with the most snot can usually lure the players in. I let them work their magic.)
“Tulo, it’s only Spring Training,” was the unsuccessful plea as arguably the best shortstop in baseball — pending proof that Jose Reyes’s 2011 season was an aberration or not — sauntered toward the dugout with those long, muscular legs of his, right past the dejected boy. I don’t think Tulowitzski blinked.
Poor kid. He’ll have to settle for Dinger the Dinosaur’s autograph.
I was slightly irked, especially as I watched Tulo repeat a nearly identical scenario the following day. To his credit, he was abiding by the ballpark’s “no autographs after batting practice rule.” Also to Troy’s credit, he’s only the second ballplayer in MLB history to hit for the cycle and have an unassisted triple play in the same year, among other feats. I’d rather him be enthusiastic about winning and putting up good numbers than with autographing a bunch of baseballs that will probably end up getting chewed by the family labradoodle until they resemble balls of yarn or round cork boards. On the other hand, they’re just practice games, dude. You’re probably that kid’s idol. He’s probably going to hang up his glove and reach for a javelin.
It was impossible to be discontent for long in a gorgeous ballpark with panoramic views of five mountain ranges. My first day of Spring Training was underway, it was an hour shy of noon, and the fragrance of freshly cut grass and hops wafted underneath my nose. The sun drenched desert heat was already flirting with 80 degrees; I had a great spot right by the dugout and I had even remembered to put on sunblock lotions of varying intensity. ( I found out later that a local company actually provides sunblock dispensers in the lawn area. What a great idea!)
I curiously peered around the reasonably sized stream of fans and down the first baseline.
“Grab your balls!” I burst out excitedly, jumping up and down as security eyeballed me. I clearly had just been identified as “the crazy one.”
My partner in crime for the day, Kris, was loaded with baseballs and so was I. Kris is a Tiger’s fan, but I had given her two of the nine balls I ended up leaving Wal-Mart with. I didn’t set out to get the jumbo nine-ball bucket; I just wanted a single ball, but they were sold out. March in Phoenix is apparently not an ideal time to purchase baseballs. Sharpies, also, were as scarce as ammo during a zombie apocalypse.
I wanted to start my trip off with a bang; I wanted to meet someone special. How about the second oldest player in history to hit three home runs in one game? How about a five-time all-star who can boast that he won the home run derby once back in his hey-day? How about Jason Giambi!
I fumbled with my balls eagerly as the “Giambino” got closer. His positive energy radiated from 20 feet away. I started snapping photos with my smart phone (which was incidentally making me feel quite stupid). My IPhone was not producing anything worthy of sharing, so I was a bit flustered as he approached.
What followed reminded me of the time I took a tumble and dropped a friend’s birthday cake in front of roughly thirty people while belting out the opening to the “Happy Birthday” song.
Yes, it’s true.
Not only did I drop the first ball I handed Jason Giambi, but the second thudded to the ground, too. I was glad to provide the crowd with a good laugh and break up the tension a bit.
“My fault,” Jason said as he gingerly picked up the balls, rubbed the dirt off onto his pants, signed them both carefully and handed them back to me with a boyish grin.
He responded to my clumsiness with poise and courtesy. I responded like a silly school girl and gushed about how happy my sister would be to have this ball, all the while unwittingly video recording the entire experience. Upon viewing the charade I caused, I realized two things: there was a momentary “crotch-ambi” shot involved. Also, my voice is about a glass of whiskey short of sounding as husky as a 41 year-old baseball player’s.
After Jason reached the end of the line and had satisfied everyone’s demands, most of us burst into applause and cheer. He turned back, smiled and waved. How refreshing that Jason understands what the 2012 “year of the fan” means! (Other guys that seemed to be very fan-friendly included Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Belisle, Eric Young, Jr., Charlie Blackmon and Todd Helton. That was just my experience. I’m sure there are many more to list.)
Farther down the line, players were sporadically signing cards and jerseys and even scraps of neon paper. Most of them were newbies who quietly scribbled obligatory autographs.
Then there was Charlie Blackmon.
Now, I like Charlie Blackmon and I was disappointed when he fractured his foot last year sliding into third; but I like him even more now. I get the feeling he’s kind of a goofball.
Oddly, he kept “grilling” me about my nephew’s whereabouts when I asked him to sign his ball in addition to mine.
“Where is he?” Charlie asked.
“At home in Colorado,” I sputtered out, surprised by his question.
Why? What do you mean ‘why?’ I thought. I wasn’t planning on selling either of the balls on eBay. Not yet — after all, you don’t even have a World Series ring. Shouldn’t you be icing your foot right now? Focus. Talk to Troy about that focusing part.
Instead I replied politely, “Because he’s in school. He’s nine.”
“When’s his spring break?” This time he was about ten feet away, craning his neck, waiting for me to unearth this somehow fascinating information.
“I don’t know.” He was far enough away that I had to raise my voice considerably.
If Charlie was innocently flirting with me, however flattering, he did it at the wrong time. As a bunch of non-roster invitees began to pop up, I was sidetracked by the outfielder’s baffling line of questioning, and I started methodically handing them balls. When one guy handed my baseballs back, I thought, this guy sure looks familiar.
When I looked down it confirmed my fear –- the two baseballs had been autographed by Vinny Castilla, one of the players who had a part in developing my childhood interest in major league baseball. How did I miss this? I was so irritated with myself for not recognizing one of the “Blake Street Bombers,” that I spilled about two dollars worth (which is no more than a large sip) of a $7 Miller Lite. Luckily, my jersey went unscathed.
I was sporting my Carlos Gonzalez jersey on day two in hopes of that autograph. By the second day of wearing it, it didn’t smell fresh as a desert wildflower. In fact, I was taught “Febreeze” should be a luggage staple.
Like clockwork, I ran into a friend I’d made the pervious day, a fun fireball named Wanda.
She knew of my mission.
“CarGo’s here today,” Wanda shouted out in her Brooklyn accent as I came bouncing down the steps towards our perch next to the dugout.
She may as well have just told me I had a winning lottery ticket.
Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracey has said of Carlos Gonzalez, “They talk about a great player being a five-tool player. He’s a six-tool player. His character and unselfishness toward his teammates are off the charts. He’s as graceful an outfielder as I’ve ever seen — playing, coaching, managing.”
That’s the kind of guy’s number that I want to wear on my back. That’s that kind of guy I want to meet. That’s exactly the kind of guy he was.
As luck would have it, CarGo walked right past me almost as soon as I found a spot amongst the crowd that day. I called out is name and asked him to sign my jersey. He dropped his bag and glove, flashed a smile and walked my way. By some stroke of good fortune, I had worn pigtails that day. I didn’t realize my locks were that long, but Carlos had to brush my hair off my shoulder to sign my jersey, grazing my neck accidentally. He may not have noticed, but I thought lightning had struck.
After I walked away and tried to mumble a complete sentence, I shed a CarGo-inspired tear of baseball joy.
As Tom Hanks’s character proclaims in A League of their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
So, like a big girl, I wiped my eye, grabbed my balls, and proudly watched the Rockies win another game.