Sports Nut

Glove Child

At spring training, I torture my son by making him shag fly balls.

The other morning, I told a fellow tourist in Tucson that I was heading off to the Rockies-Giants game. He looked at me with the uttermost perplexity, and said, “Iraqis-Giants?” I could understand his confusion; that, after all, was the big game playing on CNN. But I was here for spring training, not affairs of state. I spent a lot of time over the last week talking about starting rotations, but not once did I hear the word “Iraq.” In fact, after the Rockies game, as I was waiting for my son, Alex, to harvest autographs, a fan came over and asked to look at my newspaper. “I guess you’ll want the front section,” I said. Hah! He turned away when he realized he couldn’t find the Rockies’$2 40-man roster in the New York Times.

I have to say that almost all of the five games I saw last week were about as close as the current contest between the Iraqis and the (American) Giants. This may have been a spring training effect, but baseball is also getting more and more lopsided, like basketball, with the bad teams drifting deeper and deeper into the cellar (and staying there year after year, unlike in basketball). The principal symptom of this growing gulf is gross disparities in pitching, with competent starters and middle relievers becoming increasingly scarce at small-market or impecunious teams. Several of the squads I saw, including the Royals and the Brewers, do not appear to have a single starter who could make the rotation of the Yankees, the Braves, or the Red Sox. (Even the Texas Rangers—a well-monied team that plays in a large market—had a collective preseason ERA of around 7.00 as of last week.)

I saw some breathtakingly bad performances, including Todd Ritchie of the Brewers surrendering an almost inconceivable 14 hits and nine runs to the Diamondbacks in two innings of action, even walking two men with the bases loaded—all this while Luis Gonzales, Steve Finley, and Mark Grace took the day off. In a splendid act of disrespect, the D-backs’ David Dellucci, a reserve outfielder, swung on a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded, singling and driving in two runs. Of course, the grand slam home run that Dellucci had hit the previous inning probably gave him a fair measure of confidence against the Brewers’ shaky starter. (The D-backs then continued to feast off reliever Mike Buddie, winning by a final of 14-2.)

On the other hand, Alex and I saw a lovely pitching battle between two of the best young starters in the NL, Jason Schmidt of the Giants and Jason Jennings of the Rockies. Jennings, last year’s NL rookie of the year, racked up a series of checked-swing strikes on what I take to have been off-speed stuff. But Schmidt out-dueled his fellow Jason with a fastball that, according to a scout wielding a radar gun down the row from me, clocked in at 95 mph. Several deeply-in-the-know Rockies fans solemnly informed me that Jennings had “come to play” this year and might well be the first 20-game-winner in the Rockies’ pitching-deprived history.

One of my sources here was Mort Atkins, an usher patrolling the stands behind the Rockies’ dugout and the quintessential Spring Training Old Gent. Mort is a 77-year-old retired salesman with the accent, schnoz, and uncompromising manner of his native Brooklyn. (His lapel pin read “Mort,” and then, “New York.”) Mort is a sports nut and ex-jock who made serious money playing semipro football more than half a century ago. He was a baseball fan until the Giants and Dodgers abandoned New York in the late ‘50s, at which point he said the hell with it. Nowadays, however, Mort plays first base and outfield in a senior league—”three days a week, 52 weeks a year.” Wearing Ray-Bans against the brilliant sun, Mort looked terrific—lean, nimble, weathered. I asked him if he could divulge his batting average. “You won’t believe me if I tell you,” he said, fairly daring me. I bit. “Over the last 10 years or so,” Mort said, “I’m hitting .440, .450.” Mort was scanning his domain as we spoke, and now he excused himself to order a couple of kids off the dugout roof. When he came back, he said that he was hoping to break the league’s record for seniority, which now stands at 84. Actually, he looked like he’d still be covering a fair amount of ground at 90. Alex said later that he thought Mort would make a fantastic grandfather.

Alex himself was still attending my own private baseball school. Opening day for his league is April 5—about the same as the bigs—and after our previous drill session, a few days earlier, I knew we had a problem. We found an entire complex of fields among the eight-lane boulevards of Tucson; not without reason did Mort call his adopted city “the capital of baseball.” The jagged skyline of the Santa Catalina Mountains seemed to rise just beyond the traffic. It was getting on toward dusk, and pools of shadow draped themselves in the rounded folds of the raw, brown hills. We played catch in the outfield. I kept throwing the ball just out of Alex’s reach to make him run or jump, and he kept declining to do much of either. Alex is an earthbound child; the air is not a medium in which he feels comfortable. After about half an hour of muffing fly balls, he said, “Dad, I think maybe the team will be depending on me for hitting more than fielding.” Alas—unlike Mort, he hadn’t been weaned on stickball, and I was fairly sure he would be even more unnerved at the plate than in the field.

Well, if you can’t play, you can always watch, as even Mort will find some day. Last Thursday, as the air campaign in Baghdad was just getting under way in earnest, Alex and I were sitting in the brilliant sunshine in Tucson Electric Park, eating tacos while the Diamondbacks were dismantling the Brewers. Alex turned to me and said, “You know, I would never be having nearly as good a time at Yankee Stadium.” I asked why, and he said, “Well, it’s really relaxed, there aren’t that many people, the food is good, they don’t take the pitcher out … and I don’t have school tomorrow.”