It was approximately 21 hours after President Bush delivered his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that Barry Bonds cleared the light pole behind right-center field at Scottsdale Stadium. At that moment, Scottsdale Stadium seemed like an excellent place to be: The triangular mass of Camelback Mountain rose straight over the third-base line, the bratwurst was freshly grilled, and two seriously professional teams were turning midseason-quality double plays. I’m fairly sure that none of the kids in my vicinity, or the ex-schoolteachers from Omaha, mentioned the word “Iraq” all afternoon. Bonds’ home run was later estimated at 500 feet; Giants’ manager Felipe Alou said it reminded him of another Phoenix home run, one struck by Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner in Triple-A ball in 1958. All I actually saw of the blow was a swarm of fans scrambling from the lawn behind right field toward the parking lot in a mad souvenir hunt.
I should be, according to the dictates of my day job, eliciting a post-mortem from Hans Blix right about now, but instead I am in Arizona for a week of Cactus League ball with my wife and 12-year-old son, Alex. For a fan like me, the idea of going to a ballgame every single day is as intoxicating as a three-star restaurant tour is to the food-obsessed. And spring training, an activity mythologized in sports literature since the days of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, is understood to be the serene and pastoral essence of a fundamentally serene and pastoral game. In a 1962 article included in his forthcoming collection Game Time, TheNew Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell describes the preseason as “a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly—a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans.”
It should come as no surprise that spring training has lost a good deal of its beguiling sleepiness since 1962. Preseason ball is now a major event on the tourist circuit, and the cozy confines of the stadia, none of which seats more than 12,000 fans or so, feel like an anachronism. Scottsdale Stadium is a lovely little bandbox, but it was sold out for a mid-week contest with the Mariners, and my last-row perch had barely enough legroom for the average 9-year-old. And a bottle of water cost $3, just like in July. Retirees were easily outnumbered by families. On the other hand, the fans seemed incredibly happy just to be there. A game between the Rangers and the A’s was played in a freezing rain but scarcely anyone left; the woman in front of me improvised rain gear by sticking a plastic bag on her head.
What is delightful about spring training, from the fan’s perspective, is that the games are conducted according to implicit rules made possible by indifference to the outcome. For example: pitch to the guy. In a Rangers-Royals game, the teams must have racked up at least a dozen hits before the first walk was handed out. Barry Bonds actually gets to see good pitches, which must make spring training his private version of fantasy camp. In the game I attended, he singled, hit a rocket down first that he failed to beat out only because he couldn’t be troubled to run, and then launched his mammoth dinger. A corollary principle, applied especially to junior pitchers, is: Let’s see what he’s got. This means that when the roof starts to cave in, you don’t even get a calming stroll to the mound from the pitching coach. And so every game seems to include a big inning. The Rangers put eight straight men on base against a very large and increasingly hapless pitcher for the A’s named Aaron Harang before he was relieved of his misery, immediately reminding Alex of a piece of ancient family lore in which I was kept on the mound by a sadistic coach during a 10-run onslaught. Harang seemed to handle the situation better than I had. (He didn’t cry.)
The games were carried out against the backdrop of a looming family crisis. Alex is an exceptionally enthusiastic but by no means gifted athlete, and he has insisted on going out for baseball this year. The season starts in early April, and I am afraid not only for his psychic but for his physical health. Sixth grade is when baseball gets serious, and seriously frightening: You play hardball, and a kid with good mechanics can throw a ball 65 mph. I was the classic good-field, no-hit player in my youth: In sixth grade I made contact a grand total of one time—a weak grounder to second—and then I hung up the spikes for good. Alex has no idea what he’s heading into. The last time he played, two years ago, he could usually be found in right field with his mitt resting comfortably on his head, distracting the center fielder with conversation. He plays like Linus; and I was hoping to get him at least to the Charlie Brown level by the end of the week.
I am not the Great Santini, but I knew that I would have to invoke the “It’s-For-Your-Own-Good” principle in order to push against Alex’s innate nonchalance. We found a park near our hotel—Phoenix is a better ball-playing town than Manhattan—and I began throwing the ball straight at him from about 30 feet. Alex has always ducked away from projectiles, and sure enough, he was shying away from the ball and sticking his glove out to the side. This is an unmistakable sign to any coach: Late-Inning Replacement only. I kept throwing until Alex gamely began to overcome his aversion, and then we moved on to ground balls. “Put your mitt down!” I kept yelling, as one ball after another rolled through his legs. Alex said that he reminded himself of Bill Buckner in the ‘86 World Series. I pointed out that Buckner was hitting.300 at the time, which meant that we had a good deal of work ahead of us in the batting cage. By now we had been playing for about 45 minutes, and Alex, who is trying to develop the ability to pass himself off as French, said, “J’ai faim.” I said, “Tough luck.” Alex said, “J’ai faim, je suis fatigué, and I miss Mommy.” I threw in the mitt.
We’ve now moved on to Tucson. We’ve got the Brewers against the D-Backs coming up tomorrow, and then the Giants against the Rockies. By that time, if all goes well, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit will have taken Basra, and Alex will be shagging flies.