Spring training, usually romanticized as a time of hope and innocence, also happens to be a killing field, where dreams meet the machine-gun nest of reality. I thought about that today as I was watching the Oakland A’s play an intrasquad game. Their big guns were in the lineup: Jason Giambi, last year’s American League MVP, was in there and so was Johnny Damon, the sweet, fleet left fielder they robbed from the Royals. But a lot of the players out in the field were “non-roster invitees,” the cannon fodder of spring training. You can pick them out quick because they wear high numbers. Everything they do is tinged with the prospect of imminent failure, a coach-class ticket back home, and a junior partnership in dad’s gravel-hauling business.
When Giambi nubs one out to the second baseman, as he did in his first at bat, he doesn’t give it a second thought. But when Ryan Ludwick, #68, takes an ugly rip at a pitch a mile off the plate, oh man, you don’t want to watch. Not that Ludwick showed anything but a stoic, “I’ll lay off that one next time” expression. And the coaches, to their credit, gave him plenty of the ol’ Little League rah-rah. But, of course, they have an interest in keeping his slim hopes alive. Hell, it’s not even March yet, Ludwick could be tearing up the Cactus League next week. In fact, he better be.
I may have been the only person out there noticing guys like Ludwick, much less feeling their pain. Unless maybe his girlfriend or wife was somewhere around, too. There were a few of them. For a while, I was sitting near the family of left-hander Mark Guthrie, a journeyman who worked an inning today. Guthrie will almost certainly stick with the team, but his two kids, of whom the oldest was maybe 6, seemed to understand that Dad wasn’t exactly all-star material. They were very nervous, and Mom was telling them not to worry, that the game didn’t count. But, of course, for one of the oldest dudes on the team who could easily be replaced by a younger guy with a cheaper salary, the game did count, in the most important way. Thinking about that, I became as jittery as the kids. Fortunately, Guthrie looked pretty sharp in his stint, and Mom and I were so relieved. “Go tell your Daddy he did great,” she told her boys, and they went charging up to him in the dugout. It was pretty awesome.
It was good, too, to actually watch some baseball, although the game dragged a bit. I wanted to tell the coaching staff that they ought to have the opposing sides wear different color jerseys, so spectators could tell them apart. It detracted from my viewing experience.
After awhile, I wandered off to foul territory in left field, where I saw A’s closer Jason Isringhausen sitting in shorts and a T-shirt, petting a dog. The closer is the guy who comes in for the last inning of a tight game and is supposed to shut the door on the other team. It’s a specialized role—you have to have hard, hard stuff and never walk anybody, and it’s not entirely clear whether Isringhausen is cut out for it. Last season was his first as a closer, and he was cruising along all right until he got to Yankee Stadium in August and let up two monster home runs in two pitches. His confidence shot, he went into a tailspin that he just managed to pull out of in September. If Isringhausen takes a big step forward this year, the A’s have the goods to stop the Yankees. If he tanks, it’ll set up a mad scramble for a replacement. Nobody wins without a top-line closer.
“Why aren’t you out there?” I asked him, as I walked up.
“They won’t let me face our own guys,” he said.
“Yeah, why not? Worried you’ll hurt them?”
“Something like that.”
I sat down next to him and did my best imitation of a sportswriter. I asked a lot of questions, and though he answered every one of them clearly and politely, I got absolutely no traction. He would come to the end of an answer and there would be dead air while I conjured up another question. You can’t keep this up for very long, or at least I can’t, so after about 15 minutes, I thanked him for his time and headed off to the bullpen area, where a couple of non-roster pitchers were warming up.
Much as I root for the non-roster types, I don’t love talking to them. They are full of all-American good attitude, and they know better than to say anything off-script. If you’re going to get cut, let it be for your bad arm, not for your big mouth. A typical remark: “I’m hoping they see something I can do to help the team.” Yessir, well then, get down to it, don’t let me get in your way.
Standing near the bullpen, though, I had my big moment of the day. A non-roster lefty threw one in the dirt, and it skittered away from the non-roster catcher, and came to rest right at my feet. I dropped my notepad, picked it up, and looked to toss it back underhand to the catcher. But he was busy adjusting his shinguard, so the pitcher called for me to chuck him the ball. He was only standing 60 or 70 feet away; I didn’t exactly need a world-class arm to get him the ball. Trouble is, since college, I’ve had my own little Knoblauch problem (think how sad for Chuck that even non-baseball fans probably don’t need that translated). My problem orginated in some stupid handball-like game that we used to play in the courtyard of my fraternity. One day after a couple of errant tosses, I started thinking about at what point in your throwing motion you actually release the ball. Next thing I know, I couldn’t throw straight to save my life. The key, I came to understand, is not thinking about it, but of course once that thought flashes in your brain, you’re already toast.
The baseball in my hand was a shiny new one, and I would’ve loved to have just slipped it in my messenger bag. But the lefty was waiting on it. I let the bag slip off my shoulder, stepped forward, and threw a perfect rope that smacked in the pitcher’s glove. Wow. Even he, I think, was impressed by the toss. If Ludwick doesn’t get hot, there may be a spot for me on the roster.