I’ve been at spring training almost a week now, but there are a lot of important things I only found out about this morning. In the A’s executive office, where general manager Billy Beane’s secretary told me he was too busy to keep our appointment, I ran into a baseball writer named Alan who I’ve talked to on the phone once or twice before. Such is the life of the editor, and probably of other deskbound professionals, too, that you spend your days talking to people who you’ve never met in person. Seeing their faces for the first time never fails to be a little freaky.
Anyway, I don’t know this guy Alan well, but running into him was a godsend. He knew everything. The first thing I asked him was for directions to the A’s game today, which was at the Milwaukee Brewers’ complex somewhere across the sprawl. Alan’s too nice a guy to look at people like they must be stupid, but if he was one smidgeon less of a nice guy, that’s how he would’ve looked at me.
“Directions to every park are in the guide.” Like, d’uh.
Awkward pause, slight crinkling of my brow.
“You do have a media guide, right?”
No, I did not have a media guide, and the reason I did not have a media guide was that the A’s PR director didn’t give me one, and I didn’t think to ask because I was too busy pretending I knew what I was doing.
Alan went into the PR guy’s office and fetched me a media guide. Boy, was I happy to get one, I felt like I was 10 years old, when the arrival of the new Street & Smith’s baseball guide was the highlight of my life.
Then Alan inspected the crumpled paper media credential hanging around my neck.
He frowned. “Is that all they gave you?”
Yup, that was all they gave me, some crummy credential that was only good for one team. Each team I went to, I had to get a separate credential, and sometimes they wanted faxes on letterhead, all that business. Meanwhile, the other writers, including Alan, had these fancy laminated credentials that let them get in everywhere.
I was pissed, mostly at myself for not having barged into the PR director’s office on the first day and demanded every single courtesy he had at his disposal. I should’ve asked him about where I could get lunch for free and what he was able to offer in the way of dry cleaning and shoeshine services. Who knew what could be had? Next time, I’ll make sure to get the max from day one.
This is part of my learning experience. It’s what I came out here to do. Actually, I came out here to do many things. First, to write this “Diary.” Second, to casually scout around for baseball stories for the Times Magazine, where I work. But third, and most importantly, I came to spring training to see if I’d be able to get the material for a book I want to write about baseball. I didn’t expect to get the material on this trip, not even close. I merely wanted to see if I could get it. It was going to involve talking to a lot of baseball players, which I don’t have much experience doing. When I have done it, I’ve never had much luck weaning them off the cue cards that seem to flash in every athlete’s brain when you ask them a question. Almost every time I’ve visited a locker room after a game and tried to interview players and coaches and all that, I’ve found myself wishing that I was just a fan and could skip this part.
But after a week in Phoenix, stumbling around, offering my handshake to every stranger, embarrassing myself by not knowing the proper etiquette, I’ve learned that I probably can get the material for the book, but that’s it going to be a helluva lot more work than I ever dreamed. I guess this is the obvious but ugly truth about writing books. In the abstract, they seem like these life-affirming projects that will add substance and meaning to the daily grind of whatever it is you do everyday. But in the reality, they require so much planning and logistics and putting yourself out—as well as a preternatural ability not to second-guess and/or grow bored with your own idea—it’s a wonder so damn many get written.
All right then, back to my day: After not meeting with Beane—he promised same time, same place tomorrow, we’ll see about that—I decided to take the afternoon off. It was the perfect time to switch back into being a fan. This was the first day of actual competition in spring training, two real teams facing each other, different uniforms, umpires, the whole shmear. For the A’s, it would be the first baby step of a season that they hope and expect will end in the World Series. Their ace, Tim Hudson, a 160-pound fire-baller from Georgia, would to work the first two innings.
It detracted from the occasion only slightly that the opponent was the lowly Brewers, an underfunded team that goes into every season daring to dream of a .500 record. Today, they couldn’t even respectably fill their cutesy little ballpark in Maryvale, Ariz. But the game was surprisingly hard fought. Hudson blew away two of the first three hitters on strikes, then in the second, let up a cloud-splitting blast to a 6 feet 8 inch galoot named Richie Sexton. The game really tensed up in the middle innings when non-roster invitee Jon Ratliff, No. 54, took the mound for the A’s and promptly surrendered another big homerun. Ratliff, my guide told me, is a 30-year-old rookie who lives with his wife and daughter in Pittsford, N.Y. He has pitched a grand total of one inning in the big leagues, and here he was, about to come unglued in his first outing of the hopeful new spring. My chest tightened. C’mon, five-four, pull it together.
Ratliff walked the next hitter, and then Sexton, the galoot, was up again. Ratliff tried to bust him inside, but came in too high and tight, and hit Sexton in the arm. It was a volatile moment. Hitting a batter is decidedly uncool in spring training, and Sexton was majorly peeved. Ratliff ignored him or tried to anyway. He had to focus on the next guy, slugger Jeromy Burnitz, who had no problem finding a pitch to hit. Burnitz blasted one out to deepest center, and as the ball sailed off into high blue sky, the warranty on Ratliff’s pro career seemed about to expire. Miraculously, the centerfielder settled under it on the warning track, and Burnitz was retired. The next two hitters went down as well, the last one on strikes. Five-four had pulled it together. There was joy in Pittsford.
The A’s rallied in the ninth, put the tying run on third, but couldn’t get it across and lost the game. Not an auspicious way to begin the season, but the team seemed relieved not to be going into extra innings on day one. I watched the pack of beat writers hop the little fence, one by one, on to the field, where they crowded around A’s manager Art Howe. Earlier in the week, I’d felt compelled to attend these little Q and A sessions, where I feigned interest in Howe’s purposefully info-free dronings. Whatever wisdom the manager has to impart, he must save it for the team. So having watched a good game, I felt perfectly content to skip the press rituals and file out of the ballpark with the rest of the fans.