At Spring Traning with the Yankees
I’m not what anyone would consider a lucky person. In fact, my life has generally been filled with bizarre incidences that can only be attributed to bad luck. As a mild example, I once called my doctor because I had strep throat, but he couldn’t see me because he had called out sick (you have to love God’s ironic sense of humor). My luck tends to get considerably worse when it comes to traveling. I could tell you some horror stories regarding tsunami evacuations, promised airline tickets that weren’t at the counter they were supposed to be at, and electrical malfunctions on airplanes that left me stranded in a foreign country for 24 hours – just to name a few. But when it comes to the Yankees, I’ve led a charmed life.
I’ve been lucky enough to sit in the front row, in the Babe Ruth Luxury Box, and in the tenth row directly behind home plate – there’s nothing like seeing Mo’s cutter from that vantage point. I attended Opening Day in 1997 and watched Mattingly do the honors of raising the first championship banner in 18 years. I’ve been to a pennant clinching game, and one of the greatest World Series games ever played. I’ve also been to many Old Timers’ Day games (a personal favorite of mine) and last year I was even lucky enough to go to the All-Star Game.
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a meeting for my company…in Tampa, FL. My first thought was, “Maybe I can get to spring training.” I had no idea what I was in for. I was told late on Friday afternoon that I needed to fly in for a 5:30 dinner on Wednesday, and then needed to fly back on Thursday afternoon after a morning meeting. Finding a non-stop round trip flight so late was a little challenging, but I managed to find a flight out of LaGuardia, which would get me to Tampa by 2:30. LaGuardia isn’t exactly a convenient place to fly out of for someone who lives in NJ, but it would have to do. If all went well I should be able to make my 5:30 dinner. At 10 pm the night before I left, I received an e-mail requesting that I be at a meeting at 4:00 the next day. Nothing like cutting it close.
I have come to expect things like traffic, and delays. Especially traffic, knowing that I would have to travel over the George Washington Bridge and then down the Major Deegan Expressway (“Expressway” being a misnomer if ever there was one). Of course, the Deegan would take me right past Yankee Stadium, so I at least had that to look forward to.
I had an 11:15 flight, so given everything I know about traffic in NY and NJ, not to mention the long lines at security in NY area airports, I left my house at 8:10. I programmed the airport into my navigation system and had to laugh when I saw the projected arrival time: 8:41. This navigation system obviously has no idea of what rush hour hell lies ahead. I started on my way, and kept waiting for the traffic jam. I was over the bridge in about 15 minutes. Is that possible? Five minutes later I was driving by Yankee Stadium. It’s a shame it had to close down because it still looks beautiful. Miraculously, 10 minutes after that I was pulling into LaGuardia. As I parked my car, I looked at the clock: 8:41. I looked at the navigation system. It was laughing at me.
I was checked in and through security by 9:00. I now had over two hours until my flight with nothing to do. I like to amuse myself in airport gates by looking at those who are going to be on my flight and trying to find the person I would least like to sit next to, knowing that there is a good chance that person will be sitting next to me. Generally, it will be a large man who decided to save time by not showering that morning.
The flight was delayed about an hour, so I figured there was no way to make my 4:00 meeting. We finally boarded and I kept waiting for someone to sit next to me. I was in the window seat and there was a woman sitting in the aisle seat in my row, but no one ever sat in the seat between us. I looked around the plane and saw that this was the only empty seat on the whole plane. It’s not that I’m anti-social; I’ve met a lot of nice people on planes that I’ve enjoyed talking to. I just like to read (about baseball) and be comfortable when I’m flying. This was perfect.
The pilot made up some of the time in the air, and I landed around 3:00. My luggage was one of the first to come off the plane on the baggage claim carousel and the shuttle to my hotel got me there quickly. I was checking in by 3:30 and made it to the 4:00 meeting. Amazing, but my luck was nowhere near about to run out.
Dinner that night was at…George Steinbrenner Field. When we got to the field, the first thing we saw was a roped off section that had a replica of the retired number section from Monument Park. Several people took pictures, but I left my camera in the hotel. We walked inside and were greeted by Allison, our hostess for the evening. Allison was an amiable, attractive young lady who worked for the Yankees in Marketing. She was a lifelong Yankee fan and a Tampa native. She gave us a tour of the stadium, which included showing us where the players are generally interviewed (where just a few hours earlier Derek Jeter had been answering questions about A-Rod’s press conference from the day before), a walk on the field – unlike my Yankee Stadium tour, they actually let us walk on the grass, and we also got to walk into the weight room.
After the tour we were escorted into a bar area where dinner was being set up. On every wall was a flat screen TV tuned to the YES Network – which was showing Thurman Munson’s Yankeeography. All the walls were adorned with pictures of Yankee greats – Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig, Ford, Berra, Muson, Guidry. Two small replicas of the ’96 and ’98 World Series trophies were encased in glass. On one wall was a triangular shaped case filled with autographed baseballs. Jeter and A-Rod had baseballs in there, but there were some that were unexpected, most notably Mike Torrez – who, as I took great delight in informing one of my co-workers who is a Red Sox fan, helped the Yankees win the World Series in 1977 by pitching brilliantly and again in 1978 when he was a member of the Red Sox and gave up a homer to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent. In short, this was the coolest place I could think of to have dinner.
Dinner was catered by the chefs who normally cook for the players, and all the food was excellent. The unlimited beer flowing in from the bar from the pleasant girl behind the bar also made for a great evening. At one point I walked over to Allison and struck up a conversation with her. She was very forthcoming about her feelings towards certain players. I don’t want to reveal everything about our conversation since she had no idea that I write a blog, but essentially everyone you would expect to be a nice guy is, and everyone you would expect to be a jerk is, with one glaring exception. There is someone who is no longer with the Yankees who she told me had a great picture of himself painted by the media who loved him, but he was not a nice person. Focusing on the positives, she told me that Johnny Damon and Tino Martinez are exceptionally great guys (she’s a little biased because they’re both from Tampa). She also told me that the toughest part of working for the Yankees is that she was taught to hate the Red Sox throughout her life, but having met them; they are the nicest group of guys. She called Ortiz classy and said he was also a great guy. I’m happy to report that she also told me that “The Boss’ ” (Steinbrenner, not Springsteen) health has been improving.
I need to mention something about a co-worker of mine. I will refer to him as John (not his real name). Just before dinner, John received a phone call from his wife who was 8 weeks pregnant. She informed him that she suffered a miscarriage that day. John was devastated. John is a big Yankee fan, and being in Sales, is not exactly the shyest guy in the world. He tried to cope through the evening (until the flight he managed to get home the next morning) by walking around and taking pictures of anything he could find with his cell phone. At one point he wandered off. He returned to our room with an excited look on his face. He had been walking around taking pictures and while he was taking a picture of the bathroom sign (I can’t make this stuff up), he saw someone walk by that he recognized. It was Hank Steinbrenner. He asked and Hank was nice enough to pose for a picture with John, which while it could not make up for his loss, helped immensely. I hope that Hank will realize that the simple act of posing for a picture with what he probably thought was some weirdo taking a picture of the bathroom sign meant the world to John. It gave him something to be excited about.
The next day, I had some time after my morning meeting, so a few of us took a cab back to the field to catch some BP. I got to the field as CC was walking off the mound. I caught Tino walking to the dugout and pulled out my camera just in time to get a picture of the photographer that was behind him as Tino ducked into the dugout. Missed it by that much. We walked over to the lower field where we would be closer to the players, and I got some good pictures of Derek, Melky, and a few others.
As we were standing there, I heard some fans yelling, “Bernie!” I didn’t think Bernie was going to be there, but I looked up and sure enough there was Bernie Williams grabbing a batting helmet and walking over to the fence right by where I was standing. A man standing next to me told his young son that Bernie was a legend. Bernie actually acknowledged the man and said, “Thanks, I appreciate that.” What a great guy! He was the only player who acknowledged any of the fans. Bernie was my favorite player for a long time. Anyway, Bernie walked right up to a batting tee which was set up just on the other side of the fence from me, looked at me and said, “Watch out, I don’t trust my first few swings.” Huh? Did Bernie Williams really just talk to me? I wanted to talk to him, to tell him how much I admired him, to wish him luck with his CD and in the WBC, and most importantly, to beg him to come back and be a bat off the bench this year. Instead I just took a couple of steps back and remained silent (where was the beer when I needed it?). Bernie checked the net in front of him with his bat for holes, and I was impressed that he was concerned with my safety, while I would have been more than happy to be hit in the head with a ball off of his bat. He took a few swings off the tee while I stood just a couple of feet away from him. His swing was still mechanically perfect. He then stepped up to the plate to face some pitching. He was in the batter’s box (batting lefty) for only 5 pitches, and he only swung at one, but he ripped it for a line drive past Cano. I think he can still hit.
We left the field, very happy. I checked out, had lunch and took a shuttle to the airport. I breezed through security and had no issues with my flight. We took off on time. This time I had an aisle seat, and again there was no one sitting next to me. Again it was the only empty seat on the entire plane. What are the odds of that happening?
I still had one more bullet to dodge, as I would be landing at 6 pm and have to deal with the evening rush hour. We landed at exactly 6:00 and I quickly claimed my luggage. I was on the road by 6:30. I again passed Yankee Stadium, but this time was amazed at how much luster it lacked when the new stadium came into view behind it. It was like having John Wetteland as the closer and being happy about it, but then replacing him with Mariano Rivera. The new stadium is unbelievable.
I was home by 7:00. I still can’t believe that I could have that much luck over two consecutive days. Things got back to normal when I returned as I hit lots of traffic on my way into work the next day. I got the flu a couple of days later (I blame Sabathia, who also got the flu the same day). Overall though, it was a great trip.