Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tales from Spring Training

I thought it would be appropriate, given the time of year, to tell a few tales from baseball's past about Spring Training.

A lot of things in baseball used to be more relaxed in 'simpler times'. When an inning ended in the old days, for example, the fielders sometimes just left their gloves in the grass along the foul lines instead of taking them to the dugout. Can you imagine anyone doing that now?

When a team arrived (by train) for a series, they would often walk to the ballpark if it was within a few blocks of the station. Of course it would be pretty tough nowadays to walk from an airport to a stadium in another suburb, but can you imagine asking modern ballplayers to walk even a couple of blocks through downtown today?
Read my future blogs to see how other things such as travel have changed.
It seems that teams take Spring Training pretty seriously these days. But it wasn't always that way.

Here are some tales from Grapefruit League history from one of baseball's great story tellers – Ron Luciano, the pro football player turned entertaining umpire who loved to make fun of everything and everybody, especially himself.

In his hilarious book The Umpire Strikes Back he tells how he spent the entire winter getting prepared for his rookie season as a Major League umpire. “I watched my diet and only gained fifteen pounds. I exercised my legs a lot, and my mouth.”

He wrote that even arch-enemy Earl Weaver, the obnoxious Baltimore manager, was nice to him during Spring Training. Why is that so surprising? Well, Weaver made a lot of umpires want to get out of the game, but he had a particular hate on for Luciano.

Luciano once threw Weaver out of the first two games of a four-game series for arguing. In the third game, Weaver started getting on Luciano in the third inning. Luciano asked Weaver how loud he could yell. Weaver asked why. Luciano said, “Cuz you're gonna be yelling from the clubhouse the rest of the game.”

In the fourth and final game of the series Weaver brought out the lineup card and asked Luciano if he was going to be as bad tonight as he had been in the first three games. Luciano said, “Earl you're not going to be around to find out.” And he tossed him – before the game even started!

Luciano was always talking to fans and to players – anyone who'd listen to him. Batters in slumps would get outraged when Luciano would chat away while they were trying to bear down. Rod Carew was such a talented hitter, that he could answer Luciano while swinging, “No, it's a curve, Ron, so I'm gonna talk it to right,” and do just as he said!

One time during Spring Training Cleveland third baseman Buddy Bell was really fighting the ball. Luciano told Bell that he was having an awful day. When Bell committed his second error Luciano laughed at him. (Imagine an ump doing that today. “Watch your step Luciano, Bell told him. “If I blow another one you're gonna have to play third and I'll ump.”

Sure enough Bell booted another one and then tossed his glove to Luciano. They exchanged caps and Luciano took third – praying that the next batter wouldn't hit the ball anywhere near him. He didn't – he lined the third pitch to right. But there was a play at third and Luciano caught the ball and then threw to second to get the batter who had gone for second on the throw to third.

Luciano threw it way over second base, pulling Jack Brohamer well off the bag. But Joe Brinkman called the runner out anyway!

When the runner started to scream his disbelief Brinkman pointed at third and shrugged, “Look who threw it.” (Luciano, Brinkman, and the two teams were not fined – but they were instructed never to try a stunt like that again.)

In one spring training game veteran umpire Tom Gorman was working the plate and called a strike on Brooks Robinson when he had tried to check his swing on a low pitch. Robinson rarely argued, but he stepped out of the box and insisted that Gorman check with the first base ump, Emmett Ashford, who was Major League baseball's first Afro-American umpire. Gorman sighed and then pointed to Ashford, who immediately threw his arm up into the air. “There you are,” said Gorman, “you've got it in black AND white.”

But the best line comes from comedian Bob Uecker. When Johnny Carson asked the light hitting former Cardinal catcher what he considered the highlight of his baseball career, Uecker replied, “I once got a bases loaded walk in an exhibition game.”

Enjoy Spring Training. But don't take it TOO seriously.

Will The Quill

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Baseball needs more people like Luciano, Bob Uecker, not to mention Bill Veeck and Rick Dempsey. It takes itself far too seriously now.

Thanks for reminding us, Will!