PEORIA, Ariz. – The “first” day of Spring Training always brings back memories.
*Like the time when teenager Ken Griffey Jr. drove his black BMW into the parking lot at Tempe Diablo Stadium, got out of his car, introduced himself and, cellphone in hand, asked if I knew the phone number of the stadium office – located about 35 yards away.
*The time when I arrived for my first-ever spring training, in 1972, rented a white VW beetle and made the first of twice-a-day commutes from Phoenix, where the Oakland Athletics stayed, to Mesa, where the A’s had their workouts and home games at rickety old HoHoKam Stadium.
*Returning one year later, this time as a beat reporter for the reigning World Series champions.
*The time manager John McLaren announced that newly-acquired left-hander Erik Bedard would be the Mariners’ Opening Day pitcher. It was a rather peculiar decision as the first pitch of camp had not been thrown. A surprised Bedard famously said, “I don’t even know if I’m going to have a good season.”
*Camp opening for the Athletics in ’72 minus left-hander Vida Blue. The AL Cy Young Award winner was a contract holdout – two words erased from the MLB dictionary and replaced by “salary arbitration”. Blue would miss all of spring training and did not sign until commissioner Bowie Kuhn basically forced owner Charlie Finley to sign Vida “in the best interests of baseball.”
But what a camp that was. When Finley made his annual spring training visit, you had to be prepared for anything as he would call impromptu press conference at any time, day or night, to discuss his displeasure with Blue. I still recall a 2 a.m. get-together in the hotel coffee shop.
*The time Finley hitched a ride with me and fellow scribe Ron Bergman from Tucson back to Phoenix following a Cactus League game. Finley, riding in the back seat with all of his friends (alone) instructed the driver (me) to pull over and pick up two 20-something-year-old hitchhikers.
Finley pulled out a copy of Sports Illustrated, an edition that had a story on him, and proudly showed the hitchhiking couple. In unison they said, “Never heard of you.” That made my and Bergie’s day. Finley would get even a couple of years later when he attacked me outside his hotel room in Houston.
*The first day of camp in 1993, the Mariners’ first year in Peoria. In a story uncovered by Bob Sherwin, the third musketeer in this GolfersWest.com journey, Tempe officials had been working behind the scenes for several months to replace the Mariners with the California Angels. City officials denied it, but phone records proved otherwise.
Unlike now, where practically every square inch of land around the complex shared by the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres has been developed, back in ’93 there was a Chili’s restaurant, and that was about it.
Ah, so many memories.
While the Mariners have been in full-scale workouts for several days preparing for their late-March regular season opener in Tokyo against the Athletics, I figured there was no better way to spend a sunny, spring day in Arizona visiting camp headquarters on Mariners Way.
So I pointed the car north and embarked on the two-hour trek from Tucson for my “camp opener,” my attention divided between baseball and golf. Seeing old friends for the first time in a while is always a hoot, but just as important was visualizing my golf swing, which has not been used all that much in Seattle the past few months – once by last count.
The game plan was to check out the camp for a couple of hours and then meet my friend and GolfersWest.com colleague Kirby Arnold for a round of golf at the Palm Valley Golf Club, one of about a million or so – it seems — golf courses in the Valley of the Sun.
For the most part – with one noticeable exception — the reception for the old, tired and retired scribe was as warm as a midsummer day in the desert. The clubhouse was jammed with players, most of whom I never had met, the majority of them younger than my son, daughter and step-son.
It’s amazing how the roster has been turned over in just the past two seasons, but that’s what 90- or 100-plus loss seasons can do to a franchise.
The media room, my home-away-from-home for 38 springs, was filled with worker bees, including Larry Stone, whom I believe will become the first baseball scribe from the Seattle market to be selected as the Spink Award winner and inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, you’ll never guess who was at camp on this Wednesday as well. Junior. Not sure what he was driving, but bet it wasn’t a beamer.
He still has that terrific smile and strong handshake.
As the morning turned to near noon, it was time to meet Kirby for a round of golf.
At least he played golf. I am not sure what you’d call what I played, but it didn’t resemble golf. It’s back to the driving range and more lessons. Arghhhh!!!