March 9, 2011
Heading Back to HoHoKam
MESA, Arizona__Getting to Phoenix to take in Cactus League action might be seen as one form of heaven or another. After all, there's an almost unlimited amound of baseball on tap in easy driving distance, every day, for weeks on end. Add in tacos, hiking, and warm weather, and there are few better balms to break from Chicago's winter doldrums. Even a two-hour delay on the flight out couldn't really be a buzzkill--I'm going to be out here for two weeks, flitting around to a few different camps to check in as many of the teams as possible, and writing about what I see and whatever develops. Add in the chance to stay with friends old and new--family friends in Mesa one week, and a former fraternity brother and his family in Scottsdale in another, and it pretty much dovetails with my idea of perfection.
So now I'm planted in the press box in HoHoKam, and can't help a moment of whimsy. The first time I was here was in 1992, after making the long drive down with a couple of college buddies in a beat-up Impala. Back then, spring training still had a few more rough edges than it seems to have these days. This was before HoHoKam had been renovated, and it had a distinctly high-school diamond vibe going for it. In cages behind the left-field bleachers, you could walk up to where pitchers might be warming up, with nothing but a foot or two and chain-link fencing between you and whoever might be warming up for the visiting team. On that long-ago afternoon on this site--if not exactly in this same place--I got to stand a few feet from where Randy Johnson was popping Dave Valle's glove before that day's game on an unusually foggy afternoon. Even in warm-ups, the experience was slightly terrifying, thrilling, and wonderful, and not something I'm likely to forget. Another morning, it was a treat to just listen in to Goose Gossage talk about hunting with a bystander, happily ignored by the hordes of autograph-seekers because he wasn't Eck or Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire, he was just some fierce-moustached grognard in a windbreaker talking about game in Colorado Springs, and not games.
After that, I knew I loved the relative intimacy of spring training, but haven't been able to get down here for anything like the same amount of time as I did then. While that intimacy has changed, the love for what's involved hasn't. Today's a sunny, perfect Arizona spring afternoon, where that day was gray, and the park's very different, having gotten zotzed up a bit, to its benefit. And now, as then, the challenges from today's action are simultaneously different and timeless: Will Matt Garza throw anything off-speed? Will Jeff Baker do some damage against Bruce Chen to cement a role as designated lefty masher? Will any of the relievers make a case for sticking around? Will Bruce Chen do his veteran lefty magic and wing it through another game and another day, maintaining his lease on his latest big-league incarnation?
The other thing that came up in that first spring was perhaps the birth of ambition to actually work in sports, and chuck being a Teamster with a bachelor's degree in modern European history. At the bar at the Pink Pony in Scottsdale I met the sports editor of Parade and a few folks associated with the A's, who encouraged me to mail in a resumé. After which we all got fairly deep in our cups, because when you're a twentysomething, some spring exercises are as reliable as the sunrise. Once we finished our trip with a Giants game, we hit the road back to Chicago, and once there, I busily mailed an execrable resumé to everyone I could think of from the A's organizational chart, probably cluttering Bill Rigney's mailbox needlessly with far too much tree-slaughtering hard copy. Nothing ever came of it—the A's were as smart then as now, what with Sandy Alderson in charge—but it got me to thinking, and it was around then I got more and more interested in following, arguing, and contributing to rec.sport.baseball on Usenet, which is where I "met" Gary Huckabay, Clay Davenport, and so many other future colleagues and friends.
Looking back on being at HoHoKam then and being here now, I had no idea I'd be in the press box 20 years later, but now that I am, I'm looking forward to delivering on the opportunity. If you're in Phoenix in the next two weeks, feel free to drop me a note or tweet me (@ChristinaKahrl), and share what you're seeing and doing. If you're not in Phoenix, feel free to ask me to look for something in particular--as self-indulgent as I can be as a writer, the process is about giving you, our readers, what you want to know more about, and I aim to please. And if you bump into me at the Pink Pony, don't be surprised if I'm putting away a round, toasting the proposition that spring training is where dreams come from--and come true.