As a former longtime Arizona resident and a lifelong baseball fan, spring was always a favorite time of year. That’s right, I’m referring to Spring Training.
Growing up as a Yankees fan, it was disappointing that my favorite team trained in Florida over in the Grapefruit League instead of Arizona’s Cactus League. But some years if the schedule worked out just right, the Yankees would make a stop in Arizona on the way to the West Coast to open the regular season. That’s what happened in 2006.
At the time, I was working as a sports reporter for an Arizona daily newspaper. When I heard that the Yankees would be stopping in Phoenix for a pair of preseason games against the Arizona Diamondbacks, I immediately got on the media credential list.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote the following column, but I decided at the last minute to not publish it. While looking through my archives for column ideas this past week, I came across this in an “unpublished” folder (there have always been times when I would write columns and for one reason or another, decided not to publish them. Still, I never deleted them).
I wrote the following on April 1, 2006:
Standing in the locker room watching the Florida-George Mason basketball game, I realized what a rare opportunity it was to be socializing with such a powerful lineup on the most storied team in the history of professional sports.
I headed down to Chase Field on Saturday to watch the New York Yankees square off against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the final spring training game of the preseason. The Yankees were on their way to the West Coast to begin the season in Oakland and stopped in Phoenix for a pair of exhibition games.
Both teams cleared their benches of players during the contest and by the ninth inning, the game was tied, 3-3. Brian Barden, an infielder the Diamondbacks brought up from the minors to play in the game, hit a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth.
Managers Joe Torre of the Yankees and Bob Melvin of the Diamondbacks met at home plate and decided they did not want to play extra innings. The announcer in the press box reported that the game would end in a tie because both teams had run out of players.
Looking for an Arizona angle from the visiting Yankees, I decided on an interview with catcher Kelly Stinnett. A journeyman of 13 years in the majors, Stinnett has played with Arizona on two occasions over his career, most recently in 2005. Now he had made the transition to the Yankees as a backup for Jorge Posada.
Getting down to the Yankee locker room was the first challenge. As is often the case because of deadlines and getting into position for interviews, the press will head down to the locker room before the game ends. But the only way we were allowed to descend into the depths of Chase Field was on an elevator. And the attendant on duty was not playing ball.
In fairness to the attendant, she was obviously following orders from her superiors. She informed us that we could not use the elevator until the game was over and when she got the green light from her supervisor. One reporter from New York became excessively irate and tried to resolve the issue in several different ways, including asking directions to the stairs. Nothing worked and he did not hold back his opinions on the situation.
Finally, she allowed us to get on the elevator after the game had officially ended. But we still could not use it. We got to know each other a little too well in what seemed like an eternity. The New York reporter again erupted. At last, some young employee squeezed in, the attendant appeared relieved and we were on our way.
By the time we got to the locker room, some players had already showered and dressed. Walking through the door, the first player I came upon was Randy Johnson. The Hall of Fame pitcher was on a chair in front of his locker over in the corner by himself. Nobody interacted with him and it didn’t appear he wanted to be bothered.
Going down the row of lockers, I looked for Stinnett’s name. I found the locker but could not find the player. Just as I began to look for a press attendant, the throng of 20 or so reporters made a sprint for an office situated around the corner.
I squeezed my way in and found myself listening to Torre’s post-game report. He talked about the game and the pitching staff’s readiness for the opener and such. Not much interested me for what I was going to write, so I headed back out to see if Stinnett could be found.
No luck. And on top of that, there wasn’t much organization in terms of staff helping you set up interviews. It was the preseason and I was in the visiting team’s locker room. So I was on my own.
Thinking he may still be in the shower, I took the opportunity to chat with a few other players. Derek Jeter, who drew the loudest boos from D’Back fans during the game, talked about the team concept and how his stats pale in comparison to the overall goal of winning a World Series title.
Just about then, many players took notice of the Florida-George Mason game, which was showing on a large-screen TV set up in front of three couches in the middle of the locker room. Jason Giambi emerged from the dining room with a large cup of Gatordae and exclaimed, “Mason, that’s my team!”
I walked over and camped out next to one of the couches to see if Stinnett would show. Then I was struck with the all-star lineup that I had in view. Seated in front of me was Gary Sheffield, and then down the row to his right, Jeter, Jorge Posada and others. They all seemed to be rooting for Mason, which of course was the darling of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Every once in a while, someone would walk in front of the TV. Bernie Williams headed from the shower to his locker with an amazing display of towels wrapped around every part of his body. He looked like some sort of Eyptian mummy.
I took a look in the dining room to see if Stinnett might be in there. I was greeted by Don Mattingly, who was sitting at a table near the door eating chicken wings. I was taken aback … Mattingly was one of my childhood heroes.
Mariano Rivera and Hideki Matsui soon appeared. Every once in a while, you’d see a player slip one of the towel attendants some cash. Johnny Damon hung back at his locker with his shades resting on his forehead. One of the team’s young guys, Russ Johnson, walked in and took a moment to go down the couches to every veteran Yankee and shake their hands. He must’ve been saying good-bye because he got cut.
All of a sudden, Posada burst out laughing, pointing at a commercial on the television.
After I had been down there for about 30 minutes, Torre walked out of the office and glanced upon the locker room scene. It got quiet. Torre is the man. He glanced my way and hesitated, probably thinking, “who in the heck is that guy?”
Most of the other reporters were gone by then. Stinnett never did show up. He must’ve done his thing before we were allowed down into the locker room, or maybe he was visiting with friends he had made in Arizona.
Even though I didn’t get the interview for a column, I decided the experience of hanging out with some pro baseball players for a half-hour might make interesting reading. Such a scene makes you realize that even though they’re millionaires with fans around the world, they’re still just regular people who happen to play ball for a living.
Baseball is a great sport.
(Brad Fuqua is publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected]).