“I don’t know, kid. There’s a lot of games … but probably too many. And there’s a lot of golf, but probably not enough. You’ll like it.” — Snarky Adult Sportswriter, Circa 1986
CELEBRATION, Fla. — Around this time 27 years ago, as a child growing up in Michigan, I had the awkward pleasure of geeking out on a national baseball writer during a book-signing session at a Detroit-area bookstore. It was perhaps the only time I had ever solicited the autograph of a media member. As a grander plan, though, I had a hidden agenda:
Pick his brain on all the wonders of being a sportswriter, especially during spring training.
Sadly, the above quote involving baseball in March, although hilarious and dripping with sarcasm, was the best nugget of advice he offered in that two-minute chat. But for some reason, it has always stuck with me, as a reminder to continually stoke my passion and appreciation for sports journalism — even during the most mundane of events.
Like NFL training camps, spring practices for college football, summer-league events starring newly minted NBA rookies and, apparently, the daily travails of baseball’s Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.
In other words, don’t view the art of being paid to watch February baseball in Florida as an exercise in drudgery.
Which brings me to this: Welcome to Celebration, Fla., just a few minutes southeast of Lake Buena Vista — home to Walt Disney World and countless other theme parks. I’ve covered major sporting events in my day, but this trip to the Sunshine State represents my first-ever spring training, either as media or a fan.
So just in case this is a one-shot deal, here are seven ancillary storylines I’d like to pursue with the Braves over the next five days. It’s not a hard-target plan of stories, it’s merely a roundabout bucket list of anecdotal themes to pursue during this introductory period of morning drills — full-squad workouts started on Friday — and zero afternoon games in cities like Tampa (Yankees), Lakeland (Tigers), Kissimmee (Astros), Clearwater (Phillies), Bradenton (Pirates), Fort Myers (Twins, Red Sox), Jupiter (Marlins) and Lake Buena Vista (Braves), among others.
1. Chat up former Braves manager Bobby Cox about his first year in the majors as a player (the 1968 Yankees), which was also Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle’s last season in pinstripes. I’d also like to hear Cox’s perspective on the underrated Tigers-Blue Jays rivalry of the 1980s, along with his unique relationship with then-Toronto GM Pat Gillick, otherwise known as WOLLEY SEGAP (‘Yellow Pages’ spelled backwards) in executive circles.
2. For a half day, shadow the Braves’ equipment gurus, the unsung worker bees who’ll keep the clubhouse in tip-top shape over the next 45 days.
3. Ask Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell about his appearance on the classic “two spitters” episode of Seinfeld in 1992, when Kramer and Newman blamed Keith Hernandez for spitting on them after a 1987 Mets-Phillies game outside Shea Stadium.
4. After that, I would be thrilled if McDowell, a noted prankster during his heyday with the Mets, Phillies, Dodgers, Orioles and Rangers (1985-96), demonstrated the strategy behind giving the “hotfoot” to an unsuspecting player in the dugout.
5. Have Braves pitcher Paul Maholm recount the day in 2008 when he struck out actor Billy Crystal in an official Grapefruit League game (Pirates-Yankees). For what it’s worth, Maholm rode the momentum of that high-profile experience to a 9-9 record and 3.71 ERA with Pittsburgh that year, his third full season in the bigs.
6. Learn of Major League Baseball’s new communications protocol amongst managers, bench coaches and bullpen personnel in the wake of MLB’s monstrous new sponsorship deal with Sprint. As in, will coaches communicate via text or cell phone when signaling for relievers to warm up? Or will they just send every message via Twitter?
And finally …
7. Chat up all the Braves players, in hopes of sniffing out the official fantasy football kinpgin of the bunch — the one guy who handles commissioner duties and keeps his fellow owners in the loop regarding the August draft and subsequent season from September to December.
And I will find him, because every NHL and MLB locker room has at least one fantasy football league. It’s a fun, exhilarating way of bonding with teammates, minus the obligation of talking baseball or hockey 24/7.