For those who truly love baseball – and there are millions of us – yesterday, Feb. 28, was the most hopeful of the upcoming season. All major-league teams have begun spring training. All are tied for first (or last, depending on your outlook) entering the season. In Peoria, Ariz., where the Seattle Mariners train, the stands were perhaps two-thirds full as our home-town heroes played an exhibition with the San Diego Padres.
The score, 10-3 for the Mariners, barely mattered. What mattered was that the grass at Peoria Stadium, shared by the Mariners and Padres, was a thick carpet; that the day was clear and in the 70s; that rookies and marginal players on both teams were playing all out in at attempt to impress their managers and make the opening-day 25-man rosters. Just before the first pitch, the public address announcer told us it was 51 degrees and cloudy in Seattle.
This marked the ninth straight year that I have attended the opening exhibition game in Peoria. Local senior-citizen volunteers man the ticket windows and serve as ushers. Great franks, beer, barbecue, and other specialties, costing far less than at Safeco Field, are eaten at outdoor tables by a combination of locals and Seattle and San Diego baseball tourists – always more Mariners' than Padres' fans. Husky, Cougar, and Mariners caps and T-shirts were much in evidence.
For the record, here were the firsts of the first exhibition game:
- Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpayo threw out the first ball, declaring that he was thrilled "to be in Peoria, Ill.," for the official opening of spring training. The pot-bellied Arpayo is best known as the hard case who makes sweeps of Latinos on county streets and dumps them across the Mexican border, no questions asked. It gets him reelected by big margins.
- Ichiro Suzukl was, as usual, the Mariners leadoff hitter and stung a line drive that was caught at his shoe tops by the Padres left fielder.
- Newcomer Brad Wilkerson got the first Mariners hit, a line drive double off the base of the center field fence.
- Third baseman Adrian Beltre made the first fielding gem, a backhanded stab of a sizzling grounder down the third-base line.
- A lady fan in a wheelchair, just to the first-base side of home plate, caught the first foul ball hit into the stands.
True fans, and I am one, can recall the first day they were bitten by the baseball bug. I was bitten, at age 7, as I listened to a radio broadcast of the 1941 World Series with my mother (who had played first base in a women's league in Canada). She cried out in anguish as Mickey Owen, the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, dropped a third strike, which would have ended the game in Dodger victory. The New York Yankees, thus given another chance, rallied to win the game and the Series.
Two months later, Pearl Harbor drew us into World War II. We Depression-born kids' parents went to war or the war effort, leaving us to fend for ourselves and each other after school or on weekends. An only child, I found my home in baseball. Beginning then, and right through my Bellingham High School years, I would play two or three games daily and would in time be hired by the Bellingham summer recreation system to help administer a huge youth-baseball program at Battersby Field near downtown. Evenings, I served as public address announcer for Bellingham Bells semi-pro games at the same venue.
For 30 years, Dave Niehaus has been the Mariners' voice for Northwest fans. In our pre-television time, it was Leo Lassen, who broadcast Seattle Rainiers Pacific Coast League home games live and recreated those played on the road. When his tape ran behind, Lassen was known to have hitters foul off record numbers of pitches to fill time until his next update. Lassen, moreover, did pre-game shows which were tutorials on the fine points of baseball. We listening kids got radio instruction on baserunning, hitting behind the runner, throwing to the right base, and anticipating game situations while playing in the field.
At class reunions and elsewhere, I seldom see old friends from that time that we do not mention Leo and his broadcasts. When radio transmissions were clear, we also tuned in periodically to Rainier games being broadcast by local announcers in Portland and in Sacramento. The latter were broadcast on KFBK-AM, announced by Rollie Kester, and sponsored by Sunbeam bread.
The fans in Peoria this early in spring training are cut from the same cloth. They not only attend exhibition games in Peoria Stadium but arrive early mornings to watch Mariners workouts on the several practice fields nearby. There you can rub shoulders with Ichiro, visiting fireman Jay Buhner, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, and others. Many of the players and coaches are pleased to sign autographs and to engage fans in baseball talk.
The players and coaches are fans, too – just as we are. Some 20 years ago, I found myself on business in San Diego and watching a Padres game with Buzzy Bavasi, the Padres' general manager and father of Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi. An oldtimers game preceded the regular Padres-Cardinals game. The Padres and Cardinals players were there on the field for the oldtimers' game, seeking autographs of the former big leaguers. Many had cameras with them to have their photos taken with their boyhood heroes. Buzzy Bavasi, who had been with the old Dodgers in Brooklyn, was thrilled to the core as we watched former Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese pick up grounders around second base. "His actions are just the same!" Bavasi exclaimed. Yes they were.
There is a continuity in baseball that is lacking in other major sports. Baseball players, unlike their counterparts in football or basketball, can tell you who holds what records. Many know the lore and history of their sport. The long 162-game regular season leaves time for exchange of such lore and of anecdotes from the past. A journeyman major leaguer may have a 10- to 15-year minor- and major-league career. An NFL or NBA player will arrive and be gone in four or five years.
Who knows what will happen to our Mariners in 2008? Bill Bavasi overpaid badly for two new starting pitchers – Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva – who should strengthen the rotation. But the team still lacks overall speed. The outfield defense, other than Ichiro's, will be mediocre. First baseman Richie Sexson needs to pick up his performance. Last year it was dreadful. The team in recent seasons has lacked competitive fire. Yet the team has better overall depth than last season. Its coaching staff has been upgraded. At this time of year, anything seems possible. Remember that 1995 miracle season?
If you can get down here for a few days, come to Peoria and see baseball in its pure form, played in a small stadium by players trying hard and in close proximity to the fans. Play ball!