“Hey Murphy, do you have a girlfriend?”, asks a tan little bleach-blond thing wearing thick sunglasses and a blue tank-top. She’s standing just behind the mass of the autograph seekers, accompanied by two other college-aged girls and three heavier males. The girls are wearing a lot of makeup and have deep brown tans, while the much paler boys wear backwards Met hats, cargo shorts and poorly thought-out facial hair – scraggly goatees and unshaven necks.
Daniel Murphy is working down a line of autograph-seekers – a group including small children accompanied closely by parents who remind them to say thank you, teenagers that need haircuts, and older beer-gut-and-sun-damaged men, all of them gathered just outside the second exit to the player’s parking lot at Tradition Field. Murphy stands on one side of a waist high fence, flanked by a lone security guard who might have been in his early seventies. The fans stand on the other side. I’m standing alongside the fence too, but off to the right, trying to figure out how bad the sunburn on my knee is. Pretty bad, as it turns out. Skin shouldn’t be purple, right?
The Mets transitory first baseman takes pens and balls, broken bats taped back together, magazines, pictures of players that aren’t him, and the occasional blank piece of paper from those who couldn’t find anything else suitable for him to sign.
Murphy hears the girl’s shout and grins slyly. He responds to the question posed: “No, no I don’t.”
A little quieter, just for those close to the fence, he mutters: “But if you’re asking me, there must be some slim pickings out there . . . ”
The spring training home of the Mets, Tradition Field – or whatever the name has been changed to – is located in Port St. Lucie on the Treasure Coast of Florida. The park is roughly the size of Harbor Yard, home of the Bridgeport Bluefish, or really any other minor league park I can think of. It’s not an imposing or impressive ballpark by any means, not much different from a D-I school’s baseball field. You can count the heads of the people in front or behind you on your fingers, and the outfield grass seems like it would be growing with or without the park around it. Palm trees and conifers sway beyond the fences.
In major league parks, the playing field is dwarfed by the towering form of the upper decks, a canyon of steel titans lurking over the white dots that are supposedly the outfielders. It can make you wonder who left a grassy area in the middle of the amusement park. Not so in Port St. Lucie. Everything is in brilliant focus – the park doesn’t look that small on TV, but it is.
The atmosphere is far more casual and relaxed. Big league parks, in THE SHOW, have a well defined separation of fans and players. YOU are in the stands, and THEY are on the field, and though you are sometimes separated only by feet, YOU and THEY don’t really ever interact, and security guards in matching windbreakers line the field to remind you of that fact. Sometimes it doesn’t feel any closer than when you watch on TV. You can scream all you want in the upper deck, but no one down there is ever going to hear you. The only difference between your couch and the ballpark is that you’re accompanied by thousands of people.
That divide has failed to make the trip down to Florida. If someone decided to scream obscenities at Jeff Francoeur for nine innings, everyone in the ballpark, Frenchy included, would hear each four-letter word. There isn’t much to stop anyone from doing so. Security guards and ushers are present, of course, but most of them are full-time employees of the park – and thus also full-time residents of Florida – meaning that many look to be on the wrong side of 65. I spotted one or two burly, mustachioed security personal, but it was almost exclusively senior citizens who were charged with maintaining the peace.
But here’s the thing that makes the security guards superfluous anyway: you wouldn’t start calling Jeff Francoeur a smiling jackass at Tradition Field anymore than you would your uncle at a wiffleball game during a family barbecue. You can’t scream and hide at either party. There’s no anonymity when the crowds are that small.
So no one really says much of anything. The peace would be maintained on its own.
I’m tempted to call it all intimate, but that doesn’t feel quite right. It’s informal. It’s a dress rehearsal for the regular season, and YOU have been invited to watch THEM practice. But it’s not like you could run out there, pick up a glove and join in. You’re still not in the show. You just have better seats this time.
Tradition Field is approached – I’m going to keep calling it “Tradition Field”, all irony aside, because A) that’s what it was called when I was there, and B) I don’t think Digital Domain is paying me anything to advertise for them – through a rope-divided grass parking lot. The two entrances for the stadium are to the right and left of the ticket window, where an usher will take your ticket, rip it in two and grant you entrance. That’s it. No pat down, no scanner over the UPC code to make sure your ticket is real – if you have a purse or a bag, they’ll check those out for food or bombs or whatever it is they’re looking for, but otherwise, just a ticket rip and a “gee, nice day for a ball game.”
Like I said, informal.
On day 1, a Mets-Twins rehearsal on a Friday, I entered the stadium through the short ramp on the left. Reaching the top I watched some fans spin a carnival “wheel of crap.” A spin can win you game-used bats or a 2009 Florida Marlin media guide. My brother won the media guide. The next spinner, a man whose black hair was balding beneath his cap, won a woman’s t-shirt. He took it like it was a polio-infected blanket.
I moved on, past the concession stands and tiki bar, over to a railing behind left field that hangs over a back bullpen. The bullpen is equipped with five pitching rubbers lined up across an extra wide mound. I leaned over the railing as the four-on-the-floor disco beat of Lady Gaga floated and echoed around the ballpark: RAH, RAH, AH, AH, AH, ROMA, ROMA-MA. Mike Pelfrey, Fernando Nieve, and Tobi Stoner were all throwing – Mike Jacobs was catching Stoner, for some reason. Fans a story upstairs looked on, hanging over the railing silently. The only sound not emanating from the loudspeakers was the smack of baseballs striking heavy against the catcher’s mitts. Jerry Manuel leaned on a black bat, standing alone by the catchers, while Dan Warthen and a coach I didn’t recognize stood behind the mounds.
Further on, towards one of the back fields, Oliver Perez signed autographs for people who had backstage passes to spring training. I was wondering how you get let back there when Fred Wilpon hopped out of a golf cart to greet some of them. I guess you have to know the owner.
The voice over the speakers howled like a drunk robot, now telling me: I WANT YOUR HORROR, I WANT YOUR DESIGN.
Pelfrey finished throwing first, hanging around for a moment to talk with Warthen, mystery coach, and a short sunburnt man wearing a bright blue Mets wind breaker and baseball pants. The short man was leaning against the fence, looking simultaneously cocky and reserved as Pelfrey and Warthen laughed at something he said. I didn’t initially recognize the face without the mustache. My father couldn’t place the name right away either. A guy whose accent hinted Brooklyn figured out who my Dad was trying to point to before I did.
“Eh, It’s Johnny Franco”, he said softly.
Some fans in cargo shorts drifted away from the railing, and others moved in to take their place, but everyone kept quiet. T
here was no shouting at the players and coaches down below, no one desperately trying to make John Franco or Mike Pelfrey momentarily aware of their existence, no one trying to saying snarky to Jerry Manuel. It was as if it were a theater and you might be asked to leave if you broke the silence even for a moment.
The speakers blared on, oblivious to the rules: CAUSE I’M A FREE BITCH, BABY.
Jon Niese, all socks and crooked nose, came in just as the first group finished throwing. He lightly started tossing a dozen or so pitches, working up to a game velocity only for the last few. Two of the bullpen catchers, Shawn Riggans and Chris Coste, moved out to a back field to join their squatting brethren practicing throws to second. Jerry Manuel had long since disappeared into his lair, but as mystery coach walked under the railing, fungo bat in hand, a fan finally broke the wall of silence.
“Hey, coach, how about a bat?”
Mystery coach looked up, smiled, faked like he was going to hand the bat up – there’s no way anyone could reach that high – and disappeared into where I’d guess the locker room is. The bullpen was now empty, and one by one everyone shuffled away from the railing.
NO, I DON’T WANT TO BE FRIENDS. I DON’T WANT TO BE FRIEN-EN-ENDS.
Jesus . . . that’s fine Lady Gaga. I don’t think I’d want to be friends with you, either.
Spring Training games tend to melt away into memories and moments and the players but never just the games themselves, in the way the ones that count often do. I can recall Carlos Beltran running up a hill in in Houston three years ago to save Joe Smith in extra innings, and the Mets eventually winning and Billy Wagner closing it out. It was July and I was lying on top of my sheets, listening on the radio with the window open, letting the night breeze slip into my room like the harmonica in “Thunder Road”, and it’s all right there in my mind today.
But I can also recall with equal clarity an image of Fernando Martinez making a full extension catch in spring training two years ago. I can’t really remember anything else though – the score, the opponent, what month (February? March?) it was. I know I saw it on TV, and I think it was the first time I figured out what Fernando Martinez looked like, but that’s it for the recollection.
So here’s the thing: I was at these games a week ago, and I know the Mets lost on Friday and Saturday and won on Sunday, and I can tell you who the starting pitchers were and who played well, but I have no idea what the scores were or who did well on the other team. It didn’t matter to me.
But not everyone feels that way. I guess the score matters to some people – a family with thick Minnesota accents and thicker fanny packs a row in front cheered for the Twins like it was Game 7 of the World Series and they had wagered their house on the outcome – but it’s just not as interesting to me as who’s doing well for the Mets and who isn’t. Everyone enjoys baseball in their own way. I enjoy spring training in a different way than I enjoy the regular season – the other team and the score don’t matter.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Ruben Gotay hit a walk off home run for the Cardinals on Saturday, and he was on the other team and I can remember that. But he was a Met once, so that doesn’t really count. I liked him.
Our seats for the Mets-Twins game were along the first base line, but near the end I walked alone back to the covered corner in left field to escape the harsh sun, which was fulfilling its duty of being “man’s greatest natural enemy”, as one of my older cousins is fond of saying.
Temporarily safe, although it was far too late to save my now-purple left knee, I watched a pimply Jenrry Mejia warm up for the ninth from just a few feet away.
You know how when Francisco Rodriguez throws the ball, it looks like his arm is going to fly off in one direction, and he’s going to fall over in the other, but the ball sails towards home plate anyway? Jenrry Mejia doesn’t look like that at all. He’s long arms, a smooth stride, ball held behind him until the last possible moment when he slings it forward – he makes it look easy. Actually, it doesn’t even look like he’s throwing that hard until you hear the pop of the ball hitting padded leather. Gas. Filthy. Dirty. Nasty. So good, it must be described pejoratively. He slung it loosely, over and over, hypnotizing.
Mejia mostly keeps to himself when he is sitting in the bullpen, both at Tradition Field and Roger Dean Stadium. I saw him talk to Sean Green for a moment during the Cardinals game, but that was it for both the days I saw him. He just sits in his plastic chair and watches from the bullpen, not necessarily in a daydream kind of way, but in a quiet, attentive manner. He’s taking it all in, learning by watching, yet doesn’t seem overwhelmed by anything.
Or maybe he is just daydreaming.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how calm he seemed. I know who Jenrry Mejia is, and you know who he is, and we can talk forever about what his best use is. But I suppose he probably doesn’t know who he is yet, or at least who he is supposed to be.
Still, he seems to have a handle on things, though I’m sure people said the same thing about a young Doc Gooden too, because people say those things about every young player. Citi Field is far, far bigger than Tradition Field. That’s the show and these are just the rehearsals.
Mejia leaves me to go pitch in the game. He surrenders a couple of hits and a run, but nothing more. The Mets are swiftly retired in the bottom of the inning to end the game. Everyone that hadn’t already left now gets up to depart. Spring training crowds leave in waves. The first exodus usually occurs after the sixth, and the drift continues each subsequent half-inning until the game ends.
I started to walk back down the exit ramp when a tall man in jeans and a grey printed t-shirt who looked a hell-of-a-lot like Nelson Figueroa walked past me. I looked closer. More eyebrows than chin? Check. It’s Figgy. He makes his way down the ramp ahead of me. No one else gives him a second look.
Later, outside the stadium, I met up with my siblings and father near one of the gates to the player’s parking lot. I mention that I saw Figueroa walking around the stadium in street clothes.
“Oh, wow! Really?”, replies my brother. “That’s funny, because . . . we got a picture with him”, and shows me a picture on my sister’s camera of a smiling Nelson Figueroa with his arms wrapped around my siblings. He was apparently thrilled that someone knew who he was and wanted to take a picture with him.
A moment or two later, Jeff Francoeur pulls out of the player’s lot, crawling his black SUV through the crowd waiting for a glimpse of anyone. Frenchy gives a wave and a smile – of course – and then drives off to join the line of cars waiting to get out onto the main road. A couple of fans jog over to the car as Francoeur waits in the traffic. He rolls down the window to sign a handful of balls before the line of cars finally inches forward again.
Soon, a preteen spots Daniel Murphy through a gap in the fence and gets him to sign a ball. Another person notices, then another, and soon a whole crowd had gathered the inches-wide break in the fence, trying to get Murphy’s signature, passing balls through and bats – where are people getting all these bats from? – over the top of the eight foot high fence.
“Hold on. This is stupid”, Murphy says. He tells the crowd to meet him down at the other end, near another one of the gates to the lot, so he can sign without having to play Tetris with bats and t
Every main road in Florida is walled in by an endless row of strip malls and strategically placed palm trees. Every single heavily used road – every single one – is a line of Walmarts, Shoe Carnivals, Publix, Arbys, Subways and Blockbusters, interrupted only by the occasional chiropractor’s office, mega-church, or, my personal favorite, a pet crematory that advertised being “available for emergencies.” Just in case you pull a Dwight Schrute and need the remains of your girlfriend’s cat incinerated IMMEDIATELY.
The outdoor shopping centers are also broken up at times by rows up rows of identical looking single story houses. All the houses on this street have the same design, then all the houses on this next street have the same design – little pink houses for you and me. One car in the driveway, occasionally a few more parked on the lawn, and then there are some abandoned looking ones with no cars anywhere and yellow, overgrown lawns.
On our way to Sunday morning’s University of Michigan-Mets exhibition, just past some of these houses, we were caught in traffic for ten minutes on a single lane road leading to the stadium. The cars weren’t lined up for the game. Sunday morning. Church.
All that is why I’m surprised the Marlins and the Rays haven’t taken off a bit more. There’s so much money and faith moving about on that peninsula already. What mixes those two things better than baseball? It should be a perfect fit.
But it’s not working. Maybe someday for the Florida teams, once the other teams go. Spring training is packing up for Arizona, which is the same as Florida, only with mountains and no rain. Palm trees, citrus fruits, transplants, the strip malls. It’s all there. The exodus has already commenced – the Mets keep playing the same four teams over and over again this spring because everyone else is gone.
The second day, we – my father, sister, brother, and my own bad self – drove out to watch the Mets and the Cardinals play at Roger Dean Stadium, in Jupiter, home to both the Cardinals, Marlins, and one-time spring training home to the Expos. I learned that last fact from a display above a concession stand. Remember the Expos? Baseball in Montreal? My father does. He will still occasionally refer to the Nationals as the Expos by accident – but he still will occasionally call the Indianapolis Colts the Baltimore Colts. Some habits die harder than others.
Anyway, this place has a different feel than Tradition Field. The ushers actually scan the UPC code of the tickets, and it’s far more packed than either Mets home game. This stadium feels a little bit more big league, more hustle and bustle and people bumping into each other in the walkways. It had a modern touch too, a lot of bright bricks, like Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park and Busch Stadium II and all the neo-retro-parks.
Our seats are out in the left field bleachers this time, behind an exclusively female family from St. Louis that spent most of the game talking loudly about the local ball players they knew in high school and whose minor league system they were now in and who they were dating and who they used to date and who’s cute and who isn’t cute – I overheard them say that one of the local boys was traded in a Halladay/Holliday deal, but they couldn’t remember which sound-a-like superstar it was.
Located in front of the metal bleacher benches in left field is the sitting area for the visiting bullpen. Mejia is here again, and K-Rod made the journey too. So did Sean Green, Omir Santos, Shawn Riggans, and Elmer Dessens – a veritable who’s who of players that won’t make the Mets.
There was nothing but a thigh-high wall separating the Met bullpen from the front row of seats, so a few times every inning some fans would get a backup catcher or reliever to sign something for them – my sister got her hat signed by Omir Santos. Jenrry Mejia signed five or six people’s items, autographing each one politely, handing it back to the owner with a nod of gratitude, and then turning his attention back to the game.
The “Murphy-do-you-have-a-girlfriend?” girls were here too, this time trying to get the attention of Shawn Riggans, who was far more interested in trying to throw a baseball in the air and catch it behind his back than anything else.
Mid-way through the fourth inning, as Adam Wainwright continued his favorite pastime of catching Met batters looking at strike three and a Mike Jacobs/Luis Castillo/Alex Cora infield did their best impersonation of a juggling trio, a couple and their children sitting in front of me deserted their section of the bench to go seek Albert Pujol’s autograph. He was rumored to be signing somewhere in the park. “They say he only signs for the kids”, reported the father before they left. And away they went, hoping that what “they” said was true about the greatest one playing today.
A few moments later, a foul ball found its way into the Mets bullpen. A coach mindlessly flipped it to a pre-teen boy in the crowd, who just so happened to be wearing a Yankee hat and pinstriped jersey. The entire section, Met and Card fans, booed loudly, causing the Mets bullpen to turn around in their seats and see what was causing the commotion. The coach realized his mistake and laughed. The kid extended both arms out and tipped his cap to the jeers, which caused even more boos to cascade down. The kid ate it up. His next move was to call out “27!“, but no one really cared anymore, so he disappeared with his Cardinal friend back towards seats closer to the infield.
The Mets were behind 5-1 going into the top of the ninth, but scraped together a couple of runs before Ike Davis tied it with an opposite field home run that just cleared both the fence and the outfielder’s glove. A brief and slightly ironic “Lets Go Mets” chant arose.
Kiko Calero walked to the mound to pitch the bottom of the ninth, and almost immediately walked right back off when Ruben Gotay hammered a game-ending solo home run. Some Cardinal fans cheered, but most people seemed more concerned with getting out and trying to remember where on the grass they parked their car.
Daniel Murphy keeps moving along the line of pens and balls. He comes to a girl in her early twenties with just a small notepad for him to sign.
More deadpan: “Do you want my social security number too? I always get nervous signing these blank pieces of paper . . . ”
He signs it anyway, identity theft be damned. The crowd has almost dispersed, but someone spots Nick Evans rolling out in one of those boxy Hondas – the ones that resembles a wheeled microwave prototype Jack Donaghy designs in an episode of 30 Rock. Some people run over to Evans’ car, the crowd gathers again, and soon Evans is signing autographs out both windows.
Luis Castillo, behind the wheel of his platinum red Cadillac SUV, weaves out of the parking lot and around Nick Evans’ car. He waves out the window but keeps rolling right along. The traffic that delayed Francoeur is gone, so Castillo turns the corner and disappears as Murphy and Evans keep signing.
Gods and slap-hitting second basemen may not answer letters, but light-hitting first basemen do.
Sometimes, I like to look at the listed heights and weights of baseball players and find one who matches up with my height and weight. Mostly so I can think to myself: “Look at that. If just a few more things broke right, I could probably be out there with them.” I know that Fernando Tatis is currently listed at my size. See? How much more could be separating us? – other than the fact my
baseball career stalled out around age 15, partially because of a lack of skill, and partially because I started to become far more interested in Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses than anything else. Mostly the lack of skill. I still like to pretend though.
But while Fernando Tatis is an average-sized male in the general population, he trends small for a professional baseball player. The average major league players is far larger than the average American male. They may not seem like it, not in the way NBA players are skinny giants and football players are masses of muscle and steroids. Baseball players look like proportional human beings – well, you know, they finally look proportional again – which is deceiving. These are large men.
All this became incredibly clear when I saw the University of Michigan baseball team take the field against the New York Mets. Here’s a good college program, full of top athletes who tower over most of their classmates. But they looked like underdeveloped teenagers playing against the big boys in blue, absolutely dwarfed by all the Mets. It really was men against boys. I’m looking at the heights and weights of the Wolverine players on their website as I write this, and I call BS on every single one of those listed numbers. Their roster breaks down, size-wise, the same as the Mets roster. No way. Every Met would have been one of the five biggest players on Michigan.
This University of Michigan vs. Mets exhibition game was sparsely attended, understandable as there were no professional teams involved. A large portion of the crowd appeared to be directly related to players on the field. I saw plenty of groups wearing Wolverine yellow and navy. I also spotted Nelson Figueroa’s young daughter entering the stadium wearing a brilliant pink tutu and a Mets T-shirt that I believe read “Fig Fan” across the back, with a big number 27 in orange letters. This was exactly as adorable as it sounds.
I should probably note that I’m only assuming that the girl was Figueroa’s daughter – I didn’t ask. I assume she was mostly because I also assume an overwhelming majority of six-year-old girls do not become staunchly devoted to obscure journeyman pitchers. But what do I know?
The University of Michigan batted in the first against Nelson Figueroa, who appeared to be throwing his fastball at 185 MPH on this day. The first two batters managed only to foul one pitch to the backstop apiece before finally striking out. The third batter struck out as well, but he might have managed to foul a ball in a forward direction at least. I know the beard of Tim Redding got rocked by these guys last year, but, just . . . how? It didn’t look fair.
In between innings, two park employees came out to set up a putting green and net the size of a basketball hoop down the third base line. A white haired man pulled from the crowd got three attempts to chip a golf ball into the net, and just missed on all three – difficult, but not impossible. The contestant on Friday actually chipped his third shot in, the first (and probably only) winner of the spring.
Just after the white haired man finished, and as the stadium employees began picking up the chipping green, Oliver Perez emerged from the dugout, sand wedge in hand, looking like he wanted to give it his best shot. I have no idea where he pulled the club from, though if you had to guess which Met would have the contents of a cluttered garage in his locker, would you really pick anyone besides Oliver Perez?
The promotional crew didn’t let him try it out, which was disappointing. I really, really wanted to see Oliver Perez swing a golf club, mostly because I can’t imagine it looks much different than his regular batting swing. On the other hand, Ollie himself didn’t seem particularly disappointed. He just wanted to test and see if they’d let him try.
Even with the scrimmage atmosphere, some fans found reasons to become more involved with the game than others. In the bottom of the third, with two outs and two strikes on the batter, Figueroa threw a borderline pitch that was ruled a ball by the umpire. A section of fans down the third baseline let out a groan – had the pitch been called a strike, the entire section would have won free tacos.
Thankfully, two pitches later, Figeuroa struck the batter out swinging to end the inning. The taco section erupted in cheers. Figueroa kept his head down and eyes locked to the ground as he walked off the mound, but also let loose a huge grin. He was trying to get them their tacos.
And he has an adorable little girl.
Have I mentioned he’s incredibly easy to root for?
Midway through, the Mets took their regulars out and started pulling single-A players off the back field, throwing nameless jerseys on them, and sticking them into the game. The action continued, but the members of the crowd not directly related to anyone involved let their attention drift off in the breeze. Is that Jerry Seinfeld over there? I think it is. Do you think David Wright gets to leave once he is taken out of the game? I bet he can – he’s David Wright. Where do you think he goes? Oh, Jerry Seinfeld is leaving now. Everyone cheer!
That’s one of the beauties of going to see baseball in person, really. You can care as much as you want: a lot, or a little, or too much. Or even not at all and just enjoy being outside, the greenness of grass, shticks of the different vendors, and looking around for celebrities. I tend to care about what’s going on in the game, but this was a different experience that usual. I didn’t really care if Aljandro Machado got a hit off Jeff DeCarlo, and that was nice in its own way. Sometimes not caring about what’s going is its own relief.
I think wearing sunblock helps either way.
Daniel Murphy is almost done signing autographs, but Nick Evans’ car is still being besieged. A beat-up blue compact stops behind Evans’ car, a reggaeton beat thumping through the windows. boom-chicka-boom-chi, boom-chicka-boom-chi. It’s the kind of car a cash-strapped college student would buy, with patches of blue paint in different shades covering up dents. The young driver looks confused as to how to get around the mass swarming Evans’ car. It doesn’t look like he’s comfortable crossing into the opposite lane, even just for a moment in an empty parking lot. So he just sits. Someone taps on the window and holds out a baseball.
Jenrry Mejia turns his radio down to silent, turns off the engine, applies the parking break, and rolls down the driver’s side window. The 20-year-old starts signing silently, responding to the various thank you’s with slight friendly smiles and unsure nods. The crowd moves to him.
Nick Evans finally slips away. So do I. The grass is almost devoid of cars now. A girl asks her brother who the kid in the blue compact is as they walk away.
“That’s Jenrry Mejia. He’s their big young pitching prospect.”
“Oh”, she responds, frowns, and thinks for a moment. She shakes her head.
“I don’t know him.”