By Jeff Idelson
Thank goodness for Spring Training. It means baseball has finally returned and the regular season is just around the corner.
I recently spent a week in Arizona. Can’t believe there are 14 teams there now, and when the Reds migrate west next spring, there will be an even split between Florida and Arizona. It seems like only yesterday when almost every team was in the Sunshine State.
I had a chance to reminisce about my Yankees Spring Training memories a couple of weeks ago when Gov. Charlie Crist invited me to speak at the recently rejuvenated annual Florida Baseball Dinner at Tropicana Field in St. Pete.
Sitting on the dais with Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Bill Mazeroski, Al Kaline, Mike Schmidt, Phil Niekro and Wade Boggs brought back great thoughts about my five springs in Ft. Lauderdale from 1989-93. There’s nothing better than 10 weeks in Florida to beat the cold, dreary New York winters.
In Arizona, I was based in Scottsdale, which is conveniently located in close proximity to the Giants, Brewers, Angels, A’s and Cubs Spring Training facilities. I spent my time visiting with team owners, Hall of Famers, current players, media members and fans.
For instance, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsorf is on the Hall of Fame Board of Directors. After lunch with Jerry, his general manager, Kenny Williams, and his special assistant, Dennis Gilbert, at the team’s new facility in Glendale, the Sox played the Dodgers. Jerry, Dennis and I watched the game from Jerry’s suite, and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, a native New Englander like me, joined us in the eighth inning, just in time to see his Dodgers rally from a two-run deficit to win in their last at-bat.
My visit was a chance to catch Frank and Dennis up on the inner-workings of the Hall of Fame. The silver lining for me was watching White Sox first-round draft pick Gordon Beckham, picked eighth overall out of the University of Georgia, play shortstop and show why he’ll likely soon join Alexei Ramirez (whose swing reminds me a lot of Alfonso Soriano) in the middle of the infield. Keep an eye on Beckham. He won’t be wearing uniform No. 80 for long.
Reality hit home when I realized that Beckham was born Sept. 16, 1986, 12 days before the Red Sox clinched the pennant while I was working for them after recently graduating from Connecticut College. Nothing like a dose of reality …
Later in the week, I headed over to Scottsdale Stadium with friend Rick Swig, one of our Hall of Fame Champions from the Bay Area. I also had a chance to spend some time in the Giants clubhouse and speak with Randy Johnson, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum and I first met in January when I presented him with his 2008 National League Cy Young Award at the Baseball Writers dinner. I presented him with plaque postcards of our only two Hall of Famers from Washington state — Ryne Sandberg and Earl Averill. I told him that I doubted he would need inspiration, but if he ever did, to take a look at these two legends’ plaques. He has the build of Juan Marichal, the delivery of Goose Gossage, the dominance of Sandy Koufax and the velocity of Bob Feller.
Zito loves the history of the game. We talked quite a bit about the Museum and our collections, as well as Bruce Hurst, one of his favorite players growing up in San Diego. I said to him, “I thought your 12-6 curveball looked familiar.” Hurst was his model and used his devastating out pitch to perfection in Fenway Park when I worked in Boston.
With Johnson five wins away from 300, I wanted to be sure he has us in his thoughts when he reaches the magical milestone. He’s always been generous, and I know he won’t disappoint us when he reaches that plateau. I told him that I doubted anyone would ever get to 300 wins again, unless the economy got so bad that teams were forced to scale back to smaller rosters and the old three-man rotations returned.
Randy also loves the history of the game and a signed Christy Mathewson book has a spot in his library.
While in the Giants clubhouse, I also exchanged pleasantries with Mike Murphy, the wonderful clubhouse manager who’s been there since the club went west, as well as the two Willies — Mays and McCovey. Both guys were in great spirits and were looking forward to coming back for Hall of Fame Weekend.
During the game, I sat with Cubs scout Gary Hughes and USA Today national writer Bob Nightengale, two longtime friends, in scout seats, right behind home plate. The Rockies and Giants were playing. I had no idea Sal Fasano was still playing, catching for the Rockies.
Dinners are meant for catching up with Hall of Famers and friends. Dinner with Robin Yount and his brother Larry, George Brett, White Sox vice chairman Eddie Einhorn and longtime Hall supporter Bob Crotty was a lot of fun. Robin dragged us to a restaurant he liked. “The general manager’s from Milwaukee. How could it be bad?” Robin said. He was right. It was terrific. He also let us know about his new product endorsement — Robinade — a form of lemonade sold only in Wisconsin and promoted in commercials by Bob Uecker. “Flying off the shelves,” he quipped.
Toward the end of my stay, we had a day-long event for our Champions — those who support the Museum with an annual contribution of $5,000 or more. The day, put together and co-hosted by A’s team doctor and Hall of Fame Champion Elliott Schwartz and his wife, Patti, consisted of going to see the A’s and Mariners play, where A’s GM Billy Beane talked to our group for a while. “I lockered next to Rickey Henderson in 1980,” remembered Beane. “I was sent down to Triple-A for three weeks and then was recalled. ‘Where were you?’ said Henderson upon my return,” Beane laughed.
Dinner that night was wonderful, with Hughes, Nightengale, Marty Lurie, who handles A’s pregame, and A’s announcer Ken Korach joining us and sharing stories. Williams and his wife, Shirley, were our guests of honor. “Good, better, best,” said Billy. “Never let it rest, ’til good is better and better is best.”
Lots of laughs, lots of baseball, lots of fun.
Over and out.
Jeff Idelson is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.