Tales from the Cactus League
By Jeff Idelson
I am so glad Spring Training is here, even if it was warmer in Cooperstown than in the desert for a few of the days I visited Arizona last week. Boy did I miss baseball. And in my job, I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to rub elbows with so many of the game’s greats, bringing them closer to the Hall of Fame.
I got to see the Giants, Brewers, White Sox, Mariners, Indians, Reds, Royals and Rangers all play.
It was great to see the two reigning Cy Young award winners – Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke – pitch. I brought Tim plaque postcards of Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer. Why? They are the only Hall of Famers to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards. Perhaps they will help inspire Tim, not that he needs inspiration.
Before the Cactus League opener in Peoria, I visited my friends in the Mariners clubhouse: Head athletic trainer Rick Griffin and I talked about the health of his players; Ken Griffey Jr. told me he expected Ichiro to get twice as many regular season hits as he would – including spring training. “I’m aiming for 150 hits,” said Junior. “Have you seen Ichiro get hot? You turn around, and he’s gone 15-for-25. If anyone can get 300 hits, it’s him.” I don’t doubt Griffey’s sense of logic, having seen Ichiro play so many times.
Did you ever take an advanced or AP class in high school? I took AP Baseball last week with Professor Ryan. Nolan and I sat together for the Rangers-Royals game, where he gave me a breakdown of every player on the field. I had a similar experience a few days later with White Sox owner and Hall of Fame Board member Jerry Reinsdorf, who invited me to sit with him, his vice chairman, Eddie Einhorn, and his special assistant, Dennis Gilbert, the former agent for George Brett. I now know where the White Sox’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Bobby Brett, George’s brother, joined us.
We held our annual Cactus League Champions event in Goodyear, where the Indians and Reds train. It’s a great complex. The Indians were very generous in hosting our Champions, those who support us with an annual donation of $5,000 or more.
Team President Paul Dolan and assistant GM Chris Antonetti addressed our group and let them know what to expect from the Indians this year. After the game, we all had dinner with Bob Feller and Fergie Jenkins, where they regaled the group with stories, photos and autographs.
Speaking of dinners, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Fergie and their wives joined me for dinner the night before. We toasted to a good 2010 Cubs team and the Williams’ 50th wedding anniversary. Quite a feat for the Williamses, a lovely couple.
On my first night in Arizona, I was joined by Mickey Morabito and Steve Vucinich from the A’s, Gary Hughes, the Cubs scout, Roland Hemond, the long-time Bill Veeck disciple who works for the Diamondbacks, and veteran writers Bob Nightengale, of USA Today, and Spink Award winner Tracy Ringolsby. We get together each spring to talk about scouting and the game today. We used to dine each year at the Pink Pony, a popular old-school steakhouse on North Scottsdale Road that finally closed its doors. We miss the Pony.
On my final evening, I hosted the dinner to end all dinners, at Don & Charlie’s, a popular Scottsdale hangout with great steaks and ribs. We had a large group that included Bob Uecker, Rollie Fingers, Robin Yount and his brother Larry, George Brett and his guest Joe Randa, Mike Murphy, the Giants’ clubhouse man since Day One in San Francisco, Brad Ziegler, my friend who pitches in the A’s bullpen, Jerry, Eddie and Dennis from the White Sox, and Bob Crotty, who is a generous Hall of Fame supporter and owner of Green Diamonds Gallery in Cincinnati, an exquisite baseball gallery of artifacts and art.
Just before we were getting ready to sit down to dinner, Uecker calls me from his cell phone to let me know he invited two other mutual friends – Bob Costas and Joe Torre.
We had a great dinner and talked about the Dodgers impending trip to Taiwan, told Yogi stories, heard all about the Olympics, and tried to recollect if Torre and Fingers ever faced each other. “Did I ever face you?” Joe asked? ”I can’t recall,” was Rollie’s response.
So, I emailed Freddy Berowski in the Hall of Fame Library. Sorry Joe: You faced Rollie one time in the regular season, on May 1, 1977, and struck out. You also faced him in the 1973 All-Star Game and popped out in the 9th. None-the-less, you remain one the game’s greatest players, managers and ambassadors and it’s hard to imagine you won’t be in Cooperstown one day.
Jeff Idelson is president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.