By Jeff Idelson
I’m sitting in Tampa International Airport awaiting the one non-stop Southwest Airlines flight back to Albany, having just concluded my Grapefruit League spring training jaunt. My Spring Training mission each year is to visit with those who are close to the Museum – current players and management, Hall of Famers, owners and supporters.
Having spent eight years combined in the Red Sox and Yankee front offices before being hired in Cooperstown in 1994, my knowledge was limited to Florida Spring Training: the Yankees were in Ft. Lauderdale and the Red Sox in Winter Haven. Since, I have traveled to the desert, too.
The differences are stark: The air is markedly drier in Arizona, because of the elevation. The ballparks in Arizona are surrounded by mountains; most of the ones in Florida, by water. Thirteen of 15 ballparks in Arizona are within 60 miles of each other. In Florida, they span across the state. I spent seven nights in one hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona; I was in six different places in six nights in Florida and flew in and out of airports across the state from each other.
The one similarity? I had a game rained out in each state.
I had a chance to visit with a number of our Hall of Famers. Andre Dawson and I had dinner in North Miami Beach, near his home. He’s already made great progress on his speech and is getting ready for Induction. “I’ll try not to get too emotional,” the stoic “Hawk” told me. I let him know that if he did not get emotional, I would be worried. Almost every speech I have heard since 1994 has been emotional.
Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Clark, Ken Meifert from the Hall, and I, saw Mike Schmidt and his wife Donna in Palm Beach Gardens. We talked about a variety of topics, from baseball to bull riding to music to living in Florida. Mike is very excited about our inaugural Hall of Fame Classic Golf tournament in June, in which he will participate. He was thrilled to know that a number of the 28 spots available are already filled.
Last Saturday, we hosted our Hall of Fame Champions in Jupiter. John and Kathy Greenthal became the first Champions in Hall of Fame history to attend events in both Spring Training states. Jim and Tina Collias made the trip over from Naples to Jupiter, and Dan Glazer also joined us. Hall of Fame Board member Bill DeWitt, owner of the Cardinals, was generous in hosting us for his team’s game with the Mets. Spring Training games are usually not that interesting, but this one featured the Mets scoring three runs in the 9th, the last on an Ike Davis game-tying home run, only to have Ruben Gotay lead off the bottom of the 9th with a walk-off home run.
Speaking of walk-off home runs, we dined with Dennis and Jennifer Eckersley after the game. I asked Dennis what he thought of Doug Harvey. “He was behind the plate for Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series,” Dennis reminded me, as I began to suffer the symptoms of foot-in-mouth disease. He still thought Harvey was an excellent arbiter.
I headed across the state to Yankee camp and saw many old friends in the clubhouse before the game: Billy Connors, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage, Steve Donohue, the team athletic trainer, Joe Girardi, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, whom we drafted when I worked for the team. The game was rained out as Gene Michael, his minor league teammate and Tigers broadcaster, Jim Price, and I had lunch. Also saw Tiger friends Dave Dombrowski and Al Aliva in the dining room and learned more about the Tigers.
Dinner that night was with Wade and Debbie Boggs and Reggie Jackson. Eddie Fastook, the team’s traveling security director and a long-time friend, also joined us.
Unbeknownst to me, Boggs grew up a big Reggie Jackson fan, even wearing No. 9 in honor, the number Reggie wore early in his career in Oakland. Wade told the story of how in the mid 1980s, Reggie gave him one of his bats to use in 1985. “I used it for 33 straight games and hit five home runs,” said Wade. “I loved that bat and then I broke it on a Dave Stieb pitch,” a dejected Wade recalled.
The next morning, I visited City of Palms Park in Fort Myers to see the Red Sox and the Rays. I met up with Don Zimmer, who is very bullish on the Rays this year. “The best club we’ve had in my seven years with them,” Zim said.
Zim told me how much he admired Dawson and Ryne Sandberg when he managed the Cubs. “Two guys who led by example,” he said. “The other players watched these guys and saw greatness in the making.”
I told Don I would be seeing Jim Rice and Bob Montgomery later that day.
“Monty was the best hit-and-run guy I ever had,” recalled Zim. “I remember in a game with Cleveland, the bases were loaded. They had a sinker-baller on the mound so I rolled the dice and gave (coach) Eddie Yost the hit-and-run sign on a 3-2 count. Monty put the bat on the ball and we stayed out of the double play. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I really thought it would work, and it did.”
Rice later told me that he believed Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella were among the best hit-and-run guys he saw when he played.
I concluded my trip with dinner at Carlton and Linda Fisk’s home in the Sarasota area. We had a wonderful visit and a great dinner. Pudge joked about how some of the evenings in Florida this year were as cold as those he experienced growing up in New Hampshire.
I’ve had my fill. Let the regular season begin.
Jeff Idelson is president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.