One of my favorite players, Dodger Andre Ethier, sent female hearts racing when he came near the dugout and began signing. Ethier grew up in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, attending Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Arizona State University.
Like sleeping seeds in the cold winter earth, baseball dreams awaken in March with the warmth and hope of spring training. And like plants that burst through melting snow, some of those dreams will blossom into beautiful flowers by summer.
This month, hundreds of prospects and non-roster invitees—many unpaid, except for meal money—arrive in camp armed with dreams of playing in the major leagues. For many, this tryout will be an experience of a lifetime, as close as they will ever come to the big leagues. But for a lucky few, spring training will be the door that opens to the “show.”
As a young boy, I would whack creek stones with mop handles and broomsticks and watch them sail out of sight, pretending I was Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. I dreamed of playing in the big leagues. I also dreamed of going to spring training. As I aged, it became one of those “bucket list” things I longed to do while still young enough to enjoy it.
Five decades removed from my boyhood dreams, I was on a plane for Arizona, then on to Florida.
A Cactus League Dream Come True
Leaving cold, gray, snowy climes for warm, sun-drenched Arizona and Cactus League spring training felt too good to be true. The cloudless desert sky couldn’t have been bluer and the late morning sun warmed my thawing flesh—a perfect day for baseball.
Coaches and players sauntered onto the field. Dodgers Matt Kemp and newcomer Yasiel Puig worked down the right-field foul line toward the dugout, signing baseballs, cards, programs, hats and jerseys. Near home plate, Manager Don Mattingly and Hitting Coach Mark McGwire patiently autographed everything pushed at them.
The next day, I watched the Angels play the Padres with superstars Albert Pujols, newly acquired Josh Hamilton and 2012 AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout. San Diego had a highly touted rookie from West Virginia named Jedd Gyorko I hoped to see play.
If I were looking for an omen it was going to be a great baseball year, I needed to look no further than the seat I had purchased. It was occupied by Peter Gammons, the great baseball writer. He immediately got up and quietly apologized.
“Oh, no, please stay,” I offered. “You’ve earned the right to sit wherever you like.”
But he slipped away, trying to be invisible while watching the game and taking notes.
Baseball Memories Passed to Next Generation
Waiting for the game to begin, I closed my eyes and breathed in the swirling scents of roasted peanuts, grilled onions, sunscreen and that sweet, sweet smell of infield earth aroused by sprays of water.
The aromas carried me back to my first professional baseball game with my grandfather at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. I was 9 or 10 years old.
For a boy raised on a rural frog farm—and who played Little League on an outfield pocked with gopher holes—stepping up through those dark cement tunnels out into the bright light changed me.
Washed in golden light and brilliant color, I had never seen greener grass, redder earth or straighter white chalk lines. I stood in disbelief reading the names on the backs of jerseys, names of my heroes, names I had heard on the radio.
I had never seen anything more magnificent or beautiful. I wanted to stay there forever.
Now, sitting alone bathed in sunshine and nostalgia, my throat tightened. I thought about my grandfather’s dream. Clarence was a high school knuckleball pitching star in Oklahoma, with dreams of playing in the majors. Scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was offered a contract. But his parents refused to sign for him. They believed baseball was a game with no money and no future. Their son needed to get a real job and help out the family.
Angry, my grandfather ran away, lied about his age and joined the Army. He was sent to France, where he mostly played the tuba in the Army band and pitched for Army baseball teams.
After World War II, he played a lot of semi-pro ball, but his window of opportunity had closed.
He passed his love for the game to me, his oldest grandson. He hoped someday I would do what he could not: play in the major leagues.
A Grapefruit League Adventure
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen—honored as the 2013 National League MVP—watches a homerun ball fly out of the park during a 2013 spring training game. McCutchen was the first Pirate to win the award since Barry Bonds.
Florida was magical, mostly because I had my son Tucker with me. This second half of my dream trip was a father-and-son adventure, a 13th birthday present for my second-oldest son. Watching Tuck buddy up to other kids—he has never been shy—and together race to get autographs and beg players for broken bats warmed and tickled my heart.
We visited McKechnie Field in Bradenton, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Originally built for the St. Louis Cardinals and the onetime home of the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, I tried to imagine the players whose spikes had cut into the thick grass and sandy soil on this piece of sacred earth. Legends like Ruth, Williams, Mazeroski, Clemente, Aaron, Stargell and Schmidt honed their skills here.
During batting practice before a game with the Orioles, I told Pirate skipper Clint Hurdle that I had photographed him during his rookie year in Kansas City. Seated on a bucket, feverishly working gum, he stopped, grinned and extended his hand. “Well, that means we’ve both been around a long time,” he said.
Near a practice field, Red Sox prospects, mostly pitchers, were taking a break in the shade. I asked where they were from. They named different states. I asked if any felt they would make it to the majors.
“Yeah, I’ll get there,” quipped 23-year-old Braden Kapteyn, in his second full year of spring training. Drafted out of the University of Kentucky in the 15th round in 2011, the former infielder, designated hitter and pitcher from the Chicago area was assigned to Class A Greenville. “I will be one of those names you hear about. I’ve always believed that.”
Dreams Abound Amidst Fears of Failure
Spring training is alive with hope, optimism and outward confidence. Few players like to admit it, but thoughts of injury or poor performance are ever-present. The pressure is real, in spite of what appears to be a fun, relaxed environment.
Players and parents know the odds: Fewer than 1 percent of all players will make it to the big leagues. Stories of high school and college stars falling on their faces, languishing in the minor leagues or suffering career-ending injuries are plentiful.
But on this warm spring day, dreams push down any secret fears.
For some, like Yankee prospect Pat Venditte Jr., major league dreams began even before baseball’s only ambidextrous pitcher could throw a baseball with either arm. Pat’s parents carried their 3-month-old son to his first World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985.
Later, his father, Pat Sr.—a skilled baseball player in his own right—trained his son to throw and pitch with both hands, hoping to give the child an athletic edge. He also taught him to kick with either foot.
It has been has been a long, emotional, but good road for the Venditte family, Pat Sr. admitted.
“There’s been a lot of eating at McDonalds and sleeping in campers,” he says.
Twenty-seven years after the I-70 World Series, and after six seasons in the minor leagues and playing out of the United States, the talented “switch” pitcher who throws equally well from either side was promoted to Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for opening day of the 2012 season.
Then, just when it appeared Pat was on the cusp of realizing his dream to pitch in the major leagues, he suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He spent the entire 2013 season rehabilitating it.
Pat Sr. said his son’s shoulder healed fine, and he is ready for spring 2014.
“What a great adventure for us, and always as a family,” said Janet, the pitcher’s mother. “We have friends all over Venezuela and Mexico. Pat and I are enjoying the ride as long as it lasts. We are thankful.”
Bonding Over Baseball
Spring training is about more than player or parent dreams. It is about relationships and traditions.
In the cozy, sun-bleached Toronto Blue Jays stadium in Dunedin, Florida, sunrays bounced off blue and white seats and balding heads, sending fans hunting for shade, liquids and sunscreen.
A father and son, each wearing a jersey with their favorite player’s name on the back, arrived early to watch their beloved Phillies. It was their first spring training game together.
“He is taking off school,” Harry McKenna said of 11-year-old son Matt. “This is more important than what he does for school. This is life experience.”
In Phoenix, after a long, successful day of snagging practice balls, getting autographs and watching a night game, Todd and Cherrie Winebarger splashed in a motel pool along with their two children, Kristin, 13, and Gavin, 11. This was the Winebargers’ 10th consecutive year of wrapping a family vacation around spring training.
“My father used to take me to games. Now I am taking my children,” the proud father shared.
Luis Marrero, 51, from Miami, waited hours in the cold with his son, Javier, 14, for players to arrive at the Yankee complex, hoping to get autographs.
After 15 years of spring training camps and 3,150 autographs, Marrero still gets excited meeting players and getting autographs. He has some of the greats, including Derek Jeter, Jackie Robinson (his father got that one), even George Steinbrenner.
On this day, he was on a special mission: to get the autograph of Yankee catching prospect J.R. Murphy on a black bat with the player’s name stamped onto it. The high school star from Bradenton, Florida, was drafted by the Yankees in 2009 and given more than a million-dollar signing bonus.
“He will go all the way,” Marrero assured excitedly.
He spotted Murphy and called to him. Graciously, the young star in pinstripes came close to the chain-link gates and signed the barrel of the bat in silver.
A giddy Marrero thanked him and patted him on the back. The wait had been worth it.
Game Looked Different Through Older Eyes
After the Cactus League games, I felt confused. I didn’t feel the excitement I had hoped I would. Maybe spring training was a dream that belonged to my youth, something I should have done 30 years earlier, when the Dodgers were still in Vero Beach. Or maybe it was because I was alone in Arizona, with no one to share what I was experiencing.
I am not sure what I was looking for or hoped to find on these fields of dreams, but some things became crystal clear: The game I dreamed about as a child looked different through older eyes.
Though I watched many young people line up to get autographs, I never saw the same wonder in the eyes of the youth that I felt as a boy. I wasn’t sure why, which troubled me no small amount.
Maybe it is because they have seen the players up close many times on television, computer screens and iPods. I had only seen the faces of my heroes on baseball cards before I saw them in person.
Many rant that the game of baseball is different now, that it was ruined by money. I don’t believe either premise. What I do believe is that television was the thief that stole our imaginations.
But what I felt missing in the youngsters I found abundant in the older players and fans—those who had seen baseball’s great ones play, who had played on ragged fields, and rode slow trains and broken-down buses, yet never fulfilled their dreams of playing even one day in the major leagues.
I watched reverently as a Red Sox minor leaguer from the past, now in a wheelchair, was hoisted onto the Little Fenway infield by three pairs of strong hands. Floridian Pat Lewis, 86, once dreamed of playing in the major leagues. After signing a minor league contract in 1944, he labored 51/2 seasons in the Red Sox farm system, never quite making it to the majors.
An Antidote for Forgetting Life’s Challenges
Baseball is such a healing game. In Dunedin, a businessman from Michigan, who turned usher for 10 days, said he came to spring training hoping to take his mind off a recent divorce.
“It is working,” he confessed.
In Arizona, I watched several players give high-fives and fist-bumps to a child in wheelchair. Six year-old Isaac Lill and his family traveled from Albuquerque, New Mexico, courtesy of the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, the child’s favorite player.
Kemp and the boy struck up a friendship when Kemp was rehabbing in Triple-A. Kemp has paid to fly the boy and his family to several Dodger games.
The touching scene reminded me that though the game grows more complicated, and some salaries are impossible for the average working American to comprehend, baseball is still about people—and dreams. And dreams do come true.
Nearly a year after the journey, my son Tucker still talks about the spring training trip, about meeting players and getting broken bats and signed baseballs, and staying alone with his dad in a motel with a great breakfast and dinner buffet.
J.R. Murphy, who began the 2013 season with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders of the Triple-A International League, was called up by the Yankees on September 1, when rosters were expanded. The next day he entered the game as a pinch hitter for superstar Robinson Cano. Murphy promptly beat out a hard smash to third for a single in his first at-bat.
My youngest son, Henry, is a gifted athlete with a fiery, competitive spirit who dreams of becoming a professional baseball or basketball player. He never says “if,” but “when” I make it to the pros.
And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, he will realize the dream his great-grandfather never could.
For more on spring training, click the “Baseball by David LaBelle” tag below and check out our profiles on Tom Richardson and Ben Klafczynski. For more photos, see www.facebook.com/ruralite.