SPRING TRAINING FINALE
My good friend Mindy, aka Minnie Minosa, aka the Big, Fat Milejio, recently went down to spring training with two of her baseball buddies—Anne and Allison. These ladies are all in their early 30s, and are wild Yankee fans. I don’t know Allison too tough, but my girlfriend Emily and I went to a Yankee game last summer with Mindy and Anne, and well, they were a sight to see. What a pair of loud asses. Damn, it was like sitting next to Frick and fuggin Frack.
Mindy is one of the smartest people I know, and while she’s always been a baseball fan, she has really delved into the culture and history during the past year. Her curiosity and passion are infectious, and we had many spirited conversations and debates throughout the long winter. She may have a bod like Boom-Boom Belinda, but the beauty part is that she’s a Tom boy, and a brainiac to boot. (People often think she’s Latina cause of pa-dapp over here, and ba-bam over there, but Minosa is 100% Pizzan all the way.)
Anyhow, the Gleesome Threesome had been planning a trip to Tampa all winter long. Mindy even made Allison and Anne a little picture book of names and faces of famous Yankees, past and present, so they could identify some of the old bastards they may run into in spring training. Sure enough, they had a blast, and when they returned Mindy was kind enough to write up the following report.
YOGI, GATOR, PUFF ‘N’ STUFF
By Mindy DePalma
My friends, Allison, Anne, and I arrived in Tampa for Yankee Spring Training on Thursday afternoon, March 13th. This was our first time at spring training and we only really had hopes of seeing some great baseball and getting some sun. We weren’t interested in autographs and we certainly didn’t have any expectations of meeting any baseball players, past, present or future.
We arrived at our hotel and while we were waiting in the lobby to check in, a cab driver walks through the door and yells, “Whitey is here.” This nearly sent me through the roof since Whitey Ford just happens to be my all-time favorite Yankee. Unfortunately, it ended up being a different Whitey (or a sick joke) because he had left the hotel a few days before we arrived. However, it must have been a sign of things to come because as soon as we checked our bags, we grabbed our bathing suits and headed out to the pool. As we were rounding the corner toward the pool, we see Yogi Berra standing in our path. My jaw dropped to the ground as I raced by toward the door. However, my friends were not going to let this moment pass. After much pushing, shoving and nagging, Anne finally persuaded me to go over and ask him for an autograph. I did. He was nice, and shy; luckily the two men he was with broke the ice and started chatting with me for a few minutes. The two men ended up being his son, Larry and his nephew, Angelo.
That night we went to the exhibition game against the Red Sox. Andy Pettitte started, and faired pretty well. He looked healthy and lasted about 3 or 4 innings. Shea Hillenbrand and Trot Nixon got a couple of knocks off him, but no serious damage was done. I came to realize that starters only last 3 or 4 innings during spring training games. Brandon Claussen followed Andy, and then Mo closed it out. Much to my relief, Mo was spectacular. He blew away the Socks with a couple of strike outs and a pop out.
The next day we attended the Yankee/Devil Rays game, and arrived early to watch batting practice. We caught the last 15-20 minutes of Jeter, Giambi, Soriano, and Zeile. The fence surrounding home plate was packed, but we got a great view of the guys waiting in line to swing. Off to our side, was a desperate 8-year-old screaming his little heart out (“Mr. Jeter, Mr. Jeter!”) for Derek Jeter to come over and sign his baseball. Jeter eventually yelled back and said, “I can’t do it now because I’m working, but I’ll come over in a little bit.” Which he did. Finally, this poor child’s vocal cords were restored.
This game was our first look at Jose Contreras (his stuff was good, but he got a little beat up in the first couple of innings). We sat behind 3rd base and had some time to kill before the game started. I spotted the bullpen from across the field and quickly left my friends to check out Contreras warming up. I also hoped to catch a glimpse at my main man, the Gator, Ron Guidry, who was in camp as a pitching instructor. When I ran over, there were a bunch of people leaning over the walkway overlooking the bullpen. A few guys were milling around, but there was Gator sitting in a chair in the corner of the bullpen. He would occasionally glance up at the crowd uncomfortably as if he felt like he was trapped in a fishbowl. Finally, I yelled down and said, “Hey Gator!” and waved. He looked up, smiled, and waved back. Oh the joy!
Finally, Contreras came out and started warming up with a softball. He tossed a few light rounds and then slowly threw harder and harder for about 10 minutes. Finally, he switched to a baseball. Contreras threw for a while with what seemed like a nice degree of heat; his form looked great. Finally, he seemed thoroughly loosened up. After he walked out onto the field to throw a few to Jorge Posada, Mo Rivera came walking out to the pen. Most of the people on the walkway had left at that point, so I gambled, and again couldn’t restrain myself and yelled, “Hi Mo!” Like Gator, he looked up, gave a dazzling smile, and said hello. My bullpen session was complete. The game was starting, so finally after about a half hour or so I rejoined my friends.
After the game, we returned to the hotel and headed down to the pool. We ran into Larry Berra and his cousin Angelo, and their friend Robert. We chatted, told them about our day and went off to our room. Later, that evening as we finished dinner at a nearby restaurant, our new friend Robert came over and invited us to a Yankee cocktail party. I looked at Robert in disbelief.
All he said was, “Ron Guidry is there.” I flew out the door.
When we got to the cocktail party, we said our hellos to Larry and Angelo. Everyone was outside on a patio by the water. As soon as I walked in I went to grab the closest chair at the furthest table from the crowd and who was sitting there but Ron Guidry. I just stood there and looked down in disbelief as he looked up at me. Earlier in the day I was just giddy over seeing him in the bullpen and now here he was a few inches from me. Larry said, “Go ahead, you can sit there.” As soon as I sat down next to him, Guidry looked over, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ron Guidry.” Fuck, yeah you are! I said, “Yeah, I know. I’m a really big fan of yours. You were my favorite player growing up.”
Guidry’s form has barely changed since his pitching days. He was still tall and lean. He lacked the middle-aged man gut that haunts many guys his age. His hair was slicked back and had almost no gray in it. He could not have been more handsome. His slow Louisiana drawl eventually worked at calming my nerves enough to engage in a conversation. So I peppered him with questions. He was more than happy to chat, and here is some of what he said
I asked Gator how he felt about his role as a special instructor and if the players really listened to his advice during spring training, and he told them that some do,
“But you will always get young, cocky guys who don’t want to hear what you have to say and that’s fine. The veterans don’t really need much advice, but they tend to be very respectful.”
He particularly noted Mo Rivera as a great guy. “Then, there are some of the young kids who want to ask a question but they are too intimidated,” he said. “For example, the other day there was this kid in the bullpen who kept looking over at me and I knew the kid wanted to ask me something. So finally I went up to the kid and said, ‘I know you want to ask me a question so why don’t you just come out and ask. That’s what I’m here for. If you don’t ask me, I can’t help you.’”
I told Gator that Whitey Ford is one of my all-time favorite Yankees and that I was disappointed to hear that he had left because, someone told me, that the young guys don’t really listen to people like Whitey anymore. I asked if he sensed the same thing:
“Well the game has changed a lot and so have the attitudes.” Gator said when he first came up and Whitey Ford was a pitching coach and then a special instructor he was just awed by Whitey. He was thrilled to just be in his presence. “You don’t always find that anymore.”
I asked him what he thought of some of the arm problems Andy Pettitte has been experiencing over the past couple of years. I suggested that perhaps his workouts with Roger [Clemens] has been affecting his pitching since Roger is a power pitcher and Andy is a classic finesse pitcher.
Gator said, “The conditioning that Andy has experienced has been good for his body, however he’ll never have a body like Clemens and he knows that. Second, if you will remember when Andy first came up he had a stronger fastball and when he stared experimenting with change-ups, he not only lost speed on his fastball but he started experiencing arm problems.”
Guidry said that whenever a pitcher starts to change his style he always runs into problems with his arm. Which is why, he noted, he only threw 2 pitches (fastball and a slider). “So, really Andy is going back to his original form.”
Gator asked me if I was really old enough to remember him, and I assured him that I was, I delved into some Bronx Zoo talk. I asked him what he thought of Billy Martin as a manager.
“I liked Billy. I never really had a problem with him. However, he didn’t really understand pitchers.” He said when they first hired Goose Gossage as a closer his freshman year with the Yankees was pretty rough. He got knocked around a lot. In fact, Ron said, “I told Billy I don’t want that guy closing my game. Now, Goose is one of my closest friends and he was a great pitcher, but back then [that first year] I didn’t want him closing for me.” I said, “You wanted Sparky Lyle instead?” He said, “Well yes.” But eventually Goose got his game together and went on to become one of the great closers in baseball.
Gator spoke very highly of Gossage, so I told him he was one of my favorites as well and that I was a bit surprised that he didn’t get the votes for the Hall of Fame this year. Ron said, “Aw, he’s got plenty of time to make it. Hopefully, he’ll do it.”
At one point during our conversation, Guidry got up to refill his drink. I took that as a sign to scram and apologized for monopolizing his time. He turned and said, “No, I’m not leaving I’m just going over to the table to get a drink. I’ll be right back. Can I get you something?”
He returned in about 30 seconds (just enough time for my friend Anne to run over and say, “Are you totally dying right now?” I quickly said yes and scooted her away as I saw him approach the table.) When he returned I said, “I’m sorry for chewing off your ear. You must get sick of being bombarded by fans all the time”
“Well it depends upon the approach. When you came over and told me that I was one of your favorite players and sat down to chat, I have no problem with that. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a conversation. But some people don’t approach you that way.” He didn’t elaborate on the wrong approach, but I think he meant if you are trying to eat a meal or if a fan gets in your face aggressively, that’s when it is a problem. I was grateful for his reassurance since I was nervous enough just talking to him and did not want this moment to end any time soon.
As I was sitting there talking to Ron, I looked to my left and there was Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer at a table nearby. When I turned toward the other direction, I spotted Mel Stottlemeyer, his wife, and Bobby Mercer at a table. It all seemed very surreal. I looked at Guid and said, “Wow, there’s Mel Stottlemyre and Bobby Mercer!” Ron turned to me and said, “Why don’t you go over and say hello. They are two of the nicest guys you will ever meet.” I looked at him and said, “No, that’s okay. I would rather talk to you.” There was no way I was going to pry myself from Guidry, however I did notice my friends Anne and Allison chatting with Mel and Bobby. Anne couldn’t resist because next to Derek Jeter, Mel is her favorite Yankee man. Anne and Allison were with Larry Berra, who introduced them as fans who “like old Yankees!” Everyone got a good laugh out of that!
I asked Ron if he was looking forward to Ron Guidry Day later this summer. He didn’t seem too enthused over the attention, but was appreciative for the day. I asked him which former teammates would be joining him. Goose Gossage was the first person that he mentioned. He also listed Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle. I can’t remember the rest because we got sidelined by my friends, who had come over to brag to him that I had already purchased tickets for his Day.
Ron Guidry was incredibly nice, polite, and patient with my enthusiasm over meeting him. He sat and talked baseball with me for well over an hour, joked around with my friends and me, and could not have been more of a gentleman. After we ended our conversation and parted ways, he even came over to say goodbye to me before he left. Though I was incredibly nervous talking to one of my favorite Yankees it was without a doubt the highlight of my visit to Spring Training.
Toward the end of our conversation, Guidry and I were standing around and suddenly, out of no where, up walked Graig Nettles. I had asked Gid earlier if Nettles had left because I thought I had seen him. Gator responded, by saying, “You never know. That’s why he’s called Puff. He’s there one minute, the next he’s gone.”
Luckily for me, Puff reappeared. So when he walked up to us, Gator turned to him and said, “Puff, this Mindy.” Nettles turned to me, extended his hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Graig Nettles.” I said, “Yeah, I know,” with a smile plastered across my face. I couldn’t believe it.
After being introduced to Graig, veteran Daily News beat writer, Bill Madden, walked up and started discussing the latest Jeter/Boss George incident. Nettles defended Jeter by saying he was a great kid and a terrific ball player and that there was no reason he shouldn’t be made captain. Nettles said, “After all, if he made someone like me captain, why the hell wouldn’t he make Jeter captain. It doesn’t make sense.”
Puff was funny, and honest. I found him to be more humble and friendly than I could have imagined. He hung out with us for the remainder of the night. He was incredibly nice to fans at the local bar where our entourage settled. A few fans approached him to sign some autographs and talk some baseball. He happily did both. One of them even bought us a round of drinks, much to his immediate embarrassment. When the fan insisted on buying them, Nettles turned to me and said, “I’m sorry about that. I hate when that happens.” I said, “Why? He’s a fan and he is just happy to talk to you. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed by that. You just made his day!” Graig said, “Yeah, I guess you are right,” and proceeded to chat with him for a while much to the fan’s delight.
Neither Nettles nor Guidry seemed entirely comfortable with a fuss being made over them. They both seemed to be adamant about just being looked at as regular guys, which made them all the more appealing and cemented their standing on my all-time favs list.
We stayed in Tampa for the remainder of the weekend and caught a couple of more games. On Sunday’s game our seats were right next to the bullpen so we got to see Clemens warm up (he was the starting pitcher.) At one point, Reggie Jackson came out to stand in as a hitter. I was sitting directly above him in my seat. It was my first and only close look at Jackson and it was definitely a treat to seem him standing at the plate again (even without the swing.)
On Monday, we were invited out to a ballgame in Clearwater by a friend of ours whose father in-law is Bill Giles. The Phillies were playing the Yankees, so we got to sit in the coveted seats behind the dugout. Since we were with the Giles’ we sat behind the Phillies dugout, which gave us a perfect view across the 3rd base side to the Yankee dugout. We missed the end of the game because we had to leave early to catch our flight back to NY, however we did get a wave from Derek Jeter who stood stranded at 1st base talking with Lee Mazzilli. Jeter seemed a little puzzled by people on the Phillies side waving to him, but he was a good sport and waved back. Anne nearly collapsed into her Philly cheese steak.
We owe a big thanks to Larry Berra and his friends for making our vacation so memorable. Who knew the turn of events that would take place when I stopped to chat with him about his dad on our first day at the hotel?