The Courtyard Hotel is going to work perfectly for me. There’s a little bistro downstairs that serves from 7 am to 10 pm. I don’t have to go anywhere but to the games, and for a writer like me who wants to spend most of his time at his laptop, that’s perfect. So after working on my growing little journal, I head to the Angels spring home they share with Arizona State University for my second game, a “home” game against the Seattle Mariners. It’s a quaint little ballpark nestled at the foot of two desert buttes that constantly remind you that you are not in Orange County.
As I pull into the parking lot at 10:15, I am told I am the last car they are letting into the main lot. For no reason known to me, I am led to the second parking stall next to the stairs to the stadium. You can’t park any closer than this. I take a picture of my car with the steps leading to the entrance to the stadium in the background, and send it home with the caption “V.I.P. parking.” Well that’s what it feels like. Only at spring training.
With game time at 1:05 pm (Does anybody else wonder why they always put those 5 minutes in there? It reminds me of my wife hitting the snooze button. She would never wake up at seven. It would have to be 7:05, exactly game time for most of the season. One day I’m going to get to the bottom of this.) I have plenty of time to wander around on the lower fields and watch the minor leaguers practice. You know they are minor leaguers because number 27 is out here shagging fly balls, and he is definitely not Mike Trout.
The first thing you notice when you get to the stadium early is a line of people already standing along a low, 3-foot fence that lines a walkway from behind the stadium to the lower fields. That’s because the players will pass through this gauntlet of fans a couple of times prior to opening the gates to the stadium, and these folks are hoping to see them up close and maybe even get an autograph, although big business is pretty much changing the autograph market significantly.
I did get an autograph, though I’m calling it my mystery autograph, because I have no idea who the guy is. He was leaving one of the lower fields early and I saw someone else get his autograph so I figured he had to be somebody. Well he was, just somebody I will probably never know. I memorized his number to look it up later in my program, only to find his number wasn’t on the roster anywhere. I did see someone wearing his number later in the game; he was an older guy — one of the coaches. So I’ve got my mystery autograph on my official major league Rawlings baseball, encased forever in a plastic display box. It looks like a squiggle — maybe the initials “G.S.” — but I’m not sure. Maybe some day this guy will be famous and I’ll figure out who he is.
Along the “autograph” fence, I found a particular group of folks having a grand time. Obviously veterans of spring training games, they had two large awnings set up right along the fence, plenty of chairs and tables, a barbecue going, and what looked to be five or six families enjoying the morning. I found out the patriarch was a guy named Kevin Olsen from Orange County, and they’ve been doing this for a number of years. This year, they’ve been here since Thursday and they set up every morning around 9 am. These guys know what they’re doing. They even have a bean bag throw for the kids that someone made in the shape of an Angels “A”.
They are the ones who told me not to get my hopes up for autographs of anyone I mighty really want. It’s all big business now, and I wonder if Major League Baseball is encouraging players like Mike Trout to not sign autographs now that they have official MLB versions of these products for sale at a pretty penny, or by auction.
Everybody still is hoping, however — standing around with balls and Sharpies. (A number of articles I read said not to use Sharpies, but they are without a doubt the most popular pen out here.) Yes, hope runs high. A couple times while waiting with expectant autograph seekers further down the line, we hear cheering up-line, and everyone gets really excited thinking it’s the players coming, but nothing happens. So I go up to check it out, and find a bunch of young adults from Kevin Olsen’s group playing a drinking game around one of their tables. No time lost for this group.
Something started to look suspicious when it was 12 noon and the gates to the stadium were still not open. (They usually open at 11:30.) A huge crowd had gathered because it was now only an hour to game time. That’s when the rumor came around that there was a swarm of bees around home plate they had to clear out. I could see fire trucks there, but hoped they called in the bee-busters. Firemen are good for lots of things but not necessarily removing bees.
At any rate, the gates were open by 12:15 and I found my seat in between two Seattle Mariners fans. They were both from Seattle and had flown down for this and were a little put out that they had to sit on the Angels’ side when most of the the visiting fans were along the third base side behind the visiting dugout. I did my best to make them feel welcome.
In the middle of the game, when the announcer asked veterans or current members of the armed forces to stand up and be honored, both of my neighbors stood up. I remarked, as they sat down, that I was among royalty, and the gentleman on my left remarked that that had not always been the case. I immediately assumed by what he said, and his age, that he was probably a veteran of the Vietnam War and I was right. He had been a helicopter gunner, and to my surprise, he said it was the most fun he’s had his whole life. He then explained it was early in the conflict and almost all of their missions were uncontested. He was lucky.
One of the first things you notice when you get to a spring training game and the players take the field is how small the game is compared to what one usually encounters in a big league ballpark. Three tiers and 50,000 seats puts the field in a huge cavern. Here it’s just a field with one tier of stands and 10,000 people. It almost seems like a bunch of big guys playing Little League. (Actually there was one play in yesterday’s game, when Nolan Arenado, the Colorado third baseman, missed a routine grounder hit by Albert Pujols, and the second baseman missed the throw in from left field allowing Albert to take a second base — two errors in one at bat — that for a while there it really did look like Little League.) But that’s what everyone loves about spring training. Everything is up close and personal, and a little more casual. I can take full face shots of my favorite players from my seat with a simple telephoto lens. And if I want to get even closer I just go down to the front row where everyone moves over so I can get the picture I want. Like Kevin Olsen said when I asked him how many families were in his group, he replied, “We’re all just one big happy family here.” It feels kind of like that at a spring training game.
One big family. It even feels like fans for the other team are part of the family too. That’s because you realize there’s something bigger than loyalty to your team here. The bigger thing is the game. These people are lovers of baseball, or they wouldn’t be here, and because they love the game they appreciate and reward a good play whoever makes it. So far in both games, I’ve been seated next to someone from the other team and I’m so glad this happened.
We need to think more like this in our relationship to the human family we live in. Whether someone’s on our “team” or another “team,” we are all human, made in God’s image and we all have much in common.
For way too long now, Christians have been making enemies of anyone who isn’t on our team. Who knows but a good spring training experience could help clear that up!