On day 193 of the major-league baseball strike, we were five rows behind the Padres dugout in the seats my friend Anna had struggled to reserve.
Anna lives in Scottsdale. One Saturday, she set out for the Padres’ spring training camp in Peoria, about 20 miles east of her place. She arrived in a downpour. Finding that the only open ticket window was uncovered, she asked an employee where else tickets were available and got directed across Bell Road to Robinson’s in the mall.
At Robinson’s, she and the ticket clerk disagreed over whether the 24th would be a Friday or a Saturday, until Anna discovered that the clerk had been using the 1994 calendar. Now the clerk checked her computer and said the games were sold out. And so on. After four trips, Anna got our tickets, along with the suspicion that even people making money off this season were treating it disrespectfully. Because, so far, the players weren’t real big leaguers.
Ted Leitner made a crack about feeling disgraced to involve himself with these nonmajor leaguers. During game broadcasts, his yawning insinuated: “Don’t bother to pay attention. These guys aren’t going to be here. Anyway, they’re scabs.”
But on Saturday, March 25, they didn’t look like scabs. I had been to lots of spring trainings; I know baseball pretty well. The only way I could judge that these guys weren’t regulars is they didn’t have names on the back of their uniforms.
My kids were with me. Darcy’s 18, Cody’s 15. For a dozen years we’ve gone to ball games together. If I were richer or the games were cheaper, or if we lived near a minor-league park, we’d go more often. If replacement ball lasted, I could take them about once a week for half what we drop when millionaires play.
My kids usually go wandering in the first inning and return during the eighth or ninth. Today, I spot them in the left-field bleachers, and on the lawn behind the right field fence.
Down on the field, it’s a good, wild game. Ira Smith and Larry See wallop back-to-back triples. Rick Lysander holds the Mariners the first few innings, before they knock him around. They score five runs, taking a lead they’ll hold, though the Padres narrow it to two runs before a double play closes the game.
There are two brothers sitting behind me. Bill Meyers lives in Kensington. I ask what he thinks of this replacement ball. He says, “If you mean will I support these young players — definitely. I’ll probably go to the stadium more often than I did in the past. I want to watch these guys. I think the strike is all greed against greed. I’d like to see lower admission prices and more reasonable salaries for players, so I’m going to support this. My brother and I meet down here for spring training every year and I asked him, ‘Harold, does it matter to you that the stars aren’t in the game?’ His comment was, ‘Who cares?’”
Harold adds, “I’ve been coming to watch spring training for quite a few years. I’m from Spokane so I enjoy the weather, and the players are not only very skilled — these kids are here to play ball. I think they’re going to create some excitement. They’re going to do justice to the people who want to watch baseball.”
That evening, I called Pete Roberts at the Holiday Inn. Pete’s a pitcher. He was a little concerned about Lysander, today’s starter, whom he said had been throwing well, but this week had suffered from a sore elbow. I admired Pete for worrying about a friend who might beat him out of a starting job.
Tomorrow, Pete explained, the team will be chosen. By Tuesday he could be in San Diego studying the help-wanted ads. “I’ve had some good days and some bad ones,” he admitted. “One game, I couldn’t hit my spots and they killed me. Bochy and Seibert aren’t saying anything. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Sunday, March 26, day 194 of the strike, could be the last chance for eight or ten players from each team to show their stuff.
Top of the third inning, the Padres’ center fielder John Cotton wings the ball from midcenter field, a perfect one-hop to the third base side of the plate. Catcher Jim Campanis grabs it and sweeps the tag onto the runner, five feet short of the plate. Yesterday Campanis bolted after a blooped foul ball, dove and missed it by an inch, in the on-deck circle. “That Campanis is a scrapper,” says the woman.in front of Anna, and the guy behind me excitedly remarks, “I don’t care who these fellas are. I’m watching a damned good game.”
Bottom of the third, the Cubs left fielder dives and plucks a low line drive off the grass. I think, when the regulars come back, they’d best hustle, now that we fans have observed what a hungry ballplayer looks like.
In the fourth, the Cubs center fielder speeds full out after a ball that should drop in for a single, only he dives and snags it with the web of his glove. A man two rows back says, “Tell me these guys can’t play baseball.” The woman in front of Anna offers a challenge. “Who says these kids aren’t major leaguers?”
With one out in the bottom of the sixth, the Padres’ Billy Hall bunts for a base hit. The next batter drills one down the first base line. It raises dirt just short of the bag, inside the line, and looks plenty fair to us Padre fans, but not to the umpire. Bochy runs out and joins Davey Lopes, sniping at the umpire. A guy in the next section over yells, “Kick dirt on the bum.”
The Cubs’ pitcher, given a reprieve, serves a breaking ball, gets the second out. But Ira Smith comes on and whacks a line drive to right center. If it keeps going, it’ll reach the base of the fence. The right fielder turns and speeds after it, makes a running leap. The ball tips off the fingers of his glove, bounces straight up, and he juggles frantically. Finally it drops to the grass. The run scores.
Larry See steps into the box. He’s knocked some long balls this spring. The Cubs’ pitcher must’ve heard, or else he’s shaken, having allowed two hard shots and the go-ahead run. Anyway, he won’t offer See a fat one. He slings it inside, clips See in the back.
Now See’s on first and Smith’s on second when John Cotton slaps a base hit over the second baseman’s head. The Cubs’ right fielder guns a perfect throw that reaches home plate an instant after Ira Smith’s headfirst slide.
During the bottom of the sixth, I notice that my kids have yet to go wandering. This is so peculiar, I mention it to Anna and conclude that we must be watching one exceptional ball game.
The Cubs’ Steve Fanning whops a hall 400 feet over the left-field fence. In the ninth, his teammate Doug Kimbler slugs one a few feet farther. If there were a second deck in Peoria Stadium, it would’ve reached. Still, the Padres triumph, with seven runs on ten hits and two errors against the Cubs’ two runs on four hits and one error.
While the aisles clear, I try to recall ever witnessing so many diving catches in a single ball game. Five or six, I had seen today. And I realize that even the errors were a pleasure to watch, as they seemed caused by over-enthusiasm rather than over-confidence.
I tell Anna that if I could design a Utopia, there would be a hundred major-league baseball teams. San Diego would have two of them. The players would earn good money, but something less than a fortune every year. When their arms or legs gave out, they could coach or manage. Or broadcast, replacing Ted Leitner.
Jim Campanis exits the dugout carrying his gear bag and holding the hand of a tiny boy who walks by his side. Eight or ten kids tag along. He talks with them, smiling. I can’t remember a scene like that featuring Benito Santiago. And Campanis has a gun to second base.
If the season had opened with replacements, I’d have showed up for most every home game, brought my kids once a week. I suspect most baseball fans would have been there with me, while idle worshippers stayed home watching TV. They don’t need baseball; they’ve got Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
I’ll be saving my money for trips to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Lake Elsinore, Riverside, Tijuana, Mexicali — those lucky towns that feature real baseball, where guys play with their hearts not their calculators.