Monday, March 28, 2005

Birthdays and Opening Day

The grass in a Major League stadium is a brilliant green on Opening Day, radiant compared the the still-brown lawns in our Midwestern cities.

Of course, the stadiums have an advantage. They paint the grass.

I didn't know this -- and probably wouldn't have believed it -- until I saw it for myself.

My birthday is in the first week in April, and sometimes falls on Opening Day, which my family says is appropriate. But my birthday came in 1991 and I remember going through a rough stretch at work and being in a foul mood.

Then my colleague and buddy, John Munson, arrived with one of the best birthday presents ever. John was a photographer at the Flint Jounral and we often worked together. He convinced the editors that what we really needed was a story about how workers get Tiger Stadium ready for Opening Day, and how I should tag along to supply the words for his photos.

The editors signed off, and what an awesome day we had.

We had lived in Michigan just over a year at that point, and had been to Tiger Stadium many times. It was a wonderful old stadium, full of little oddities -- and some big ones, too. And I was thrilled to get a chance to see things going on behind the scenes, stuff fans don't typically get to experience.

We arrived around mid-morning, picked up our credentials and were excited to see that we had complete run of the stadium.

The Tigers' opening series with the Yankees was still a couple days away, but the stadium was bustling with activity. We went out to the field first, following the loud noise coming from centerfield. Out in the middle was a crew covered in green spraying what appeard to be paint on the grass. I was stunned. It was one of those "pull-the-beard-off-Santa Claus" moments. We walked on the crushed gravel warning track to centerfield, touched the base of the famous in-play flagpole -- because we could -- and chatted with the crew members. The explained that the "paint" was a mixture of fertilizer and food coloring, enough to keep the grass looking great in April and May.

We then poked around the dugouts, which are really cramped, and walked up the narrow tunnel that leads to the clubhouse. There's a small sink in the tunnel, just deep enough in so that it can't be seen from the stands. Goodness knows what the players do to or in it.

We checked out the Tigers clubhouse first. Workers were installing new blue carpet and tiger-striped wallpaper in Sparky Anderson's office. Player lockers are not like lockers you see in schools. There are no doors, just spots along the wall separated by something that looked like a small chain-link fence. Director chairs with the team's Old English D logo were on top of each locker, I assume because of the carpet work. Boxes of new batting helmets were arriving. We tried them on because, again, we could!

We then ventured into the trainer's room, which is off-limits to reporters during the season. Tiger pitching legend Jack Morris had left the team for the Twins during the winter, and Morris had written a personal note to the trainers and taped it to the wall for them to see when they came north with the team. It was neat because Morris had a reputation of being very grumpy, so it was nice to see another side of him.

The visitors clubhouse was really spectacular. The walls are covered in white ceramic tiles like you'd see in a bathroom, expect players through the years had augraphed them. The guys fixing cracked tiles told us they spent a couple hours walking around the room reading the walls.

We then moved into the bullpens, which are cages sunken into the ground. The view is horrible -- probably the worst seat in the house -- and it's got to be hot in there during the summer months. It's also so deep that players need a little wooden staircase to get in and out, and that wasn't yet in place when I jumped in, so it was a little tough getting out.

We later walked around the press boxes and boxes that run along the roof of the stadium that must have been used when the Lions used the stadium, too. They ran all the way along the top into rightfield. There wasn't much inside, just something that looked like a running shelf or desk where you would set a drink or laptop on. There were no seats or anything, and it was nothing like the luxury boxes I've seen in other stadiums. Unlike the bullpen, the view was awesome. I was higher than any seat in the stadium, and still closer to the action than anything in New Comiskey Park's upper deck. We opened another door and ended up on the actual roof of the stadium.

It was fun talking to the workers, who seemed to have an appreciation for the historic building they were working in. I remember one of the guys in the visitors clubhouse pointing his chisel around the room listing players who must have passed through at one point.

We also spent time with the man responsible for painting the logos on top of the dugouts. It's a tougher job than you think because the Tigers logo at the time was pretty complicated and there weren't stencils. And unlike some stadiums that have pre-painted boards attached to the top of the dugouts, this man was painting these logos right on the roof. He said it took about two days of kneeling on concrete to get the job done each year. But it was a point of pride for the artist, a sign-maker from Troy. He had done it since 1985 and loved to come back to the park during the year and inspect his handiwork.

Tiger Stadium was open another nine years after that, and each time I returned I'd look to the boxes on the roof, the sunken bullpens and the brilliant green field and think of that birthday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Middle-schoolers, the Mets and unconditional love

I spent last weekend with my church's youth group at a Christian camp here in Michigan.

I love working with middle-schoolers, but they're a mess, and I don't just say that because the boys completely trashed the inside of our cabin within an hour. They have issues, only some of which they'll tell you about.

So I spend a lot of time each week talking about God's unconditional love for them, which is a pretty big concept for a 12-year-old.

I tried to illustate the point last weekend with one of my favorite songs: "More" by Matthew West. I have the refrain taped to my monitor at work so I can read it when I'm feeling down. It's written from God's point of view. It goes like this -- and trust me, you're better off reading it than hearing me sing it.

"I love you more than the sun
And the stars that I taught how to shine
You are mine and you shine for me, too
I love you yesterday and today
And tomorrow I'll say it again and again
I love you more."

I get emotional every time I sing the words "You shine for me, too." What a beautiful line. The notion that a flawed person like me -- and I have big flaws -- can shine for the Lord who is so powerful that he made the heavens is both humbling and joyous. When something lousy happens at work, I read that and think , "Well, at least I got that working for me."

I think the kids understood. It's kind of hard to tell, but they'll let me know in small ways when I least expect it.

And I think that since I receive unconditional love, I have to give it, too. Of course my kids get some, but that's easy. The Mets, however, are another story.

I don't know why I'm so drawn to the Amazin's. Goodness knows they've broken my heart. I was so angry on June 15, 1977 -- the day M. Donald Grant sent Tom Seaver packing -- that I jumped over to the Yankees camp. It lasted about a half-hour. I just couldn't do it.

My buddy Will teases me about my blind devotion. And he's right. I think they've got a chance to win every year -- especially this year. And I won't conceed they're out of the race each year until the day they are mathmatically eliminated. And even then, I'm not all the way sure it's over.

If I can forgive trading Seaver, then I can forgive stuff like Kenny "Bleeping" Rogers forgetting how to throw strikes to Andruw Jones in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, or Armando Benitez serving up grand slams to Brian Jordan or giving up on Jason Isringhausen too early or not putting Roger Clemens on his butt after he skulled Mike Piazza.

I've almost forgiven them for messing with the home uniforms by adding that fat tail under the script Mets for a couple years in the 1990s, but I'm not quite there yet.

So when Opening Days declares winter dead and gone next week, I'll celebrate the arrival of Pedro and Beltran, a full year of David Wright and a healed Jose Reyes. Looks like a bright shiny year to me!

Monday, March 21, 2005

Pop Shortell, Dave Winfield and Richard Nixon

Matthew "Pop" Shortell meets sluger Dave Winfield.

I cover schools, but every once in a while I get to work baseball into my job — and it creates memories of a lifetime.

I was working for the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut back in 1987, and a local man, Matthew "Pop" Shortell, was named "Sports Nut of the Year" by a nut company.

Shortell was one of those people you seem to only find in small town America. A lovable, large older man from blue-collar Ansonia, he seemed to be the referee at every high school football and basketball game, and was famous for yelling out the name of the pitcher and catcher at the start of every youth baseball game he umpired.

He also was famous for his devotion to the New York Yankees. And after hearing about the nut company’s promotion, the team invited Shortell to Yankee Stadium.

My colleague and buddy, Rich Nangle, was going to cover the event, and I was able to tag along, ostensibly as the photographer. Shortell is a nice guy and all, but we were thrilled because this was an opportunity to attend a game for free, run around the stadium with our press passes and sit up in the press box.

Before the game, the Yankees public relations manager led Shortell — with us in tow — to the corridor outside the Yankees clubhouse, which is off limits to anyone except the media and sick children.

The staffer ducked into the clubhouse, and walked out with star pitcher Ron Guidry, who came over, thrilled Shortell with some small talk and posed for a photo.

"Pop" Shortell meets Ron Guidry.

The staffer went back into the clubhouse and came back with reliever Dave Righetti, who, like the Gator, was very pleasant and Shortell was beside himself that these guys would take a couple minutes to meet him — not realizing that they probably do this kind of thing a couple times a week.
Dave Raghetti can't bare to watch.

The staffer said, "Hold on, let me see if I can get one more guy" and headed back into the clubhouse. This was already pretty impressive, since Raghetti and Guidry were two of the team's biggest stars. It took a couple minutes and we wondered what was happening.

The clubhouse door slammed open, startling everyone. We heard a booming voice. "WHERE IS SHORTELL? I WANT TO MEET POP SHORTELL RIGHT NOW!"

Future Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield turned into the tunnel swinging a bat, and compared to Guidry, was HUGE. He walked up to the old guy, gave him a bear hug and told him how glad he was to meet him.

"Pop" was near tears, showed Winfield photos of his late wife and daughter — he had 11 kids — in his wallet and had the time of his life.

I was impressed. Winfield easily could have done what Rags and Gator did -- both of whom where friendly, respectful and polite -- and everyone still would have walked away very happy. Instead, he put on a major show for the guy and made him feel very special -- pretty much rewarding him for a lifetime of fandom.

Once that was over, we made our way up to the press box. Located behind home plate, the box has several rows of seats behind narrow desks with telephones and places for reporters to plug in their computers, which was pretty complicated at the time. There were staff members on hand to look up stats and other materials reporters might need and a guy walked through with a food cart occasionally.

Seemed like kind of a cushy gig. I covered schools and Rich covered city governments. No one ran to answer our questions or walked past with a snack cart.

We were enjoying being around the big New York sportswriters and tried now to look like we belonged there.

Yankee Stadium actually has two press boxes. One is for the established local reporters and media from out of town. The other, called the auxiliary box, is smaller and separated by the radio and television broadcast booths. It’s for the smaller media types and people who don’t normally cover games — like us.

Somehow, we were assigned seats in the main press box and were very happy to see the reporter from our competition, the Ansonia Sentinel, in the auxiliary box.

About halfway through the game, the Sentinel reporter came over and said "You guys are missing out. We’re having fun over there."

"Ah, no. We’re in the main box," I said. "Maybe we can get you a hot dog."

"We have Nixon sitting with us," he said.

We jumped out of our seats and walked quickly along the narrow hallway that ran behind the press boxes. Next to the auxiliary box there was a small section of seats separated from the press boxes by a thick glass wall — a VIP section for sure.

And sure enough, there sat the 37th President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. I sat there in awe. We went to the main box, picked up our stuff and moved to where we could keep and eye on the president.

All this while, Rich was working on his story and it was time to dictate it to the editors in Bridgeport. He picked a phone in the last row and started talking while I leaned against the wall of the hallway. The glass wall between the VIP box and ours ended at the hallway, and there was only a velvet rope and guard to keep people out.

I noticed Nixon get out of his seat with an empty glass, walk up the aisle into a room, presumably to get it refreshed.

He appeared again shortly. We made eye contact and I held up my hand and gestured that I would like to shake his. Much to my great glee, the president walked my way, reached out and took my hand. I remember that he looked shorter and grayer than I imagined.

I was completely star struck. "Mr. President, it’s an honor to meet you."

"Great night for a ballgame, isn’t it," he responded.

Rich, who was about three feet away dictating, dropped the phone and joined us.

I had seen Ronald Reagan from a distance three years earlier, but this was the first time I had ever shaken the hand of a president. It lasted just a few moments, but I’ll never forget it.I don’t know who enjoyed the night more, Pop Shortell or me.

Friday, March 11, 2005

My first time blogging


This is my first time blogging and I have no idea if anybody in the world will read this or give a darn.

But let me introduce myself. My name is Dave and I'm a New York native who now lives in Michigan. I'm a reporter for a medium-to-large-sized newspaper and love my job.

I work on a baseball Website -- -- with some buddies where we talk baseball, speak the truth and have some fun.

I'm a huge Mets fan and grew up on Long Island in the 1970s and 1980s, so I've certainly experienced the joys and sorrows of the Amazin's. I'm very optimistic about this season, but then again, my buddy Will points out that I'm optimistic about every season.

What do I believe in? With apologies to Crash Davis...

I believe in the glory of traditional uniforms, old baseball cards, fitted caps, authentic jerseys, getting to the ballpark early to watch batting practice and keeping score in the program. I think thowing home run balls back on to the field is a sign of either drunkeness or stupidity. I think the Mets should retire Willie Mays' number because he's Willie Freaking Mays and he played for the Mets. I think Tom Seaver deserved at least two more Cy Young Awards than he got. I think everyone should try to get to an out-of-town ballpark every year and make a pilgrimage to spring training at least once in their lives. I think heckling ballplayers is rude, but a good, long boo is acceptable -- especially cast in the direction of anyone named Chipper Jones.