Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mets in the Rear View Mirror

This shot from the Dallas Green era shows how close the fans get at Vero Beach.

Just because Robin effortlessly jumps into the Batmobile at the start of every episode doesn’t mean you can do it, too.

This is a lesson I once learned the hard way trying to leap into my sister’s brand new Mazda Miata convertible. It was an expensive mistake that is now family lore.

So it was a supreme act of sisterly love when Jennifer trusted me to drive her new car up to Vero Beach to see the Mets and the Dodgers in a spring training game in 1997.

Before the kids were in school, I would visit my folks in Florida each March, where they would spoil me wildly by sending me to spring training games for a week straight.

The Mets are about 40 minutes north of their home, and the Dodgers are not far from the Mets.

And Dodgertown should be a national shrine to all that is good in the game. Spring training, while still pretty laid back, is nevertheless becoming big business, with stadiums getting larger and tickets harder to come by.

But the Dodgers’ complex in Vero Beach is like the yard that time forgot. It’s almost like going to see major leaguers in a municipal park.

There are no dugouts to speak of, just a couple of benches. And a short chain-link fence is all that separates players from the fans.

I’ve attended several games at Dodgertown, but the 1997 visit stands out.

Getting there was a challenge. Jen’s new Civic had a standard transmission, and I had not used a stick shift in years. I knew driving on I-95 wouldn’t be a problem, but I think I stalled it at several traffic lights before I got there.

Buying just one ticket just before game time, I was able to get a seat right behind the Mets dugout. Sitting across the aisle was then team co-owner Fred Wilpon, He noticed that I was wearing the new white cap the team was unveiling that year – and quickly discarded – and was happy to autograph my Mets book.

The game was a glorious rout, with the Mets scoring 5 runs in the first inning on their way to a 20-7 victory.

The Mets that year were in transition. John Olerud and Edgardo Alfonzo were in place, but so were Carlos Baerga and Alex Ochoa.

It was also the spring of Howard Johnson’s comeback attempt. It soon became apparent that Hojo was done, so spring became sort of an extended curtain call for him.

Johnson had not done well after leaving the Mets 1993, playing for the Rockies and the Cubs before catching on as a minor league coach for the Devil Rays in 1996.

He hit just .129 with a homer that spring, but got warm ovations from Mets fans whenever he batted. It was a proper send-off, and he deserved one.

As the Mets continued to add runs, the stands thinned out a little and I crept all the way down to the row behind the Mets bench.

Howard Johnson got a lot of love, but few hits in his comeback attempt.

It’s always fun to hear what actually happens in the dugout, though I suspect the players on their best behavior at Vero because the fans are literally right behind them.

It was interesting that Rey Ordonez was paying practically no attention to the game, but was instead focused on a young Latina sitting in the first row. Rey was very interested in her, and she was definitely NOT interested in him. Rey-Rey actually had a decent game, hitting two doubles and stealing a base, proving that he could be good when he wanted to be. Maybe the Mets should have stationed hard-to-impress girls behind the dugout for all their games.

The excitement came after the game. Parking at Dodgertown is spread out on sandy and grassy fields around the complex, and it takes a little time to get out and back to the main roads.

The stop and go driving was testing my ability with the stick shift, especially after the stalling issues on the way there. I was waiting in line at a four-way stop sign when I noticed a mini-van had pulled up behind me – a mini-van full of Mets!

Apparently Vero is so close that players had the option of driving their own cars, and changing back into street clothes back at St. Lucie.

Edgardo Alfonzo celebrates after a home run.

I could see HoJo in the passenger seat, but couldn’t make out who was driving.

Talk about pressure! Stalling in front of Mets players would not be impressive, and I could feel my pulse racing as I gently eased up on the clutch and the gas, inching up to the stop sign.

I managed to pull it off without stalling, and even mustered a cool wave as the mini-van passed me on the main road that takes you back to I-95.


G-Fafif said...

Could you overhear what Baerga was telling Ordonez amid the celebration?

Eye on the ball, Rey. Never mind la chica in the first row.

Sunshine Sis said...

You can borrow my cars anytime. Of course, instead of a cool Miata, I'm driving a mini-van now, filled with cruched cheerios...