Posted: Monday February 20, 2006 4:15PM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 10:35AM
Before appetizers could be delivered, though, Mad Dog jackknifed to consciousness, fully restored. I remember thinking we'd have to put a stake in this guy's heart. He ordered more shooters and we were rolling again. To this day, when I see or hear the word ashen, I think of O'Malley that night. He finally excused himself and deferred writer wrangling to the p.r. guy, who was used to it. O'Malley missed more dancing on tables, arguments, fights, rounds of shooters and, possibly, a group assault on The Indian. My memory is hazy.
And so that was spring training. The weeks passed, with many nights just like that. The Dodgers were great enablers, having installed the press room next to the bar. Every afternoon the bar would open and sprawling tables of shrimp cocktail would be laid out. Once a writer muscled his story into a glide path, he could take two steps and get a cold one. There were miscalculations, sure, when consumption outpaced the writing. A bad result could occur. But we were all learning.
These afternoons often segued into brutal nights. Not everybody was involved. My roommate at Vero was a recovering alcoholic, sweetest guy in the world. But he was resolute in his sobriety and so was dead to us. The rest of us settled into a routine of finding trouble. One afternoon Mad Dog simply talked the bartender at Dodgertown into handing over the establishment. He could talk anybody into anything. I saw the bartender slide the key over the bar, and that night, calls having been placed to select townspeople, the place was full and nearly destroyed.
If the nights were like that, here's what the days were like. We would carefully take our positions in the Florida sun, caps tipped low, eyes closed behind sunglasses. We would listen to Dodgers games on the radio while lazing by the pool. Once the announcer (not Vin Scully) said "there was a 50-50 chance of rain and the weatherman could be right." We reached into the beer cooler to toast that quote. Occasionally we would remark on the action in traditional baseball old-speak, with as much alliteration as we could muster. If a base was stolen, a scribe would rouse himself to announce a "pilfered pillow." The fiery Tommy Lasorda was often observed having a "florid fanny." An easy play? "Like taking Jujubes from a juvenile," would come the call. And as in a chorus, someone else would correct, "Like taking M&Ms from a moppet." It was about the only competition we acknowledged.
In my time there I remember talking to one actual player, a guy just traded there, a journeyman named Dave Morgan. I planned a takeout on peripatetic pitchers but kept adjusting my delivery date, circumstances at Vero being what they were. Eventually even the Times grew anxious about their Dodgers coverage, and after three weeks I was recalled to the home office. Ross Newhan was sent in my place, to catch the paper up. A couple of years ago he was voted into the writer's wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, though I don't think it was just for that.
Looking back, from three decades, it's interesting -- no, amazing -- to find that my three amigos not only survived that spring training and reached some level of maturity but actually achieved levels of success well beyond baseball writing. Not immediately, of course. There was an offseason incident, another Dodgers fete, when Mad Dog was dancing on a table and accidentally crushed a glass on The Indian's hand and the party moved to an emergency room. But eventually The Indian went on to work at the New York Times. Teddy Bear became a best-selling author. And Mad Dog -- he found religion, sobriety, family, better jobs and is now a famous and quite rich broadcaster.
I was thinking about this the other day when I read that pitchers and catchers were reporting to spring training. We'd all come a long way, I guessed, but I couldn't help but feel a pang of nostalgia for that one glorious spring training I'd been allowed. My afternoon organized into some kind of glide path, I admit, I went and got a cold one for memory's sake. And if some editor at SI, still waiting on a story, had the crimson keister, so be it.