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The boys of spring

How four writers bonded over spring training

Posted: Monday February 20, 2006 4:15PM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 10:35AM
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The Dodgers have been in Vero Beach for spring training for the past 59 years.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Nearly 30 years ago, in an experiment the paper would soon regret, the Los Angeles Times sent me to spring training. In those days, baseball writers were gods in the newsroom, partly for their autonomy but mostly for their six-week sojourns to Florida and Arizona. This was a perk of exaggerated advantage at Northeastern papers, but even in Los Angeles, where the weather is pretty good year around, it was a much sought-after assignment. You were out of the office, away from home, out from under everybody's thumb. And here I was, anointed, and on my way to Vero Beach and, I imagined, immortality.

I was proud, but a little nervous as well. The contingent of writers attending to the Dodgers was vast and competitive. The Times was by far the principal organ of information, big-footed and high-handed. There was a belief in those days that nothing happened until it appeared in the Times. Consequently it ignored the minutiae that passes for news these days and published long and irrelevant takeouts instead. A takeout is what lesser writers called "stories." Ordinarily this would have inspired much resentment among the legion of suburban writers, who would have pooled their resources to topple whichever Timesman -- me -- was at hand.

I guess there had been some kind of scouting report on me, because I was welcomed with open arms. The first day there, when owner Peter O'Malley traditionally feted the writers, I was even invited to ride along with the lead triumvirate, writers I'll here call Mad Dog, The Indian and Teddy Bear. I was grateful for the reach-out but at the same time disconcerted on the ride to the restaurant when, looking to the cab's backseat, I realized that Mad Dog and Teddy Bear were involved in a silent crushing of The Indian between them, one gaining quiet advantage, then the other. The entire trip, during which not a word was spoken, was conducted in a reverse tug-of-war. What was I in for? The Indian, scarily, did not make a peep. I later recognized this as my first exposure to Stockholm Syndrome.

At the restaurant, Mad Dog got us all off to a good start ordering rounds of shooters, on the Dodgers of course. O'Malley, the bespectacled grad of Wharton Business School, was determinedly democratic (he probably had similar dinners with groundskeepers scheduled) and tried to play along. But the drinks were flying by, Mad Dog was dancing on a table, Teddy Bear was pummeling The Indian, and I found myself arguing with the p.r. guy.

As I say, cocktails had been served. This was my introduction to power drinking, where baseball writers, used to a narrow window of opportunity after the game and before closing, drank fast and furious, forget the pacing. Things were getting a little hectic, and a few of us, no matter our own condition, were growing embarrassed for our well-meaning host, what with Mad Dog up on the table. But blessedly, Mad Dog, having been well served even before his trip here, suddenly collapsed, out cold. The wait staff was careful to leave him on the piano, where he landed, and the rest of us didn't dare disturb him. Relieved, we ordered dinner.