I read the other day that Ted Williams had that old itch to go to spring training and renew acquaintances with all his old friends in baseball. Me too.
Last year I went to spring training with the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Ariz. I just wandered into the dugout one day because the sun was too hot in the stands. Like Ted Williams, I found baseball players to be unusually good companions, and I enjoyed passing the time of day with them. Particularly the big stars—because they only play a few innings in spring training. And then they're left sitting on the bench actually looking for someone to talk to. The way I got out onto the field in the first place was by flashing a tag from a local cleaner. It said "Press Only!" And it had been pinned to the sleeve of the seersucker jacket which I'd taken to be pressed when I unpacked for my winter vacation in the Arizona sun.
That "Press Only" tag worked day after day in all the local training parks. And as time wore on, I tested how far it would carry me. I even began bringing a cheap camera with me ($20) and taking snapshots of some of my new friends. The pictures aren't particularly professional. But the small boys who live in our neighborhood in Stamford, Conn. are impressed with me for the first time.
On the day Warren Spahn was due to pitch, I wandered out to the practice mound where he was warming up.
I walked up behind him, thinking I would get a picture of the famous number 21 on his back—a number that will surely be retired after the great pitcher turns it in.
Aiming my camera, I was about four feet in back of him. Instead of rearing back and throwing the ball, however, he paused and bent over to pick up the rosin bag. And as he did so he turned around and stared directly into my eyes. The greatest lefthander in the history of the National League staring down the weakest hitter ever to play for The Friends of the Library—an intramural team I had organized at Dartmouth.
I decided that I would try to convey the impression I had taken many pictures of him in seasons past. I had heard Eddie Mathews call Spahn "Hooks" the previous day. That would tab me as an insider. "How're you doing this year, Hooks?" I asked him.
"Lousy," he replied. And he turned back to the warmup catcher, aimed and fired. Would that be the end of my conversation with the great Warren Spahn?
"This is the biggest crowd I've seen here this year," I said. "Overflow."