Picture a sunny, warm afternoon in Arizona, lying on the grass, 20 feet from the Seattle Mariners bullpen. Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Paul Sorrento and Russ Davis hit home runs in consecutive at-bats in the fourth inning, sparking the M’s to a 6-1 victory.
Three innings later, the too-perfect-to-believe spring training dream became a nightmare. A youngster of about 12 is crushed against a fence and had his leg broken when adults surged forward because Ken Griffey Jr. was signing autographs.
Welcome to spring training in the ‘90s.
I joked I was going to take a shotgun to spring training to make sure Griffey signed an autograph for my 12-year-old son. Unfortunately, I discovered it almost takes a shotgun to get autographs at spring training.
On the other hand, if I would have had a weapon at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., earlier this month, I would have been more inclined to turn it on some of those idiots demanding a Griffey autograph.
The behavior of some baseball fans, from 6 to 60, is something to behold. Why would a thirtysomething male in shorts running full speed dive on rocks to beat a 12-year-old to a $12 baseball?
Spring training simply isn’t what it used to be. , I loved the baseball, but when my family returned from the four-day weekend in Arizona, I felt somewhat dejected, certainly disappointed in the human race.
We made our first trip to Phoenix and didn’t see anything the area had to offer other than seven baseball teams in five games at four different parks in less than four days.
We saw lots of fans of all ages get jostled and have $4 beers spilled on them as adults scrambled after $12 baseballs hit or tossed into the stands.
We saw good-sized crowds at dawn and dusk waiting for an autograph opportunity and heard more rude demands than polite requests.
We discovered some high-priced, bad seats, expensive concessions, overpriced motels, unbelievable lines at rental car counters and overflowing flights.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to go to spring training, not the least of which is just watching baseball in the afternoon sun.
The best reason is field-level lawn seating beside the visitors’ bullpen at the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium for $3. The Mariners had lawn seating for $4, the Giants for $6, none quite as close to the players.
It’s fun to watch the starters and all pitchers run on the outfield warning track once they are replaced during the game.
We enjoyed the unfailingly polite workers at the four ballparks we visited. Most are volunteers and their wages go to a charity or city youth programs.
We enjoyed visiting with friendly fans from across the country.
We loved the access to minor-league complexes and strolling from field to field to watch drills or minor league games, wondering if we could spot which unheralded player we might some day see in the Kingdome.
We brought home a batting practice home run ball from Griffey that had to clear two fences before it was available to the public.
But the bottom line is autographs.
The first rule of thumb for autographs: be patient. There is no scheduled time or place for signing, which explains why the sites and pleasures of Phoenix went unexplored by our family. And if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you may be sharing that space with hundreds of others.
Any hope of getting lucky outside of the mob approach is to be unfailingly polite, not a bad idea at any time.
We came home with signatures from Buhner, who always signs; M’s rookie shortstop Alex Rodriguez; Rockies Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker; and Jamie Navarro of the Cubs, among others. And there is a Randy Johnson signature for a patient 12-year-old who was polite when the opportunity arose.
Baseball fans, make the pilgrimage, but go with a game plan by asking questions of those who preceded you. It should be easier to weather the shock and enjoy spring training the way it is meant to be.
And the Griffey autograph? Wait ‘til next year.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos