Reflecting on past spring trainings with the Orioles

My scheduled return home yesterday from Sarasota would have been the ideal time to reflect on six weeks of spring training. Something that I’ve been doing in its abbreviated form since my actual return on March 14.

There hasn’t been one like it during my tenure on the Orioles beat, which officially began in 1997 after I assisted in coverage of 2,130 and 2,131 in 1995 - no other explanation needed - and the 1996 playoffs. Including Jeffrey Maier’s interference of a Derek Jeter fly ball at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series that Tony Tarasco still believes he would have caught.

(Umpire Richie Garcia blew the call and signed autographs for Yankees fans the following day. Not a good look.)

I’ve seen a lot of unusual stuff in spring camps and run the range of emotions, reaching a painful low in Fort Lauderdale with coverage of pitcher Steve Bechler’s death from heat stroke in February 2003.

The cancellation of exhibition games this year needs to be kept in its proper perspective.

I stood inside the clubhouse as Bechler was receiving treatment in the trainers’ room. The location didn’t provide any privacy. It was set up in a corner with no door to close rather than down a hallway with restrictions for unauthorized personnel. I saw the convulsions before turning away.

A team official ordered the media to leave and we waited in a parking lot as Bechler was taken by stretcher to an ambulance.

The next morning’s workout ended abruptly, with manager Mike Hargrove calling players off the two back fields. I knew immediately that Bechler had passed away. A coach put an arm around Matt Riley’s shoulder as they headed inside. Bechler and Riley were best friends.

The scene is etched in my memory. I can’t shake it.

I also learned a lot about the weight-loss drug ephedra, later banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

Bechler’s death also haunts me because I had just seen him over the winter at a function at the warehouse. It might have been the annual “Babe’s Birthday Bash,” but I’m not positive. He teased me for having a beer in each hand - I was delivering one to a friend - and the subject came up again in Fort Lauderdale.

We laughed about it again. Reporters and players can bond in so many ways. This was ours.

Monica Barlow, the club’s public relations director and a close friend, passed away on Feb. 28, 2014 after a 4 1/2-year battle with stage 4 lung cancer. She was only 36, and we lost her on a morning that began with the usual clubhouse media access prior to our trip to Port Charlotte.

Her best friend, Courtney, called me with the news. I saw her name appear on my phone and bolted out the door. My colleagues instantly knew what was happening and I had to walk back inside and confirm it after composing myself.

Monica never made it down to spring training that year. Manager Buck Showalter, his staff and his players were devastated and they dedicated the season to her.

Showalter attempted to speak to us behind the batting cage before the game against the Rays, but he choked up and turned away.

“I tried to text her every night before I went to bed,” Showalter said. “Today was the first time I didn’t get a returned one.”

Those were the last words he said to us before asking that we end the session. No one wanted it to continue.

I’d much rather focus on a sweet moment, my proposal earlier this month to Emily Alt on the exact spot where we met six years ago. I’m blessed that she accepted. Monica would have been thrilled. And the silly moments, which were plentiful in Fort Lauderdale because the complex was a mess.

I was doing a broadcast at the ballpark with 105.7 The Fan’s Anita Marks when it began to rain. The dugout filled with water, a typical drainage issue, and we were forced to sit on top of the bench and wonder if we were about to be electrocuted.

The water level was rising to a table with the equipment on it. I kept thinking, “Is this really how it’s going to end for me?”

My first and only tattoo, in my 40s, was drawn during spring training at my young daughter’s request. She wanted her name on my arm. I left the complex, got it done and hustled back to the media workroom, where my colleagues expressed their disapproval.

She isn’t spoiled. I swear.

I had forgotten that I agreed to do a phone interview with the same radio station. The reminder arrived via text message from Liz Drabick, who used to run the sports segment on Ed Norris’ show, a few seconds before I got out of the chair.

I stood on the sidewalk with blood trickling down my arm from beneath the bandage as I said, “Well, Miguel Tejada has been impressive so far.” People stared.

Players kept checking on it - one of them said that I needed to add some color - and told me that the scabbing was normal. Not your typical clubhouse conversations.

There also was the morning that I tried to hide behind other media members during the manager’s scrum after getting my hair bleached on the off day. One of my many bad ideas.

Hargrove was in mid-sentence when he blurted out, “Roch, what the (expletive) did you do to your hair?”

The Orioles played an exhibition game in Cuba in 1999. The Baltimore Sun sent a reporter and columnist to Havana a couple days early while I stayed back to cover the game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. It was strange to have an entire row of the press box, and an entire team, to myself.

Ed Smith Stadium view from press box.JPGIt also was weird trying to do a scene piece from Little Havana in Miami, where none of the locals showed any interest in the Orioles playing the Cuban National Team. A tiny television behind the counter at a popular restaurant was tuned to the game, but no one was watching.

My editors were expecting me to provide some color. To set the scene. Instead, I devoured a sampler platter recommended by the owner, who was thrilled to have me, and threw together a story that didn’t win any awards.

That’s what they got for leaving me back in Florida.

The Orioles traded for reliever LaTroy Hawkins in December 2005, shortly after I started to blog, and I pretty much crushed him in an article because they surrendered media favorite Steve Kline and Hawkins had developed a bad reputation with the Cubs. I was new to the whole blogging thing - only one other reporter at The Sun did it and he was on the news side - and I got a little reckless.

The word “jerk” might have been used.

I reported to camp a few days after the team, and my colleagues and the public relations staff conspired to pull one of the all-time best pranks on me. They had me convinced that Hawkins read what I wrote about him and was seeking me out, that he kept checking press credentials and asking for me.

They also told me that reliever Todd Williams was angry because I apparently made a quip about his DUI arrest in November and his friends back home teased him about it. I only remember that the charges later were dropped, but it sounds like something I would have done.

I spent about three days avoiding Hawkins before finally telling the PR director, Bill Stetka, that I needed to confront the reliever and offer an apology. That’s when one of the beat writers stopped me and admitted that Hawkins hadn’t said a word about me. The whole thing was a ruse.

The group almost collapsed in laughter. My sigh of relief almost knocked down the outfield fence.

The revelation was followed by this exchange:

Me: “So Todd Williams isn’t mad, either?
Stetka: “Oh, yeah, he’s really mad.”

Hawkins didn’t get along with the Chicago media, but he turned out to be one of the nicest guys I’ve ever covered on the beat. The Baltimore crew really liked him.

I also had a good relationship with Williams, especially after my apology.

Cal Ripken Jr. sat on a bench at the back fields one morning during his final spring training and wondered why a yellow stripe painted along the top of the left field fence didn’t extend across all of the padding. It ended for no apparent reason.

Ripken asked everyone in the media to offer a theory, which put a lot of pressure on the guy going last. I blurted out, “Maybe they ran out of paint!”

That final spring really gave us a chance to get closer to Ripken, and in this instance to delve a little deeper into his analytical mind and obsession with detail.

A couple of us refused to leave the workroom at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in 2014 while waiting for the arrival of Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon, which turned out to be wasted energy because he never threw a pitch for the Orioles. He was injured and released the following spring.

Perhaps it was boredom that led us to start inserting his name into Lionel Richie songs while on our stakeout. Anything to pass the time.

“Stuck on Yoon”
“Say Yoon, say me”
“Yoon are the sun, Yoon are the rain”

It didn’t make much sense, but it turned out to be his biggest contribution of the spring.

Justin Duchscherer became annoyed by our stakeouts at his locker each morning in 2011, but we just wanted to know if he was ever going to pitch.

He didn’t.

Ed Smith Stadium underwent major renovations that year. Duchscherer could have used one. The Orioles released him in August and his career was over.

The “Jake Fox Award” was created in Sarasota. It’s become a running joke, with predictions made at the start of camp. Which player will go on a home run binge in the Grapefruit League, but be unable to sustain it during the regular season?

Fox led the majors with 10 home runs and 17 extra-base hits in 27 exhibition games in 2011, twice as many homers as Vladimir Guerrero and Adam Jones. He made the club as the backup catcher and appeared in 27 more games, homering twice and batting .246/.313/.443.

Fox had posted a .188 average in 19 games before the Orioles designated him for assignment on June 1, his struggles behind the plate fueling the decision as reliever Brian Matusz returned to the 40-man roster. Fox never made it back to the majors after 2011, but the guy could rake down in Florida.

I miss the laughs and the inside jokes. I miss my escape from the real world.

Spring training 2020 won’t be remembered fondly beyond my engagement, one of the most wonderful days of my life along with the birth of my daughter.

Not for the flu bug that swept through the clubhouse.

Not for the devastating news that Trey Mancini had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Not for the coronavirus pandemic that’s made us fear for our safety and the safety of our loved ones, has shut down sporting events and could lead to the cancellation of the baseball season.

blog comments powered by Disqus