Spring training is here and spring training is like no other sports tradition. I am talking about Arizona. I don't know about Florida.
When Roger Craig was managing the Giants, he would meet the beat writers after spring games and play pickup basketball at a nearby playground. His wife Carolyn brought the beer.
Bruce Bochy plays poker with the writers.
When Frank Robinson was managing the Giants, he and I had a standing date — one night every spring at a bar and I could ask any question I wanted about his team, not that he always answered.
Marty Lurie and I would have dinner with Art Howe and, after him, Ken Macha and talk and talk.
I even went out with Sandy Alderson one spring night and he filled me in on the A's. That was a long time ago.
Mark McGwire once waited for me at a picnic table at the A's minor-league complex and we talked ball.
Will Clark stayed late in the clubhouse one afternoon and gave me his recipe for gumbo.
You can come to Arizona this week and you will see Brian Sabean walking around the stands. Thinking. When games start he sits quietly in the stands. Watching.
Billy Beane is all over the place, greeting people, appearing happy. Always wears shorts and sandals like he's about to enter a gin rummy tournament at the country club.
You can see the A's play in the afternoon and drive 10 minutes and see the Giants play at night. Or vice versa. A writer can cover one Bay Area team in the morning for workouts, and the other in the afternoon for the game.
It is a baseball cornucopia.
You can see the Reds and the Dodgers and the Angels and the Brewers. I could go on. All within driving distance. You can see Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy and Bob Melvin and Don Mattingly. I could go on. You probably could talk to them. Ask where they're having dinner.
You could go to dinner at Don and Charlie's, where all the baseball people hang out, or go to the Italian Grotto on Scottsdale Road. And you'll see players and managers and umpires, all friendly. It's the baseball subculture. The in-place used to be the Pink Pony where Billy Martin was always on a bar stool in the evening.
And the spring ballparks are small. Human-size. That means the players are human size, not the big stars they will become in April in those big parks. You can sit in the stands at Scottsdale Stadium or any stadium in the Phoenix-Scottsdale-etc. area and see the players' faces and hear their voices and actually get an autograph. The sounds are clearer, more distinct in Arizona &#8211; the pock of bat on ball, the soft shush of leather engulfing ball.
And you love those sounds. And they bring you back.
The air is dry and batted balls travel a mile toward those red-orange mountains so close you could touch them, and everyone is relaxed, except for the players trying to make the squad, the fringe players who aren't relaxed at all. Reality has a way of intruding even down there. But you try not to notice.
You see the players running wind sprints on the warning track when the game is going on. Talk about informal. You notice baseball uniforms again and remember how good looking they are. Maybe you forgot. The A's green and the Giants' orange. And Dodger blue. Yes, Dodger blue.