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Original Issue


A spring training idyll in which a father takes his son to meet that perplexing figure, his idol

The regulars are on the other diamond," I told him.

He is eight years old, and he nodded, but only blankly, as I led him in that direction. Then it occurred to me. "You don't know what regulars are, do you?"

"No," he said.

That hurt a little. Regular has always been a classic spring training term. The regulars have always reported after everyone else. The regulars have always been given time to get in shape. Everyone else has to struggle in spring training, bringing their arms around, scratching to make the squad. The regulars are in Florida at their leisure.

In the days when I was growing up, a regular anything was sufficient unto itself. There was no higher compliment than to be acclaimed a regular guy. A regular fellow! The regular Army was such a standard that men knew its members simply by initials: "He's R.A."

"Well," I said, "we are going to see Munson, Jackson, Chambliss, Rivers, Nettles—what do you call them?"

"Oh," he said, with instant recognition, "the stars." Verbal inflation is such that regulars have become stars, and mere stars are now superstars. Regular, such a proud, honest word, has been taken from us, appropriated by laxative ads. But never mind. That aside, little else of spring training has been modified. In a world in flux it remains downright immutable; also, pleasant and gracious.

So a couple of weeks ago I took my son, whose name is Christian, with me to visit a few camps. Baseball, more than any other, is a generational game. It speaks best across the years. There are so few things you can show children to illustrate the way it was. But the timelessness of spring training endures and should be shared—can be shared.

Bill Veeck, his good leg crossed over his peg leg, a fresh cigarette in his chops, stared across the sunny fields. To be sure, his White Sox were in sporty new-fangled uniforms, and only a few of them spit tobacco juice upon the greensward. "But it can never change," Veeck allowed. "The same atmosphere must always prevail, because spring training is first and always a time of dreams, of wishful thinking." I introduced my child to Veeck; it is a time for all us children.

Any kid who takes an interest in sports immediately designates a favorite player. The choice is often irrational, as in other affairs of the heart, but it requires neither apology nor explanation. A favorite player holds that estate because...he's my favorite player.

Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtic center, used to argue with me that children had no business idolizing players; they should reserve such esteem for their own fathers, he said. I contended that it was a healthy sign for a kid to venerate some stranger who excels in the public arena. Somehow this extends a child, providing him with his first attachment to the larger family of the community.

Like most boys, I had a favorite player. His name was Bob Repass, and he played shortstop for the old minor league Baltimore Orioles. While I lived and died with Bob Repass ("Hey, Bob-a-re-pass!" we shouted), I do not recollect that he seriously diminished my devotion to my father. On the other hand, the heritage of Bob Repass still resides with me. He wore No. 6. To this day it is my firm belief that six is my lucky number. Why? Because it is my lucky number, that's why. Because Bob Repass wore it when I was eight years old.

Chris Chambliss of the Yankees is my son's favorite player. Why? Because. And if you are to examine spring training through the eyes of a child, you must begin with the favorite player. Chambliss is an auspicious choice. He is a Navy chaplain's son, guarded, well spoken, a respite from the pinstripe turbulence all about him—"class," in sports parlance.

Chambliss was tired from practice, but he greeted us at his locker and, with time, warmed to the unusual task of addressing a shy child instead of a badgering journalist. "Spring training is always the fun time of the year," he told Christian. "Maybe we should keep that in our minds. Baseball is still a game, whether or not you're making money—and no matter how much. If you're not having fun, you miss the point of everything and it will hurt you, too, because eventually your performance will decline."

It has always been my impression that few top athletes are avid sports fans. These fellows succeed so easily at games—and from such an early age—that they have no need to transfer any of their sporting interest to the performances of others. This is the reason, I think, why so few of them can comprehend the manic affection in which they are held. Chambliss is something of an exception. He collected baseball cards when he was a kid and rooted for his favorites, the Yankees and White Sox.

"Listen, there's nothing wrong with having an idol," he told Christian. "The mistake is trying to copy the idol. That's no good. Try to be as good as your idol, try to be better, but don't ever try to imitate him. That's where an idol is wrong. Be yourself."

Before we spoke to Chambliss, we had watched the regulars (stars) practice. We had come into a piece of luck, because on this morning the regulars worked out on a distant diamond, hidden from all the world by armed security officers and banks of high green Australian pines. Probably on no other day all season would the world champions play together in such glorious seclusion. What might the regulars reveal in their rare privacy?

For the most part, they proceeded with professional dispatch. But there were diversions. Cliff Johnson, the monstrous slugger, was the most engaging presence, ever bantering, razzing his teammates—an amiable figure utterly in contrast to his huge, forbidding form. Otherwise, even a man from outer space would have recognized the two ascendant personalities: 15 and 44, Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson.

Forty-four had not been on the premises 10 minutes when he informed everyone that he would not be his usual self today because of a sore shoulder. The less his fellows responded with concern to this bulletin, the greater emphasis Jackson placed upon the next recitation. He alone of all the Yankees paid any sort of undue attention to Christian. In a lull, Jackson suddenly bellowed, "We gotta get this——kid outta here so we can talk some——."

The remark was addressed at large, with a smile, and Christian was rather pleased that the great man had paid him notice. Yet, while Jackson's comments were not offensive, they were consistent with the generally insecure posturing that he exhibited. In the end, I came away oddly embarrassed for 44.

By contrast, 15 seemed to move about confidently—tough, almost belligerent. And then came the moment. Jackson was standing behind the third-base side of the batting cage, telling yet another listener about his shoulder. Munson was 15 to 20 feet distant, walking away from Jackson toward the first-base line. I didn't hear precisely what Jackson said to the player next to him, but suddenly Munson tossed a ball in a high hook-shot arc that fell upon the netting in front of where 44 stood. "Some of us gotta work for a living, Jackson," Munson hollered.

The remark was gratuitous—rude, if not mean. Jackson hadn't even said anything to Munson. Jackson looked over at him, more hurt and baffled than angry. Munson smiled back at him, pleased. Christian tugged at me. "Why did he do that?" he whispered, confused.

This July, when I read the latest exclusive about how 15 and 44 really do admire and respect each other deep down inside, I will remember again this uneasy confrontation around the cage in Fort Lauderdale early in March. As petty as it was, it was starkly revealing.

Minutes later, Munson was catching batting practice. Johnson was hitting, Jackson was resting against the cage (his shoulder hurt him, he told the fellow next to him). Suddenly, to fill a vacuum, Jackson loudly called Johnson a familiar dirty name. Johnson called Jackson the same thing back. The other Yankees laughed. Christian snickered at the vulgarity, thrilled with being included in this coarse adult male society.

Then Johnson and Jackson started using the dirty word in meaningless ways, topping each other. With every repetition, the players would hoot and holler. Louder and louder, Jackson and Johnson. Saying a dirty word for no reason but to hear it. And the others laughing. Regular knee-slapping. Munson was beside himself. They were just like a bunch of little kids. Whatever these men thought of each other, whatever the travails of last summer, they had been away from one another for five months. They had been with people in suits and ties, with women and children, in the real grown-up world. And now it was spring training, the fun time, and they were children again, teasing and laughing at forbidden words said right out loud. I will remember that in July, too. "If you're not having fun in baseball, you miss the point of everything," Chambliss said.

Of all players, none ended the 1977 season more forlornly than Fred Patek, the shortstop for Kansas City. Because he is only 5'4", by far the smallest player in baseball, there is a natural disposition to care about Patek, and so it was all the sadder when television showed him slumped alone in his dugout, in pain, beaten, anguished. He had been spiked and then had hit into a double play in the last inning of the last game of the playoffs, when the Royals had the pennant taken from them by the Yankees.

"Oh, it's all behind me now," he said. "The pain was gone after a few hours, the deep involvement after a few days. You have to start again. What hurt was wondering if I had done everything I could possibly do, and when I finally satisfied myself that I had, I was O.K."

It was a hot day in Fort Myers, and Patek sat sweating and shirtless in the clubhouse, sipping a lunch of bean soup and Tab (alternately, that is, though could it really be any worse mixed?). He went on. "The thing that stays with you, though, is wondering whether you ever will get another opportunity to play on a world championship team. Someday, when I'm an old guy, will I look back in dissatisfaction and say, 'Well, I almost made it,' or will I be able to think that for one year I was one of the best players on the best team."

He asked Christian if he would like some Tab or bean soup. Christian declined; he was saving himself for franchise fare on the Tamiami Trail. But then Christian had a question for Patek. When we prepared for this adventure, I urged him to think up some questions he would like to ask, because sportswriters know too much (or think they do) and therefore ask only sportswriter-type questions. I was right. Christian's naive question was to elicit the most original explanation I have ever heard of slumps.

He asked Patek, "Do you ever get scared?"

Patek took a spoonful of bean soup and a swig of Tab and replied, "No, I've never been scared of other players, of spikes, of the ball." Pause. End of answer, it seemed. But then, "I'll tell you something. None of us ever understands why a player goes into a slump. I think that, all of a sudden, the player is scared of the ball. You need a lot of confidence to step up there against a pitcher, and it doesn't take much to shake that. It doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with baseball. Our lives are too complicated to separate the game from the rest of it. Maybe you're having a fight with your wife. You lose just enough confidence so that you get scared of the ball. You shy away from it. I've found that the best thing you can do in a slump is admit that you're scared."

Patek is the ultimate regular. Because of his size he had more to overcome. To many kids, he is not just a hero but also a patron saint. And that goes not only for short kids, but also for fat kids, skinny kids, nearsighted kids. He has shown what you can do. "When I was a kid your age growing up in Texas," he went on, "I'd listen to all the games I could get on the radio. I was a Yankee fan. I still feel strange about them when we play. But I didn't have an idol. Every player was my hero. I thought baseball players were some kind of superior beings.

"When I finally got a chance to come to a camp, I was so grateful. To get ready, I ran five miles every day. I did sprints, I ran up and down the steps at a stadium. I thought everybody with a chance would do that. I thought, that's the way baseball players are. And then I got there, to the camp, and a lot of these kids with a chance weren't in shape. I couldn't believe these people could actually think they were professional baseball players and be like that. I was really disappointed. I was really hurt...for baseball."

One of the larger delights of spring training is its informality. In some places, like Sarasota, where the Pale Hose train, it positively resembles a garden party. Bill Veeck sits in the middle, entertaining visitors. Fans wander about, examining unknowns with strange uniform numbers in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Fundamentals are in bloom. On one diamond, the players practice relays from the outfield to third, over and over. On another, pitchers are fielding and firing simulated bunts to third, trying to learn by rote in March how to handle a situation they may not encounter until June or July.

Christian and I drifted over to the batting cages, where sophisticated machines were whirling in hard sliders. The kid was standing there awaiting his turn. His name is Thad Bosley, a tall and thin outfielder with a handsome baby face. Everybody thinks he can be a star, although he might require more seasoning. ("Seasoning" is the best spring training noun. The best verb is "find," always employed by the manager, who declares, "I don't want to go north before we find a centerfielder"—or long reliever, left-handed DH, whatever—as if this desired entity has merely been misplaced over the winter and will be discovered tucked away in the coat closet or the garage.)

Bosley is a thoughtful young man of 21. He had just taught himself to play the piano and was now beginning to master the flute. It was all a matter of regimen, of applying oneself, just like baseball. He referred to spring training, academically, as a time of "refining technique," but he also observed, philosophically, "You are foolish if you don't take the opportunity here to learn a great deal about yourself, too."

Bosley has played professional ball for five years and he has been up to the bigs briefly before, but this spring training is his real start. So, to be perverse, I asked him what he hoped to have at the end. He looked out thoughtfully toward the other players. "When I leave baseball," he said at last, "I would just like people to say, 'Thad Bosley, he could play the game.' "

Oddly enough, Bosley's spring training and the Hall of Fame, the shrine to the players who have completed the most glorious careers—the alpha and omega of major league baseball—share the same tempo and tenor. In between, where the score is kept, it is all big-city hurly-burly, but at Sarasota and the Hall the setting is tranquil. Dust to dust: spring training to Cooperstown, N.Y.

Every year, on a weekday in August, the new members are welcomed into the Hall of Fame in a ceremony conducted on a lawn adjacent to the place. Then, following a hot lunch, two major league clubs play an exhibition at the little stadium down the street. The fans spill over onto the field, which occasions a great many ground-rule doubles. Nobody minds a bit.

Last year the Twins and Phillies played (the Phils blew that one, too), and Ernie Banks led some oldtimers, dead and alive, into the hallowed diamond abbey. A number of the incumbent saints came back, and I directed Christian to them. It is his view that ballplayers are hands that write autographs; only incidentally are those hands attached to a body that plays baseball. "You ought to get that guy," I said, pointing him toward Musial or Feller, Campanella or Marquard. He didn't have the foggiest notion who they were. But what the hell, he didn't know who Ernie Banks was either. "Why are there so many Cub fans here?" he inquired.

The sun came through the clouds just as the mayor of Cooperstown began his welcoming address. There was red, white and blue bunting and the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. On the platform, where the legends-in-their-own-time sat, the only artifacts were a huge plastic baseball and an American flag. That covered just about everything.

The commissioner read off Banks' name, and the place went up for grabs. He was proud and gracious, in a navy blue three-piece suit and a red, white and blue tie, and he concluded his remarks with this thought, "We got the sun out now, we got the fresh air, we got the teams behind let's play two!"

I remembered all this as I watched the sun cross Thad Bosley's countenance. He had so far to go...and yet, it was all so much the same. Lay the first two down, Bosley, then take your cuts and run the last one out.