SPRING TRAINING – NOW AND THEN
I’ve been to a few Rangers spring training camps, some as a reporter and one as a fan. I’ll take the fan version. It’s a relaxing few days in sunny Surprise, you stroll the impressive complex, see and hear the players up close, take a stadium seat or lounge on the centerfield berm, munch on some decent popcorn and watch the veterans fine-tune while exciting youngsters try to earn their way onto the 40-man. Highly recommended.
Each spring of course, we the fans (who read the reporters’ stuff) have been through a winter with no baseball and we’re hungry for exciting news about our favorite team. Reporters, knowing that, feel pressure to produce articles with interesting stuff to read. Here’s the problem: There isn’t any.
In fact, if a team has an “interesting” spring training, that is usually a bad sign for the season to come – prime example, Josh Hamilton’s knee. For a well-run, well-stocked major league team, there’s nothing more boring than spring training – daily practice sessions on hitting, pitching, fielding, base-running, very little real competition for a starting job, each day almost exactly like the day before.
Sometimes a coach will take a youngster aside for some personal instruction, but mostly it’s just one day like the next. This is no accident. The players and coaching staff are mentally preparing themselves for the long, long grind that is a big-league season. Repetition to the point of monotony is exactly what they need, to get their minds right with ball and polish those amazing skills and reflexes.
On the other hand, the spring training sessions I attended as a reporter were extremely “interesting.” That’s because they were in the very early 1970s and – as we know – those Rangers teams were going to be terrible.
When 1973 spring training opened, outfielder Bill McNulty, obtained from the As, showed up early to work on his game – his golf game. He was hitting 7-irons over the outfield fence.
Maybe that helps explain why, between the time he was drafted by the As in 1965 and cut by the Rangers in 1973, he earned exactly 9 major-league plate appearances. It’s also an indication of the kind of “talent” that made up the 1973 Rangers roster.
But I felt lucky to be there for some of the first interviews with new manager Whitey Herzog in 1973, since he was such fun to listen to. He once said he was going to send a youngster down to the minors so he wouldn’t pick up bad habits from the players Herzog planned to keep.
He also said, after analyzing his roster, “We only need two players to be a contender – Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax.” One of us asked him how good a player he had been. He said, “I had a career batting average of .257. Today, I’d be worth a million bucks!” Well, maybe. Using today’s bWAR, Herzog played eight seasons, none at or above replacement.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Jenkins was the classiest, most well-spoken and professional athlete I’ve ever interviewed. Martin was interesting in a completely different way, but I have to say that toward the end of his time with the club, interviews with Martin became a lot less enjoyable.
That first year, I didn’t have any idea of how I was supposed to act around big-leaguers, and neither did anyone else. The only “big league” team any of us had covered was the Dallas Cowboys (unless you count the time Randy Galloway spent covering the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association).
There was a full complement of D-FW sports reporters in Pompano Beach, Florida, to cover the Rangers’ spring training in 1973. All of us – and several of the players – were booked into the Surf Rider Resort and Hotel, which even then was badly in need of a face lift.
The print guys would be there for the duration – Mike Shropshire and Harold McKinney from the Star-Telegram, Galloway from the Morning Snooze and David Fink from the Times Herald. But the broadcasters – Boyd Matson, Verne Lundquist, Frank Glieber and others – usually stayed for a week or less, did hit-and-run interviews with the better-known personalities and got stock footage for their stations to use until the season began.
Just a reminder, this was LONG before satellite feeds, live remotes, or even video – every moving picture on a local newscast was 16-millimeter film, captured by a 15-pound, shoulder-held camera. It was also the era of hippies, free love, flowing booze, marijuana for all and Hunter S. Thompson’s brand of gonzo journalism. That meant journalism with no pretense of objectivity and, in fact, the reporter often became part of the story.
Well, most of us worked for mainstream media outlets and could never have gotten away with actually striving for Thompson’s ideal, but a couple of the print guys readily adopted his gonzo spirit. They would routinely shut down the Surf Rider’s lounge, the Banyan Room, which closed at 4 a.m. They often recuperated by sun-bathing, shirtless, on top of the press box during the next day’s exhibition game.
They also could have been recuperating from an overdose of the Banyan Room’s entertainer, Wayne Carmichael. If you are old enough to remember “Nick Winters,” the lounge singer created by Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live, you have seen Wayne Carmichael. There were only two differences – Murray sang standing, while Carmichael sat at a piano, plus Murray’s signature song was the Star Wars theme while Carmichael specialized in “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” Shropshire, in his book, Seasons in Hell, maintains that Carmichael quit that line of work when a patron sprayed him with a fire extinguisher.
Let me hasten to add that these press junkets took place largely in my absence. Yes, I sipped a few of the Banyan Room’s beverages but, as most of my friends will tell you, I’m a pretty boring guy. Most of my time was spent sharing baseball talk and a big wheel of Swiss cheese in the team’s “media room” with Herzog’s bench coach, Del Wilber.
So anyway, as a baseball reporter in DFW during the early 1970s, your assignment would be to spend part of your spring in a sad little Florida coastal town, living in a seedy motel with a shabby dining room and crummy lounge with a lousy singer, writing stories about a collection of ballplayers that their own manager described as “The worst f***ing team in baseball.”
Come on – it’s baseball! What’s not to like?