Tuesday, February 13, 2007

My First & Unexpected Spring Training

The Date was February 28, a Friday, in the year 1969. I was nearly 10 years old. My Dad had decided the family was going on a Vacation. My Dad taking a vacation with the family was fairly unprecedented. In fact, it had never previously occurred. Dad was all work, no play, at The RF&P Railroad in Alexandria, Virginia. A Family vacation meant my brother, Michael, and I were shipped on the train to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to hang out with Brother Milton--20 years my senior, with his own children (my age) that called me UNCLE!! Now think about that for a moment.

The reason behind the vacation was the purchase of a BRAND NEW 1969 Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon, blue in color. I remember the vehicle cost Dad $2,355 and he bitched about the price tag. "Never can trust those 'xo!!#%%xo' dealers," he proclaimed. Of course this purchase was the "Kiss Of Death" for the infamous family "STUPIDBAKER". Now officially retired and given to my older sister's husband. The feeling of rejoice and pure JOY!! over never having to sit it that piece of garbage car--was an uplifting vacation, ALL ITS OWN!!

"Buddy" as my Dad was known throughout our Seminary Valley neighborhood wanted to show off his new purchase. So, why not take the kids on their first real vacation. Spring Break officially began for Michael and I on March 1st. Dad, decided we would head southwest, to Tennessee then on to Florida, driving all the way. This was pretty cool. Except for our visits to North Carolina, we as kids, had never been ANYWHERE outside the greater DC area. To say we were excited was an understatement.

As it turned out, the first part of this trip was all about Dad. With Mom and us in tow, we took off for Gatlinburg, Tennessee. "Buddy" was a huge fan of wildlife. He wanted to see the Bears at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Leaving early on March 1st, we were on the scene by 4PM that Saturday afternoon. As we arrived at the hotel, we learned that Mickey Mantle, Yankee Great, would retire that very day. Dad mentioning, "Too bad, I was hoping to see him." Although it didn't register in Michael or my head what he was talking about. We were just along for the ride. Sunday, we spent the entire day looking at Bears at the park. It was actually pretty interesting. We even had a personal Park Ranger taking us around.

As we settled in for the evening, Dad said we would get up early again, tomorrow. Off again, this time to Pensacola, Florida. An old World War II friend and former colleague of his at the railyard had settled into retirement there. By Monday afternoon, March 3rd, we were at his house, on the beach, in Pensacola. Along the way, Apollo 9, The Very First Manned Crewed Flight of The Lunar Module would take off that day, from The Kennedy Space Center. 4 months and 18 Days before Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. One of THE GREATEST MOMENTS OF MY LIFETIME!! We stayed there for the night, and through mid-day Tuesday. Then, off again in The Country Sedan, this time to The Everglades.

We drove for the rest of the day, through Tampa & Sarasota. Dad was on a mission, not sure why, but nothing was going to stand in his way. Late that night, we stopped, in THE MIDDLE OF THE EVERGLADES, in a town I will NEVER FORGET!! Anderson, Florida with a Population Sign stating "000,000,008" It wasn't really a town, just happened to be who lived in this remote spot. Anderson had 4 buildings, one family. You guessed it--The ANDERSONS. All of whom, together, ran a Gas Station, 2 Room Motel--Choke & Puke Diner, and Swamp Buggies!! This was going to be cool!!

On Wednesday, March 5, we spent most of the day gliding through THE EVERGLADES. These were the terrific, fun Everglades, well before development, global warming and the modern society came calling to ruin this great refuge. Gators, Wildlife, and even A FLORIDA PANTHER was sighted that day. One of the truly unexpected FUN DAYS of my youth. Just Spectacular!! This trip was turning into something very special.

Only it got better!!

Around 4PM after our terrific ride through The Everglades, we were off again in The Country Sedan, this time, all the way to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and the local Holiday Inn. We actually made it by 9PM, fairly ragged out, but since The Holiday Inn had a heated pool, Michael and I were not going to bed. As Mom & Dad ordered food by the side of the pool, we splashed away, continuing our fun.

As we headed to the room for the night, Dad said, we could sleep in, but we would be leaving for Pompano Beach about 10AM. "Why?", I asked. Dad replied: "We are going to see The Washington Senators play The New York Yankees in Spring Training." Michael and I were pumped. Now, we realized why Dad had mentioned Mickey Mantle's retirement. "Yes, I was hoping to see him one last time," Dad stated.

The very next morning, after a breakfast and a brief romp back in the pool, off we went to Pompano Beach Municipal Park. Mom stayed behind, relaxing by the pool. We arrived at this rather, not too special, city park and fields. And, sure enough, The Senators and Yankees were already on the field and practicing. New York was taking Batting Practice. In 1969, The Yankees trained in Ft.Lauderdale, years before transferring to Legends Field in Tampa.

Dad bought three tickets at a small ticket booth and we headed inside the chain linked gate. Some Senators Players were off on a side field, running, taking fungoes. Some pitchers getting their throws in. We all walked over. Dick Bosman and Casey Cox were tossing off the mounds. Paul Casanova and Jim French catching them. Pitching Coach Sid Hudson watching intently. The scene was very casual.

Dad walked right over to Hudson and shook his hand, introducing himself. Although they never fought together, Hudson and My Dad were under the same Army Unit during World War II. They talked for some time. Michael and I watched Bosman and Cox throw. We had NEVER seen anyone throw so hard, up close. After I made a "Whew!" comment after a Casey Cox heater, everyone started laughing. The pitching stopped while my Dad & Hudson continued their very animated conversation. Bosman and Cox walked over, introduced themselves. We told them we were from Alexandria, Virginia, on spring break, and our Dad surprised us by bringing us to Pompano Beach, today. Kind as could be, they both engaged in conversation with us, then Casanova and French joined the chat. We all talked for about 10 minutes. Eventually, Jim Hannan, Darold Knowles and Barry Moore entered in on our fun. Michael and I were on Cloud 9.

Eventually, there was a LOUD YELL from the Senators Dugout. Come ON!!l Let's Play!!! It was New Senators Manager, Ted Williams yelling at Sid Hudson to come warm up today's starter, Joe Coleman. Hudson warmly shook Dad's hand, briefly introduced himself to us kids and trotted off to the Main Playing Field. Bosman pulled out some brand new baseballs and signed them, along with every other Senators Player surrounding us. Cox would tell Dad to hang around the side of the field, during the game. And, he would see that as many players as he could corral, would sign our balls. By the end of this exhibition, we had 22 players each, including Mike Epstein, Ed Brinkman, Bernie Allen, Del Unser, Tim Cullen, Ken McMullen, and, of course, Frank Howard (did you really think I would go an entire post about my beloved Senators without mentioning him?).

Hondo was not playing this day, he was under the weather--sick. But, Howard was sitting on the bench. During the latter innings, he got up to leave early, leaving the BallPark. Casey Cox was good to his word, and asked Hondo to sign our baseballs. Frank happily obliged, apologized for not playing this March 6th day, but promised to put on a show for us this coming season at RFK Stadium. I told him how Michael and I were in his Fan Club. Howard responded by saying: "Great then, I will definitely see you in Late June, when we all march around DC Stadium together (although Hondo said DC Stadium, the name had just changed to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium over the Winter, after the tragic assassination of The Presidential hopeful in Los Angeles).

The game itself, wasn't much. Typical of early Spring Training Games, pitchers would go an inning or two and about 30-35 players got in to the game from both sides. Although I did not realize it at the time, my Dad, Michael and I witnessed baseball history this day--March 6th, 1969. Major League Baseball was experimenting with the possibility of a "Designated Pinch Hitter" to bat for the pitcher throughout the game. Two games that very day would observe this new rule, for the very first time. The Newly Formed Expansion Montreal Expos and Kansas City Royals would be one such game with a "DPH" as the position was called. The Yankees/Senators would be the other. Former Senator, Johnny Orsino would bat sixth for New York as the "DPH". The Senators, Jim French would bat 9th in the normal pitchers spot. Orsino would get the very first hit ever by a "Designated Pinch Hitter". Every team in MLB would experiment with this novel rule change during this exhibition season. Although, on March 26th, 1969, Major League Baseball canned the idea.

As we all know today, in 1973, The Yankees Ron Blomberg would step to the plate as the very first Designated Hitter in a regular season game. An American League Game. Today, The National League is virtually the only organized baseball league that does not recognize The Designated Hitter. I am SO THANKFUL for National League Baseball and all it nuances.

After the game ended, Dad rounded Michael & I up from the practice fields, where we were watching more Senators go through drills and try to grab some more autographs. Unfortunately, it was time to go. We had been at Senators Spring Training for six hours. Mom was probably wondering what happened to us. Reluctantly, we got in The Country Sedan and headed back to The Holiday Inn in Ft. Lauderdale. Sure enough, Mom was wondering, but pleased we had a good time and met so many players. Dad couldn't stop talking about Sid Hudson. Obviously, my Dad enjoyed his moments with The Senators Pitching Coach. We spent the rest of the evening splashing around in the pool, eating dinner poolside and pretty much wearing ourselves out. Dad told us we needed to rest up well that night, as we had one more big day, but he wouldn't say what was scheduled.

Like most baby boomers growing up in the 1960's, Space Flight was a new, fabulous adventure. The United States was on a Mission, put forth by President John F. Kennedy, to land a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to earth. Outside of playing baseball, being an Astronaut was everything else I wanted to be in life. My parents knew it. I talked about it all the time--built all the Space Models of the day. I couldn't get enough of it. You name the Astronaut, I could tell you all about him. I may well have been the very first child "Space Junkie".

On March 7th, we got up and left Ft. Lauderdale heading off to one of my greatest dreams: The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. We arrived at approximately 10AM at The Visitors Center. I was so excited. Dad bought tour tickets for all of us. And, with Apollo 9 still in space on its mission testing The Lunar Module, The Space Center was fully active. Sure, they had security in 1969, but nothing serious like today. We loaded on to a special NASA Bus and headed off to tour the grounds, with about 20 others. Amazingly, they let all of us out to walk around the launch pads, walk through the infamous Silver AstroVan (still used today) and check out the facilities. We even went to the famous Launch Control. The original one, now no longer in use. But, it was in that Launch Control Center Dad and I came across a great chance meet. Having to use the restroom, and not willing to wait (typical child), Dad asked the tour leader if we could use the Men's Room. The man said sure, and pointed us in the general direction down a corridor. Of course, we got lost, made a wrong turn. And, ran smack dab into NEIL ARMSTRONG!!

I knew right away!! Dad had no clue. "You're Neil Armstrong, you are going to walk on the MOON!!" The expression on my Dad's face was PRICELESS!! "Yes, son--that's true," Armstrong replied, extending his hand, shaking mine. Me, grinning like the devil. Whether Armstrong had anything urgent to attend to, didn't seem to matter. He talked with Dad and I for 10 minutes, eventually heading us toward the Men's Room, then nicely walked us back to our tour group. As we caught up with the tour, Armstrong shook our hands, and thanked us for supporting The Space Program. We wished him luck and went our separate ways. Other than the tour guide, no one else in the group knew who this kind man was. The Guide winked at me, but never mentioned to the others the importance of who just walked us back. Dad and I were very proud.

We finished the tour, bought out the Gift Shop and headed back to tonight's hotel, another Holiday Inn, this time in Cocoa Beach. I couldn't believe our fortune today. Michael, for a few hours, didn't believe Dad and I had actually met Neil Armstrong. Finally, I was able to show him a picture in a NASA Astronaut Guide we had purchased. Michael shut up. This would be the final night of our whirlwind vacation. We spent it on Cocoa Beach. And believe me, Michael and I asked all over--but, Jeannie and Major Nelson were nowhere to be found! Dad got us all up the next morning, Saturday, March 8th and we drove all the way back to Alexandria, Virginia.

One week, nearly 3000 miles and a World Of Childhood Memories. My First Spring Training was over.

PS--On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong's "One Small Step For Mankind" was, and always will be, a special moment for me. I stayed up all night to watch everything. Then, as an adult, had the extreme pleasure to sit down to dinner with Neil Armstrong one night. He remembered with fondness, his chance encounter with my Dad and I. "Because I loved your enthusiasm," Armstrong told me. Its too bad my given eyesight was so bad, I could never qualify for training to be an Astronaut.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it remarkable how our Nationals Spring Training Home until 2017 is going to be Space Coast Stadium? My wife kids and I went down to Cocoa Beach in 2005 for the Spring Training return of the Washington Baseball Club. We stayed for a week at the Cocoa Beach Hilton and met and befriended the father of a former Nats pitcher Jeff Karp. I don't think Jeff ever made it up to the big club that year. We watched a Nats practice on one of the auxiliary fields in Viera, and saw 2 games - Braves and Mets. We stopped by the park on one of the days when nothing was scheduled just to see if anything was going on. To our enjoyment we were able to watch Jim Bowden and his boys playing a Wiffle Ball game in one of the pitching cages. At the end of that game, the youngest Bowden boy was obviously on the losing side of the field because he broke down in sobs. Father Jim tried his best to console him saying "A stupid baseball game is nothing to cry over!" It was very cute. We had a great week with plenty of Nats Baseball, a couple of amusement parks, and a truly beautiful beach. We can't wait until the Montgomery County Public School's spring vacation lines up with the Nats in Viera. Unfortunately in 2006, and this year, spring vacation comes after the team is already back in town. A Nats Spring Training vacation is a wonderful way to spend spring break.