Pitchers and catchers aren’t the only ones working the kinks out in February.
My first spring training was in March of 1999. The old timers (the still upright World War II snowbirds) were on hand with their whiskey and oxygen, riding custom golf carts around Old Town Scottsdale, buying general reserve seats and scooting down behind home plate to better keep score in a half-empty stadium on a work day.
Their wives blew up their beepers and they paused to make sure the noise wasn’t coming from their pacemakers. They’d make haste postgame to the darkest corner of the Pink Pony and whisper stories about past lives that weren’t quite how Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein drew it up, but were a lot closer to that civility than today’s mess.
My life to them was ignorable, or at its worst—at my worst—an annoyance. I remember emerging from my buddy’s Honda after an eight-hour drive just in time for a 1:05 p.m. weekday start—our first visit to Scottsdale Stadium. Hell, our first time to Arizona. He emerged from the beige cockpit, gave a big old sun salutation and put in a dip as I cracked a warmish Keystone Light and finished it in a pair of gulps. A burp and a spike on the ground—as you should treat all Keystones. A pair of the old guard shuffled by gumming obscenities to those within earshot, us. I gave them that knowing nod that comes so naturally to most 20-something boys, all chin and teeth—and cracked another.
My buddy’s Giants’ jersey was splayed all the way open, bare chest exposed to the low-slung Arizona sun. The hot air creased as he laughed about nothing. I wasn’t wearing a shirt at all. Or sunscreen. Nor did we drink water. Just Keystone after Keystone after Keystone. Gulp, spike, burp, crack. Repeat.
We were automatic, impish.
I don’t remember much else from that trip. There was the glorious arrival and the pendulum swinging to an equally disastrous finale which featured most if not all of the following: Someone getting lost. Someone getting kicked out of a bar. Someone ending up trying to break into the wrong house to crash on the sectional. Someone getting in a SUV with a 50-something divorced lady wearing all black, including eye shadow. Someone waking up in a bathtub full of vomit and whatever else.
The morning after, we drove west. We spent a couple hours in silent repose until he asked whether I remembered inviting Julián Tavárez to the strip club, and then him joining us. Did I recall his two buddies strumming guitars wearing nothing but empty Keystone boxes (as masks) on their heads?
The trip fell a few thousand dollars worth of contraband and about twenty days short of Hunter Thompson aspirations, but we did bend the rules, a little—for us. We were originally supposed to go home Sunday but decided to make it Wednesday, or maybe Friday. I called my work and my girlfriend from a payphone inside the stadium. The girlfriend and the job went away shortly after. So did the payphones.
We went again the next year. My buddy skipped the year after that because he was moving to the East Coast and then that September, terrorists took him away on a bright September morning. I definitely have a before his death and an after his death life narrative. But there is no clearer a reminder of his departure than the sharp mornings turned to fuzzy evenings of spring training. The happiest moments were already a memory distant the day he died. But other things came fast for the group. Girlfriends became wives and wives became mothers. And the everydays swallowed us in two gulps, and burped.
In the 17 years since our first spring training, my friend group expanded and then shrank and now is down to a select few who can stand me, or one another, and are still willing to exchange the comfort of their own bed, their own bathroom and the embrace of their children—for 36 wonderful and painful hours a year. When get to go, hovering above the shimmering desert landscape is the specter of that first year when we took our cuts so effortlessly. When things just kind of happened, or didn’t. Before cameras had keypads and phones on them. When one person’s company—save for the memory of it—was more than enough.
I suppose this is where I try not to drift into that reservoir of memories, most now embellished past the point of recognition. Time is reflection’s steroid. Besides, there is no one to corroborate that first year or the many after anymore. The old men are gone now. Where they went, I don’t know. My buddy’s gone too. The laugh, the Keystone, the jersey. Gone and gone and gone. Gone in the night and not a whole lot in their place. What’s left? Some guys, a little younger than me, schlepping around golf clubs and taking fake work calls and sucking it in at the pool for girls a little younger than them. Guys who talk about how big a tool their ex’s ex was, without yet realizing the secret to life is they are also that someone to someone else.
I’m OK with it. I’m OK with my life in midstream. I’m starting, post-40, to disappear a little every year. And I’m starting, a little every year, to slowly stroll by the grinning, fueled masses and shake my head.
While the future is always just out of grasp and the present is an exhale, we are made of memories. And mine are good.