First rite of Spring (Training)

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I’m on my way to Scottsdale. Going to meet an old friend.

Several friends really, but one in particular.

In the spring of 1999, I was living in Los Angeles working at a map store and trying to write a script about a bachelor party accidentally boarding a gay cruise ship. Most of my time was spent watching people, including Ronald Reagan, on their daily cordial through a Century City mall and saving up enough to enjoy weekend 40s on my rooftop when people visited.

The closest I got to regular contact with someone famous was my building’s super who looked like someone from Melrose Place’s central casting and later “starred” in several episodes of Red Shoe Diaries as Waiter 2 and Man at Pizza Restaurant.

Paul, my best friend from high school, decided to come down to LA for a long weekend to visit. While I think he loved eating Chic-fil-A before they were outed as anti-gay and watching my new VHS copy of Can’t Hardly Wait, he grew weary of my Southern California lifestyle by the end of the first afternoon.

“You know,” he said as I was putting on my map store khakis and badge to go to work. “A couple guys I played with live in Scottsdale. I think it’s only about three hours away. It’s Spring Training.”

It didn’t strike me that Paul had ulteriors when he showed up in his Giants jersey—that and his Abercrombie cargo shorts were wardrobe staples. But when I got in his car and there was a cooler packed with bottled water, oranges and sunflower seeds, I knew something was afoot.

I got my shift covered at the map store by a comedienne friend of mine from the Midwest who was getting a following from her aww-shucks riffs on her naiveté when it came to fashion brands—”Someone told me about a Kate Spade bag so I went to buy one at the nursery,” (it was funnier live.) …And soon we were on the road to Arizona.

Upon our arrival closer to six hours later—there was one stop in Kingman for McDonalds and Paul bought a turquoise pinky ring “because pinky rings are awesome and turquoise is awesome” and some dream catchers because “you never know when you’re going to need a dream catcher” we got out of Paul’s car, his sister’s old beige Accord that had survived four east coast winters and still got AM. He popped the trunk to reveal a 12-pack of Natural Light, our craft beer of choice at the time.

“Well,” he said. “We’re here.”

The two of us drank beer in the hospital parking lot across from Scottsdale Stadium and didn’t say much. Arizona looked like a giant strip mall had landed at the end of a very long runway.

We made our way into the game and I remembered I hadn’t told anyone besides the map store funny girl that I was going on our little road trip. I found a pay phone in the toy stadium’s concourse and tried to call my mom at work. She wasn’t at her desk but I left a message. It went something like this: “Hi mom. It’s AJ. I’m in Arizona with Paul. I think he let his mom know, but if she wants to know, that’s where we are. It’s pretty warm here, like you think it would be. If my work calls you for some reason looking for me, I got my shift covered.”

Then I tried to call the girl I was dating but hung up before her work voice mail kicked in.

I pretty much walked around the stadium for the next three innings before emerging onto the outfield lawn looking for a big dude in a Giants jersey. It was there I found three big dudes splayed out like shallow-breathing Shamus, two of them with huge dips in and no shirts—spitting down their chests. It was as disgusting and wonderful of any sight I’ve ever seen.

The guys were Paul’s buddies from college who somehow found their way from the boiling streets of Phoenix to the Brown football team and back to Phoenix again.

They lived in a barely standing adobe rancher just outside of Mesa, the kind with the Spanish tile dangling from the roof and a pool in the back that looked like it was filled with reclaimed water. Rocks, an itinerant porcupine-looking round cacti and empties overflowing in a bird bath was the extent of their landscaping.

We arrived at their home after the game to take a shower “you guys are going to have to share a towel,” and joined them for their evening ritual, drinking—Natural Light—then stripping down naked and playing guitar for recent divorcees in the neighborhood as they wore the 12-pack boxes on their heads with two eyeholes poked out.

We settled into an Arizona routine right away. Get up. Go for a run. Get a burrito. Crack a Natural Light. Go to a baseball game. Drink more Natural Light. Play guitar. Go to a bar. Go to bed. After about three days, I forgot about my job at the map store and the girlfriend I couldn’t get a hold of and wondering if my mom ever got my message. Part of me thought we were going to stay.

Then, one morning, Paul woke me up, dripping over me wearing only our towel. He had just slipped his pinkie ring on.

“It’s time to go.”

So, we went.

As we settled back into our routines—me back at the map store selling globes trying to figure out what happens in the second act after the big Village People-inspired number in Sea Men, and him working for a small financial services firm in San Francisco—rumors of the Spring Training trip spread amongst our friends.

By February of the next year, our exploits had gone from “we had a couple beers in the parking lot before the game” to “they sat and drank beers with a bunch of the players after the game.” I enlisted a couple old buddies from high school and college to go but Paul, who had just moved back to New York for work, didn’t make it back to Arizona.

Our numbers grew annually. Four of us then six. Then twelve then back to four, then eight again. The first few years, nobody checked their phone for work emails with that worried look that now seems to have made a permanent mark in the middle of our collective forehead. Wives and kids were a shimmery far off oasis down the road—like burrito stands. It’s not that we didn’t worry then, there’s always worry, but the concern was mostly about the future. Now that the future is here, we get nostalgic for our past concern.

I don’t mind it though, sneaking up on middle age with my buddies once a year in a place like Scottsdale. I smile when they say the girls at the bars “look so much younger” when the fact is, we’re just older. I laugh when they sidle over not to hit on them, but to protect them from the same guys we were a decade ago. After all, many of the group now have daughters closer in age to these women than these women are to us.

I traded my half a towel and curl-up spot on a prickly couch in Mesa for a queen bed at the Hotel Valley Ho. The smell of the room is part industrial cleaner, part couple who just checked out that morning. I throw open the closed curtains in a puff of hotel dust to reveal the the diffuse white of desert sun eager to end its approach on the endless concrete apron of the Arizona horizon.

On the terrace, I hear the gentle voices of our neighbors, a couple talking in half-whispers between sips on one side, a few bros play fighting and spilling their can’s contents on flip-flopped feet on the other. I imagine the young me and the young Paul when I hear them laugh over an over at nothing.

I see the sun slide below Camelback mountain and the desert scape lay gentle against the broad concrete beach of the freeway. I lean my forearms on the broad top of the four foot ledge, hands clasp on the rail looking over the reflecting concrete of the pool area. There, a pod of children, their excited playground voices just audible over the Starbucks-friendly beats coming through the PA.

The mothers, perhaps the age-equivalent of my group, perhaps the same girls we once met out at the bars, now dealing with the same—but different—set of worries. Onset middle-age. Perky in the wrong places, saggy in the right ones. Husbands with their tanned calves and ribbons of white where their lips used to be, out on the golf course, planning something with someone else, somewhere.

Spring Training has become a different demographic, as I have. When we started, the stadium was a third empty with vendors who’d have been better off selling oxygen than Bud Light. Now the town teems with youth and resilience and false confidence and empowerment that comes with the anonymity and quickness of a self-aggrandizing entitlement. That the world cares about your exploits through the image you’re trying to convey through a tiny screen.

The bars pour out into the streets. Rickshaw drivers spirit groups like mine from one zone to another with the kind of importance that makes the task at hand seem that much more ridiculous. The game on the field has taken a backseat to our simple reunions off of it.

I start this year’s trip, as ever, with a run and a can of Natural Light in an empty parking lot. I feel older now too and sometimes, even when surrounded by the best friends I’ll ever have, alone.

The day Paul’s life was taken in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, my first thought was back to the moment we pulled up to Scottsdale stadium. I saw him getting out of the car and stretching as if he were warming up for competition. He took his chew out and tossed it behind the car next to us. The purposeful crack of that first beer, feathering off the road trip dust. Him blowing on the foam still clinging to the lip of his can, a smile in his eyes and some kind of distant knowing nod before that first sip. Surveying all before him and a treasured grin on his face, happy as one can only be outside of work on a weekday in the bleach light of midday desert.

“Arizona,” he said, as he took a grateful swig. “What a shithole.”

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