At The End, A Beginning: Part II

…Continued from the previous post.

This day was 11 months and 13 days in the making. So there was no such thing as being too early for the game.

As enjoyable as watching opening round coverage of the NCAA Tournament is, Kels and I had no remorse about leaving March Madness behind in Scottsdale’s Fox Sports Grill at 3:45 PM for the 7:05 PM first pitch that would begin Event #100 – a Spring Training game between the Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Giants. After all, we had almost ten miles to travel.

Twenty minutes later we pulled into a free parking lot adjacent to Scottsdale Stadium – an absolute gem of an old-fashioned downtown ballpark. And we were by no means alone in our eagerness. It would be another 45 minutes until the gates would even open, but already there were hundreds of people milling around, even though all 11,622 tickets had long since been sold. These people, like us, just wanted to get inside and drink up the atmosphere as soon as possible.

Scottsdale Stadium is one of the original Cactus League venues, serving since 1992 as the Spring Training home of the Giants. It’s an environment that already screams authenticity, but this year it was augmented by the unmistakable swagger that goes with being the reigning World Series Champions. It wasn’t a puffed chest, “yes, we’re all that” bluster though; it was more an air of quiet confidence.

Giants fans greeted each other as if they were part of an ancient secret society. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to learn that a special handshake or code word was being exchanged surreptitiously all around me. If that was the case, Kels was dialed into it. As the undisputed biggest Giants fan in New York’s Upper Hudson Valley, he had earned his stripes.

For San Francisco fans, this Cactus League season was one of both anticipation and revelry in the final remnants of last October’s championship run. While media “experts” have thus far been universally underwhelmed by this year’s team, ask any Giants fan and they’ll tell you that this edition is even better than the last. Which made this the perfect opportunity to size up my 2011 Angels against a high-quality opponent.

When the gates opened, Kels peeled off to join the full-scale assault on the team merchandise store. I took the opportunity to peruse the starting lineups that had been posted on a humble erasable whiteboard on the concourse.

It took a couple of minutes to fully register, but under the heading of “Visitors” was a long list of names that I didn’t recognize. I initially thought that a mistake had been made. Maybe nobody had updated the board from the previous day’s game? But then I saw “Angels” written at the top and “Haren” in the starting pitcher’s spot and I knew that for whatever the reason, the team had chosen to field a squad of rookies and minor-leaguers for this game.

What The…?

Of course I understand that Spring Training is equal parts getting the regulars ready and giving the up-and-comers a good look, but seriously…one “real” starter in the lineup? Four guys who I’d never even heard of? On this, the historic occasion of Event #100? I’m not going to lie – it hurt.

But I got over it. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap will help with that.

It was a fairly rare Spring Training night game, and when combined with St. Patrick’s Day, a unique vibe was in the air. You got the feeling that you might see just about anything. And sure enough, as we rounded the concourse onto the third base side of the stadium, “just about anything” took the form of Bill Buckner, who was there as part of a group of retired baseball stars who were populating an autograph signing booth.

There is probably no baseball player in history whose name is more closely linked to disaster and heartbreak than Bill Buckner. The over/under on the number of times the ball going through his legs in the 1986 World Series has been replayed is probably somewhere around 7.2 bajillion. This man was literally hounded out of New England, and only two World Series titles in four years softened hardcore Red Sox fans enough to forgive him. This is a man who has experienced the absolute worst side of baseball. Yet here he was, relaxed and engaging as he chatted with fans and contemporaries such as Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry. Have I mentioned that Spring Training is all about renewal?

We wandered down the concourse until we reached a little oasis which offered us a great view of right field and the players warming up. There we met Pam, who was in her second night of staffing a standalone beer concession. Pam had recently relocated from Spokane to Phoenix in search of – surprise! – a fresh start, and she knew her sports. She asked if we had any scores for the late afternoon NCAA games, and a lively discussion about college basketball ensued. It turned out that she was wearing her team allegiance on her sleeve – or something akin to that. When she took off a shoe to reveal Gonzaga University socks, she forever cemented her status as a fan.

As for the game…well, I’d love to tell you all about how a scrappy bunch of Angel unknowns came out and blistered the pitching of the World Champs – I really would. But I’d be lying. The game was every bit as devoid of offense from the Halos as I had anticipated. Fortunately though, the Angels pitching staff managed to contain the Giants nicely, and despite mustering just one infield single, we were in a scoreless tie in the fourth inning. Could the Halos perhaps scratch out a run and win this thing?

Just about the time that thought started to percolate, they showed up – a large contingent of Dodgers fans on a singular mission to annoy their San Francisco counterparts. Clad in matching Dodger Blue t-shirts, they began a slow procession around the stadium’s inner concourse, waving to the stands like beauty queens on a Tournament of Roses Parade float. They were not, umm…“well-received”.

And a funny thing happened during their procession. As the boos rained down, the Giants started to hit. A single. A double. Another double…and by the time the instigators had finished their tour, it was 3-0. Thanks guys – there went my “stealing a 1-0 win” scenario.

Giants Closer Brian Wilson Didn’t Help Matters For Halos Fans

While the prospects for an Angels win (or even an extra-base hit) were becoming more remote with each inning, the social situation in Section 213 was hitting full stride. It was like the neighborhoods depicted in beer commercials – full of smart, funny people watching sports together. And friendly? I’ve seen Up With People productions that were more standoffish. Had it been a double-header, Kels might have wound up on the ballot for San Francisco’s next Board of Supervisors election.

As informal group conversation began to reveal to others the IGTS quest – and the place that this game occupied within the Tour – new friends began to offer congratulations, share similar stories, and provide suggestions for future endeavors. I had gone to a baseball game and a focus group had sprung up. That’s baseball though, and especially Cactus League baseball.

Spring Training uniform numbers exhibit a basic pecking order – the higher the number, the more likely the player wearing it will be plying his trade in the minor leagues come Opening Day. Thus, in the bottom of the eighth inning when the Angels sent out a trio of outfielders whose uniform numbers averaged 83.3, any hope I had of a spirited comeback quickly deflated.

At 9:14 PM, an anonymous Angel wearing number 81 flied out to center field, and it was official – the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour was over. The Halos had mustered just two measly hits in a 4-0 loss. On the bright side however, Kels and I had received invitations to two weddings, a Bar Mitzvah celebration, and a half-dozen backyard barbeques.

To pin the Surreal-O-Meter firmly in the red, in the street outside the stadium I ran into Ashley (nee) Gomes, a former professional golfer with whom I’d had the pleasure of working for three tour seasons. “What are you doing here?” she asked innocently. So I told her. I think she was still processing my answer when the taxi carrying her and her new husband pulled away.

To tell you the truth, I’m still processing it all myself.

Turn Out The Lights, The Party’s Over

Next Up:  In Retrospect – A Year In The Bleachers

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