Scenes from Spring Training: Arrrrgh! The Pirates! Part 1

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McKechnie Field.jpgMy original plan didn’t have me going down to Bradenton to visit Pirates’ camp, but when the Yankees decided not to offer me media credentials some time freed up, allowing me to catch the Pirates-Rays game yesterday afternoon.  I would like to thank the Yankees for their decision, because it meant that I got to spend a day at McKechnie Field, which is a truly awesome old ballpark.  So awesome, that it led to an epiphany of sorts later in the day.  I’ll get to that later, though.  Let’s talk about McKechnie Field.

A ballpark under various names has been at this location since 1923. Sure, it’s been renovated several times, most recently in the early 90s, when most of the thing was actually rebuilt, but the place that stands there today represents everything good about older ballparks.  Simple design. great sightlines. A simple, democratic seating arrangement. An old-timey atmosphere that isn’t self-consciously retro.  There are some amenities — and some great ballpark food — but the point of McKechnie Field is the baseball game, not entertainment or a “fan experience.”

My routine each morning has been to pick up press credentials early — say, 7:30 or 8AM — find a place to set up and then just wander and talk to people.  This hasn’t been a problem anywhere inasmuch as every team has scads of employees on-site doing any number of things from the crack of dawn, and someone has always been available to get me credentials. Not so at McKechnie. When I arrived just before 8AM there were some ushers there and only a handful of team employees. When I asked if I could get my press pass, the young man at the will call window rifled through a box of documents and then told me that the day passes for yesterday must be “over at Pirate City,” and that one of his co-workers would be bringing them by later.  “You’re kinda early,” he said. “Try back after 9.”

Popi's Place.JPGIf this had happened at most spring training parks I probably would have had to go sit in my car or something, but since McKechnie Field is on a city block instead of a larger complex like some of the other places, I had options. The closest option was Popi’s Place, a greasy spoon diner next to the ballpark. The walls are covered with Pirates’ photos, poster, pennants and stuff. The clientele that morning was decidedly blue collar, with most of the people looking like they were on their way to work. I ordered some biscuits and gravy and eavesdropped. Maybe I was imagining things, but the accents and the subject matter sounded as if someone had taken a slice of western Pennsylvania and plopped it right down in Bradenton.

When I finished, I wandered back to the ticket office. The skies were dark, the wind was whipping and the odds of a ballagame taking place that afternoon seemed poor.  The guy operating the press elevator — 80 years-old if he was a day — was more optimistic: “Ah, this is Florida.  It might rain and then snow and then get up to a 100 degrees before noon. You never know.”

I found a seat in a press box I’ll call cozy — I have no idea what they do when the Red Sox and their sizable media entourage visit — and set up my stuff.  For the second day in a row I found myself sitting next to an old timer. This time it was a guy named Ed Bridges. He said he was a columnist, and his press pass indicated that he worked for a smallish Florida paper whose name escapes me right now. He said he was basically retired, but that he covered the Expos from the 1970s “all the way through to the end.”  I’m not sure what paper he worked for and I can’t find any references to him online. Didn’t matter though, because he told me some great stories — not too many of which are repeatable — and went on a wonderful anti-Tim McCarver jag that will get me through the playoffs this fall.  Ed’s good people.

Set up and ready to go, I hit the field and the clubhouses.

Gaylord Perry, two-time Cy Young winner, dies at 84

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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GAFFNEY, S.C. — Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, a master of the spitball and telling stories about the pitch, died at 84.

Perry died at his home in Gaffney, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said. He did not provide additional details. A statement from the Perry family said he “passed away peacefully at his home after a short illness.”

The native of Williamston, North Carolina, made history as the first player to win the Cy Young in both leagues, with Cleveland in 1972 after a 24-16 season and with San Diego in 1978 – going 21-6 for his fifth and final 20-win season just after turning 40.

“Before I won my second Cy Young, I thought I was too old – I didn’t think the writers would vote for me,” Perry said in an article on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. “But they voted on my performance, so I won it.”

“Gaylord Perry was a consistent workhorse and a memorable figure in his Hall of Fame career,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, adding, “he will be remembered among the most accomplished San Francisco Giants ever … and remained a popular teammate and friend throughout his life.”

Perry was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and spent 10 seasons among legendary teammates like Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who said Thursday that Perry “was a good man, a good ballplayer and my good friend. So long old Pal.”

Juan Marichal remembered Perry as “smart, funny, and kind to everyone in the clubhouse. When he talked, you listened.”

“During our 10 seasons together in the San Francisco Giants rotation, we combined to record 369 complete games, more than any pair of teammates in the Major Leagues,” Marichal said. “I will always remember Gaylord for his love and devotion to the game of baseball, his family, and his farm.”

Perry, who pitched for eight major-league teams from 1962 until 1983, was a five-time All-Star who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991. He had a career record of 314-255, finished with 3,554 strikeouts and used a pitching style where he doctored baseballs or made batters believe he was doctoring them.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame said in a statement that Perry was “one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.” The Texas Rangers, whom Perry played for twice, said in a statement that the pitcher was “a fierce competitor every time he took the ball and more often than not gave the Rangers an opportunity to win the game.”

“The Rangers express their sincere condolences to Gaylord’s family at this difficult time,” the team’s statement said. “This baseball great will be missed.”

Perry’s 1974 autobiography was titled “Me and the Spitter,” and he wrote it in that when he started in 1962 he was the “11th man on an 11-man pitching staff” for the Giants. He needed an edge and learned the spitball from San Francisco teammate Bob Shaw.

Perry said he first threw it in May 1964 against the New York Mets, pitched 10 innings without giving up a run and soon after entered the Giants’ starting rotation.

He also wrote in the book that he chewed slippery elm bark to build up his saliva, and eventually stopped throwing the pitch in 1968 after MLB ruled pitchers could no longer touch their fingers to their mouths before touching the baseball.

According to his book, he looked for other substances, like petroleum jelly, to doctor the baseball. He used various motions and routines to touch different parts of his jersey and body to get hitters thinking he was applying a foreign substance.

Giants teammate Orlando Cepeda said Perry had “a great sense of humor … a great personality and was my baseball brother.”

“In all my years in baseball, I never saw a right-handed hurler have such a presence on the field and in the clubhouse,” Cepeda added.

Seattle Mariners Chairman John Stanton said in a release that he spoke with Perry during his last visit to Seattle, saying Perry was, “delightful and still passionate in his opinions on the game, and especially on pitching.

Perry was ejected from a game just once for doctoring a baseball – when he was with Seattle in August 1982. In his final season with Kansas City, Perry and teammate Leon Roberts tried to hide George Brett’s infamous pine-tar bat in the clubhouse but was stopped by a guard. Perry was ejected for his role in that game, too.

After his career, Perry founded the baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney and was its coach for the first three years.

Perry is survived by wife Deborah, and three of his four children in Allison, Amy and Beth. Perry’s son Jack had previously died.

Deborah Perry said in a statement to The AP that Gaylord Perry was “an esteemed public figure who inspired millions of fans and was a devoted husband, father, friend and mentor who changed the lives of countless people with his grace, patience and spirit.”

The Hall of Fame’s statement noted that Perry often returned for induction weekend “to be with his friends and fans.”

“We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Deborah, and the entire Perry family,” Baseball Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said.