Friday, March 12, 2004
Updated: March 22, 1:58 PM ET
When in need, push The Button
By Jayson Stark
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Steve Bartman started this.
Without him, and that fateful baseball he thought he'd catch, and the collective pain of Cubs Nation, and the auctioning of that baseball, and the subsequent demolition of that baseball into 18 trillion cathartic pieces, we never would have thought of this:
Therapy through detonation.
It's an explosive concept.
If everybody in baseball could blow up that one painful moment that's been torturing them for way too long, would the world be a happier place? There was only one way to know for sure.
So our Spring Fever inquisitors have spent spring training asking players all over Florida what memory, in their own personal psychic rear-view mirror, they'd like to demolish. We were, almost literally, bombarded with answers.
It shouldn't be just the Cubbies who get to exorcise their postseason nightmares, right? So naturally, we found many players who had similar October ideas.
"Oh, I've got a moment," said Atlanta's Chipper Jones, summoning up the ghosts of the 1996 World Series. "Jim Leyritz. Off Mark Wohlers. I'd like to blow that one up. I'd like to blow up that slider Wohlers threw him."
"It would have to have something to do with Aaron Boone's swing in the 11th inning," said Boston's Kevin Millar, still scarred by his Game 7 visit to Yankee Stadium last October. "I'd like to blow up the wall -- and make it 350 instead of 314."
"I'd blow up that Tony Womack bloop base hit in Game 5 (of the 2001 NLDS)," said Cardinals reliever Steve Kline, the losing pitcher in the ninth inning that night. "I'd like to make that one go away."
There. They felt better already. But as some of their pals reminded us, there are other kinds of pain besides October pain. There's also the real deal.
Ask Pirates catcher Jason Kendall, a guy who once lunged for first base and felt his ankle bone turn into fettucini: "I'd say my ankle," Kendall said. "But I already blew it up."
Or ask Braves infielder Mark DeRosa, whose memories of winter ball in Venezuela begin with a 3-6-3 double play he never did turn at short one day -- because he was screened by the runner and the throw hit him right in the head: "Next thing I remember, I woke up in the trainer's room," DeRosa laughed. "That's a memory I wouldn't mind blowing up. The only good thing about it was that nobody in Venezuela knew who I was. So it could have been worse."
Yes, there's only one thing that hurts worse than wearing a baseball on your forehead. And that's doing something that embarrassing in front of actual witnesses.
"My worst was back in the Cape Cod League," said Phillies outfield-quotesmith Doug Glanville. "There was a ball hit in the gap, and it was sitting in front of the fence. So I was running over, and I thought I'd try to be smooth. You know how you watch catchers slide when they're chasing balls that are about to bounce into the dugout and then scoop it up in their mitts? Well, I'd been watching that, and I said, 'Let me be fancy.'
"So I tried to slide and scoop it and do the whole pop-up thing. I just didn't expect to slide through the fence. It was one of those wire-mesh fences, and the best part was, I got stuck in the fence. They had to stop the game until the umpire came out and freed me from my bondage. ... So the moral of the story is: wire-mesh fences. Blow them up."
Well, we get the idea. And we imagine you get the idea. We heard it all. We heard from players who wanted to blow up stadiums where they couldn't hit, or pitch. We heard about traumatic first at-bats against Randy Johnson. We heard it all.
But it was only a matter of time before these guys took a nice, healthy, therapeutic concept and ran amok with it. First to have that particular light bulb go on was Yankees reliever Paul Quantrill.
"I like this idea," he said. "So many times, you throw a certain pitch and say, 'Ohhhhhh (bad word goes here), can I do that over?' So I've always said you should have one pitch a game that if you yell it before the pitch gets to home plate, it shouldn't count. What I'd really like to see is, we should have a little button right here on our belts that we can push, and the ball blows up before it gets to home plate."
Hmmm. Let's think about this. If we're obliterating pain, why confine ourselves to the past? If we could allow guys to take action before these moments actually occur, and technology permits, baseball might be a far more interesting game.
So we took Quantrill's proposal and ran it by some of our favorite baseball minds.
"Man, if the pitchers had that, there wouldn't be any ballparks left," said Brewers coach-witticist Rich Donnelly. "Judging from some of the pitchers I've seen lately, there'd be a lot of explosions."
Which didn't mean Donnelly didn't like the idea, you understand. He just wanted a coach-and-manager version of The Button.
"I guarantee you," he said, "that if you asked every major-league manager or coach, they'd tell you there have been at least 10 times they've said, before a pitch is thrown, 'This is not gonna be pretty.' And 99.9 percent of the time, they're right. It's not pretty.
Injuries of the spring
Third prize: Blue Jays pitcher Ted Lilly still hasn't pitched in a spring-training game -- because he strained his wrist last month trying to move a big-screen TV.
Second prize: A's pitcher Rich Harden strained the shoulder in his left (non-pitching) arm when he reached to shut off his alarm clock.
First prize: On the same day, Marlins pitcher Bryce Florie pulled a rib-cage muscle while throwing, then had a nightmare later that night, jumped out of bed, slammed into the window and needed 15 stitches to stop the cut in his chin.
"I need to drive back home and start all over again," Florie told the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer.
"So maybe you could just have a little detonator button for the manager. And before the pitcher puts the ball in his glove, when he gets that feeling, he could just blow up the ball."
Think of all the stress this would relieve just for Lou Piniella and Larry Bowa alone. On the other hand, their pitching staffs might lead the league in burnt fingernails.
"Nah, it would be just a quick little thing," Donnelly said, reassuringly. "We wouldn't blow the pitchers up. Just zap the ball. We don't want to hurt anybody."
Heck, no. Of course not. This is all supposed to make guys feel better, not worse. But if pitchers and managers and coaches are going to get a button, you know the hitters are going to want one, too.
"I'd like to see us have a button where all three outfielders disintegrate," Glanville proposed. "After the play, we'd be able to add water or something, and they'd all come back, so everything would be fine. But people want to see more offense, right? So once a night, each guy would get to push The Button, and there go the outfielders.
"Three out of 10 times in this game, you fail," Glanville went on. "And that's not right. Let's make it more fair. Five out of 10 -- that works for me."
We have a feeling, on the other hand, that it wouldn't work for the pitchers. Or the stat nuts. But Glanville thinks you could keep them happy by convincing them we're just trying to help them invent new innovations in a traditional game.
"We might have to asterisk some stats," he conceded. "We might have to say, 'OK, that's a double, but he blew the outfield up.' So we'd need a new column -- an ex. But we could also create new streaks: 'He went 23 games without using his button. He has a 23-game button-less streak.'
"Or you might see the defenses come up with new wrinkles to counteract The Button. You could add a fourth outfielder who is immune to explosions. He could wear some hermetically sealed casing that can't be exploded. The only thing that worries me is there might be all kinds of sabotage going on -- people breaking into lockers to defuse the detonator. Then you'd go to press the button and nothing happens."
Yeah, come to think of it, this could get just a little too messy if we started passing out those buttons. So what the heck were we thinking? One minute, we had ourselves a nice, innocent little idea for a column. The next, we had a life-altering monster on our hands. So forget we ever mentioned any of this.
Until the next Spring Fever column, anyway.
Numerologists of the spring
World travelers of the spring
It will only be a couple of weeks before the Yankees and Devil Rays get to open their season in conveniently located Japan.
So after watching Bill Murray yawn his way through Lost in Translation, Spring Fever asked Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella if he'd figured out any way for his team to practice jet lag in spring training.
"Well," Piniella replied, "we could maybe send our players to Houston, to NASA."
There used to be a time when one of Spring Fever's favorite annual competitions was to determine the winner of the heavily coveted Highest Number of Spring Training award. Then, however, Turk Wendell came along and messed that one up for everybody by changing his number to the essentially unbeatable 99.
Next thing we knew, of course, we had an epidemic. By this spring, Wayne Gretzky will be thrilled to hear, we were up to three No. 99s -- Wendell (Rockies), So Taguchi (Cardinals) and Bobby Bradley (Pirates) -- plus a No. 97, Joe Beimel (Pirates).
But we've come up with a loophole to salvage this award -- by limiting the competition to players who aren't wearing their particular number voluntarily.
And the winners are ...
Highest overall number -- 90, worn by Orioles nonroster invitee (and new president of the Dan Klecko Fan Club) Rob Ramsay.
Highest by a position player -- 88, by Marvin Harrison's two new baseball admirers, Angels nonroster catcher Jared Abruzzo and Cubs nonroster catcher Casey Kopitzke.
And highest by a player on an actual major-league roster -- 80, by a guy who has never before been mistaken for Isaac Bruce, Orioles infielder Jose Bautista.
Headliner of the spring
Hulkster of the spring
He's 6 feet tall, 260 pounds. And he's 19 years old.
So just think what Brewers prospect Prince (Son of Cecil) Fielder is going to look like when he actually fills out a little.
"Prince just got a new tatoo on his biceps," Donnelly told Spring Fever. "They put the entire continent of North America on there -- and added Argentina and Venezuela."
In other words, this guy is going to make his father look like Juan Pierre.
"Biggest kid I've ever seen," Donnelly said. "If he ever gets married and has kids, he never needs to buy a swing set. The kids can just jump on his arms and swing all day -- and the neighbors' kids, too."
There's nothing worse than a giant green bird with no head. We've always thought that.
So when news reached Phillies players in spring training that the head of the Phillie Phanatic had been headnapped up north, you can imagine the helplessness they felt, knowing there was nothing they could do to help their mascot in his time of need.
Fortunately, the head wasn't missing for long. It was returned by a caller to a Philadelphia radio station (WYSP) -- whose operations manager, Tim Sabean, was quoted in an official Phillies press release uttering words we suspect haven't been uttered since Marie Antoinette:
"We are so pleased," Sabean said, "we were able to facilitate the return of his head."
Yep, he really said that. He was pleased to facilitate the return of the head.
"You'd have to go back to King Arthur or the old guillotine days since people last heard about a facilitated return of a head," Glanville told Spring Fever. "I'm sure if this had happened back in the year 1300 or so, people would go, 'I don't know what all the commotion is about. People lose their head all the time.' "
Nowadays, on the other hand, almost nobody loses their head quite this literally. So in the Phillies' clubhouse this spring, the creative thinkers were hard at work, trying to figure out how the club could somehow capitalize on this historic theft.
"They should make that a promotion at Citizens Bank Park -- Phanatic Head Giveaway Day," pitcher Randy Wolf suggested. "The winner would get to take the Phanatic's head home -- for 24 hours. Then he'd have to return it the next day -- to a radio station."
Brilliant. Except if you think this through, you might be asking: What would you do if you had the Phanatic's head for a day?
"I'd make a ransom tape," Wolf decided. "I'd videotape myself in a white room with the head, demanding things. I'd want his ATV, or at least the Phanatic Van."
Good plan. But it might be misconstrued. So maybe we need to take this in another direction.
"My question," said Glanville, "is what kind of look would the Phanatic go with if he had to go a day without his head? It's the era of makeovers, so it would be a great opportunity for us to have Phanatic Head Makeover Day. Turn it into a BRAVO show or something."
Sure. Queer Eye for the Headless Guy. Remember, you heard it here first.
Fivesome of the spring
Five fairly recognizable people teed it up for a round of golf Thursday at the Reunion Resort and Country Club in Orlando.
There were John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and Adam LaRoche of the Braves -- and two other golfers who looked suspiciously like Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam.
First to break the news of this historic match to Spring Fever was Braves manager Bobby Cox.
"Tiger shot a 63," Cox reported. "And Annika shot a 65."
How'd Smoltz do? Cox was asked.
"Smoltzie?" the manager laughed. "He was getting his wallet out, I think."
As it turned out, Smoltz, Jones and LaRoche teamed up to play best-ball -- against Tiger. "And he just drubbed us," Jones said, not sounding too surprised.
Asked to describe Tiger's most Tiger-esque moment, Jones replied: "Oh, he dunked one in from about 100 yards on a par 4 -- for an eagle."
Asked to describe his own most Tiger-esque moment, Jones replied, not quite as enthusiastically: "I didn't have any. I just wanted to beat him one hole ...
"And I didn't."
Smoltz and Woods, as you might know, are friends who play all the time. As for Jones, who had played with Woods on just one other occasion, he said it was "just cool to watch and learn."
"Not that I could apply any of it."
Tag team of the spring
Whiffmaster of the spring
As great strikeout artists of our time go, let's just say that Detroit's Nate Cornejo isn't exactly Kerry Wood.
It wasn't quite possible to use your fingers to count Cornejo's K totals last year -- but close enough. In 194 2/3 innings, Cornejo struck out a whopping 46 -- fewer than 83 different relief pitchers, and the fewest by any starter with 190 innings or more since 1949.
So what did Cornejo do in his second inning of spring training? Rack up a strikeout, of course.
"It was unbelievable, huh?" he told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler. "I was going to ask them for the ball."
Just when we'd decided that Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson were the greatest tag team since the Kangaroos, it might be time to revise the rankings.
Tuesday in Fort Myers, the Red Sox' starting pitcher was Pedro Martinez. Who was then relieved by Schilling. They combined to pitch the first 5 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and striking out seven Reds.
But for a while there, it appeared this epic occasion might have to be postponed -- for lack of an opponent. The Reds' bus got lost -- finally arriving 45 minutes late.
"The fact that we were facing Pedro and Schilling, we had to try something," Sean Casey told the Boston Globe's Gordon Edes. "I think someone slipped the bus driver a couple of bucks to find an alternate route, but someone on the bus knew the way and foiled our plans."
Garth-o-mania of the spring
Well, he's back.
After four years of working on other kinds of hits, country crooner Garth Brooks is back in a baseball uniform this spring, this time as a Kansas City Royal.
In his previous spring baseball tours -- with the Padres (twice) and Mets -- Brooks led the league only in unanswered prayers, going a spiffy 1 for 39. Which computes to a batting average of (yikes) .026.
But this spring, Brooks' thunder has been rolling for a change. Through Thursday, his on-base percentage (.500, in four trips) was actually higher than Mike Sweeney's.
After a rough start, in which he misplayed a fly ball into the game-losing run in the Royals' opener, Brooks displayed newfound plate selectivity Tuesday -- by drawing a walk, off the Cubs' LaTroy Hawkins.
Word of that walk swept through the Cactus League, of course. When it reached our pal, Rich Donnelly, he told Spring Fever: "That's OK. Just as long as they don't hit him in the throat. Leave his larynx alone. That's all we ask."
Exactly. But two days later, in a game against the Mariners, Brooks topped his walk by motoring out an infield single into the shortstop hole off reliever Mike Myers, almost doubling his career batting average to a spectacular .042.
Shockingly, Brooks wasn't in the lineup the next day, when the Royals ventured to Surprise, Ariz., to face the Diamondbacks. And Randy Johnson.
Asked how Garth might fare against the Unit, Arizona manager Bob Brenly quipped: "If he goes up there with a guitar, he might have a chance."
Double negative of the spring
It takes a rare manager in this world to keep smiling after his All-Star center fielder has just crashed into a fence and headed for the nearest X-ray room.
But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire never seems to lose sight of the fact that there's a one-liner waiting around every twist of the tongue.
So after receiving word from the medical people about Torii Hunter's jammed wrist this month, Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's La Velle Neal:
"X-rays were negative, and that's a positive. ... And I can't believe I just said that."
Human bullseye of the spring
Pirates outfielder Daryle Ward always seemed to have a certain magnetism about him. So maybe it figures that he had these two back-to-back at-bats this spring:
March 6 -- in a game against Tampa Bay, gets drilled in the right hand by Trever Miller.
March 9 -- returns to action in another game against Tampa Bay, pinch-hits and gets nailed again, in the foot, by Lance Carter.
"I've been hit in the last two pitches against Tampa," Ward told the Beaver County Times' John Perrotto. "That's a pretty tough way to have a good on-base percentage."
Box score lines of the spring
Men's club of the spring
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Drew Olsen contributes this classic spring-training moment to Spring Fever:
Junior Spivey hits a foul ball that clatters around the stands between home plate and first base.
A group of boys begin sprinting after it as it hops into the concourse. Then they screech to a halt.
When the ball hops right into the women's room.
There have been just three regular-season games in history in which the same player hit two home runs in the first inning. But Oakland's Bobby Crosby pulled off that nearly impossible feat against the Padres on March 9.
What made it especially notable was that he hit both homers off the same pitcher -- Adam Eaton. Eaton's painful line:
2/3 IP, 7 H, 9 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2 HR, 1 WP.
But in spring training, nothing is ever as bad as it looks. Just ask the nearest manager -- in this case Bruce Bochy.
"He feels great, and his arm feels great," Bochy said. "He knows that's part of spring training. That's why we have it."
And you can bet Orioles phenom Adam Loewen was glad to hear that, because he wandered into a March 10 game against the Marlins and unfurled this scary line:
0 IP, 0 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 0 K, 16 pitches, 4 strikes.
"I've never really done that before," said Loewen, who wouldn't be quite the same phenom if he had. Would he?
Rivalry mania of the spring
Finally, Spring Fever emissary Gordon Edes, of the Boston Globe, sums up just how crazed the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has gotten with this tale:
At a recent Red Sox game in Fort Myers, a fan collapsed and needed emergency medical assistance. But not only did he regain consciousness, he remembered exactly what game was coming up on the Red Sox schedule.
"He said he'd be back for the Yankee game on Sunday," said EMT Joseph DeVito. "He couldn't miss that."
Answer: Troy Glaus (134), Scott Rolen (110) and Tony Batista (111). Chavez, incidentally, has hit 121.
Question: Eric Chavez is one of four active third basemen who have hit at least 100 homers over the last four seasons. Can you name the other three?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.