The trees are blooming, flowers are pushing up from the ground and the sun is attempting to make a daily warming appearance. Spring is officially here, but as we are too keenly aware, baseball is not.
It’s hard to believe it was just over a month ago I left Florida after spending some time at spring training with the Red Sox. The world has changed immeasurably since then, and as we work our solitary, social-distancing way through this coronavirus pandemic, it is with a fond look backward to the time before we knew what was coming that I take a moment to recall some of the smaller memories while being around the team.
The overall vibe in Fort Myers was understandably strange, with the specter of the sign-stealing scandal looming above all proceedings, and the trade-dump departure of Mookie Betts and David Price underscoring the dramatic roster overhaul merely one season removed from a dominant World Series title run. Yet amid that mood a sincere optimism arose, a tone set by the even-keeled, mature presence of manager Ron Roenicke, whose ascension in the wake of Alex Cora’s forced firing provided an early, much-needed dose of normalcy.
▪ Unfortunately, the new normal for Chris Sale reared its ugly head early in camp, when the pitcher found himself set back not by the elbow that has since benched him indefinitely (he is headed for Tommy John surgery) but by a bout with pneumonia. What Sale shared about his offseason seems eerily appropriate now. Before falling ill, he was working his way back from the elbow trouble that kept him out of action for the final months of the 2019 season.
“This was a weird offseason for me,” Sale said in Fort Myers. “I didn’t go on any trips. I was home. Barely even left the house, with a baby and kids, my son was playing travel baseball and then the rehab process, I didn’t have a whole lot of room to focus on anything else.”
Good practice for now. At the time, he expressed no regret at not having considered surgery sooner, putting his faith in team doctors who had been examining him for months.
“I’d gone to see the best doctor in the world for this. No one at any point was [he] ever worried,” he said. “I guess it was a major injury but no one was ever stressed, at least in front of me. Dr. James Andrews — when he said ‘You’ll be all right, we’ll put some [platelet-rich plasma] in there and you’ll be on your way,’ when he gives you that level of confidence you feel it, too.”
Impossible not to feel for Sale, who I remember spending so much time with us that morning in Florida, and then stopping again for a more casual chat on his way out of the facility, sharing stories about his family, including his awe at his wife for handling a home delivery for their child with amazing courage. It was clear how much pitching for the Sox this season meant to him, not simply because of the money he earns, but because of the responsibility he feels. Even then, he was insisting, “If the season started tomorrow, I’d tell you I could go out there for five or six innings.”
Who knows when the season will start, but we do know Sale won’t be able to pitch. What a bummer.
▪ Another quote that has stayed with me from spring, when the sting of Cora’s unexpected ouster was still resonating, came from slugger J.D. Martinez. Players’ feelings were understandably complicated, beyond just missing a guy who was so popular in the clubhouse, but also allowing for some anger and disappointment for Cora’s apparent role in what had gone on in Houston. Martinez struck what I thought was just the right tone:
“Obviously people make mistakes. It is what it is. I think he’s feeling it now. But that doesn’t change my view on him, and the way he treated me as a human and the way he treated me as a person. As a coach and manager, I have great respect for him.”
▪ On to Roenicke. The first word I thought of was ‘lifer.’ Only it turns out it’s not a word the man himself would choose. He has been in the game his entire life, playing in the majors from 1981-88 and coaching at the minor or major league level nearly every year since. But the 63-year-old is a renaissance man.
“I don’t like it that much because there’s so much more to life than baseball," he told me. “That’s why I have so many interests. I love baseball, but I have so many other interests. I do woodworking, I love golf, I like fishing, I love reading. I used to do some stained glass, but it tears up my hands so bad I can’t do that anymore. When I’m home in Anaheim, I love gardening, whether a garden or fruit trees. I’m not all baseball. When I come to the ballpark, I want to work. But I’m not hanging out at the ballpark.”
A few other Roenicke tidbits:
▪ After wearing six different uniforms in two leagues and a host of different numbers, he settled on No. 10 as his favorite, and will continue to wear it with the Sox. “I was in Anaheim, I had [No.] 12 and Steve Finley came and wanted 12 and they moved me to 10, and I had 10 for a long time. When I went to Milwaukee [as the manager] I stayed [with] 10. The numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me, it’s just familiar to me.”
▪ Though we might remember him for being on the wrong side of Nolan Ryan’s fifth career no-hitter, Roenicke recalled a different interaction with Ryan, when he learned a lesson about baseball’s rules of self-correction and protection. After one attempt to bunt for a hit against strikeout master Ryan, Roenicke, who eventually swung and made an out, returned to the dugout, where then-Dodgers teammate Mark Belanger awaited.
“He said, ‘Just so you know, if you try to bunt off him he usually hits you the next time,’” Roenicke recalled. “He didn’t, but those things happened a lot back then … Things are different now.”
As for why he pulled the bat back: “I didn’t think I could get a hit otherwise.”
▪ Baseball was not his favorite sport to play growing up. “I loved football and basketball,” he said. “There’s no feeling like a football game. I hated practice, but I loved the game.”
But after an initial attempt at playing football (he was a wide receiver/safety) in junior college went sour, he focused on baseball. Between high school, junior college and UCLA, Roenicke was drafted five times before finally signing with the Dodgers.
▪ He and his wife Karen have been together since college and have always maintained a home in California, one surrounded by baseball. As their son, Lance, recalled in a phone interview, “It was my dad, (former teammate and major league pitcher) Mike Harkey, and I grew up really close with their family. My dad, Mike, Tony and Cory, Mike’s kids, we were always on the same team. It was fun playing for dads who understood it all, who had gone through similar situations when they were younger, who played multiple sports the way we did.”
Like his own dad, Lance thought he was headed to college to be a quarterback until baseball pushed its way to the front of the line. Harkey, by the way, is the Yankees bullpen coach.
▪ On a closing note, I keep thinking of all the workers at Fenway South who also lost out on their spring training, so many of them transplanted retirees from the Boston area who look forward to spring as much as the players do. Hat tip to them.