Show and Tell
Although I’m not a sports fan, I have to admit I sense a palpable whiff of spring when Texas Rangers baseball training camp opens each winter. And open it did this week in the oddly-named city of Surprise, Arizona. Yay! The season of soft, mellow breezes, longer sunny days, and newly-green trees can’t be far away now.
Of course, here in Texas, spring’s beauty only lasts about three weeks before we’re pelted with hail from vicious thunderstorms. Then the dreaded heat of summer takes over until Thanksgiving. But we won’t think about that right now. Spring training is the time for optimism, opportunity, and the perennial question about whether the Rangers will have any decent pitching this year. Isn’t it funny about how the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Arlington, Texas, has been home to the American League’s Texas Rangers since our legendary mayor, Tom Vandergriff, lured the former Washington Senators down from the nation’s capital back in the mists of time. Which, for Texas, is about 40 years ago. I remember when they played in a dumpy yet oddly comfortable minor-league stadium next to I-30, where you could get a sunburn from practically any corner of the stands. These days, the Rangers play in a grand baseball palace that former president George W. Bush helped build when he owned part of the team.
Fields of Dreams
Not that I’m an expert on baseball stadiums. Besides the Ballpark in Arlington – a more obvious name you’ll never find – I’ve only been to the old Yankee and Shea stadiums in New York City.
While the old “House that Ruth Built” in the Bronx was dated and gargantuan, history oozed out of every square inch. When you attended a game at Yankee Stadium, you were there for one purpose only: to watch a baseball game. Here in Arlington, a lot of people come to games on dates or in groups with friends. They chatter, wander around, spend ages in line for food and drinks, and generally use the game as a sideline for when their conversations trail off. Not at Yankee Stadium. You go, you sit, and you watch. You yell, you argue, you complain, you cheer, and you order from the vendors walking the stands if you have time to eat or drink anything. Have to use the restrooms? Fuggedaboudit. Hold it until the inning – or the game – is over.
One time, a little kid with a fishing net was trying to capture a pop fly ball over the net at home plate. The kid had the ball momentarily, but it rolled out of his net. The whole stadium – we were all watching – erupted into a deafening “BOOO!” as the poor kid sank into his seat. Wow, I thought. Talk about a tough crowd! Even a little kid can’t catch a break in this place.
Over in Queens, Shea Stadium didn’t have nearly the historic vibe or white-collar-ish crowd you can find in the Bronx. But Mets fans held their own in a stadium boasting all the charm of an aircraft hangar. There, too – attending a game wasn’t a social event. Hard-core baseball happened there, and the intensity for what was taking place on the field was the same as at Yankee Stadium. Once people got to their seats, they stayed there all nine innings.
I have yet to visit the new stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets. I hear they’re somewhat disappointing, especially considering the cost to build each of them, and the irreplaceable aura each old structure held. Judging from the pictures, I also think they tend to look a bit like our own Ballpark in Arlington, but with different facades tacked on. Ours is smaller than theirs, but size isn’t the only thing that matters in baseball.
Good Athletes Play Good Baseball
Skill - that matters more. Skill is one of baseball’s hallmarks that helps me respect it as a sport. Any overweight clod can wrestle another overweight clod while a skinny white guy runs around behind them, trying to throw a football. Kicking a white ball around a huge field has become the world’s largest sport, but I just don’t get why people riot over it. Basketball used to be a sport, but now, it’s just a few seconds of dribbling followed by endless fouls. Hockey? My nephews love it, but up in Michigan, baseball fields don’t thaw out until August, so that’s understandable.
You have to admit that baseball requires real, admirable skill. Hitting a little white blur of leather shooting towards you at 90 mph? Sliding along ten feet of dirt on one thigh? Running towards a ball sailing high in the air, catching it with one hand, and turning to throw it in the other – all within seconds? I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can do that while making it look so easy.
I don’t know all the stats, rules, or players, but I did once work for a former Texas Rangers star. Jim Sundberg is a six-time Gold Glove winner who used to be a catcher for the Rangers, and he helped win the World Series one year when he played for Kansas City. Sundberg and his wife, Janet, used to own a company that developed and marketed sports training material for young athletes.
I’ll be honest – one of the reasons they hired me was because I know so little about sports, so I’m not in awe of superstar athletes. Yes, I admire their skill, but I’m cynical enough that celebrities of any type don’t make me gaga. Since the Sundbergs know so many people in the sports world, they didn’t want employees who would drool all over their friends and business partners. They hired me as their first full-time employee, and I worked for them for three years.
Their very first employee, however, was a vivacious woman named Mercy Hukill. She worked part-time for the Sundbergs. A merry, older-than-she-acted widow who attended the same church we all did, Mercy had a great sense of humor, although I never did appreciate her always calling me “Timmy”. And she’s the only person I let call me that – so don’t even think about it.
Mercy passed away a couple of years ago after a valiant struggle with cancer. She shrunk down from the woman you see in this photo to literally skin and bones. The story goes that as she was being wheeled into ICU after her last surgery, all weak and IV’d and emaciated, her sister walked up alongside her bed and asked, “Mercy, can I get you anything”?
Mercy motioned for her sister to lean in closer, and she whispered hoarsely: “A man”.
Knowing Mercy, she was probably only half-kidding.
The day this photo was taken, Mercy and I were busy working while Jim was preparing to attend a press conference at the Ballpark with the Rangers. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez had just won his sixth Gold Glove, tying Jim’s record.
Jim thought Mercy and I would get a kick out of going with him to the press conference, so I went and asked Mercy if she wanted to go.
“Hmmuh” Mercy retorted, not looking up from whatever she was doing.
“Come on, it’ll be fun. Jim says he'll arrange for us to have our picture taken with Pudge afterwards. You know you want to meet him”.
“Yeahhh, well, I don’t know…” Mercy hedged, her indifference a marked contrast to her usual brightness when it came to conversations about Rodriguez.
So, I went and informed Jim that Mercy didn’t want to go. He immediately went to Mercy and managed to persuade her that he would like the two of us there for business purposes, or something like that. So begrudgingly, Mercy went along with us.
Of course, we got to the Ballpark, watched the press conference, and then Jim invited us to pose with Pudge. Mercy still had an uncharacteristically frumpy look on her face. But when she turned around to face the cameraman, here she is with a ready smile and a look of, “Oh, yes, I guess I can have my photo taken with Pudge”!
Maybe to people who didn't know Mercy, this is just a faintly silly story. But considering some of the conversations the two of us had, be thankful this is the one I chose to tell!
Rounding the Bases
After a rapid-fire series of consolidations in the sports retailing world reduced their customer base, Jim and Janet decided to change their business model and ramp down the company. Jim is now the senior executive vice president of the Texas Rangers. As an interesting sidenote, one of Jim’s business partners, Dave Burchett, writes a blog for Crosswalk.com, when he’s not directing Texas Rangers broadcasts on television.
For the record, Pudge is the guy in the black shirt and jeans. He went on to win 13 Gold Gloves, and he’s been an All-Star 14 times. Now 38 years old, he’s a $3-million-a-year back-up catcher for the relatively-new Washington Senators. Remember the Senators? The franchise was revived for the nation’s capital to replace the team that left to play here in Texas.
And as a Senator, Pudge will probably be one of the most productive people with that title in all of Washington, DC.
Aren't you glad spring training is here?