Attending Spring Training with my friend Brian this year (2011) was more fantastic than I could have imagined. The best part was the game we caught before flying back home. Brian had gotten us seats right behind the third base dugout. Right behind the dugout, as in, the top of the dugout was where we set our drinks. Even better, we were right behind the entrance to the dugout on the outfield end. At the end of every half inning the players entered or exited the dugout right there, as close as if they were across the living room from us. Third baseman Chone (pronounced Shawn) Figgins had the day off, so he spent most of the game on the top step eating ‘seeds. In the later innings he was joined by outfielder Milton Bradley (a notoriously troubled soul), and second baseman Jack Wilson (nice guy who recently committed the “unspeakable” act of removing himself from a game).
My seat was right on the aisle, putting me in the middle of a game within the game that went on in between innings. What makes Spring Training special is that the players are so close – they’re so accessible compared to the regular season. The result is everyone is crazy about getting souvenirs from the players – like game balls. The aisle immediately to my right was a hot spot in this struggle to obtain a souvenir. When the Mariners went out to the field, and when they came back in, kids ages five to fifteen, and, er, fifty-three, swarmed right beside me, begging for the warm up ball, or the ball from the last out.
Yes, shame-faced, I admit that for a number of innings I stood up too and waved my arms trying to attract attention from whichever player had the ball. Look. It was like this: some little kid of six or seven still has a lifetime of going to the ballpark in which to snag their souvenirs. Heck, at their young age, their yuppie parents have probably dragged them to more games already than I’ve been to in my lifetime. After all, I’m a victim! I have A.L.S. for crying out loud, the official deadly disease of Major League Baseball (it’s true; see what MLB is doing this July 4).
However, For the most part, Spring Training souvenir distribution is ruled by the CLK (Cute Little Kid) principle. The younger you are, the cuter you are (little girls have the distinct advantage), the more likely you are to snag a ball. Surprisingly, the competition next to my seat in between innings got intense. The same kids returned time after time, sometimes dominated by the younger and cuter, or the younger and cuter occasionally struck out against the bigger and more aggressive.
At the end of every half-inning, it was the same thing – a knot of people above the dugout, waving their arms, begging for, demanding, a ball. As the game moved through its rhythm of hits and outs, fielding and batting, I began to imagine what this might look like from the other side of the dugout; the eternal scene greeting players coming in to hit – the knot of greedy hands, the never-ceasing clamor, “Here! Here! Ball! Let ME have the ball!” It didn’t look very pretty. No wonder so many players simply flip the ball toward the scrum, or pick out the first CLK that catches their eye.
Around the sixth or seventh inning, the rhythm of the game within the game next to my seat changed. Chone Figgins, who had spent most of the game on the steps out of the dugout, got a hold of the warm up ball. He looked at the usual group assembled beside my seat, pointed at one little kid’s hat, then to the letters on the front of his uniform spelling “Mariners”, and shook his head – the kid obviously had the wrong cap. Then he gave the ball to someone to the far right of the souvenir hot spot, and changed the nature of the game.
At least he did for me. Despite my airtight rationalizations, I felt a little sheepish about begging for a ball in the midst of children and teenagers. That couldn’t look good from the dugout steps. So I took a different role in the next round of the souvenir game. There was a girl, probably second grade, who had been down several times with no success. This time, I took off my brand new official Mariner’s Spring Training cap, removed the little girls straw hat, and stuck the cap on her head. Now she had the right hat! She didn’t understand what was going on, and insisted on her own hat. She ended up with a ball that inning anyway. The next round there was a little five-year old platinum blond kid who had an Arizona Diamondback’s hat – obviously he needed a wardrobe change to be successful here! So I switched hats with him, and stood behind him, pointing out his proper attire. Milton Bradley, the troubled soul, had the ball this time, and deliberately rolled it to my little buddy. “Nice! Very nice!”, I heard Brian say. That was a nice moment, for the little boy, for me, for the fans around us, and possibly for Milton too.
But here is the best part of the best part of my Spring Training trip.
During the next half inning, the little girl with the straw hat returned. I remember wondering just how greedy one little girl could be. Ha! “Judge not, lest ye be judged”. She leaned against the dugout and simply said, “thank you Mr. Bradley”, and ran back up to her seat. Her voice was soft, but when I looked over at Milton Bradley, the troubled soul, I could tell he had heard. Out of the dozens of beggars that day, one returned to show gratitude and respect – to a player who holds little respect among the fans and pundits of the game.
Yes, I imagine her parental escort probably motivated her action. But what was behind that insistence? That kind of respect for the pariah is hard to find these days. It isn’t how we play the game of life. The only game changer I know of capable of producing that kind of response is Jesus. He was, and is, all about troubled souls. Once upon a time he healed ten lepers, and when only one returned to express gratitude, Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?” I keep thinking that in this tiny, almost missed moment of the girl and the baseball player, it was the other way around.