And as I sit here today, hollowed out by the post-vaca blues, I can say with confidence that all those objectives were met. But let’s not jump ahead.
The trip started like a lot of trips do. Dark, groggy cab ride to the airport. Wondering why the boarding pass lines for our airline were so much longer than the others. Walking by like eight NBC News Stand stores and wishing I had a curvy neck pillow.Those three things happen about 90% of the time I take a flight anywhere. And most of you are probably nodding silently, which means you’ve taken those exact steps countless times yourself. But let me tell you, friends...the monotony ended there.
Our first objective (and the main reason we needed to set our alarm to Ivory Coast time) was to arrive 45 minutes earlier than usual, per Southwest protocal, in order to ensure that the flight would be peanut-free. See, my co-pilot has a bad case of the If-I-Eat-A-Nut-I’ll-Die’s, a generally manageable disorder that only rears its ugly head at parties, baseball games, and delicious burger joints. Still, we all know it’s better to be safe than sorry, and we all also know that since you have to arrive seven hours early these days anyway, another 45 minutes doesn’t really matter (THANKS A LOT BIN LADEN).
Now, at that point I assumed they’d just hand out pretzels instead of peanuts and call it a day. Wrong. As soon as we said the words “peanut allergy”, the gate attendants went into Defcon-7 mode, pecked at their keyboards for a full minute and a half, and eventually produced this. Needless to say, the next hour was spent basking in the glow of our newfound celebrity, as we were now just as important as the people in wheelchairs and the guy who was so scared of flying that he had to wear a diaper.
Once on the plane (first row, leg-room for days), we were immediately engaged by Diaper-Man, who assumed the role of “guy who can’t tell that you just want to read.” As it happened, Joey-Fidgets turned out to be a real nice guy, but that fact was quickly overshadowed by the piercing noise that shot through the cabin. At first, all of us had a hard time diagnosing the disturbance. I agreed with the couple behind us, that it was some kind of “you forgot to close that compartment” alert. Jen, the resident Nat Geo aficionado, suggested that it sounded like raptor of some kind. And Joe didn’t say much of anything because his head was already under the seat.
Soon enough, we realized that one of our fellow Handicap Express Gold Club members (an old lady who never blinked) had brought a damn shitszu on board, and it was telling us in two-second intervals that it wasn’t completely comfortable with its situation. Immediately I texted my buddy Seeds, a shitszu owner, describing my situation and asking why his dog’s brother was so inconsiderate. He responded that a) I was spelling Shih Tzu wrong, and b) it was probably a sign that I should get one. I told him that that’s funny, because I assumed it was probably a sign that I should kill one. Semantics. Fortunately for everyone except Space Lady, the dog was removed in short order, and our flight to Baseball Mecca commenced.
The next event of note occurred at the airport rental car Superplex. In accordance with Murphy’s Law, we arrived and noticed that absolutely none of the eight to twelve car rental companies had any sort of line. Except, of course, Hertz, which appeared to be handing out free samples of cocaine. Being that we had pre-registered, we plopped down, waited about an hour and a half, and were eventually rewarded with what could only be described as a Chevy Muskrat. Over the course of our four-day adventure, this vehicle would lovingly be referred to as “jackrabbit”, “the clown whisperer”, and “that car Steve Urkel drove.” Still, its gas mileage was superb, so the statement it made about how massive my penis is turned out to be just an added bonus.
Our first stop in Phoenix was Alice Cooper’s rock-themed sports bar. Jen had seen it on Man vs Food and had already given me a comprehensive debriefing on their 22-inch chili dog. We ordered it as soon as we sat down, along with the “Elaine Benes Big Salad”, which turned out to be like paying for air conditioning in an igloo. Knowing I had a johnson the size of Detroit on the way, I did the only logical thing, which was to retire to the office to make some room. And sure enough, as I was turning Alice Cooperstown into Alice Pooperstown (a pun I would reuse at least six times over the course of the trip), I was interrupted by a piercing alarm that rattled the building, followed by about 15 cooks yelling “BIG UNIIIIIITTTTTTTTTTTTTT.” Now, normally I am not a lucky man, but the Gods smiled on me here. See, just as I had hoped, that Big Unit was our Big Unit, and as the whole arena-sized restaurant looked on, it was delivered to my waiting wife. I am told she sat there as the clientele cheered and whistled, like a tiny deer caught in headlights. It was an embarrassment of epic proportions, and a tale I will undoubtedly embellish to our grandchildren.
That evening, we headed to Goodyear Ballpark for our first game. Suffice it to say that I took copious Reds notes directly onto my brain-pad, but I’ll get to that hardcore research later.
That first night, as the sun filled the blue sky and set over the hills, I was struck by just how different Spring Training is. Fans amble in slowly and leisurely, decked out in all kinds of different team gear. There’s one parking lot (one!), and the tailgaters could be counted on one hand. Accustomed to the bustle of big league parks, I had a hard time getting used to the feel at Goodyear, where “relaxed” is a lazy understatement. Just as many people wandered around the concourse as sat in the seats, playing the free MLB 2K12 games near left field or tossing a wiffle ball near right. There were no unruly drunks, no obnoxious super-fans, and absolutely no tension of any kind. A quaint park in the middle of nowhere, people came simply because they love baseball. It may as well have been Ray Kinsella’s field of dreams.
The Reds won that night, something like 5-1, behind an encouraging performance from Matt Latos, the newly-acquired ace. But more than any other game I’ve attended, this one wasn’t about the score. It was about seeing the players horse around just as much during the seventh inning as during the pre-game warm-up, tripping each other in the dugout and tossing signed balls to fans. It was about 30-something journeymen like Ron Mahay and Clay Zavada, guys you’ll never hear about again, but that just want one more chance. It was about the 10,000-seat efficiency of a stadium, filled to the brim with optimism and camaraderie. Jen and I spent the evening hitting in the free batting cages, perusing the gift shop, and occasionally cheering with the crowd when the someone did something right. I watched as she stared dreamily at the Reds’ triumvirate of young outfielders (Jay Bruce, Chris Heisey, Drew Stubbs). She watched as I launched an assault on the concession stands, including the taco stand in right field and the Mr. Softee Truck parked along the third base line.
Eventually, when we couldn’t stomach any more Barro’s pizza or fish tacos, and when the regulars were yanked for guys with numbers in the 90’s, we decided to pack it in. The Arizona clocks said 9:30, but our clocks disagreed, and with a trip to the World’s Largest Hole in the morning, rest was a must.
Still, as we made the quiet 30-minute drive back to Phoenix and our hotel room, I couldn’t help but think day one was a success.
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Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Part II of my Spring Training Research Spectacular; featuring icy hikes of death, Mexican street meat, and some really crazy Asians.
JOURNEYMEN Head Scout and Executive Food Critic