Huggins-Stengel Field houses memories of springs past
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The doors at Huggins-Stengel Field are still open. Literally. You can walk right in, sit right down and let your mind roll on. It rolled backwards Monday morning, back to when baseball wasn't so locked down, locked up and lock-jawed, when a reporter could pass through two doors opened wide, see through to the opposite side of the Mets' Spring Training clubhouse and need little more than his name, his face and a typewriter to qualify as "authorized personnel."
Different doors are in place these days and, truth be told, they are not open wide. They are unlocked, though, and a reporter -- and anyone else, presumably -- can enter the same building and, for a few moments, take in what there is before someone says "Can I help you?" Insecure in today's credential-and-lanyard world -- sure. But it was a comfortable change.
By the time the fella said hello Monday, some of the baseball artifacts in the entrance way had been recognized and assessed by the unannounced visitor -- a glass-enclosed wooden locker and its contents appeared genuine. Was it Gehrig's, Yogi's, Koosman's? A bat too new to have been used by a big leaguer or a wannabe, stands unprotected. Next to it, a properly tattered and faded cap that gave away its vintage with embroidery on the back. The Babe didn't wear embroidery, did he? Nor did Joe D, "Say Hey" Willie, Mickey, Seaver or "Doc" Gooden.
They all lockered there, though. They all dressed, showered and laughed there. So it's a pretty cool place for a guy with an eye for nostalgia even though its interior bears scant resemblance to what it had been for the great Yankees team, the two most accomplished Mets teams and some more recent Orioles teams too.
A photo of Cal Ripken hangs just inside the door. The welcoming man noted that "Carl Ripken played here." Perhaps the extra R stood for Ripken's Remarkable streak.
The Yankees used the complex from Ruth's time through 1961. Manager Miller Huggins put his stamp on the camp. Stengel's Mets took over in their first year, 1962, after the Yankees had moved to Fort Lauderdale. Mets film archives have grainy, black and white footage of the first gathering of the Mets that shows Huggins-Stengel clubhouse in the background with the likes of Richie Ashburn, Charley Neal and Frank Thomas -- no, not that Frank Thomas -- running by. A photo inside the front door of the current building shows Stengel's 1953 Yankees seated in the clubhouse.
The Orioles used Huggins-Stengel when they were essentially Spring Training homeless after they had pulled out of Lauderdale.
The building now houses offices for TASCO, Teens Arts, Sports and Cultural Opportunities, a program operated by the city's recreation department. The field where Mantle and Darryl Strawberry hit spectacularly long home runs now is used by a high school team.
Floating walls were used to change the former clubhouse into offices and work areas. The natural dark wood visible when the building was used only for baseball remains. Current workers say the scent of cigar smoke sometimes can be detected. The residue of Ralph Houk? And they mention those eerie stories. Perhaps the characters in Derek Jeter's references to the ghosts, winter at Huggins-Stengel.
Memories of reality remain despite all the renovations. The three-tier chain link fence that surrounded much of the two-field acreage has been replaced by a shorter, less imposing fence, so the challenge of hitting a baseball 450 feet and over a 15-foot barrier is no more. But Strawberry took Bob Forsch over the barrier -- to center field, no less -- in a morning "B" game in 1985. It was after that home run that Lenny Dykstra christened his teammate "Awesome Strawsome."
And Darrell Johnson, the former Red Sox and Mariners manager who later scouted for the Mets, swore Mantle routinely hit batting practice pitches into a lake 100 feet beyond the right-field fence in the early '50s. Johnson was the Yankees' No. 3 catcher at the time, behind Yogi and Elston Howard. He had time to monitor Mantle's in-the-cage swings. "But everyone watched when Mickey got in the cage then," Johnson said.
Ruth probably hit 'em just as far, but no one was around in the '70s to tell of them. His locker still was around, though. It stood between two doorways. And, as the stories go, DiMaggio preferred not to use it. Years later, Herbie Norman, the Mets' clubhouse guy, contacted Pete Sheehy, the Yankees' clubhouse guy from Ruth through Reggie, and determined Mantle has used that locker. It was assigned to Keith Hernandez for his four Mets camps. Few hits were left in that cubicle for Orioles personnel.
Across the room from Hernandez's locker was where Mookie Wilson sat and wondered aloud whether his vision would be compromised after a rundown drill throw had shattered his glasses and imbedded pieces of a lens in his eye in '86. Nearby was the locker Dwight Gooden used as a frightened, 19-year-old in 1984. A year later, he owned the place, proudly driving his blue 'Vette -- with "Doc" stenciled on the windshield -- to camp. Parked next to it one day were the wheels of Doug Sisk with a wonderful bumper sticker affixed. It read "This is not an abandoned car."
Hernandez's locker was close to the manager's office, twice identified as "Gil's office" by Seaver when he returned to the Mets in 1983. Gil Hodges was 11 years gone by then, but Seaver sensed a presence.
George Bamberger was the manager in the springs of 1982 and '83. He used his office as a stage; he loved to tell stories. After making the first cuts of the Mets camp in '82, he told one of his favorites that had occurred years earlier when he was managing the Brewers. A young pitcher from Latin America didn't respond well when, in late March, he was assigned to the Minor Leagues.
"I told him 'Son, you've got great stuff. You're going to help us win. You just need some more time to polish what you have,'" Bamberger said. "Then the kid reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a knife. 'You cut me, I cut you.'
Hondo was Frank Howard, 6-foot-8, 315 pounds of body guard wrapped in niceness. A remarkable man. He could have been a story every day. He hit Fungo fly balls with such stunning might that he had to move against the backstop or lose eight of every 10 fly balls he hit.
Howard occasionally stayed behind when the team played road games to work the outfielders. After a half-hour of foul-line-to-foul-line Fungo chasing on a March day in 1982, Joel Youngblood objected to what he considered borderline abuse. He removed his glove and cap, placed them on the outfield lawn and headed for the clubhouse. He'd had enough. Then he heard from Howard: "Young man, you might want to think twice about leaving. We're not done yet."
Forty minutes later, Youngblood trudged off the field, spent. Hondo congratulated him and said "See you tomorrow."
Other threats existed. In 1981, Dave Kingman, Doug Flynn and Youngblood occasionally brought dogs to camp. Flynn had a happy sheepdog named Woody that everyone enjoyed. Youngblood had a German Shepherd that wasn't so popular. And Kingman, appropriately, had a menacing Doberman.
Showered players didn't wrap themselves in towels in those days. They walked immodestly to their lockers. But never when Kingman's pet was in the clubhouse.