Relationships, then and now, make baseball special
He knew I covered baseball for Newsday. He knew I was based in the New York market. He knew I covered baseball labor and the Mets, more than the Yankees. He, like George Steinbrenner, kidded me about being a "National League guy." I know he knew my name. He used my first name whenever he returned any one of the dozens of calls I made to his office over the years. But when Lee MacPhail and I crossed paths in Spring Training, at collective bargaining sessions, at the World Series or at the Bronx County Court House (Pine Tar-related business), he often referred to me as Tracy.
I still don't know whether MacPhail referred to Tracy Ringolsby, the cowboy baseball writer from Denver, as Marty as part of this mistaken identity scenario. It didn't matter then. It certainly doesn't matter now that the game has been diminished by the passing of the great Lee MacPhail.
It may seem odd that the most overused adjective in the game, great, precedes his name in the previous paragraph. In this game, we tend to describe players, managers, at-bats, plays, pitches, the occasional coach and, of course, Vin Scully, as great. But seldom are executives characterized with that word. Great applies in this case though. Lee MacPhail was a baseball great, right there with Ozzie and Ott; Rapid Robert and Rickey; Maddux, The Man and Mickey; the Babe and The Train, Whitey and Willie and Mr. Cub and Mr. Theodore Ballgame.
MacPhail was so honorable and wise, dignified and distinguished, pragmatic and patient. Others in his presence felt a sense of dignity with themselves. His integrity was as evident as DiMaggio's majesty, Gibby's intensity and Mookie's speed. Lee MacPhail was "fair and balanced" long before any network took that phrase as its own.
Marvin Miller is a baseball great, too. After some consideration, I apply that term to only a handful of other baseball executives -- John Schuerholz and Pat Gillick for sure. Dave Dombrowski is getting dangerously close. Larry Shenk, the Phillies' media relations man-emeritus has been genuinely great in his somewhat auxiliary role.
I'm delighted I came to know Lee MacPhail, pleased that I was judged worthy of return phone calls from a busy and important man, pleased that he readily shared his wisdom, proud that he twice sought my perspective on baseball matters. And if he at times confused me with Tracy Ringolsby, The Cat in the Hat, so be it. But I've never ridden a horse, used a lariat or broken a bronco.
. . .and a career detoured
Spring Training usually is an enjoyable experience for a baseball writer, a beat writer. And it's not the weather that makes the experience comfortable. To the contrary, Florida is too hot by the middle of March, too humid almost every day. It's the casual nature of the camps that appeals to me. Training camps from Port St. Lucie to Scottsdale and back to Tampa are far more regimented than they were when I began going South in 1977. But an at-ease sense still exists to a degree when the games have no bearing, air travel is unnecessary and most deadlines come hours after the news-gathering.
In the '70s, I could find a seat in the bullpen and kibitz with relievers, backup catchers, coaches and anyone else who happened by during exhibition games. Reporters had access to clubhouses during games and we might sit on the incline beyond the outfield at Dodgertown and pick at the brains of phenoms, veterans, retirees, rookies, Hall of Famers, general managers, irregulars, shortstops and pinch-hitters.
I learned in 1979 that George Hendrick was a pretty good guy once we got past his media embargo -- no pads or pens. I got to know Thurman Munson fairly well in February, 1977. He offered me a ride to my hotel -- it was well out of his way -- when he realized I hadn't rented a car. I was a rookie and knew no better. I dined in Florida with Stearns and Staub, Davey, Doc and Dallas. And with Mickey and Whitey. How could I not enjoy Spring Training?
One of my favorite camps came in 2010 in Port St. Lucie. Too humid for sure, but the Mets had assembled a roster of genuine good guys -- R.A. Dickey, Alex Cora, Jeff Francoeur, Rod Barajas, David Wright, Johan Santana, John Maine, Frank Catalanotto, Mike Pelfrey, Carlos Beltran, Dillon Gee, Gary Matthews Jr., Nick Evans, Ike Davis, Bobby Parnell, Chris Carter and Jason Bay. It was an extraordinary group that meshed so quickly partially because of the influence of Francoeur and Bay.
The two served as outfielders, but also as social catalysts and directors. They brought their colleagues together after workouts and for dinner or bowling or college basketball viewing. They made the atmosphere of the camp quite friendly for all. The wall that always stands between players and media was far less conspicuous that spring. Hours spent in the clubhouse of a team that "gets it" constitutes time well spent.
I recall the too brief Mets tenures of Bay, Francoeur, Barajas, Cora and Carter through the prism of that camp. Bay had more Mets days than the others, and most of them constituted time not well spent for him. His bat was rendered silent by who knows what. The dimensions of the ballpark unquestionably spooked him when the equivalents of PNC and Fenway home runs repeatedly became outs in Citi Field. The awareness of how the team needed run production helped to unnerve him. And what was left of the former Pirates and Red Sox slugger was undermined by injury.
Moreover, the foolish booing and called-in insistence on his departure dragged him down even more. Money matters far less when abuse becomes rampant and constant.
Bay did what he could. He played the game with whatever zeal wasn't eroded by his circumstances. He was a better-than-advertised defender who repeatedly put his body at risk. We don't know the impact of the concussions he suffered.
Reporters don't root. Results don't matter to the people who cover the team. We root for write-able games, access to and cooperation in the clubhouse and, on the West Coast, quick games. But we do form relationships with the people we cover. I enjoyed covering Jason Bay, and I wish him well.