Knowing Your Limits: A Spring Training (not exactly) sponsored by Heineken, Kenny Rogers, Juan Gonzalez, and Heckling

In the Spring of 2002, normal life needed to take a break. Fresh off a dissolved engagement and not ready to commit myself to the drudgery that would be office work for the next five decades, there was a need for some time to explore. Why someone would explore Florida is still a foreign concept regardless of the individual but there I found myself in the middle of western Florida. Right around the corner from the house I was currently occupying was Port Charlotte, Florida, a decidedly middle class family section of the Left Coast. Luckily, the Texas Rangers called Port Charlotte their spring home and so there was baseball pretty much every day.

For those of you who have never made the trek to Spring Training, it’s something akin to Spring Break if the break occurred for your typical 70 year old with a few college kids sprinkled in. As someone who enjoys a beer every so often, this was paradise. Drinking with seniors is a personal favorite- they are fun, drunk, and like to go to sleep just after the sun has set. My people.

We had made it to a quintet of revelers for the game that day. The game started at high noon and we wanted to get a few beers in us prior to entering the stadium. The parking lot was just a big grassy area with folks hawking knock-off MLB hats and throwing the ball around everywhere you went. Collectively, there were probably about 2,000 of us mingling around, doing various baseball related activities. We parked and got the gloves, the baseballs, and a grip of Heineken out of the trunk. We settled in and started throwing the ball around with ourselves and any random stranger that would appear with a glove- pop ups were called, long flies were chased, nary a car was injured. About fifteen minutes before first pitch, we walked in, Heinekens and gloves in hand.

Now, typically, we’d find a seat up in the middle of the lower section, nothing too fancy in this lower tier college looking park. On this particular day, due to my youngest brother being in tow, we decided to get on the rail. It was a great idea in practice, not in execution. The reason the execution was so poor? One Kenny Rogers was on the hill for a second tour of duty with the Texas Rangers. This particular incarnation of the Rangers also had Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett on the spring roster. Those two would play a larger role in the afternoon than I knew initially.

As we approached the gate, a few people remarked that we weren’t getting in with our open beers. We scoffed. The nice lady taking tickets, firmly in her 70s or 80s, literally gave zero fucks. We waltzed in, half drunk already, and began the search for our seats. On this particular day, we found a front row of seats on the third base line between the bag and the bullpen. They were great seats. They were also in the area where foul balls come screaming at your head. We finished our Heinekens and luckily the ballpark was serving Heineken tall cans for a ridiculously cheap price. We were, in the parlance of today, winning.

charl14950Our section was, for lack of a better term, cute. We had a smattering of older folks and families. The families were funny though- not stuffy types. The old folks were funnier- most just as happy to drink beer, sit in the sun, and enjoy practice baseball as we were. We all started talking amongst each other, sharing stories of where we were from and what we were doing committing a month of our lives to fake baseball and not real life. Within moments, we had become this strange Voltron unit of idiocy. Even the old ladies were talking trash. This had gone from a lovely day in the sun to one of the greatest days one could imagine.

One of the things about Spring Training that many don’t realize is that you are beholden to the team that is physically near you. Port St Lucie was a four hour drive across the state from where I was staying. I made three Mets games that Spring Training. I made about 15 Rangers games just because it was around the block from where I was staying. There are a lot of folks in the same boat as I was. One of the ushers that I became friends with was a huge Mets fan. He worked as an usher every spring just to go to Florida and watch baseball everyday instead of trudging through the malaise of a New York February and March. So, as we got comfortable with each other, we all discussed our teams and their recent and future prospects. There was a lot of sarcasm- if you’ve never drank with folks in their twilight years, they are a hilariously sarcastic bunch. By the first inning, an outside observer would have noted that we sounded like a group of 50 people who had all snorted Moonshine for the previous 36 hours.

With the underside of our seats pretty full of dead Heineken tall cans, it came out. I couldn’t help it. I had been holding it in for the entire first inning not wanting to really offend my new compatriots. Still, it was burning me inside. I couldn’t help it. It was 2002 and the remembrance of Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run against the Braves a couple of postseasons previous still burned my collective psyche. In fact, burned would be an understatement- my hate for The Roaster at that point was akin to boiling lava. I expressed this disdain to my section mates. They chuckled. Little did they know what would happen next.

At a point during a daytime Heineken drinking session, one gets a little stupid. It happens. My idiocy was nice enough to show itself in the early innings. After escorting one of the kids over to the bullpen to get a few autographs, I sat back down and The Roaster was now squarely in my sights. He was the Bond villain I would vanquish with my words. No need for guns, blow darts, whatever. Sticks and stones may break bones but I was bound and determined to break Kenny Rogers with my seething commentary. It began. kr

Starting with “Roaster” chants, the crowd was behind me. The quintet was also going to be my backup singers. I’d yell something, take a long swig of my Heineken and continue. The section mates were 100% fully behind this. They were egging me on and laughing as I dissected most everything Rogers related at a very loud decibel. As some will obviously know, it’s very quiet at a Spring Training game- people are mostly enjoying the sun and don’t care what’s happening on the field. And through the quiet, I was the voice of every Mets fan who had lived through his costing us a trip to the World Series. I kept on.

If Kenny Rogers threw a strike that day, I gave him a standing ovation. If Kenny Rogers threw a ball, I’d remind him of the Braves. I was, simply put, being an asshole. An asshole with a point but still… an asshole. I loudly discussed his upbringing (cattle was the main theme), his inability to do his job (not untrue), his relative lack of IQ (absolutely no clue where that came from), and his inability to find Shea Stadium (again, clueless). This diatribe lasted an entire half inning. Besides the hilarity from our section, others were now paying attention and were just as amused as my section mates. It was a good heckling time had by all. Except I was about to learn a lesson that I’ll never forget.

When the half inning of mockery was over, one of the elder ladies made a comment to me that I might want to watch out for baseballs when the Rangers came to the plate. I apologized to her, thinking that something my Heineken filled brain had said that was out of line. She responded that not only was I correct but she thought I was hilarious. I took this as the first base coach had given me the green light to steal all the bases- if there was a fifth base, I was going to steal that one too. I chuckled at her warning. Luckily for her, she was much smarter than I.

jgThe next half inning, one Juan Gonzalez, crusher of baseballs was coming to the plate. I hadn’t given it one thought, honestly. Why in the fuck would Juan Gone have heard my diatribe the half inning previous? It was Spring Training and I figured the players paid about as much attention to a spring game as the rest of us which bordered between none at all and nap time. I was the opposite of correct. The first pitch thrown to Juan was a slow heater on the inside of the plate that he absolutely crushed. In fact, I’m certain to this day that he actually swung out of his cleats. The ball whizzed straight at me and hit the fencing right in front of me. A coincidence? At first, that was my thought. No way he could try to hit me with a batted ball from a pitcher of MLB caliber. I was wrong. Dead fucking wrong.

The older lady that I referenced above laughed. She flatly stated that I better get that glove up because Juan was obviously trying to shut me up. We all had a laugh, no one believing that this was actually a thing. It was a thing. The next pitch was a carbon copy of the first and Juan drilled a ball directly at my head. I jumped up and snagged it but without knowing that he might be hitting at me, I would’ve been precariously close to having a baseball occupy my right eye socket. At that point, the section started laughing hilariously. I did as well. It seemed as though Juan felt he made his point also as he quit stinging line drives in my direction. We got another round of beers and when Kenny came back out for his third inning of work, I shut up

Would you think that that’s where it would all end? For the most part, yes it was. But as the Heinekens continued to flow on the beautiful, clear Florida spring day, we had one more objective. After the game concluded, some of the players came out to sign autographs. Again, I couldn’t help myself. It was too easy. He was standing right there. I yelled right at him. “Dinosaurs were real, Carl Everett!”


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