LAKELAND, Fla. — I walk slowly through the Tiger clubhouse, waving hello, then scratching my head. I have seen these players before. And I have not seem them before. I mean, they look familiar. Sort of. That is what I mean. I think.
“Kirk?” I say, to the player whose uniform back reads GIBSON. “Kirk Gibson? But I thought–“
“Sorry?” says Paul Gibson, turning around.
“Sorry,” I say.
Every spring it is like this. There are Tigers who are instantly familiar and Tigers who are vaguely familiar and Tigers who are not familiar at all. When we last left them, in October, I knew every one. Now I think I know one, I look again — and he is some rookie from Pensakoonie, R.I. It is like going to work one week and finding all the furniture moved around.
“Dan? . . .” I say to the back of a tall, sandy-haired player. “Dan Petry! How you doing?”
“Beg your pardon?” says David Cooper.
David Cooper? Who is that? John Wetteland? Pedro Chavez? They are wearing Tiger uniforms. They look like Tiger players. Today is their first exhibition game. I have my scorecard and my pencil.
I am so confused.
“Doesn’t this ever get a little disorienting?” I ask Darrell Evans, who has
been through 21 spring trainings, 21 years of reporting to work and finding strangers wearing the same uniforms. “Don’t you ever find yourself saying,
‘Who’s that guy who’s next to me in the infield?”
“Yeah, for the first couple weeks, I keep sneaking a look at the back of their uniforms,” Evans admits. “Sometime you find you’re introducing yourself to the same guy three times.” Confused? Use the buddy system
How many players have come through this clubhouse? How many fresh young faces wearing the gray and orange uniform and the cap with the Olde English
“D.” Every fall you end with one group and every spring you begin with another. Players get traded. Player retire. Rookies are invited to camp. So we ended in October with Bill Madlock and John Grubb. We begin in March with Balvino Galvez.
“Personally, I can’t really tell the new guys until we start playing the games,” says Dave Bergman, who is in his 15th spring training. “It’s a lot easier for me to recognize a guy’s delivery or the way he throws than his face. Take Frank Tanana. You watch the way he walks and you know he’s a left-hander. That helps you remember.”
There are tricks like that. There is the trick where you look above the guy’s locker for his name, and one where you call everybody “big fella.” Like:
“Hey there, big fella . . . How’s it goin’ big fella?”
There are tricks.
“Mark Fidrych had it down pat,” laughs Jack Morris, who is on his 13th spring training, all with the Tigers. “Fidrych had no idea who anybody was. He just called everybody ‘Buddy.’ “
Why not? It is survival. We are back in the high school, freshman year. We are in the army barracks, first week of boot camp. Who’s that guy? And that guy over there? Hey buddy. How’s it goin’, buddy. “How many different guys have sat next to you in spring training?” I ask Alan Trammell.
“I’ve been luck,” he says. “Lou (Whitaker) is always on this side. And over here it’s Mike Laga.”
He glances over.
“Until this year,” he says.
This year it’s Billy Bean.
Every spring. Same thing. Baseball camps begin with 40 men, maybe 50, and whittle them down. New says hello to old. And everybody grabs a glove.
“That’s where Mark Thurmond sits, over there, isn’t it?” I say to a colleague. “I think I’ll go over and say hi to Mark. He’s always been a nice g–.”
“Ray,” says my colleague.
“Ray Knight. Traded for Thurmond. Ray sits there now. Say hello to Ray.” Out with the old, in with the new
I am the freshman again, with his trusty student guide, leafing through the pages, studying faces.I know the Trammells and the Whitakers, and Morris, Evans, Lemon, Herndon. Petry? Gone. Madlock? Gone. Pettis? In. Knight? In. Gibson old, replaced by Gibson, new. Holman? Shawn Holman? That is a new one. Where did he come from?
“How do you keep track?” I ask Morris.
“It’s part of the game,” he says, shrugging. “If you stick around baseball, you’ll see new faces every year. Sometimes every month. You get used to it.”
I am still getting used to it. When the first box score appears in the newspaper Saturday, people all over Detroit will say: “Who’s this guy, the 10th batter in the seventh inning? And the fourth pitcher? Who’s he?” They will be getting used to it, too.
Eventually, I will get it straight. I will associate the name with the face and the face with the body. Until then I have my options. I can go with “big fella.” Or “buddy.” I probably will keep sneaking the name off the back of the uniform.
What a pain.
“Could be worse,” says Evans, grinning, “Be glad we’re not the Red Sox.”
“Why’s that?” I ask
“They only wear numbers,” he says.