LAKELAND, Fla. — Where have I been?
A) At Adrian Dantley’s house, cleaning up.
B) On vacation.
C) With Salman Rushdie.
If you guessed (A) you would be wrong. If you guessed (C) you would also be wrong, but you get credit for imagination. If you guessed (B) — “On vacation”
— aha! You were reading the newspaper in my absence!
And you would also be wrong.
Let me straighten something out. I was not on vacation. I know that is what it said under this space the last five weeks. I know it, because wherever I went, people said: “Geez. You newspaper guys get awful long vacations. Why don’t you get a real job like the rest of us . . . YOU JERK?
“Hey. Where’s your tan?”
That’s the point. I have no tan. I have no souvenirs. As I said, I was not on vacation. Here is what I did: I sat in a room and wrote a book.
I shouldn’t say I wrote the book alone. It is a book that I am co-authoring with Bo Schembechler. It is the story of Bo’s life, his career at Michigan, and his thoughts on college football today. It will come out in September. Across the nation. It is very interesting. Here is how it was written:
ME: So, Bo, tell me about your childhood.
BO: Geez . . . I can’t remember anything.
ME: OK. Let’s try another subject.
And then Bo went on vacation.
And I went into hibernation. I still work here, don’t I?
Which brings me here. To spring training. My first time out of the room in nearly six weeks. Not that the book is done. I mean, it is almost done. If the publisher, Warner Books, is reading this, then it is really close to done.
Absolutely. I promise. Get those dogs away from my house.
Still, I eventually had to go back to work. I knew the time had come when I called my office and told my boss, “Hey. I appreciate your letting me finish this thing. It’s not every boss who is so understanding and patient. I just called to tell you it means a lot — it really does.”
And he said: “Who is this?”
So it was back to the ballpark. As I drove there Tuesday, I felt a sudden twinge of concern. Since becoming a sports writer, I have never been away from some game, some locker room for more than two weeks. What if I forgot my lines? What if I dropped my notebook clumsily? What if I walked into that clubhouse and the Tigers all said, “Geez, you newspaper guys get awful long vacations. Why don’t you get a real job like the rest of us . . . YOU JERK?”
Not that I had a great record with spring training to begin with. It was last year at this time, you may recall, that Guillermo Hernandez welcomed me to the clubhouse with an ice cold drink. Over my head. Gosh, that was fun. It would be tough to top that.
I parked, walked in, and . . . SPLASH!
No. Just kidding. Had you fooled for a minute, didn’t I? Actually, I walked
in, and things looked pretty much as they always do. Here was Alan Trammell, pulling up his socks, laughing, and Chet Lemon, trying out a new glove, and Dave Bergman, talking about the broken Wispy machine.
It was a familiar place, but something was missing — somebody, some voice. Where was–
“OK, FELLAS. LOOK OUT. HERE I COME.”
And Sparky Anderson came running out of his office — with a golf club and a golf ball. And he stopped in the middle of the room. And he brought the club back over his shoulder.
Now here’s something you don’t see every day.
Back to that other game
“HEY, LOU. WATCH THIS SHOT. RIGHT IN THE GARBAGE CAN.” Several Tigers scrambled for cover.
“SEE? . . . RIGHT OFF THE SIDE OF THE RIM. JUST WHERE I AIMED IT, HUH, LOU?”
Lou nodded, then sneaked outside. Sparky grabbed the ball and set up again.
“HEY, FRANK. WATCH THIS. A CHIPPER.”
Frank dove to the left. The ball slapped into a locker and bounced back across the floor.
“SEE? . . . HEY, TRAM! WATCH THIS. I’M GOING FOR THAT WATER FOUNTAIN.”
Trammell ducked into his locker. Whack! The ball clanged off the fountain.
“YES, SIR,” Sparky sang, holding that club like a new girlfriend,
You can talk about high salaries and big egos, but the great thing about baseball is you can count on it, every spring: The spikes go on, the gloves get oiled, the caps get yanked on the forehead.
And the manager plays the front nine.
In the clubhouse.
I felt at home immediately.
So it is Tigers baseball, once again. In the coming days we will deal with the burning questions: Can the pitching last? How will Keith Moreland fit in the lineup? When will they fix the Wispy machine?
By the way, if you’re curious about the rest of Sparky’s Locker Room Open, it ended when Bill Brown, the Tigers’ travel director, reminded the manager that there was a game to be played against the Pirates in Bradenton, and the bus was running.
“Aw, gee,” Sparky said, with mock despair, “now we gotta go watch baseball.” He dropped the club, gave a wink, and skipped out the door like a kid headed for the big rock candy mountain.
I am back to work.
It beats the heck out of vacation.