Dan Shaughnessy

Around this time of year, great stories spring to mind

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 22, 2009
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FLORIDA - The other sports don't have anything like it.

Football? Sure, you can drive down Route 1, sit in the sweltering sun, and watch two-a-days in July at Gillette.

If you're a hockey krishna, you've probably made the trip to Wilmington to view the early skates at rusty Ristuccia. And plenty of us remember Celtics rookies running up and down the court at Marshfield High School back in the day. I'm pretty sure Ming Dynasty on Route 139 opened just to accommodate Red Auerbach.

But baseball is the clear winner when it comes to preseason ambiance and expectation.

School vacation ends today. How many of you went to Florida to watch the Red Sox? How many of you wish you went? How many watched live workouts on NESN?

This is my 30th spring training. It never gets old. All the clichés are true. Pitchers and catchers. The crack of the bat. The smell of the grass and suntan oil.

Spring training is where Roger Angell saw the longest home run of his life - a majestic blast off the bat of Dave Kingman in Fort Lauderdale in 1975. Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter threw the pitch. Kingman's blast sailed over a light tower ("three palm trees high" wrote Angell) and bounded onto a practice field beyond the left-field wall. Yankees manager Bill Virdon decided it was a six-bagger - a home run at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and a double on the adjacent diamond.

Spring training is where I saw a Montreal left fielder crash into a fence in Winter Haven chasing a fly ball. Back in 1976. The kid was out cold for a spell. Fans applauded when he finally got to his feet. He wound up spending most of his career behind the plate. Gary Carter. Hall of Famer.

It's where Bill Lee told baseball writers of the Sox' acquisition of Dennis Eckersley in a six-player blockbuster in 1978, screaming, "Send lawyers, guns, and money, the [expletive] has hit the fan!" Eck wound up in Cooperstown.

Spring training is where Eddie Murray caught live batting practice at Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami in 1978. Murray had been the American League Rookie of the Year in 1977 as a designated hitter, but Earl Weaver's goal was to have 40-home run potential at every position. So Earl ordered Murray to go behind the plate in spring training. Eddie hated it. He wound up at first base. And in the Hall of Fame.

Spring training is where a 5-foot-8-inch Orioles catcher named Dave Criscione caught three foul pops in a single inning against the Braves in West Palm Beach in 1978. Anybody ever see that, at any level? Criscione played only seven big league games. Not a Hall of Famer.

Spring training is where Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski played a steel-cage tennis match at the Winter Haven Ramada Inn in 1979.

Spring training is where an Orioles rookie named Cal Ripken Jr. practiced baserunning drills on a small (infield only) diamond in Miami in 1981. The workout involved Weaver's favorite play - a steal of home with runners on first and third with two out, and two strikes on the batter. Against a lefthanded pitcher. The play called for the runner on first to break for second, or fall down, whatever it took to get the attention of the hurler. At that moment, the runner on third would break for home. In 1982, Ripken put the play to use, stealing home against Jon Matlack for his first stolen base in the big leagues.

Spring training is where I saw the longest home run of my life. Bo Jackson vs. Oil Can Boyd. In Davenport, Fla., in 1989, near the intersections of I-4 and US 27. Boyd and Jackson talked about it before the game. Can promised to challenge Bo. Jackson responded with a blast that sailed over a 71-foot-high scoreboard in left-center and landed in a cow pasture some 515 feet from home plate.

Spring training is where Twins owner Calvin Griffith stood on the balcony of his Orlando condo and stared blankly into a sky filled with wreckage from the Challenger spacecraft in 1986. It's where Lou Gorman said, "The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I'll have lunch," after Roger Clemens stormed out of camp in Winter Haven in 1987. It's where the local newspaper published the titles of overdue videos (all pornos) rented by Boyd. The Maniacal Chuck Waseleski dubbed it "the Can's Film Festival."

Spring training is where Michael Dukakis took batting practice off Bill Fischer in Winter Haven in 1988 and where Bill Clinton spoke with Wade Boggs outside the visitor's dugout in Kissimmee in 1992.

It's where Boggs announced, "I'm the white Irving Fryar," after tumbling out of the family jeep when his wife wheeled out of Christy's Restaurant in Winter Haven in 1992.

It's where the Red Sox and Tigers battled for the coveted Polk County Championship when the Sox played in Winter Haven. Today the Sox and Twins joust for the Mayor's Cup in Fort Myers.

Spring training is where Brian Daubach hit a walkoff homer to make the team for the first time in 1999. It's where 30-year-old Theo Epstein rented a house in Cape Coral with eight assistants in 2004 (they called the place "Phi Sign-a-Playa").

Spring training is where Julian Tavarez punched Joey Gathright at home plate in 2006. It's where Boston College punter/center fielder Johnny Ayers laced a double to left field on Daisuke Matsuzaka's first pitch in a Red Sox uniform in 2007. It's where Stephen King has a season ticket behind home plate. It's where Johnny Pesky sets up a folding chair by the third base dugout and signs autographs.

Spring training. It prompted Dave Bush of the San Francisco Chronicle to quip, "It's a pity they have to ruin the baseball season by playing it."

The games start Wednesday.

Can't wait for the first sight of pitchers running on the warning track while a game is in progress.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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