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By Gordy Jones
The regular season is here, and I’ve been shivering at Target Field. That made me think of the perfect weather I experienced during Spring Training. Every day it was 87, sunny, with a light breeze and low humidity. That triggered a whole series of memories from March – some good and some a little sad. Many things weren’t the same this year.
John Gordon wasn’t there. I loved watching him work as he interviewed players, gathering information to use during his broadcasts. I could tell he loved his work; that’s why I was shocked that he didn’t visit this year. Maybe he did and I missed it, or maybe he loved his job so much, visiting would be too tough on him.
My annual road trip to Sarasota was different, too. Sarasota is 90 miles north of Fort Myers, and is the spring home of the Baltimore Orioles. It’s a charming town with some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, and the nicest people south of Minnesota.
It was also the home of Marty Springstead, Major League umpire through three decades, and supervisor of umpires through three more. We would always have dinner and drinks together while I was in Sarasota, but Marty passed away this year shortly before spring training.
About 60 umpires made the trip to Sarasota to attend Marty’s funeral. I couldn’t, but I was there two weeks after the fact. I visited some of Marty’s haunts while I was in town, but they didn’t seem the same.
He was always in the middle and ringleader of a cast of characters. Among them would be Minnesotan and wrestling announcer Mean Gene Okerland, also a retired CIA agent, a 7-foot former NBA player, a former NHL player, a Catholic Monsignor, Marty’s son who is a jumbo jet pilot and his colleagues, and many regular townsfolk – and of course me, when I was lucky enough to be along with them.
When Marty was out-and-about, people loved to listen to his wonderful stories. He was a living baseball history book. He could tell behind-the-scenes – nice, but funny – stories about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Frank Howard, Met Stadium, and anyone or anything involved with baseball during the last 50 years.
He was brilliant; he kept up on all sports and current events, and could easily cry after telling a touching or sad story. Marty was well known and revered in restaurants and bars all over the country. He would quite often slip into a kitchen and tip the kitchen staff for working so hard, because good food enhanced his wonderful times with his friends. He always took extra-good care of waitresses and bartenders, too.
He was loved nearly everywhere he went … except for Baltimore. That was because of an old feud he had with former Orioles manager Earl Weaver – but the restaurant folks in the area still loved him. Many of Marty’s old “hangouts” have erected plaques or hung photos to honor him. He loved Manny’s, and that was his favorite spot in the Twin Cities, his favorite MLB metro area.
His favorite ballplayer of all time, and for that matter favorite human being, was Harmon Killebrew. He would often say: “Harmon is the nicest, classiest guy in the world.” Marty had met presidents, kings and queens, so that was saying a lot. Yep, I really miss Marty.
Speaking of Harmon Killebrew, I miss him, too. I loved watching him smile at spring training as he shared his knowledge of hitting with young players – players whose parents may not have even been born when Harmon was a slugger. But the Killer’s legacy would spread among the young guys, and they would listen with respect, and sometimes in awe, as Harmon would kindly and gently explain the best way to smash a homer.
On the bright side, Tom Kelly, Paul Molitor and Rod Carew were there mentoring rookie and veteran players alike. They are very visible and accessible to players, and sometimes, while on their breaks, accessible to the fans, as well.
TK is quite colorful, dry and to the point. He will scold any player, rookie or veteran, if he is not prepared, or if it will teach him something. He is humorous, blunt and usually hits the nail on the head.
I was lucky enough to sit and watch part of a game with Rod once again. I had that honor last year, too. It is incredible listening to the observations of Rod, Paul and TK, too. They see things fans, writers and announcers don’t even notice.
As I sat with Rod, he told me about the clinics he’ll be doing for the Twins this year. I was honored when he told me he enjoys my book, “Baseball Guy,” and invited me to do a signing at one of his clinics. He even volunteered to sign some books for the kids. Even though it was 87 degrees out, I had chills running down my spine!
Another positive from this spring was Minnesota Day, which seems to grow larger every year. Fans begin assembling on the remote parking lot near the minor league facilities at 8 a.m., and begin tailgating. Many fans post signs of their Minnesota home town.
Most grill and drink everything: beer, mimosas, Bloody Marys, Killebrew Root Beer … and everyone has fun. Mauer Chevrolet now sponsors the event, and the entire Mauer family (excluding Joe) hands out free T-shirts and bottled water. Tony Oliva and other people from the Twins “family” usually stop out and visit with the fans, too.
Overall, it was a pretty great spring. Now, if we can add about 20 degrees to our temperature and win consistently, we can have some fun in the regular season, and create more pleasant memories.