Road Trippin’

Every year since I retired in 2012, I have taken a road trip to Phoenix, AZ to watch spring training baseball, specifically to watch my San Diego Padres play meaningless exhibition games while sitting out in the desert sun.  I wrote about the experience of those games in a piece called The Hope That Only Comes in Spring. But, part of the fun every year is getting there–road trippin’.

Departure–8:30 AM

300 miles–no problem; I got this.  Car is loaded up with enough stuff for four people, 4 snacks, and two water bottles.  It takes me an extra 10 minutes to do all of the paranoid house checks I do–lock windows, check the doors, make sure the water is turned off.  Hit the road.

Buckman Springs Rest Stop–9:05 AM

First available rest stop.  Necessary because sometimes my bladder is the size of a teacup.  Hoping this gets me through to Yuma.  Ironically, I pack plenty of water and then force myself into a state of dehydration so I don’t have to stop to go pee.

Soundtrack

John Lennon (Imagine) and then Jackson Browne (Running on Empty) get me through to Yuma.  Imagine is OK because I haven’t heard it in a while, but Running on Empty is one of my standard traveling discs, just full of great road songs.  I let it run all the way to Yuma.

Yuma–11:00 AM

Making good time when I stop at the Arco on 16th St. and discover that gas is 78 cents cheaper here than in San Diego.  78 cents a gallon cheaper.  Of course, you have to live in Yuma to enjoy those prices. I find that I’ve gone through all my snacks already.  Do you know that there is virtually nothing edible at gas station mini-marts if you care at all about your health?  I mean, I have plenty of bad habits, but I can’t eat any of that crap.  The bathrooms are nice though.

On the road again–11:15/Soundtrack

I’m halfway there, but there is road construction everywhere slowing things down from Yuma to Gila Bend.  I pull out Michael Franti and Spearhead’s Yell Fire CD which seems much more relevant now than it did a few years ago.  I haven’t listened to him for a long time, and I just let it run all the way to Gila.

Gila Bend–1:00 PM

Time for lunch at my all time favorite greasy spoon, The Space Age Restaurant.  It is part of a motel there and has a mock-up of a space ship sitting on top of the restaurant.  It has been there for over 50 years, and I can remember stopping there when I was a kid and we were on a family vacation to Oklahoma City (relatives) and to see the Carlsbad Caverns.  I stop here every year for lunch on the way in and breakfast on the way home.  Gila Bend–population 1,917 souls.

On the road again–2:00 PM/Soundtrack

Neil Young.  Neil Young the rest of the way.  The more desolate the desert, the better his reedy voice sounds.  I play Only Love Can Break Your Heart over and over and over again.

Phoenix–3:00 PM

The upgrade to a Cabana suite that they tempted me with in an email I got yesterday (depending on availability) is not available.  Fuck!  I was imagining having my own sitting room with a fold-out couch and separate bedroom with a king bed AND promised access to the Sun Deck, and I don’t even know what the Sun Deck is, but I decided that for only $20 more a night, I wanted it.  Forget that I didn’t actually need any of those amenities.  They had dangled a sparkly thing in front of me, and I wanted it.

I get into my standard room, which now seems shabby to me, and discover that the cabinet that houses the fridge is minus one fridge.  I am told that the fridges are for customers “as available.”  I point out to the young lady that my reservation says that I get a fridge, and if I’m not getting the goddam Sun Deck, then I’d better be getting my own goddam fridge.  I don’t actually say any of that out loud.  She says she’ll work on it, and I get my fridge within 30 minutes.

Nap–3:30-5:30

One of the top ten best naps ever.  Just time enough to get showered and ready for the game.

Game–7:10-10:00  Peoria Sports Complex

It’s a balmy evening–shorts and t-shirt weather. I allow myself not just one, but two hot dogs during the course of the game.  Padres give up 2 in the first and then tie it in the eighth on a home run, win it in the 9th on another homer leading off the inning. I discover that despite the hotdogs, the victory has made me ravenous, so I stop at the Safeway on the way back to my hotel and buy a salad, some yogurt, and a fruit bowl which I eat when I get back.

Hotel–11:00 PM-2:00 AM

I’m out on the warm deserted patio writing because at the time I was involved in a 30 day writing challenge and I had to get my piece written for that day.  While on-line, I discover that there are other writers still up and active and we begin chatting through comments and FB Messenger. Since I never quite know how to go to bed on my first night of travel by myself, I linger on the patio long after I should. It’s a pleasant and unexpected way to spend the night.

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“He Swings, and Hits a Loooong Drive to DEEP Centerfield…”

 

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…where I loped after it as I watched it sail over my head, chased it down, and ran it in toward the infield until I felt I could make a respectable looking throw into the pitcher.

It’s a warm night in Kalama Park in the town of Kehei on the island of Maui and thanks to my brother-in-law’s invitation, I’m chasing fly balls around the outfield as the guys on his team take their weekly batting practice.  It is the first organized baseball activity I’ve done in maybe 25 years and the first time I’ve put on a glove since 2009. I know that because on a spring night in 2009 I, along with the other four San Diego County Teachers of the Year, got to throw out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game.  From the mound, I threw a perfect, 47 MPH fastball for a strike, and the entire experience was much, much cooler than I could have ever imagined.

Tonight though, I have very modest goals.  I would like to avoid injuring myself, and I’d really like to catch at least one fly ball hit to me. And while this is the most casual of practices, in the most casual of settings, it only takes moments before my imagination kicks in, and I’m getting into a “ready position” and imagining that I’m the new centerfielder for my San Diego Padres.

As I adjust my cap to shield my eyes from the lights, and as balls start flying toward the outfield, I can hear the Padre radio announcer begin to narrate my every play.

Ground ball right up the middle.  Rookie centerfielder, Tom Waldron, is on it quickly and flips it in toward second base holding the runner to a single.

I discover the ground balls are pretty much a cinch except for the fact that my arm isn’t warmed up properly and my shoulder gets cranky on me almost from the first throw. That’s OK.  Have to play through the pain.

There’s a drive into right centerfield.  It looked like Waldron had a shot, but he didn’t get a good jump on it, and it’s past him.  This one will roll all the way to the fence.

In fact, any ball hit past one of us rolls all the way to the fence since it is a fairly small field, but I’m definitely having trouble tracking balls as they come off the bat, trying to judge just how hard they are hit.  This is tougher than it looks.

My brother-in-law steps in and waves me over into right field so he can practice hitting to the opposite field.  This puts a wicked slice on the ball and makes them even harder to judge.  Plus, he’s the teams best hitter and sprays the ball around everywhere.

Urban hits a rocket into right.  Waldron is giving chase, but the ball is curving away from him, and he will not get there.  Another double for Tom Urban.

I try standing on the line and letting the ball curve toward me, but nothing works.  I’m either too deep or too shallow or just too darn slow.  I’m getting a little winded chasing after his line drives and I’m starting to not like him very much.  However, I’m happy that I’m running fairly well and haven’t pulled or sprained anything yet.

I can tell practice is beginning to wind down and starting to despair that I will have spent an one and one-half hours chasing down balls without a single catch. And then suddenly there it is.   One of the players lofts a ball into short center, and I drift over and feel the ball settle into my glove as if I do this kind of thing all the time.

It’s a pop fly to center field.  This should do it.  Waldron trots over and….he’s got it.  Routine play, for out number three.

I’m actually delighted beyond words.  I have to pretend that it’s no big deal, because it isn’t, but it just felt so darn good–outdoors, on a beautiful night, playin’ ball.

The Hope That Only Comes In Spring

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On March 21 I’ll pack up the car and make the 5½ hour drive from my home in the San Diego area to Phoenix, AZ where I will spend the next three days jetting around this sprawling metropolis to watch entirely meaningless baseball games.

I will follow my San Diego Padres around to Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Goodyear or wherever they might be playing on a given day and find a place in the shade to sit and watch. Like a baseball scout, I’m curious about the team they have put together, and the only way to evaluate is to be there and watch maybe twenty players and 5 or 6 pitchers rotate through the game as I play along with the coaches and trying to figure out which players will bust out as stars and which players will simply be busts.

I will probably even go three hours early to one of the games to do nothing other than stand with other fans and watch both the major and minor leaguers go through drills and batting practice. It is boring and repetitive stuff, but you get to be so close to the players, watch them trip up, listen them razz each other.

And then as the players rotate to different fields, they will stand near a fence or cordoned-off area and the gracious ones will sign autographs, chat with fans, and allow them to take pictures. Others will load their hands up with gear and trot quickly on to the next field ignoring the fans or promising to sign, “as soon as I get done.” They never do.

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I watched former Padre stars Huston Street and Jake Peavy go out of their way to sign every item thrust at them and lean in for every selfie requested. I watched former skipper Bruce Bochy sign a ball for my daughter and kid around with her about a question she asked him about an impending trade.

I caught the great Tony Gwynn a couple of times back when the Padres trained in Yuma, once as he took the long way around the fields trying to sneak in the clubhouse away from the throngs of fans who adored him. I spent two or three wonderful minutes chatting with Jerry Coleman, the voice of the Padres for so many years, asking him about his days with the Yankees before he got dragged away by someone more important. I stood in line to get an autograph from the forgettable pitcher Eric Show, passing on a chance to ink a promising young second baseman, Roberto Alomar. After all, he was just a minor leaguer—a minor leaguer who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame.

Two years ago I contacted Corey Brock who covers the Padres for the MLB.com. He writes articles almost daily as the season begins and is a frequent contributor on sports talk radio and does TV interviews as a “Padre insider.” I emailed him about my interest in sports writing, we exchanged phone numbers, and eventually arranged a time where he came out of the Padre offices and sat with me for about ½ hour just talking baseball and the business of sports writing before he got called away to cover a press conference.

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There is an intimacy in spring training that you just don’t get anywhere else. The ballparks are small, and players will frequently sign autographs and hang out with fans before and after the games. While I don’t certainly don’t venerate any of these guys, I get a kick out of watching them up close before they get to the real season, playing real games in their cavernous stadiums. That being said, I will undoubtedly become a drooling, idiot fan if I stumble upon Trevor Hoffman this spring and happen to have a fresh baseball and Sharpie in my hand.

If you hate baseball, you probably did not read past the first line of this one. If you are not a San Diego fan, almost none of the names I mentioned will mean anything. It’s OK, I get it. But for three glorious days, I will be toasting in the warm Arizona sun, drinking beer, and rooting for Tyson Ross to find his rhythm, and for Andrew Cashner to get his head screwed on straight. I’ll be cheering if there is any sign that Matt Kemp might find his swing before July this year, and that Wil Myers will get through the season without having his wrist fall apart.

Any baseball fan knows that spring training is the season of hope—the hope that this is the year when the gods of baseball will choose to smile on their team.

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Life After Work

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First official morning of retirement

Make no mistake about it. When the time came, I was ready to retire. On my final day, as retirees were asked to address the staff at a little farewell party, I got up to face my colleagues for the last time, some of whom I had worked with for all 36 years of my career, all at the same school. I was surprised to see all the emotion and the tears, maybe just as someone who prefers to keep emotions locked up as tightly as possible because I find emotions to be unpredictable and unruly things.

But in this case, I was feeling nothing but joy. I had had a great time as a teacher. I loved the work and I loved my kids. I had a shelf full enough of recognitions that I knew that students, parents, and my colleagues had noticed and appreciated my contributions. But I had been in school continuously for 54 years without a break! I had gone straight from high school, to college, and then into my career. I was anxious to live an unscheduled life for the first time since before kindergarten.

There had been signs that it was time to go. At some point students would see me coming and stop to open the door for me, as if maybe I was wearing a handicapped placard around my neck. Increasing numbers of kids began referring to me as “sir” instead of “Hey Waldron!” It even began to affect new staff members who could not break the habit of calling me “Mr. Waldron” instead of by my first name as any colleague normally would.

And I was tired. I was weary at the end of every day and often retreated home and napped for what was left of the afternoon. I was like a veteran pitcher who could still gut his way through every outing, relying on guile and experience, knowing that the fastball was gone, that the slider wasn’t sliding, and the curveball just wasn’t breaking the way it used to anymore.

So, even after nearly three years, I’m still flummoxed by people asking me if I’m enjoying retirement or if I miss teaching. The answer to the latter is a firm “no!” As much as I loved my kids and the experience of the classroom, teaching is a brain and soul-sucking experience that can be all consuming. My stock answer about the former is to say, “Yes, I’ve discovered that not working is much better than working.”

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I now have a vegetable garden going year round and have qualified as a master composter (I don’t actually brag about that much). I have taken yoga, guitar, and hiking classes. I have been able visit my sister in Maui four times, and jet to Chicago twice primarily to sit at the baseball shrine that is Wrigley Field and watch the Cubs play. I have flown to Lake Tahoe for one night to see the Dave Matthews Band perform. I drove one thousand miles to visit two friends I hadn’t seen in years and learned the finer points of fly casting on a Colorado lake.  I finally took time to visit Washington, DC. I traveled to Oakland for one concert and to Phoenix for another. I spend a week in Phoenix every spring driving all over town daily to watch my Padres play their spring training games. I walk. I write.

I guess I’m just lucky that the transition has been relatively easy for me. Any time I feel like it’s been a slow day, that I’m feeling a little bored, I just remember the stacks of ungraded papers that used to fill every waking moment of my day from September to June.

I feel sorry for people who are still working and when I ask about their own retirement, they shrug and say, “I just don’t know what I would do.”

Believe me. There is life after work.