“So how was your winter?” McCatty asked now that they were face-to-face. “Anything goin’ on?”
Ramos did a double-take — totally fooled for a blink. Then a nearby teammate cracked up. “I see, I see,” said a laughing Ramos, who had been kidnapped that offseason, held captive in a Venezuelan mountain shack for two days and freed after a gun battle.
I still want to know how Ramos pranked McCatty back.
“Groundhog Day” is a great movie, but what a fraud that Punxsutawney Phil is. He always sees his shadow, so it is always six more weeks of winter. Who does that help?
But “pitchers and catchers report” are magic words. They mean the first game of spring training — the first baseball of the year — is just two weeks away and Opening Day arrives in six weeks. Why, that is almost as good as the countdown to your vaccination appointment. Okay, it’s not nearly that good. But, ex-plague years, it’s a joy.
My favorite reporting days took the renewal and bonding of a normal spring and raised the emotional stakes exponentially.
The best, by far, was in 2005 when the Nationals — who had just moved from Montreal — reported to Viera, Fla., as the first team to represent Washington after 33 years.
T.J. Tucker, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound reliever nicknamed “Shrek,” was in his fifth major league season but was nevertheless so stoked that he somehow found his way into the clubhouse not long after 5 a.m.
When the first of the Nats’ staff, assuming he would be alone for an hour, arrived to prep the clubhouse, Shrek ambled up behind him in the dark and said, “Hi!”
“ARGGHHH!” was the terrified scream in response.
Later, Washington TV crews arrived for getting-to-know-you interviews with the long-awaited D.C. team. New Nats were quizzed on their knowledge of famous Washingtonians. Tucker, not having a good day, was given four names and asked to identify the “owner of the Wizards.”
“The name he picked off the list was the grandfather on ‘The Simpsons,’ ” catcher Brian Schneider said. After a beat, he asked me softly, “Who is the Wizards owner?”
Jon Rauch, a 6-foot-11 reliever, did even worse. Shown a picture of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who had been central to the city getting a team and a new $550 million stadium, too, Rauch spotted Williams’s trademark bow tie. “Is it Pee-wee Herman?” he guessed.
Told that, without Williams, the Nats might still be the orphan Expos, splitting home games between Montreal and San Juan in Puerto Rico, the nice-guy Rauch was mortified, pleading, “Oh, I’m really sorry.”
One player who was never sorry was Rick Dempsey, the feisty, funny, light-hitting Baltimore Orioles catcher. Dempsey had such a love-hate duel with manager Earl Weaver that, during a dugout argument, they once threw pieces of catching equipment at each other.
In their battle of wits, Weaver usually (always) won.
Once, reporters, fighting to stay straight-faced, told Weaver of his clubhouse’s response when George Steinbrenner was considering moving the Yankee Stadium outfield monuments that honor the team’s immortals. “It would make it easier to hit a home run,” one Oriole told the scribes, “but it would be a shame to move those graves.”
That was all Weaver needed to identify his man.
“Is he the only one who plays in foul territory?” he asked.
In the spirit of such barbs, one winter Dempsey let his hair grow, then reported with a red bandanna around his head, sunglasses, chains, a beard and the general piratical look of — given the vices of the era — a cocaine dealer.
After studying the outlaw in the middle of his clubhouse, Weaver was about to call security to have Rick removed. “This is your catcher!” Dempsey roared. “Little Genius, my [expletive]!”
But the most relaxed, heartwarming and deeply satisfying pitchers-and-catchers-report days are the ones that follow long-sought, painfully deferred World Series titles.
Just one year ago — not a decade ago, as it sometimes seems — I walked into the Nats’ spring training clubhouse to see players, after an eight-year quest for a title, greeting and grinning each other as they basked in their 2019 World Series win.
“Magical, right,” then-pitching coach Paul Menhart said, meaning the aura over the whole camp.
Almost always, there is distance between players and writers, no matter how long they have known each other or how often they have talked at length, even about tough subjects or deep emotions. But that first day — and for weeks — the gap mostly disappeared, like a one-off dispensation before proper, respectful but adversarial relations — think player and ump — resumed.
How do I know? Because quiet, introverted Stephen Strasburg talked. Every day. About anything. And enjoyed it. I think he even said, “Hi,” and nodded to come chat. Though, of course, I might have been hallucinating.
Those Nationals knew that for the rest of their lives they would see themselves, as their first-to-only reference point, as 2019 teammates.
A championship, especially one that takes years to achieve, links everybody in a lasting way that, perhaps, nothing else in sports does. And it goes far beyond the athletes to include every team employee and every fan who remembers and can recite the details after 20 years.
The sense of a common experience, even though processed much differently, runs like a faint electric current through everyone who remembers. Decades later, at whatever fan fest or old timers’ day, when the subject of 2019 comes up — or 1983 in Baltimore or 2004 in Boston or 2016 on the North Side of Chicago — smiles appear on every face, including players. Maybe because you saw, day after day, their finest hours.
This year, as you would expect, spring training restrictions are much tougher. For example, reporters are not even allowed on the Nats’ premises for another week. And interviews, for who knows how much longer, are still strictly through Zoom, which means deracinated. Every anecdote in this column was gathered at closer than six feet.
The Philadelphia Phillies were the first current MLB team to train in Florida with two weeks in Jacksonville — in 1889. The Chicago Cubs, in Tampa, and Cleveland’s club, in Pensacola, got serious with their Florida training in 1913.
In that long history, there has never been a spring training without fans getting autographs and — because only true believers trek to exhibitions — finding themselves rewarded with casual conversations with relaxed players.
Spring training — the low-cost, high-delight treat, right in the midst of winter back home — has never changed.
Never, that is, until this fan-free denatured year, with one more of our dependable normal delights subtracted. And never again, we hope and deeply believe.
Just once, we will have to make do with memories. And how was your winter, Wilson?