Hit It Here: All-Star Monday

All-Star Monday, July 12, 2004, Houston

They called it “Workout Day” on the schedule, the day when the players take batting practice at the ballpark and their children run around in miniature replicas of their fathers’ jerseys. If I’d been so inclined, I could have taken the shuttle over to the Four Seasons for the managers’ press conference where the announced the lineups, and then I could’ve stayed for the player availability in the ballroom. I could’ve walked up to any all-star sitting beneath his name and asked him questions — provided I could get through the crowds of reporters who undoubtedly surrounded the bigger names like Bonds and Clemens.

But I didn’t. What did I need quotes from the players for? I was there for the celebrity softball game, and I woke up Sunday morning, transcribed my interview tape and notes and e-mailed the file off to the magazine. After calling to check that it was in, I was free, off the hook unless they called with a question. No one did. This was my time.

I got myself some lunch and watched ESPN, read a little of The Teammates and boarded the bus, getting off at the Hilton and walking across the skybridge to the convention center to check out the FanFest. Like Bill Simmons, I could’ve spent a day there. I could’ve spent thousands, yet I managed to restrain myself. The minor-league cap section was alluring enough on its own, but I browsed through the retro jerseys and the all-star ones with the players’ names and numbers. I managed to resist them all, and kept the chili dogs off my back too.

Although the convention center is probably half a mile long, I was forced to exit near the middle, rather than at the end which was much closer to the ballpark. The five-minute walk was probably my longest stretch in the midday heat, which reached 100 degrees on Monday. I was back inside the comfortable juicy coolness of Minute Maid Park at 3:30. My plan was to grab a snack and then hit the field for batting practice, but as I passed through the main press box to head upstairs, I glanced at the daily game notes and noticed a 4 p.m. press conference with Bud Selig and the 14 living members of the 500 home run club. It was in the room just behind the auxiliary press box in the mezzanine, so it wasn’t far for me at all.

I took a seat in the next-to-last row on the right side, which had a view of the podium and the seats where the players would sit that was from the side. I didn’t want to take a good seat from someone who needed to be there. Soon, I notice Willie Mays walks in behind me to the stairway off to the right from where all the players will emerge. Then comes Eddie Murray and Hank Aaron, who stops to talk with a woman sitting behind me. Reggie Jackson walks through, then Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt before Willie McCovey is wheeled through. He has trouble walking these days. Ernie Banks heads the other way to see someone or get something.

Then the players come up from the clubhouses: Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds. Only Bonds comes alone; the others have at least some of their sons in tow, dressed in either dad’s team uniform or his all-star jersey. Palmeiro seems small compared to the other three, who also seem to be much bigger than the retired members of the club. We’ll attribute that to better nutrition and conditioning for today’s players, won’t we?

More than 7,500 home runs in those chairs. Posted by Hello

After ESPN’s Karl Ravech and Commissioner Bud said some words at the podium, the players went to their assigned seats for interviews. I sat in for a bit on Mike Schmidt’s session, figuring I’d throw out a question to him, but then decided I’d rather have pictures of this group than sound bites. So then I worked the room, squeezing between the crowds at the legends’ tables for headshots.

I couldn’t get anywhere near Barry Bonds’ area, but I knew I’d have a chance to shoot him on the field. I spotted Phillies president Dave Montgomery, whom I’ve met before in Lakewood, and reintroduced myself because he’s a nice, approachable team owner. I wouldn’t have done the same with a George Steinbrenner type.

When the active players left for BP, I got the last of the legends and made my way back down to the field. There it was a madhouse. Reporters and cameramen everywhere. Peter Gammons and Kenny Mayne. Paul White from USA Today’s Sports Weekly, Jayson Stark and Tim Kurkjian from ESPN. I shot like a photographer who had to sell dozens of photos in order to pay the rent this month.

Jim Thome makes sure he’s heard. Posted by Hello

Sammy’s always smiling. Posted by Hello

Jeff Kent’s sons enjoyed the workout day. Posted by Hello

Thome and Todd Helton watch a big fly. Posted by Hello

Piazza goes deep. Posted by Hello

Soon, the American League players emerged.

New York, New York. Posted by Hello

Curt Schilling and his four kids settled in along the third-base line. Randy Johnson’s son is on the left.

The Schilling clan. Posted by Hello

So the Big Unit ambled over to chat with his former teammate and World Series co-MVP.

Even kneeling, he’s tall. Posted by Hello

Mariano Rivera gave an interview seated among his All-Star teammates and his own kids in foul territory behind third base.

Mariano Rivera speaks in Spanish. Posted by Hello

It’s nice to see the players with their children. You see a more human side to them than just the multi-millionaires who can play a game better than any of us can. These guys started out much like we did, playing in youth leagues in town and then in high school. Only they were gifted enough to be able to do it in college, in the minors, and now in the majors. They’re the best in the world, yet I’m sure there’s not one of them who wouldn’t give it up to be a father. At least I’m sure that’s what they’d say. But to see the little Riveras and Gordons walking around, you think of these guys as fathers and you don’t hate the Yankees as much. At least not today.

I’ve been on fields before for batting practice. I’ve stood beside the cage when Piazza, Jeter and Nomar have taken their cuts. I’ve seen a home run from the vantage point of the hitter. To see that on a major-league level is something I’ll never forget, and it never gets old. To stand near enough to feel the breeze from a Barry Bonds swing is sensational. At times it seems like virtual reality. As I was standing on the first-base side of the field, right near the line across which we reporters were not to step, I turned around at one point to see George Brett standing next to me. Todd Helton came up to say hello, then looked back to someone I took to be his brother. “Did you see who that was?” Todd asked him. “George Brett!”

It’s a different game when you’re this close. Posted by Hello

When I spotted Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca, I asked about his nephew Daniel, who was with Lakewood when I covered the team. Dan’s now in the Diamondbacks system with a second child and I told Carlos to say hello for me. As I left, he introduced me to his son, who looked as excited as I was to be there. Walking back over to the NL side, Mark Loretta stopped at the top of the dugout steps to sign some autographs, indicating to the fans in the stands that they could toss their baseballs to him. Two people went at the same time, but not even an all-star infielder can handle both of those throws. He grabbed the higher one, near his chest, but the other was too low and bounced through his legs and back to me. I tossed it back to Loretta, who appreciated not having to run after some fan’s errant toss.

I took pictures of Ichiro, of Kent’s kids, one of whom posed and smiled for me. I spotted Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi talking on the other side of the cage and got a picture of them through the netting that just begs for a joke caption that includes the acronym BALCO, or at least alludes to it. “Hey, Barry, your head’s looking smaller!” “Thanks, Jason! How’s that ‘parasite’ treating you!”

Insert BALCO joke here. Posted by Hello

The media was only allowed an hour on the field for BP on Monday, so I trudged back up to the mezzanine seating for the lesser press to watch the home-run derby batting practice. David Ortiz of the Red Sox hit the rafters of the roof a couple of times, then nailed it again during the derby and lobbied — unsuccessfully — for a home run, but it wasn’t, according to the ground rules. I watched the derby from just above the ESPN porch set that overlooked the outfield. Below me, I noticed Bill Simmons in his Manny Ramirez t-shirt watching from John Kruk’s seat on the set.

Opening the roof. Posted by Hello

They introduced the 500 home run club to the theme from The Natural, a composition that never gets old when used for the best in baseball. Barry Bonds was the first to hit in the derby, and before the first pitch, the catcher stood up and called for a ball outside, as if to issue an intentional walk. I so called that. I thought about that on the flight down, and at that moment I regretted not mentioning it to Laura or someone, anyone who could corroborate my claim that such a move would be hilarious.

Moments after Tejada’s winning blast. Posted by Hello

The derby was a spectacular show, and after the first round, Milo Hamilton, who played M.C. down on the field, said, “You thought the first round was something, let’s see how the balls fly out of here when we take the roof off this place!” I looked up and noticed that, indeed, the roof was rolling back, so quietly and effortlessly. The windows to my right out in faraway dead-center field were sliding back and the deep, deep blue night sky was coming through. When Miguel Tejada won it with his final blast that set off fireworks out in left field, I immediately turned to the door and headed for the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to drop off my camera bag before the gala at the aquarium.

At the gala, I became skeptical that the likes of Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez would really show up because it wasn’t like the other, smaller parties I’d been to so far. This one was open to more people, and lots of fans and kids strolled through the backlit displays of marine life and up the stairs to the second- and third-floor balconies and bars. The whole thing was catered, with food at several locations, alcohol at more, and tables out on the balconies and inside what was either a ballroom or conference room. Out at a table on the second-floor balcony, I spotted George F. Will and realized he was talking to actor Robert Wuhl. Across the table sat Bud Selig. What a group. It is only later, as I stood at the wall of the third-floor balcony and looked down over the main entrance to the building, that I realized that maybe the biggest stars would show up: there, dressed in black and talking on his cell phone, was Roger Clemens, his wife and two cops by his side. They waited for the train to pass — a tiny, amusement park train that carries visitors around the aquarium — and then walked inside. I ran into him later as I walked back down to the second floor just as he was leaving, saying, “See you guys tomorrow.” Matthew Modine continued to stalk me, and I later saw another familiar face eating at one of the standing tables in the main buffet room. I stole a glance as I passed, but he caught my eye and returned my inquisitive look with a trademark glare. “Yep,” I thought to myself, “That’s Will Clark.”

The aquarium has an actual bar down on the first floor, and again I spotted the Sports Guy as well as ESPN’s Dave Campbell. As midnight passed, the bar TV on ESPN, Baseball Tonight began its live broadcast from outside. Later I found where they were, but I’ve stood beside ESPN broadcasts before, so I turned around and made one last pass along the grounds. The crowd surrounding a tall blond athlete led me to Curt Schilling, and when I returned to the main entrance, he followed. Then I saw, sitting at a table, Joe Morgan holding court with a couple of friends. Simmons was there again too, and he took note of Schilling, mentioning it in his column.

Unlike the night before, I didn’t have to go back to bed. I wasn’t as tired or exhausted. I got on the elevator with Peter Gammons, who looked ready to curl up and fall asleep right on the carpeted floor of the elevator. I stayed up a little longer and had a snack, watching the ESPN highlights of the home run derby. Then I got a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was All-Star day.

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