Empty park stirs memories of spring with Steinbrenner
Fort Lauderdale Stadium hosted Yankees camp for much of The Boss' heyday
FORT LAUDERDALE -- Nearby Executive Airport was operating, though not at 12:53 Wednesday afternoon. The area was quiet except for the ever-present sea breezes that turned the leaves of trees into musical instruments. Baseball sounds were absent, a void noticed only if the ears of the listener have heard them previously. Nearby and inside some mangled and decaying chain-link fencing is a ballpark that has more to do with mothballs than ground balls or curveballs -- Fort Lauderdale Stadium, erstwhile Spring Training home of the Orioles and, before them, the Yankees.
White-on-green signs with appropriate arrows remain posted in the surrounding, strip-mall neighborhood that can be so typical of South Florida. They needlessly direct motorists to STADIUM. The signs ought to say "vacancy" in neon, like a flashing invitation outside some old roadside motel.
The ballpark is empty, dark in midday, dilapidated and deep in disuse. One dugout water fountain does work, though.
A few blocks southwest of the intersection of Powerline and Cypress Creek is not Oakland, Calif. But there is no there here. Not anymore. None has been here since the Orioles abandoned the place after the 2009 exhibition season. And they didn't provide that much anyway. The Yankees did, of course, overfilling our cups each February and March for 34 years.
So much there used to be here -- Mickey and Whitey, Yogi and Moose, Gator and Goose, Lou and Thurman, Sparky and Catfish. George, Reggie and Billy; Reggie, Billy and George; Billy, George and Reggie. The infernal triangle.
There used to be plenty of there here. And an on-the-sly visit Wednesday brought some of it rushing back. I deemed myself "authorized personnel" and invaded the ghost-town complex. Litter, leaves, crawling creatures and a still-maintained stadium lawn is what I found. The outfield signage is bleached and burned from summer sun. Paint had peeled from the light poles. A few inches of weeds have encroached the infield cutout. An American flag, perhaps the last vestige of the George Steinbrenner administration, flew stiff in the wind in dead center.
Without airport departures to interfere, I could hear Lou Piniella and Catfish Hunter going at it on the back field. Their back and forth always was priceless, better than Ed McMahon and Carnac the Magnificent. And I could envision Piniella stopping between second and third as Cat threw BP one afternoon in the privacy of the adjacent field. Everyone lost it when Piniella turned to the outfield and did something lunar. Catfish never turned, but he smirked.
I walked toward the right-field foul line and recalled the spring of '82 when Steinbrenner implemented his new strategy. Without Reggie Jackson, who had fled to the Angels, the Yankees would forsake the home run and become the Bronx Striders. Steinbrenner's offseason acquisitions were made with baserunning in mind. He hired Olympic hurdler Harrison Dillard to teach the players "speed." They wore special sweatpants and ran more wind sprints than ever. And of course, a Yogi Berra classic emerged from all that running. Hoping to reduce the time needed for wind sprints, Yogi suggested to "pair 'em up in threes."
Right field also was where The Boss once rolled up the legs of his trousers, removed his shoes and socks, and raked the grass, hoping to make the puddled field playable. He also had brought in helicopters. Afterward, he tipped members of the grounds crew until an enterprising fella circled around for seconds.
Well beyond right field was where a baseball, hit by Steve Balboni, landed for a game-winning home run against the Mets in 1980-something. Remarkably, Balboni, a right-handed hitter with extraordinary power, had hit the ball through the teeth of a strong wind. And all Steinbrenner recognized was that the Mets had been beaten.
I moved back to the shortstop area on the auxiliary field and tried to justify what I had witnessed 31 years earlier. Dave Kingman had hit a home run against Goose Gossage that landed some 200 feet beyond the left-field wall of the stadium. Goose smiled on the mound, and upstairs in the owner's box, George fumed as few could. Seated in the dugout as Kingman took BP earlier that day, Gossage had said: "You know, we could get together on a long one."
Whether that rocket traveled as far as one Kingman hit over the tall center-field shrubs against Hunter in a night game years earlier is impossible to say. No one saw that one land. We remain uncertain it did.
The home clubhouse was locked Wednesday, but standing outside it, I envisioned so much, beginning with a day in 1989 when Rafael Santana, the new-to-the-Yankees shortstop, and Steve Sax, his similarly new double-play partner, chatted from their lockers 10 feet apart. When Sax asked what model glove Santana used, the shortstop gestured that they should execute a flip exchange of gloves. They did, and two gloves fell to the floor. "We'll have to get better at that," Santana said.
Not far from that area is where the club kept its whirlpool tub. It rarely was noticed, just a piece of stainless steel furniture until 1979, when Louie Tiant brought octogenaria to the Yankees. Tiant, dressed only in a cap and chewing a cigar the size of Babe Ruth's bat, spent hours in the tub that spring.
Someone -- Catfish? Graig Nettles? Dick Tidrow? -- scratched "SS Tiant" on the side of it. El Tiante loved it. The others loved him.
The clubhouse also was the setting for Deion Sanders' first big league moments in 1989. God, did he make terrible first impressions! He was in big league camp only because his baseball agent -- he had a different agent for football -- had negotiated an invitation. He showed up five days late with a half-ton of gold around his neck and, in a most condescending way, told clubhouse/equipment manager Nick Priore, "I don't wear no double digits ... I have to have the lowest number on my team" and "I don't share no lockers."
Seated nearby and quite offended by what he'd heard, veteran Wayne Tolleson urged Priore to "tell the kid this is the New York Yankees, not the SEC." Moreover, the only single-digit numbers not retired at the time were No. 2 (Tolleson) and No. 6 (Sax). After Steinbrenner actually negotiated a uniform number with the agent, Sanders was assigned No. 44. (Reggie was not with the team then). And Priore gave Sanders his own locker -- in the tiny, musty visitors' clubhouse, which was otherwise unoccupied.
A walk to the parking lot Wednesday brought thoughts of the spring when Steinbrenner said he would entertain questions from the media only if they were written. And he was serious. So we beat reporters presented him with a list that included some serious probing:
• "What do you recall from your first trip to the circus?"
• "Why is Lou's hair so oily?"
• "What's the flipside of 'Wipeout?'"
• "Can you touch the rim?"
• And a personal favorite, taken from the Honeymooners "Chef of the Future" episode: "Can you core a apple?"
The Boss found little humor in our queries.
Spring Training was Steinbrenner's time, camp was his favored setting from 1973, the year his group purchased the Yankees from CBS, through '95, the team's 34th and final year in Fort Lauderdale, and through his years with the Yankees training in his city, Tampa. The Boss was at his best/worst in the '70s and '80s, seldom allowing a day to pass without a development or announcement he considered worthy of back-page headlines in New York's tabloids.
Young players' careers were routinely damaged, detoured or at least interrupted in Spring Training by Steinbrenner's need to manipulate, maneuver, abuse and make impulsive decisions, many of them based on performance against the Mets.
Poor Tucker Ashford was the victim in one The Boss' famous Fort Lauderdale tirades: "We've seen enough of Tucker Ashford," Steinbrenner bellowed. And after Kingman had hit three home runs against the Yankees, Steinbrenner attacked young pitcher Mike Griffin, who had allowed merely a double to the Mets slugger. "Mike Griffin has fooled us long enough," George said. "He won't be pitching for us this year."
And so it went. Some memories of the silly and absurd are as vivid as those of Reggie's three homers and Ron Guidry's 18 strikeouts.
And finally there is this, from the day The Boss grabbed a rake in right. When Steinbrenner's yard work was completed, Yankees radio announcer Hank Greenwald, in his only year in that role, asked The Boss if he would do the pregame show. Steinbrenner agreed. Greenwald, a skilled and veteran announcer and a man of great wit, began with these words: "I don't usually interview members of the grounds crew ..."
Steinbrenner's responses were atypically succinct. The owner might have smiled if it had been July.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.