Note: Part of the reason I've been in Florida for Spring Training was to write a magazine feature on players acting like maniacs during camp. There were lots of old stories from the 70s and 80s but leads were few and far between for current guys. The angle of the piece ended up changing and as a result didn't end up making the magazine. I still like the story though, and am lucky to have a venue like WoW where it can still see the light of day. Please to enjoy.
Spring Training in Florida has a rich history. Much of it even has to do with baseball. From the time the Cubs and Indians arrived in 1913, The Grapefruit League spent decades as a working vacation where ballplayers walked a razor's edge between getting in shape and getting bent. In a 2003 article for Slate, Mike Shropshire spoke about the old days noting the most prescient observation he ever made in Pompano Beach was that "The managers and coaches drank scotch. The position players drank vodka or CC and Seven. The pitchers favored a concoction of Everclear, 151 rum, and coffin polish."
Last week, I lit out for the backroads and backrooms of Florida in search of these stories from the people that saw them, and also to find some new ones. I visited Christy's Sundown Restaurant in Winter Haven, former spring home of the Red Sox, then Indians. Not even a mile from the park, the walls of Christy's entrance are lined with autographs from the likes of Dean Martin, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Evans, Carl Yastrzemski, Albert Belle and Mike Hargrove. You could smell that CC and seven before you even sat down. Legendary AP beat writer Dave O'Hara covered the Sox for over two decades and spent many hours in a Christy's bar overflowing with booze, broads and batters. When I asked him to describe that scene, he said "Well. When someone told me something newsworthy at the bar, I told them I wouldn't print it until they told me again the next day." He either didn't trust their judgment or couldn't understand the slurring.
But I wanted to know who was carrying the torch for those gin and gravy soaked titans of yore. In the golf courses, strip clubs, bars, pool halls... and strip clubs the answer was, quite simply, just me. Madison (last name not given or made up yet) at Rendezvous in Ft Myers said that ballplayers came in once in awhile but they were always well behaved. And it was far less frequent than it used to be. Same thing from the girls at Body Talk in Port St. Lucie, Mons Venus in Tampa and the Peek a Boo Lounge in Bradenton. And I'd like to think I'd be able to see through an exotic dancer's cover-up. Especially with a wad of twenties.
Off a lukewarm tip over a lukewarm Yuengling at the PGA Golf resort in Port St. Lucie, I was told to check out Duffy's, a sports bar right up the street from the Mets' Tradition Field. After talking to manager Bryan Bomar, I learned that Duffy's had just been your run of the mill watering hole until about 5 years ago. On a warm Spring Night in 2004, noted bum Karim Garcia was watering the bushes of the adjacent pizza place when the manager came out and told him to relieve himself elsewhere. Garcia punched the pizza man out, made the papers and all of a sudden Duffy's was "the place that the Mets players hung out." It was probably the most recent Player Gone Wild story I heard and It's been great for the bar. Fans flood Duffy's after each Spring game in the hopes of swallowing down a purple hooter with Ryan Church. As for Garcia, perhaps he should have been a little more studious in camp. He appeared in 85 games that season and then was out of baseball. He played twenty years too late. I mean, he still would have stunk in 1979 but his buffoonery would have been more accepted.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the entire culture of Spring Training had changed. "Guys come into camp now having trained all year. They don't really take a break. When Kent Hrbek used to drop to the ground for his first stretch of the Spring he'd moan and groan and be down there for a half hour." It's easy to see how a beer or twelve wouldn't really be much of a setback to that training regimen.
When I told a Boston Herald beat writer that I was out on the road trying to dig up the dirt he pretty much provided my thesis statement. "These guys are all business now. The contracts, the competition, there's too much at stake in camp." While Chili Davis never once touched a baseball in any offseason, Jacoby Ellsbury moved to Arizona to train at the API institute. Admirable. Savvy. But not old school.
It also wasn't lost on me that "back in the day", guys like me weren't driving around looking for drunken blind items to write about in a national magazine. These teams have PR mavens like any other corporation, and the players are well schooled in the power of negative press. Get drunk with a fan in 1989 and he'll buy your next round. Get drunk with a fan in 2009 and he'll take your picture on his phone and send it to Deadspin. The times are not exactly conducive to getting loose.
"I'm still from one of those first generations of ballplayers that came into camp ready to play. Ready to fight for my spot because I had spent the offseason training. The craziest thing I've done in the past couple years of spring training has been watching a Spongebob marathon with my kid," Mike Lowell told me.
Third basemen in Boston weren't always that smart. Sometimes guys, like the aforementioned Boggs, drank a staggering amount of beer and got pushed out of a moving car in front Christy's. According to Miss Pat Peavey, hostess and unofficial historian of the place, no one drank like Boggs and it was only with mild shock that she learned that he woke up the next morning and hit two home runs. She has one of the balls. Signed.
When I got in my car and pulled out of Christy's parking lot a gospel song came onto the local bluegrass station. "What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." Thinking back on my trip and the taming of Spring Training I figured you could add a couple more things to that list: $50 million contracts, and a scandal happy press.