60 Hours Worth of Surprise, AZ

Several weeks ago, Nancy and I were invited by KTVT/11 & KTXA/21
to spend the weekend in Arizona. Billed as a Rangers Spring Training trip,
it turned out to be considerably more. In the end, we had some great food,  saw a wee bit of baseball and meet some extrememly friendly Texas Ranger players and management.  Nancy and I were two of fifteen people on this trek to the dessert. As we’ve never left the kids for any length of time, we felt a bit uneasy about doing so. However, we agreed that John and Alex could tag team taking care of Ben; they did so swimmingly. Here’s the recap of our 60 hour getaway…

Friday, 3/11:

Arrived at Surprise Stadium roughly 40 minutes prior to the Rangers/Reds game. Great seats looking down the 3rd base line. Brilliant blue blue and double blue sky, 77° with the just the slightest north wind. Colby Lewis starting. Taking in this mid-March game wasn’t about the outcome (5-5 tie), it was about the experience. I’ve never been to Spring Training. This was bad ass ! The relaxed nature of the veterans combined with the near make or break mindset of players wearing a very un-baseball like #87 on their back was intriguing.

Surprise Stadium was as imagined. Somewhat reminded me of Dr Pepper ballpark in Frisco, except smaller and with less signage. A greener than green lawn in lieu of bleachers from foul pole to foul pole. A large but bare boned scoreboard in left center. It was a clean look if you will. I agreed with Nancy’s observation; it reminded her of any circa 1930’s black and white photo capturing a baseball game. The blue haired contingent was out in full force, many with their scorebook in tow. Pre-game music came across the PA, but it wasn’t Crazy Train or Thunderstruck. Hell, it may have been Perry Como. 

After the 4th inning, Nancy and I took a stroll around the place. Down the first base line initially, we stopped at the Rangers bullpen. Colby Lewis was out of the game by now, but there he was in the bullpen. Firing a pitch every ten seconds, getting in his work. We’ve all seen pitchers throw in the bullpen, no big deal. However the intimacy of the stadium allowed you to hear the conversations between Colby and the other pitchers seated nearby as well as his catcher. Fascinating ‘ball talk….”too flat…move damnit….move….there…..finally”. There’s a reason those specials featuring an athlete wearing a microphone are so damn good. Interesting and entertaining certainly. It hit home with the documentary lova’ in me.

Onward around the lawn we went. I’m guessing that only 10% of the fans on their blankets were actually watching the game. Most simply took in the sun; can’t blame them. As we made our way past center and towards left field, we heard “ohhhhhs and ahhhhhhs” from the stands; seconds later two guys rolled around/struggling for the homerun ball of Ranger Mike Olt.

At the end of the 6th inning, our group was instructed to gather in a courtyard down the right field line. It’s a beautifully manicured area with two picnic tables set just outside what appears to be a small two story office building. Word was that some players (no idea who) would come through the double glass doors and sign a baseball, do a little meet and greet, etc. The anticipation reminded me of  the 1970 Dallas Cowboys Training Camp in Thousand Oaks, CA. Waiting for Bob Lilly and Lee Roy Jordan to emerge from the cafeteria. Fast forward to 2011, first through the door is a freshly showered (thankfully) Colby Lewis. I wasn’t expecting today’s starter to be doing this…

He was just as cool and unassuming as could be…not a chip anywhere near his shoulder. Thinning hair (I like that), sportin’ high dollar jeans and Billabong t-shirt. He answered all questions that came his way (no matter how ridiculous those inquiries might be). He weathered the questions for ten minutes or so…genuinely nice, appreciative of the support. I took a pic of Nancy and Colby….”he smells good” she whispered afterward.

Ian Kinsler walks out next…Again, he poses for pics, signs anything handed to him, answers all questions.

He stays much longer than I would have expected, maybe 15 minutes. Interesting in that as it dies down and all questions have been asked…he stands there alone. Solo. He missed his opportunity to get the heck out of dodge. So I walk up and start beating his ass….

I’m diggin’ that shirt” I say, “…is that really a authorized Nike tee ?” 
He chuckles, “It is…Clint Hurdle had these made up last year for all of us” (This is when I should have been ballsy and freaking asked for shirt off his back — An error on me…E-MIKE the scorebook shows. I’ll make up for it later though)

Since Ian opened with door the Clint Hurdle comment, I asked “…speaking of Clint
and year before, Rudy (Jaramillo), who’s in that role now ?”

“Right,  Thad Bosley. I mean really, the last two years we had the best two hitting coaches in all of baseball. It’s always good to get different perspectives…I’m just trying to be patient up there and make contact”

(My baseball knowledge is limited, but having two sons play ball, I’ve heard one thing perhaps more than any other…..”keep your swing short”.)

“…keep it short?” I ask

Exactly he responds. Followed by the “knowing nod” between two baseball minds…okokok, one baseball mind and one dude pushing 50.

So as my bobblehead-like “knowing nod” is still going strong, I sense someone approaching from the right. His arm extended, he says “hello, good to see you”…so engrossed with Ian, I’m startled. I quickly look up and say “Hey Nelson !” as if he’s a buddy I haven’t seen in a month or so. Man, I’m glad “Hey Nelson” came out of my mouth as opposed to “helllllo ??, who are you ?” Again, sportin’ the high dollar jeans, this time with a Buddha t-shirt is Nelson Cruz.

A huge smile on his face that would have been bigger had there not been so many rubber bands in his mouth. Steel too…Obviously getting his orthodontia in order for a highly productive season as a player and consequently as product spokesperson. Posed for pics, signed baseballs too…friendlier than a MLB stud should be allowed to be. “MmmmMmmmmm, he smells nice” Nancy says.

Finally, Chris Davis walks out of the glass double doors pumping the American League Championship Trophy as if  curling a 20lb weight. Shit eating grin on his face…we all cheer.

Funny funny funny scene. He’s decked out in Quiksilver attire from head to toe. Constantly smiling as he answers questions. Nancy says “….he smells REALLLLL good”. Someone get her some water.

Michael Young. Seconds after  Ian’s arrival earlier, Young came out. With all eyes initially focused on Ian, Michael slipped by all of us under the radar.  I felt bad for him. Really bad. Friday was the day that the whole Chuck Greenberg resignation came down…Was that weighing on him ? Was it fact that he went 0-2…Was it because he was playing 2nd base and Chris Davis was at 3rd ? I don’t know, but he certainly appeared to be pre-occupied.  He made his way to the far end of the courtyard as he texted and then talked on his phone for several minutes…nobody within 50′ of him. His head was hanging…

He slowly wandered off and then out a side exit. I think he initially came out to participate in the meet and greet, but the moment he opened the doors he said  “no, not today” to himself and kept walking.  As sad and disappointing as that was…15 minutes later we spied him hitting off a tee in the cages…one of the best visuals of the entire trip…frustrated that I couldn’t document that scene with a good image. But too cool to see a pro of his caliber hitting off the tee.

After the meet and greet we walked over to one of the practice fields (all fields are immaculately kept by the way) for some BP from two Ranger coaches. I never took my turn with the bat as I thoroughly enjoyed talking to coach  Mike Micucci behind the cage. He’s the Rangers Minor League Fielding Coordinator ( All I know is he spends the season traveling to all of the Rangers minor league locales). In between his encouragement/hitting tips to those at the plate, we had some good (and I think honest) conversation. Remember, I’m with a group of 15. He and I spoke behind the cage as the shadows became long…

He asked “Is this the whole group ?…how many of you guys are there ?”

“…about a dozen too many”…I saidwe laughed

I then just came out and said…”there is NO WAY this is not a beating for you guys, to entertain a bunch of idiots like us…you gotta be ready to get out of here today”.

He started with a towing the company line answer, “No, it makes
me realize how lucky I am to be doing this for a living and…..”

“…and you’re thankful you don’t have to see swings likes this everyday aren’t you ?” As I cut him off mid-sentence…laughter.

We talked about our kids, how he just moved to Frisco and of his .219 career minor league batting average. Talked about Mike Young hitting off the tee…”he does that every day” he says.

He asked more about our group, how we gained access to this behind the scenes tour. I explained there’s a lot of high dollar people here…”those folks out in left field are responsible for booking much of the advertising during the Ranger broadcasts. But I clarified, “I’m at the very bottom of this food chain…..”. He finished with “….sounds like you and I dine at the same place”. A tremendously nice and certainly under the radar coach.

Saturday, 3/12:

Saturday was an “on your own” day for the most part. We started the day with a Starbucks and then shared a Bloody Mary by the pool. A $12 Bloody Mary ? What the hell.

Nancy got in touch with our nephew Stephen and his fiancée Shanley as they had recently moved to Phoenix. They came by the Desert Ridge resort and picked us up for lunch. We headed a short distance to the  Sand Bar restaurant. Outstanding Carne Asada tacos for me, Nancy had (and raved) about her fish tacos. Problem was when the check arrived. I gave the waitress my debit card as I intended to pay the tab…she came back, “This card isn’t working“. Nancy then tried hers…same thing. After we returned to Dallas, we discovered that our debit card doesn’t work in Arizona unless we notify the bank we’ll actually BE in Arizona. Kind of embarrassing, taking your nephew and his fiancée to lunch, and in the end he has to pick up the entire check. Not what Nancy and I had planned. Sorry Stephen.

That afternoon, Nancy was provided with a complementary visit to the spa, she enjoyed a pedicure…cue the violins. In the meantime, I propped my feet up and had a “new to me” beer or two, Kiltlifter on tap. It was mighty fine, and certainly a better deal than the Bloody Mary.

Saturday evening was quite the show at Mastros Steakhouse. Group included TV guys, Tom Grieve and John Radigan. Rangers EVP – Communications, John Blake ( a cross between Bill Gates and a savant) plus players Darren O’Day (soft spoken), Arthur Rhodes (intimidating initially, but very friendly) and Tommy Hunter (a single word can’t describe him). I’ll say right now that we left the camera in Nancy’s purse for evening. Even had we taken pics, chances are it would have been confiscated as Hunter and Rhodes became quite the entertainment. Not likely they would want pics of their dancing, etc out for public consumption. I’ll leave it at that.

It was a thru the roof meal at Mastros Steakhouse. I mean really outstanding…terrific. I had the Fred Flintstone-esque bone-in ribeye. Nancy had the fish. I was seated next to  Tommy Hunter. Prior to dinner, I told Nancy that while I don’t know for certain, my impression of Hunter was that he was a good o’ boy, a country boy. After a three hour meal, I was dead solid perfect/hit the nail on the head correct in my  assessment of the man. Too many stories to share…but here are a few Tommy Hunter highlights:

Waiter: What can I get for you this evening sir ?
Tommy: I’ll have the lamb chops
Waiter: How would like the chef to prepare it for you sir ?
Tommy: Sir….have it prepared it to be eaten !

He likes Jack and Coke…and red wine…and what was either 7UP with a lime
wedge or a Vodka-Tonic. He likes a lot of things. He loves da Butta’ Cake, I believe an off the menu dessert at Mastros, Butter Cake. Never heard of it.

To provide some perspective, the table behind us shared a Butter Cake dessert amongst six people. Tommy ordered his own. An ultra rich cake, apparently with a pound (or twelve) of butta. Topped with ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry.

So Tommy is ranting and raving about how good the Butter Cake is as he’s enjoying his very own plate of the dessert. He sees others sharing, but he insists he’ll eat the whole thing. This is where I get ballsy and actually hit a home run as opposed to the E-MIKE described earlier with Ian Kinsler. It went down like this:

Mike (whispering): Tommy, do me a favor. Offer my wife Nancy some of your cake.

Tommy: SureSureSure…no problem.

Mike: Trust me man, she won’t take you up on the offer, I promise. But just offer her a taste.

(I was expecting him to simply lean forward and politely ask “Nancy would you like some cake?” Instead he quietly grabs an extra plate and carefully places a slice of the dessert along with a little bit of ice cream on top.)

Tommy (extends the plate towards her and bellows with a booming/window rattlin’ voice): NANCY ! Would you like some of the Butta Cake ? It’s really good !

Nancy: Actually I would ! (table roars)

Tommy immediately looks at me with these big as saucer eyes as if to say “WTF dude, I thought she wouldn’t accept ?!?!”…..but he then playfully smiles and nudges me with his elbow. Funny dude, funny funny funny dude.

On a more serious note…his family is a huge player in his life. Exactly 35 minutes prior to each game he pitches, he texts his sister, his mom and his father with a simple “I love you”. He explained…”I do that in case I take one off the head and never wake up”. Seriously. Want to hear a loud table go silent ?…have a major leaguer tell you that.

So back to the party, the one phrase he repeated into the night was a joyful/playful/self-mocking “I am 262 lbs of solid steel sex appeal !”…….oh yes he did. Again and again.

Sunday, 3/13:
Had a great breakfast buffet. Custom omelet station did the trick. Gave Rusty Greer the “good morning nod” as he was dining with his son. You don’t bother me Rusty, I won’t bother you. Wait, I’m nobody….never mind.

Anyway, it was a great trip…glad we took advantage of the invitation.

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