Spring training recollections – my first sign

With the opening of spring training camp this week, I began to think back to my first experiences with the Cardinals in a context other than as a fan and how I got to where I am today, wherever that is. As a result, I've been moved to share some of my best stories here. Today, I'll tell the true tale of my earliest and most vivid spring recollection. Tomorrow, I'll add another spring training yarn if folks are interested.

Despite the fear that some readers harbor that Ray and I have somehow "gone corporate", we and the other writers on staff are still going to share our personal feelings about the team we love right here.

In addition, please go to our message board and add your own spring training stories to the thread I've started there. message board

My first sign

Oldtimers remember the days when the Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg for years and years, from 1946 to 1997, in fact. This story is about one visit back in 1991. The reason I am positive about the year will become evident later…

I had been to spring training a number of times in the past, but now that I was thirtyish, road trips with the boys were more a thing of the past. Yet, I was able to convince a buddy of mine who remained single many, many years longer than me to drive down from South Carolina to join me for a week of frivolity in the sun.

While we had hoped to meet some players, our hopes were dashed when we learned that while some of the players may stay in the team hotel just down the block, most players and team officials stayed elsewhere in condos, usually with better access to the ample golf and beach opportunities in the area.

The ballpark, Al Lang Stadium, is located downtown, near the waterway and marinas, but far away from the beach and the hopping area nightlife. As a result, we decided to headquarter in a hotel on St. Pete Beach.

Our plan was simple. Get up and take a quick swim, head to the ballpark, stay for the game, catch the beach in late afternoon, sample the watering holes at night, catch a few hours of sleep and start over again.

On our first night in town, a divine intervention occurred.

We'd asked around and were given the name of a trendy bar/restaurant on the beach where we could drink cold, frosty beverages and order up hearty grouper sandwiches. This was a locale at least ten miles away from Cardinals camp.

We arrived there early, but the place filled quickly. As a result, my buddy and I offered to share our picnic table with three women who were carrying their trays of food and drink, but couldn't find a place to sit. As a part of exchanging pleasantries, they learned we were out-of-towners there to see the Redbirds. As luck would have it, two of them disclosed they were Cardinals' employees. Sure, they were.

Our first thoughts were that the tables were being turned by these shrewd ladies and we were the ones getting fed a line. But, as more information was shared, we were quickly convinced they were telling the truth. As a result, we were promised the royal treatment the next morning at Al Lang.

More on that in a minute, because we almost never got that far. One of the young ladies spied a lump on my friend's sock, exposed as we sat together. We tried to draw attention away, but were unsuccessful. What they noticed was my friend's service revolver. He is an FBI agent and can never be without it. At least that is what he's always told me. You can imagine my discomfort with him at DisneyWorld. But, that's another story for another time.

Now, the tables were turned on us. Talk about a downer! We were the ones who now were falling all over ourselves trying to explain. After all, generally speaking, a loaded gun in a crowded bar is not something that impresses the ladies. Fortunately, we got past all that, just as we had gotten past most of our doubts about them.

Still, the next morning, we awoke wondering if it was all real. Sure enough, after arriving at the ballpark we met our new friends, who for reasons that quickly became most obvious, could not take us into the clubhouse themselves. Instead, they enlisted long-time Cardinals equipment manager Buddy Bates to show us greenhorns around.

Next thing we knew, there we were - in the Cards' clubhouse. Yes, the real St. Louis Cardinals. All our heroes were right there in the flesh. Some more than others. I'll never forget my first sight. It was a buck-naked Lee Arthur Smith, talking on a pay phone, totally oblivious to all the commotion going on around him. Generally, the players we spoke with were gracious. However, I remember that Tom Pagnozzi's thoughts were somewhere else that day.

Our new friends fixed us up with a bunch of goodies, including media guides and baseballs that had been previously signed by the entire team and coaching staff, including manager Joe Torre. I still treasure that ball today as it sits here on my desk.

In a most pushy moment, I engaged Hall-of-Famer Red Schoendienst as he was dressing. He was as gracious as everyone reports him to be. We then moved out onto the field.

My jaw almost dropped as we encountered Joe Garagiola and Brooks Robinson sitting in the Cardinals dugout telling stories. We just had to listen in and we did. Eventually, I mustered up enough courage to ask Joe to pose for a photo with my friend. Good thing he agreed. I wouldn't have wanted my pal to shoot him or something.

The reason the Baltimore Orioles were there is that they also trained in St. Pete and shared Al Lang with the Cards, not unlike the Marlins do in Jupiter today. The two teams were slated to face off that day.

As a result, I got to sit next to one of my favorite players, Dewey Evans, and mumble some typical fan adoration comments as Evans was lacing up his cleats to go onto the field. That is why I know it was 1991. Evans had moved from the Red Sox to the Orioles for his final big-league season that year. For Evans, it was clearly near the end, but little did I know that for me, it was just beginning.

We were given prime seats for the rest of our trip and I made a long-time Cardinal organization friend in the process. Not that I've ever received one shred of inside information over the years as a result of this, because I haven't. And I know better than to even ask. But that really doesn't matter. I've already gotten so much from this single chance encounter – more than any of us could ever have known.

As I think back, I marvel at just how much this one experience gave me the encouragement and confidence to move from being just another dedicated Cardinals fan into one who ended up covering them as a semi-serious vocation.

All this because two gentlemen offered their table to three anonymous ladies in a crowded bar. If you are reading this, you know who you are. Thank you for everything!

Remember to share your spring training experiences on the message board: message board

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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