For true baseball fans, there is no better experience than attending spring training. The atmosphere is somewhat more relaxed than the regular season. Players are reunited with last season’s teammates while others meet new faces on a different team. Spring training is for fans of all ages with some multi-generations making the event an annual affair. This year, the Phoenix area was home not only to Major League Baseball’s Cactus League, but also some of the teams preparing to play in the World Baseball Classic, baseball’s biggest global tournament. It was a no-brainer where this baseball enthusiast wanted to be in February!
As luck would have it, over half the country was having weather issues from snow to tornados and we were trying to fly on standby! The parking situation at the airport should have been another indicator that the trip out there might have issues. After circling seven levels of the parking garage, we found the last parking spot on the rooftop. We just missed getting seats on the Atlanta flight, but were able to get on a flight to Salt Lake City and would be at least at the right end of the country for our final destination, Phoenix. The passenger next me was at the emergency exit and there was no seat in front of him. He ordered two Bloody Marys when the flight attendants came through with the beverage cart. He had just mixed his first one, when he decided to cross his legs. His tray table tilted dumping the Bloody Mary on his pants. His gold jeans had turned into a reddish-gold color and were soaked! The flight attendant quickly offered napkins to stop the mix from going on me and then retrieved galley towels and soda for the cleanup. Thanks to her quick response, I was spared my clothes getting soiled. Our area smelled of Bloody Mary mix for the next four hours!
After four hours of sleep — but who’s counting — we caught a flight down to Phoenix from Salt Lake City the next morning. We left the snow-covered Utah mountains hoping to have sunshine and nice warm temperatures like Arizona is known for. However, when we landed, we discovered that Arizona was having their coldest weather in years! Like a good girl scout, I came prepared with a jacket, thermal vest, wool socks and long johns!
The first part of the day was spent at American Family Fields, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. There was a Split Squad game with half of the Brewers hosting the Oakland A’s and the other half of the team over at the Colorado Rockies. Unfortunately for poor Milwaukee, it was a very one-sided game. Oakland got off to a fast start scoring four runs in the top of the first inning; the Brewers starting pitcher was pulled without making an out. The Milwaukee bats were very silent until the third inning when Luis Urias hit a homerun. By the sixth inning, it was six to one Oakland over Milwaukee with little hope in sight. We decided to head over to the other side of Phoenix to Scottsdale where we knew former Carolina Mudcats Sal Frelick and Michele Vassalotti were working out with Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic.
When we arrived at Notre Dame Prep Academy, we saw a handful of fans watching several players taking batting practice. As we walked towards the practice field, we came upon a security guard near first base. I explained we were there to see a particular player who was a pitcher and he asked if we were family. I laughed and I answered, “Kind of… Michele refers to us as his U.S. family.” He escorted us to a building across the parking lot. Inside were several players in a weight room while trainers monitored their workout. A weight trainer named Simone came over so I explained why we were there. Michele smiled and waved when he saw us quietly observing from the corner of the room. Christian Scafidi, one of the most accomplished pitchers at Penn and a grad transfer to Notre Dame, introduced himself to us. When he told me he was a free agent pitcher, I suggested he contact the Boston Red Sox. “We need all the help we can get!” He laughed and wiped his forehead, then went back to a machine. I was exhausted just watching the different drills and wished my pounds would be affected by just viewing.
When it was time for the team to head back to the hotel, we walked over to the team bus while Michele ran to the field to grab his gear. Outside the bus stood Mike Piazza, manager of Team Italy. Still sporting his infamous mustache, I could picture him in catcher’s gear. I was in awe of being there right next to the Hall of Famer and I think I mumbled something like, “I used to love to watch you catch” and “Congratulations on managing team Italy.” Also with him was Gianmarco Faraone, GM for the Italian Federation. Thankfully before any more exchanges were made, Michele ran up and bound up the bus stairs followed by the two men.
A few hours later, we took Michele and his roommate Ricardo Paolini, also from Venezuela, to dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse. As we got ready to order, Michele helped Ricardo by explaining some of the menu since Ricardo’s English was a little limited. When I ordered the garlic shrimp, Michele looked at me in disbelief and said, “Shrimp in a steakhouse!?! You’re supposed to order steak in a steakhouse!” We all got a good laugh out of that statement. He was right; it was not the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted! After dinner the boys wanted to stop by Target to pick up a few things they needed for a dinner honoring Team Italy the next evening. After three turns in the parking lot, we arrived at Target and headed back to the men’s department where Michele started on a search for a belt. He stopped at the shoes and picked up a pair of black shoes. “Well, I do have white shoes at the hotel.” He set the shoes back down and we went to an end display of belts where he immediately found one which he liked. Meanwhile, Ricardo had wandered off. We called out his name. There was no response. We went up and down the aisles in the men’s section. I thought I saw him so I headed down another aisle. Now I’m following a guy through the store and calling out, “Ricardo… Ricardo” and he’s not turning around. I finally caught up with him and I said, “Ricardo!” and the guy turned around. It wasn’t him and it was then I realized I had lost the rest of the group!! Nothing like getting lost in Target just minutes before closing!