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The Boys of Summer – Return to Spring Training – Part 2

Arizona continued to battle providing us with good weather as the second day started with overcast skies and below normal temperatures.  My decision was either look cute and be cold or to layer and look twenty pounds more than I was!  I chose the latter.  Our first stop was Camelback Ranch-Glendale, home to the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  We had tickets to the White Sox-Royals early afternoon game.

We arrived a few hours before game time and proceeded to the practice fields.  As we were greeted by Stephanie at the practice field gate, we could see the practice field behind her was under water.  “We had quite a storm last night, but the main ballpark should be OK for playing,” she revealed.  We visited a few minutes with her and found out that she and her husband were both retired and living in the Chicago area, but every February and March, Arizona became their home.  They both loved baseball and were White Sox diehards so working at spring training was a fun way to earn extra income. 

As we proceeded down the muddy pathway, we saw another practice field with workers trying to remove the water.   We were just about to retreat back to the car when I spotted two White Sox players coming out of a building and proceeding down a walkway below us, to more practice fields.  They looked up and waved.  Rick was busy talking to another worker as I zipped by him and proceeded down to a fence by the walkway where several men were lined up with huge notebooks of baseball cards!  I could tell this was the place to be!  And what did I have for the players to autograph – — my Lotta Sports T-Shirt which only had Michele Vassalotti’s autograph and some Cleveland players. 

The men were a pain as they attempted to monopolize the players with numerous cards to sign in each book and I was elbowed into the corner.  Polite patience turned out to be my benefit as several players came over to me first instead of the shouting men.  I was a kid in a candy store and my T-Shirt quickly loaded up with signatures.  One of the last players to come out was no stranger — Joe Kelly, former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher.  I almost didn’t recognize him as he wasn’t wearing the dorky glasses he wore when pitching for Boston. 

Joe looked towards the line of us.  As he signed, more fans infiltrated the area.  By now I had people standing against me so there wasn’t room to even move.  I left my cramped corner and moved to the other end of the fence.  Much to my dismay, he appeared to be ready to leave.  I shouted, “Hey Joe Kelly!” and waved.  He came over to me.  “Oh, there you are!”  I laughed and responded, “You are one popular guy!” as he signed the cuff of my shirt.  Joe turned out to be the nicest of all the White Sox players or maybe I was just partial to him being a former Red Sox.! 

Near the entrance to Camelback Park, there was a pretty lake which separated the White Sox and Dodgers practice fields.  Once inside the gates, there was a tree-lined pavilion which served as home to a giant statue of Frank Thomas AKA The Big Hurt, former first baseman for the White Sox in the 90s and early 2000s.  Since I had already met several of the White Sox players at the practice field, I headed over to the left field side where some of the Royals were already stretching.  The playing surface in the outfield was set down about 12 feet from the stands.  It was fun yelling down to the players as they came out of the clubhouse alley.  What can I say — baseball brings out the child in me! 

By the time the game started at 1:05, the sun was attempting to override the cloud cover.  The grassy areas in the outfield were sprinkled with fans on blankets taking in the ballgame.  Our seats overlooked the on-deck circle for the White Sox.  I was thrilled to see one of my former Red Sox favorites, Andrew Benintendi, batting for Chicago.  It was a nice surprise because last year he was with the Yankees so I couldn’t allow myself to like him.  Royals Bobby Witt Jr. wasn’t at the game since he was still in Miami at the World Baseball Classic for Team USA.  Throughout the game, there were a lot of pitching and player changes as this was the week of determining who would play where.  Kansas City edged the White Sox 4 – 3. 

It was a doubleheader day for us since there was an evening game at Goodyear Park with the Cincinnati Reds hosting San Diego Padres.  We would be seeing the Reds the next night also so I opted for the Padres side while the players stretched.  The Padres bused in during peak traffic so they arrived a little later than normal.  Because of this, they only had time to warmup instead of mingling with the fans.  I spotted two familiar faces doing their pre-game ritual.  The first was my hero of several years of fantasy baseball, Nelson Cruz.  The other was former Texas Rangers Rougned Odor.  I almost didn’t recognize him.  He had gone from scraggly hair and beard to clean-shaven with a short haircut.  Our seats were on the second row behind home plate.  Behind us were several scouts.  Vassalotti’s teammate at Team Italy, Brett Sullivan, was catching for the Padres.  The game was going quickly with San Diego having several three up, three down innings and the Reds spitting out a run in the first inning and another in the second inning when the Reds did a double steal including Homeplate by Spencer Steer.   

We only stayed half the game as we were going on ten hours of baseball and I was running on a tray of French fries at the first game.   We swung by the hotel and picked up Michele.  We voted for something close so Michele suggested Burros & Fries in the Glendale Entertainment Complex across from the hotels.  I had a huge stuffed burrito and I believe it’s the best Mexican fast food I’ve ever had!   As we gathered our empty plates up to leave, Rick grabbed his drink cup and slammed it down into my drink cup.  There was just one small problem.  Mine was still half full of water and it went all over the table and me!!  It was time to call it a night!

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The Boys of Summer – Return to Spring Training – Part 1

It was a return to Spring Training in March when the weather was supposed to be nicer.  Minor leaguers were vying for promotions and most importantly, a celebration of our friend Michele Vassalotti’s performance in the World Baseball Classic was in the making.  By taking a flight at oh-dark-thirty and thanks to gaining three hours on a time change, we were at the Brewers complex by mid-morning.   Skies were very overcast and according to my weather app, rain was in the forecast.  We peeked into the batting cages, then watched players at the practice fields stretching.  We finally spotted a familiar frame briskly walking towards us.  It was Vassalotti.  “I’m pitching in the big field this morning!  Come see me!” and off he sauntered.  I looked at my watch.  We were good for an hour and a half before we needed to head to Goodyear Park for the afternoon game.  Within minutes, we were seated with scouts and some family members watching a closed scrimmage of the Brewers.  After Michele’s successful inning, we left. 

Our next stop was at the general offices of the Cleveland Guardians which was located on the road to the practice fields.  We were to meet up with Fletcher who was a friend of our boss at the Mudcats.  While waiting on “Fletch,” Rick, who was raised west of Cleveland, stood in awe as he viewed a historical wall mural of Indians baseball.  For him, as well as the other die-hards, it is still the Indians and the “G” word is not allowed!  We then headed across to Goodyear Stadium to watch the visiting Dodgers vs. Cleveland.  Sprinkles began and normally I would have said, “Not today.”  However, when I saw the LA line-up, I quickly got to my seat which was on the fourth row adjacent to the Dodgers dugout and donned my Red Sox poncho. 

Clayton Kershaw was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers.  The North Texas native still had his “stuff” throwing in the persistent drizzle.  After witnessing his work, I no longer looked at him as an adversary; I appreciated even more what a master he was at his craft.  Midway through the game, the rain picked up and the fans in front of us got their umbrellas out which are allowed at Goodyear Park.  For the most part, I could position myself and view the game between two of their umbrellas.  I couldn’t complain as their umbrellas kept my legs and feet dry.  However, when the rain let up, one of the guys positioned his umbrella back to fold it and you can guess where all the rainwater went!  All over me!!  It was a good time to leave, but not before meeting Bruce Kessman, GM of the Goodyear Ballpark and Player Development Complex.  The former flight attendant manager came out in me and I complimented him on the personnel of all levels at the ballpark.   What a great springtime gig that would be I thought to myself. 

After a brief nap, it was time to finalize plans for dinner.  Since we would be celebrating Vassalotti’s World Baseball Classic appearance, we chose an Italian restaurant north of Glendale.  Michele brought his Team Italia jersey.   The jersey had a soft feel to the material and it was so exciting knowing that I was holding a jersey that had been worn in the World Baseball Classic!   During dinner, Vass discussed his experience playing in Taiwan and Japan for Team Italy.  He agreed with me that the hardest game was Game 2 when they played against Chinese Taipei.  It was definitely a home game for the Chinese Taipei with 37,000 spectators, cheerleaders on the dugouts and a guy banging a drum.  All the noise happened while Team Italy batted and of course, quieted when the “home” team was at bat.   

We then talked about Game 3 – Italy and Panama.  I remembered that one so well.  I had gotten a text from Michele that he had been named the starter for Team Italy.  He had not pitched in the starting role since 2021 for the Carolina Mudcats.   Last season, he was very successful in long-relief and as a closer.   Ironically, his number with Team Italy was “37” which was also his number as a starter in 2021.  Against Panama, I witnessed an improved starter with great command over his pitches.  His velocity had also improved from the 80s to the mid-90s.  He pitched four Innings allowing only one hit – a homerun to Jose Ramos, two walks and three strikeouts.  His confidence did not waiver after the longball and he struck out Ramos the second time he faced him.  Unfortunately, the bats for Team Italy were quiet and bullpen gave up another run making it 2 – 0 loss.  It was because of allowing only the two runs in that game and a 7 – 1 upset over favored Team Netherlands in Game 4, that Team Italy emerged a victor in a 4-way tie of the pool and moved on to the quarterfinal in Japan!   Sadly, the team was no match for Shohei Ohtani and Team Japan who eventually also won the tournament.  According to Michele, a positive they took away was scoring runs against both Ohtani and Yu Darvish. 

Rick motioned towards the people dining at the table adjacent to us and the reminiscing ended when I burst into laughter.  It was the group who were in the row in front of us at the rainy game earlier in the day.  Seated right behind Michele was the umbrella culprit!  We took it as a sign to end our evening!   

Check out Vassalotti in action against Panama!!

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 3

Our final day was the Royals at the Guardians so we were going to see Bobby Witt, Jr again.  Rick was decked out in his Indians attire as were many Cleveland fans.  We headed over to the practice fields but it was harder to get to see the players since the closest that fans could get was at chain-linked fence at left field.  I had to squint to see who was batting.   According to Andy and Rick, two older guys that we met, they used to have the practice fields very open to fans but it changed after COVID.  We saw Josh Naylor bat and then go over to the right field fence to take pictures with fans.   Figures.  We were on the wrong side!  A little boy next to me belted out, “Stephen Kwan!”  The leadoff player headed our way!  After the boys got his autograph, I timidly asked for a picture with him and he obliged. 

The Goodyear Park was our favorite of the three ballparks.   The parking was free and they permitted purses in as well as sealed bottled water.  When I was leaving the restroom, our usher was in there and she said, “It will be very sunny in the seats you are in and you’re going to need sunscreen.”   I was glad she said something but unfortunately, I didn’t have sunscreen with me.   She pointed to a dispenser adjacent to the restroom door.   Complimentary sunscreen!   I coated my nose with it and headed out.  The guys from the practice field, Andy and Rick, were on the concourse on the lookout for us.  “We’re going to show you where you can get player pictures and autographs.”   The area was the rail between first base and right field.  I got my picture made and my Lotta Sports T-shirt autographed by several players including Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor, his brother Bo and a few pitchers.   I was a kid in a candy store!    When Josh Bell came out to warm up, the fans went crazy yelling for his autograph – me included!   A guy next to me said, “Forget it.  He doesn’t sign.”  Well, guess who came over and signed!?!  Josh Bell!  He was bigger than life!  During the game, Cleveland’s David Fry was brought in to pitch hit.  A voice boomed from a few rows behind us, “Hit it to Colleyville!”  That’s where Fry was from and also home of Bobby Witt, Jr. as well as a town away from where we lived in Grapevine, Texas.  Unfortunately, the former Indians players were scalped in their game getting beat 12 – 6 by the Royals. 

We headed back to Tempe to meet up with Michele for dinner.   We had asked him what kind of foods he liked and he responded anything but Thai.  He loved sushi so Rick found a seafood restaurant in Tempe that had several sushi dishes.  Michele was amazing with the chopsticks!   We had a real nice dinner and we discovered our waiter had played baseball.  I think he told us it was in high school but he got injured pitching so he didn’t get to play after that.   After dinner, I asked Michele to sign my T-shirt.  “It’s all Cleveland players!”  “Well, I just started it!  They’ll be more!”  We both laughed and he signed it. 

We dropped Michele off his hotel and wished him the very best.  The next day he was leaving for Taiwan to play in the World Baseball Classic!  Little did he realize, that Taiwan would not be his only destination in the WBC journey or did he….

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 2

The following morning Michele posted that his “Nonna” (grandmother on his mother’s side) had passed away.  Sadness filled my heart for him since he was thousands of miles away from home and unable to grieve with his family in Venezuela.  Rick and I headed out to Surprise where the Kansas City Royals were hosting the Milwaukee Brewers.  We had a little time to kill before the game started so we headed over to the practice fields where I was hoping to see Bobby Witt Jr. in batting practice.  We were very lucky that we met a guy named Gerald and his dad who were regulars at all the Royals spring training games. They showed us exactly where the KC practice fields were.  When we got over there, I still wasn’t seeing any of the players that I wanted to see namely Bobby Witt Jr. so went up to a guy who looked like he knew what was going on.  It turned out he really did know – he was J.J. Picollo, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Royals!  I introduced myself and did a capsule version of how I knew Witt, Jr’s dad from when I worked the Texas Ranger charters when I was with Delta.  JJ didn’t think Bobby Sr. was at spring training yet.  About that time, Gerald ran up and said, “Bobby Witt Jr. is taking BP (batting practice) over there!” 

As we watched BP, a group of fans congregated at the fence rail near the gate leading out.  At one point, I saw JJ talking to
Witt, Jr.  After Bobby’s group finished, they proceeded along the fence line.  The fans only wanted autographs and pictures of one player – Bobby Witt, Jr.!  We patiently waited while he progressed towards the gate out where we were.  Finally, he got to us and I quickly explained my connection to his dad.  “No, my dad won’t be here until next month.”  He kind of chuckled because I guess this was new for him having somebody not want his autograph or picture!   “Oh well …” I responded with disappointment in my voice.  “Could I please get a picture with you anyway?” so then he really laughed. 

By now it was almost game time so we headed over to the ballpark.   The starters for both teams were to play almost half the game and then be replaced by minor leaguers.  We saw some of our former Mudcats in the Brewers dugout.   A young lady in sunglasses sat down next to us.   I looked over at the very attractive gal.  She smiled and said, “Do you remember me?”   I laughed and said,  “I know you…  don’t I?”   She laughed and removed the shades.  It was Hedbert Perez’s girlfriend who had attended many Mudcats games both home and away.   Hedbert batted in the fifth inning.  “BAM!!” as the bat connected with the ball.   The rocket was launched!!!  Homerun!!!   As we were standing up cheering and yelling, I turned around to congratulate her and she wasn’t there!!   Hedbert crossed the plate all smiles.   The Brewers won big over Kansas City 10 to 4! 

The Team Italy special fundraiser dinner was at Tomaso’s restaurant in Scottsdale.   We had looked into supporting the fundraiser and were going to surprise Michele.   Well, the surprise was on us with the price tag to attend – five hundred dollars a plate!!   Instead, I reserved a table in the main dining room.  We got all dressed up in our nice clothes.   It was a beautiful small restaurant and it had been years since I saw tablecloths and linen napkins at an eating establishment!   We were sitting there looking over the menu and all of the sudden the whole team Italy started streaming through the main restaurant in a line of blue suits all going to the private dining room.   Every once in a while, a person that was eating in the main dining room would get up and take pictures.  I had my camera ready and knew the minute Michele came in because he was so tall he towered over most of the team.  I slowly positioned to get a picture and he stopped!!  “Don’t stop!  I don’t want to get you in trouble!”  He laughed and proceeded to the back.  It was one of the best, if not the best, meals I’ve ever had!   I had the five-layer lasagna and a very good salad.  For dessert I could not turn down the temptation of the caramel cheesecake.   It was amazing!  Meanwhile Team Italy players had started to trickle out with some coming out for a breather or to use the restroom.  When Michele came out, we were already finished with dessert and they still hadn’t gotten to their main course!!   Their dinner was being done by numerous courses and I was thankful I wouldn’t be digesting dinner at 11PM which was 2AM my time!!

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 1

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!

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The Boys of Summer – The Off-Season Journey – Part 2 of an Exclusive with Pitcher Michele Vassalotti

The day after the Carolina Mudcats season ended, Michele Vassalotti arrived at Raleigh-Durham airport to return to his homeland, Venezuela, for the offseason.   It wasn’t hard to spot him as he and several other ballplayers came down the steps from TSA.  They were all tall and several were wearing their Milwaukee Brewers jackets.  Michele wanted to grab a sandwich and coffee first.  When ordering, the cashier asked him for his name.  “Mike,” he replied, then turned to me and said, “It’s easier this way in the US.”  I laughed and said, “You should hear what they do to Carlotta!”  We both laughed. 

While waiting in the gatehouse for boarding, we heard the agent announce about the flight being near full to JFK and the need to gate-check large roller bags at no extra charge.  I looked at Michele’s which looked like it was ready to give birth and suggested taking his up to the podium.  “Oh, it will fit,” he stated.  I laughed to myself and thought of how many times I had heard that when I was a flight attendant.   As predicted during boarding, the gate agent tagged his bag.  He looked back at me.  “It will be in the jetway at JFK.  Trust me,” I assured him.  “Now, don’t ring your flight attendant call button!”  He laughed and headed down the jetway.  A couple of hours later, I received a text.  “I have arrived in New York City.  That’s the button you mentioned?” followed by laughing emojis.   Next was a picture of the panel above his seat.  The following day, he finally arrived in Caracas.

The rest of September was spending time with his family, helping his dad who has a shoe business, celebrating his grandpa’s birthday and having dental surgery.   He also took a mental and physical break from baseball with one exception — following Albert Pujol’s run for his 700th homerun!   The break didn’t last long as he found out he had been chosen to pitch for Venezuela mid-October in the WBSC U23 Baseball World Cup! 

The tournament was in Taiwan.  There was a twelve-hour difference in time and they were a day ahead of us.  I found myself up at 3AM in my jammies and sipping green tea while watching his games.  Michele was awesome.  He pitched relief in three games shutting down the batters from top ranked Japan and Chinese Taipei as well as Puerto Rico.  Although the Venezuelan team fell short in tournament play, Vassalotti did not disappoint with a 0.00 ERA, giving up only 2 hits and 4 walks.  He stuck out 4.  According to the game announcers, there was speculation that Japan and Chinese Taipei might be thinking of pursuing the right-hander to pitch for their countries!!  

November brought World Cup soccer action and it was my turn to amaze Michele with my picks in a contest sponsored by Fox Sports.  I went through the tournament in the mid-90 to high-90 percentile.  I only suffered two upsets by Croatia and Belgium.  I was headed to the quarter-finals in the top 99 percentile and a million-dollar prize might become a reality!  Vass shared in my excitement and provided a list of suggestions of how to spend my money buying homes in Iceland, Spain and Italy.  I was ready!  But like many dreams, this one came to an abrupt end when Portugal benched their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the team was upset by Morocco.  I finished in the 92 percentile. 

Meanwhile in Venezuela, Michele had put his personal life on hold and was back in an intensive training program.  Determined to improve and excel, he surrounded himself with qualified mentors.   His coach, Victor Aguirre of New Performance, spent endless hours working with his pitching mechanics and ways to improve his durability.  Physical therapist Gerardo Figueroa ensured he was conditioning correctly and sports psychologist Itamar Cabrera focused on the mental aspect.  Thanks to Instagram, I could view his sessions and watch his progress.  I witnessed a change in his style, delivery and speed.  He exuded confidence.

The discipline, determination and hard work paid off.  Recently Michele was named by Team Italy to participate in the World Baseball Classic in March.  It’s his second stint with Team Italy as he was on the team in 2017 during World Cup play in Thunder Bay, Canada.  There will be workouts soon in Arizona before Team Italy heads to Taiwan for the first round of play for their Pool A.    Also in their pool are the Netherlands, Cuba, Panama and no stranger to Vassalotti, Chinese Taipei!

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There’s More to the Boys of Summer – It’s the Supporting Cast

For the past few nights, I’ve been watching Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League record for most homeruns in one season held by Roger Maris (61) and Babe Ruth (60).  Cameras were not only following every at bat of Judge’s but also the expressions on his mom’s face as the moment might happen.  Spectators and viewers got to know “Patty” wearing her Yankees jersey and seated with Roger Maris’s son, Roger Jr.   I immediately loved her as she wore bangs like I do.  I knew how many times I invested my emotions in my sports heroes during ebbs and flows.  I could feel Patty’s pain when he struck out, her disappointment on the pop-ups and groundouts as well as the pride when her son finally tied Roger Maris’s record at 61 and then broke Maris’ record. 

Last year when I started with the Carolina Mudcats, getting to know the families of the players was one of my favorite parts of my job in Guest Relations.  The first parent I met was Christi Holt.  She was nicely dressed and totally Southern Belle when she spoke.  She bought several announcements for the big screen in centerfield.  When she came back the following day, I said, “Oh, I see you’re back!”  She smiled and replied, “My son Gabe plays for the team.  We’re here from Georgia.”  It was a fun time watching her grandson Lucas keep her very busy while in the Muddy the Mascot’s line at my podium.  Mid-August, we went to an away game at Kinston playing Down East, the affiliate for the Texas Rangers.  “Hey Gabe!” I yelled as he was coming to the dugout after warmups.  He looked up and spotted my Mudcats baseball cap and grinned.  It would be one of Gabe’s last games for the Mudcats.  He was promoted to AA Biloxi later that week. 

Toward the end of the first homestand, a man came my area behind home plate at the top of every inning and stood with his arms folded.  Every once in a while, he would grunt and reposition his stance.   It turned out that his son, Brandon Knarr, a lefty out of the University of Tampa, was pitching.   Durl and his wife Dianne spent May and June at most of our Mudcats games.  My most memorable (and fun) moment was an evening when both benches cleared.   The fans were yelling and Dianne, who was in the restroom, could hear the play-by-play of the action by broadcaster Greg Young.  She came running out.   “Brandon had better not be out there in that mess!!” she exclaimed.   I surveyed the empty dugout and bullpen; then looked at her and laughed.  My husband and I drove to several away games when Brandon pitched and sat with the Knarrs.  Durl would grumble anytime a batter would bunt on the first pitch against Brandon.   As time went on, the lefty learned how to avoid those.  I also got to know Brandon’s girlfriend, Vanderbilt swimmer Taylor Ward.  She was tall and looked like a model; when she walked down the concourse, heads turned.  Our last time to see Brandon pitch in person would be August 11 at Kinston.  He threw 5 innings only giving up a run and striking out 7 before heading towards the clubhouse.  After a few minutes, one of the Knarr’s phones dinged.  Dianne started crying and then excitedly said, “Brandon is going to Wisconsin!!”  By the next morning, they were enroute to Wisconsin in two cars with Brandon’s stuff and then on to Cedar Rapids to catch up with the team who was playing on the road. 

One of the most exciting guys to watch bat was Joe Gray, Jr. out of Hattiesburg Mississippi.   If you wanted to see homeruns, drop everything to see him at the plate.  His dad was Joe Gray, Sr., a soft-spoken man who was easily spotted in the stadium because of his tall frame. Whenever Joe, Jr. hit a homerun, I would jaunt to the section over the dugout to share a high-five with his dad and Justin Finn, Joe Jr’s investment advisor from Portsmouth NH.  Joe Jr. was promoted to High A, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers two days after the 4th of July.  

Ashton McGee was one of our “local” players coming out of the University of North Carolina and from Goldsboro which was less than an hour’s drive to the ballpark.  I first met his dad Darren when he came to my area to watch Ashton bat.  “OK, which player belongs to you?”  I asked.  One evening in June the crowd watched with concern as Ashton crumpled to the ground after getting hit by a pitch.  His mom Theresa was already almost to the clubhouse by the time he was taken off the field.  He missed a little over a week.   We enjoyed his bat until late August when he joined other former Mudcats in Appleton.   

Noah Campbell was another “local” player who played college ball at South Carolina and his parents, Darin and Amy, lived north of Raleigh.  They were regulars at both home and away games.  Amy spent a lot of time getting her steps in on fast walks on the concourse.  I begged her to take my Fitbit since it is hard to get steps in the small area I work.  She laughed.  Noah was the go-to position player when the bullpen had been depleted.  He pitched in 4 games and was even credited with one save, but his ERA came to 8.10.  He thrilled the fans at one of last games playing all nine positions – something I had never witnessed in baseball!

In August, University of Louisville sensation Alex Binelas who had been drafted the month before, was promoted from the rookie league to the Mudcats.  My husband Rick, who was ushering on the 3rd base side, met his mom Amy first when she asked if she could move down to get pictures of her son playing 3rd base.  Amy loved to shop so I saw a lot of her as The Bait Box souvenir shop was across from my stand.  One very hot Sunday afternoon, Amy walked by my podium drinking out of a can.  “Oh!  You must have one of these!!  It’s like eating strawberries!!”  So off I went to a cart right around the corner.  The gal working the cart I had never seen before.  “I’d like that drink that tastes like strawberries please.” She pulled a can out of the ice and said, “That will be $6.00.”   “Wow, that’s high, but then again, it’s ballpark concessions with French fries almost as much,” I thought to myself.  When I got back to my area, I popped the lid.  I could smell the strawberries.  As I raised the can to my lips, a co-worker yelled, “Oh my God!  That’s alco…..”  Before she could finish the word, the one swig was spraying back out of my mouth!”  Everyone was laughing except me … the retired manager and supervisor of flight attendants!!  I was mortified and ran to my boss to tell him what I had done.  After the game, I met Amy in the parking lot.  She choked in laughter.  “Oh!  I’m sorry!  I thought you knew!”  We still laugh about it!  

After the past week watching Patty Judge, I wonder if any of my parent friends from the Mudcats 2021 season will get to experience such a momentous ride as Patty Judge did.  I sure hope so and how proud I will feel to have been a small part in their son’s quest for baseball greatness!!

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The Boys of Summer – Road Trip – Part 4 – Game 2 Surprises

In the afternoon, we headed to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum.  We were more than familiar with the route as it was located off the first base side of the ballpark.  When we got to where the building was supposed to be, we instead found a construction area!  There were no signs of a museum so I searched through my phone.  We were at the correct address.  I called the number for the museum.  It was not operating because of the construction!  The trip was not wasted as we checked out the menus and hours on several restaurants between the ballpark and hotel.  We ended up eating again at Mac’s. 

While waiting for the gates to open at Fluor Field, we noticed more frustrated women being sent back to cars with their purses.  After all the walking at the park, I was thankful my rejection was the night before.  While waiting to get the tickets scanned, I watch the woman in front of me.  She had a clear bag the size of a backpack crammed full with several sunscreen tubes, juice boxes, baseballs, baseball caps and large bottle of hand sanitizer.  The guy scanning waved her through.  No problem going in!  As for me, I had to empty my pockets!

As we started down the concourse, Rick had a Boxer sighting.  The dog was running around the field and looked just like Jake when he was younger.  By the time we got down there, he was by home plate playing with a brown dog and several of the workers.  One of the guys on the field said he was a stray the team had adopted and named “Muda” like in Bermuda minus the “Ber.”   Right on cue, Muda came closer to us and posed in a perfect stance.  It was short-lived just as Jake’s are.  Chasing after baseballs was much more fun for the pup.

Our seats were more towards home plate and right at the on-deck circle.  The pitching for Bowling Green again stifled the team – even worse than the previous night. Greenville batters struck out ten times and mustered only five hits.  Alex and Nick Yorke, a #3 prospect, were the only scores with a homerun each.    The outcome of the game was brutal with Bowling Green over The Drive 13 – 2!   I talked to Alex after the game and he thanked us for our support.  Little did we know this would be the last time we would see him in a Drive uniform.  Alex was promoted the next day to the AA Portland Seadogs!   It was the perfect ending to a great mini-vacation!

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The Boys of Summer – Road Trip – Part 3 – Taking in the Sights

The next morning the free “abbreviated” breakfast at the hotel didn’t look too exciting so we decided to try a place highly rated in our guide.  Rather than ask for directions, I loaded the name in my phone and we proceeded on the route. It first took us in a big circle BACK to the hotel so we started over and discovered the same street had three different names!  We climbed a couple of hills, crossed a bridge and the walk turned out to be 25 minutes instead of the 10 originally projected. 

Breakfast was awesome at the Maple Street Biscuit Company.   When you ordered, you had to give them the name of a song to call your order.  Neither one of us could think of anything and finally I said, “On the road again.”   I should have done, “Take me out to the ball game.”  So, we’re sitting there among several families with baseball players (There was a college tournament in town.) and we hear, “On the road again, here’s your juice!”  Then 5 minutes later, “On the road again, here’s the rest of your order.”  We laughed all during our meal at some of the songs people picked.  I had a waffle that was great and my order of bacon was 9 pieces (although menu showed 6!)!!   The OJ was fresh-squeezed.   We were almost finished and we hear, “On the road again, your order is ready!”   A group of kids with a chaperon close to our age answered to that one. 

After breakfast, we walked along Main St and went into several shops.  It reminded me of my layovers in Germany.  The park entrance was on Main St and we could see our hotel a block away.  We discovered we had made a huge circle around town getting to breakfast.  The falls were beautiful and despite signs everywhere about not going in the river or walking on rocks, people were doing it.   Furman College was adjacent to the park and several of their buildings overlooked the park.  We walked hills and several bridges and were entertained by a retriever out in the water playing fetch with his owner on the shore.  As we were heading out of the park, a tour group rode by us on two-wheeled bikes.  “Please stay on the trail.  There are snakes in the park.  The poisonous ones are in the river,” the tour guide announced.   My eyes were like saucers! 

To be continued


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The Boys of Summer – Road Trip – Part 2 – Game 1

And then began saga number two!  It was 15 mins after the gates had opened.  One of the workers stopped me – “You can’t take that purse in; it’s oversized.”   I had already checked their site for purse requirements, BUT they had changed the size that morning!!!  “You can’t come in with the purse.  You need to take it to your car.”  “We walked here! Are you saying I have to walk back to the hotel?!?!?!?”  “Yes.  The purse is too big.”  (It was 4″x6″ and was previously allowed!)   Only a small clutch 3″ x 5″ – basically a wallet or clear bag now allowed!   I could only think of all my years as a flight attendant and in management accommodating customers under extenuating circumstances – like allowing a small window for a major change until word got out.  Times have changed.  I started a quick walk passing Amy enroute quickly telling her what was happening.  Rick and I weaved through fans coming to the game for the half mile walk back to the hotel.  Rick sat on a bench a block from the hotel while I hiked up a small hill and around the corner.  It was one of those crazy elevators where you had to swipe with your room key to go to your floor.  Third time was a charm.  I crammed my phone, room key, map of city, paper ticket sheet (in case I couldn’t retrieve the tickets off phone the way my luck was running), tiny hand sanitizer bottle, Kleenex in pockets (Thank God I had four pockets! Obviously, the person who made the rule was male and didn’t know the majority of ladies pants come with one pocket if one is lucky!) and stuck my credit card/ID in a tiny holder on a Mudcats lanyard I wear at work and had thankfully thrown in the suitcase!  There was no room left for the Canon SureShot camera which jams half the time anyway.  As I was leaving the hotel, the valet guy who knew we had gone to ballpark asked why I was back.  I quickly told him about the bag deal and suggested that he alert others going.  He said, “WOW!  That’s ridiculous!  What’s a girl supposed to do with a tampon!?”  I started laughing and said — “Have no clue!  It’s been 22 years!!”  And off I went!

Rick and I got back to ballpark with 9 mins to spare.  They were still turning away women!!  Several had Uber’d and they were very unhappy!!   It was a beautiful summer evening for a ballgame.  Our $11 seats were behind the dugout so I could yell at the players in the on-deck circle.  Modeled after Fenway Park, a 30-foot replica of the “”Green Monster” (pronouced “Monstah” by diehards) was past leftfield along with a hand-operated scoreboard.  Sweet Caroline was sung by the fans in the middle of the 8th inning.  It was just as if we were at Fenway Park in Boston.  Alex smacked a double to the base of the “Green Monster.”  That was the biggest action of the game and sadly the team only had two hits losing 4 – 0 to Bowling Green.  We met up with Alex after the game and Amy took my picture with him.  He grinned and said, “I like your shirt.”  I was wearing my Boston Red Sox Ortiz shirt. 


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