On my way out to spring training in easy livin' Phoenix, Ariz., I got one last dose of hard, New York City living. It happened at Kennedy Airport, just outside the Delta terminal; as a new safety precaution, you have to go through the metal detectors before you even enter the building. A relatively minor inconvenience, but it meant there were a lot of unhappy people with a lot of big luggage all jammed up in a small place. Then it got worse. I am one of those hexed people who always sets off the metal detector, no matter what I do. This time, I happened to be wearing steel-tip boots, and the new rule is that if you're wearing steel-tip boots, you have to take them off and put them through the X-ray machine. Kennedy is probably the only place in the free world where they actually make people do this.
While I was untying my double-knotted laces, a little airport nightmare unfolded just beyond my reach—my L.L. Bean canvas bag, the kind with the handles and the open top, had come out the other end of the X-ray machine and was spilling all over the ground. Forgetting for a moment what I was doing, I tried to scramble over there, boots still on. That earned me the everlasting love of a female security agent, who gripped my upper arm with surprising force and directed me back to the other side. "Did you think I was kidding, honey?" she said. Goodness no, I was just ...
Eventually, I made it through, scooped all my stuff off the floor, and was heading to the check-in counter, trailing my untied shoelaces, when a nice lady rushed up and handed me my cell phone. Who knows what else of mine was still under the X-ray machine; I couldn't bear the thought of walking back there.
Trudging the mile or so to my gate, I discovered that I may be the last American who doesn't own a rolling suitcase. Everybody was wheeling right past me, while I staggered along with an overstuffed duffle digging a half inch into my shoulder.
Can you tell that I'm not an experienced traveler?
I arrived in Phoenix without further incident, but Phoenix was not the Phoenix I had been promised. My first day in the desert was overcast and chilly. Everybody here has been deeply apologetic about it, first the rental-car guy, then the check-in clerk at the hotel. Sun is in the forecast, they say, so don't get down on Phoenix.
I came to Arizona, rather than going to Florida, because of the Oakland A's. I'm interested in them for the same reason everybody is—they represent the last, best hope that there is more to winning baseball games than just buying up all the best players, that you can counter George Steinbrenner's millions with old-fashioned baseball smarts. Much as I respect that idea, I still loved watching the Yankees crush them in the playoffs last year.
I am staying in what is allegedly the official A's team hotel, but I have yet to see anyone who looks like a baseball player. In fact, the team has been very hard to find. I headed out in the morning to locate the practice facility, with only a vague notion of where it was, and ended up on an unguided tour of look-alike strip malls. People had a good laugh at the expense of that Latino relief pitcher who showed up at the wrong team earlier this spring, but I can see how easy it is to make this mistake. He got somewhere.
The sprinklers were on and the clubhouse was empty when I finally found the right spot. I'm not even sure the A's had practice today, so I'm trying not to feel too bad about missing it. My first appointments aren't until today, anyway. The games themselves don't start until Thursday, but this is supposed to be a good time to hang out with the players. I'm told they're a little more laid back and cooperative with journalists. I'm nervous about it all the same. In my experience talking to professional athletes, I have been never been able to strike the right tone. When I try to loosen them up with a little flattery, I sound obsequious. When I try to ask serious, complicated questions that show an appreciation for their particular skills, I get looks that say, "You are clearly one of those moron writers who has no experience actually playing the game."
Maybe that's because they can tell that I'm as much of a fan as I am a sportswriter. Maybe they can sense that I'm the type of guy who's cheered in every press box he's ever been in. Whatever it is, I'm putting it behind me. It's the start of new season. I'm due at the A's field at 8 a.m. tomorrow.