What’s up NLB followers? This week I’ve been bouncing around the grapefruit league, taking in as much baseball as possible. As usual, I’ve have some really cool experiences (hanging out in the Rays’ locker room, telling Kevin Youkilis where to eat dinner, sitting in the Twins dugout and more) that you might find entertaining. Here are a few highlights from my week so far:

Day 1

Games Watched Live: Phillies v Yankees, Twins v Red Sox
Overall Highlight of the day: Just watching live baseball for the first time in what seems like forever.  85 degrees and sunny also helps after a cold winter up north.
Overall Lowlight of the day: Getting big leagued by Ryne Sandberg. 

Getting Big Leagued by Ryno

So I came down to FL to enjoy baseball and write a weekly spring training log for Diamond Hoggers, but I also want to get some more quality interviews with players for future Next Level Ballplayer articles. I have a few big league buddies who I’ll be visiting later in the week, but no contacts with the Phils or Yanks. No problem, I’ll just go where the guys are signing autographs and talk to the players while they’re signing little kid’s baseballs.

I pick a spot on the fence by the player’s parking lot cause a guy tells me Cliff Lee’s gonna come out this way… 15 minutes later, nobody has come by and some other lady says Lee already left. Ok, not as easy as I thought it’d be.

Then, as I was about to give up hope of any quality material, here comes one of the best 2nd basemen of all-time, Ryne Sandberg. I’m pumped to see Ryno.  He comes over and starts signing baseballs.

Franco: “Hey Ryne, What’s one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring ballplayers out there?
Ryno: Looks up at me and says, “No. I’m not gonna answer that.”

Then he signed autographs for 5 more minutes in silence. It was a bit awkward. I left feeling very unsatisfied… Check my watch, 5:30. I think I can make it to the Twins/Red Sox game by 7:30…

Day 2

Games Watched Live: Rays v Pirates
Overall Highlight of the day: Hanging out in the Rays locker room for over an hour with guys like Longoria, Upton, Niemann, Joyce, Hayhurst and Zobrist.
Runner Up Highlight: Parking my ’98 Honda Passport in the Rays’ players parking lot next to multiple $100k cars.
Overall Lowlight of the dayFinding out that Zobrist likes pickle flavored sunflower seeds… I used to think he was cool.

Hanging with the Wives:

The Foul Ball

So I’m chatting with three of the player’s wives and having a good time watching the game when a foul ball is hit towards us. (I am going to keep the wives’ identities private cause I don’t want to be “that guy” that wrote about them by name without them knowing. Just know that you’d recognize their husbands if I told you.) Anyways, wife #1 and #2 lean to get out of the way and wife #3 sees the ball, but doesn’t move. #3 has the ball land a foot next to her, bounce off of her back (she was fine) and land about 2 feet from her.

Now the dilemma: I’m one row in front of her and 4 seats over with nobody between me and the ball that has come to rest kinda by her foot. I really want the ball, but I also wanna play it cool… The lady in the row over, started to take a few steps towards it and my instincts kicked in. I took a couple steps and was about to reach for it when wife #3 picked up the ball. Awkward. I go to sit back down and she then proceeds to give me the ball as if I’m a little kid. Had to swallow my pride a bit on this one, but next time I play catch with a buddy, we’re using a big league pearl.

Dip can do what?!?!

This second story from the wives section blew my mind. There were a few bees flying near us that prompted this story.

Wife #1: “One time I was hanging out with a group of friends and I got stung by a bee. It hurt like crazy, but right away a guy took his dip out of his mouth and put it on the bee sting. It worked great and I was back to normal in no time.”
Franco: “Wow. This guy sounds like he’d be the one to suggest peeing on a mosquito bite.”
Wife #2: “GROSS! If any guy tried to put his nasty dip on me, I’d give him a swift karate chop to the neck.”

In the 6th inning or so, just as the convo with the wives turned to Oprah and pedicures, I got the greatest text ever from my buddy Ben Zobrist: “Meet me outside the stadium by the batting cages.”

Inside the Rays Locker Room:

I had no idea Zoby was going to take me into the locker room. He had lined up a few unofficial interviews for me and there I was just shooting the breeze with the Rays in their locker room.

Right when I walked in, Upton and Longoria were there joking around. They overheard Zoby saying to me that he had stayed up until 11:30 the night before.
Longoria: “Oh dang Ben. You stayed up until 11:30?!?! That is so crazy! You need to calm down. I’m afraid you’re going off the deep end.” Maybe you had to be there, but trust me- it was funny.

Other locker room happenings:

  • Matt Joyce was really cool. We talked for a solid 20 minutes and I will be rooting for him this season.
  • Talked with Longo briefly, but was able to ask him a few questions, including the toughest pitcher he’s faced (Saving this for a later post).
  • Having Dirk Hayhurst give me a copy of his book, The Bullpen Gospels. I had played against Dirk in college and he came over and we talked for a good half hour. He is an absolute character!
  • On the way out of the complex (I was by myself) I walked by Joe Madden and told him to have a good night and he told me the same. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a minor league guy who’s name he couldn’t remember.

Day 3

Games Watched Live: Red Sox and Twins
Overall Highlight of the day: Getting onto the field after the game and having a great conversation with longtime Kansas City Royals and Chiefs groundskeeper who has seen it all… And has been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Runner Up Highlight: Running into Kevin Youkilis and Darnell Mcdonald after Drew Sutton and I had finished having dinner together.
Overall Lowlight of the day: Getting tricked into trying pickle flavored sunflower seeds by the Twins’ head groundskeeper. So gross!

Making it into the Twins’ Dugout:

After the game was over and the crowds started filing out I decided to try to get down on the field. I had no real plan on what I wanted to do, but just hopped over a waist high fence down the third baseline and acted like I belonged on that field. I went straight into the empty Twins’ dugout and sat down.

I wanted to film a quick video for Next Level Ballplayer, but didn’t have anyone to film me. At that moment a few kids came down to the side of the dugout and asked me if they could have my autograph (A small part of me wanted to walk over and sign NextLevelBallplayer.com on their baseballs, but I fought that marketing urge and told them I wasn’t a player.) I couldn’t help them, but they helped me out by filming for me while I did a quick welcome video for NLB (coming soon)… Thanks kids.

Meeting a Legend

I was getting very comfortable in the dugout while the field crew guys were doing their thing and then I noticed this older man raking the third base line. He looked over at me and the following convo ensued:

Franco: “You’re doing a good job.”
George: “You know football fields are a lot easier to prepare than ball fields.”
Franco: “I didn’t know that. What football fields have you worked on?”
George: “Well I was the head groundskeeper in Kansas City for many years.”

About 30 minutes later, my mind had been blown by George Toma, author of Nitty Gritty Dirt Man.

Convo Highlights:

  • George is 82 years old and for the last several years has come down to Fort Myers to help maintain their spring training fields.
  • He was the longtime groundskeeper for the Royals and Chiefs
  • He has prepared the field for EVERY Super Bowl – Yes I asked him what football fields he’s worked on thinking he’d say Joe Blow High School and it turns out he’s done every SB. Crazy.
  • When the Royals were going to be facing a hard throwing pitcher, he’d make the batter’s box 6 inches further back than usual.
  • The Royals’ manager used to have a guy watch the game from inside the outfield scoreboard to steal the catcher’s signs and relay them to the Royals’ batters. There was a big digital clock in leftfield and they would use to relay the pitches to the batter. If there was only one dot between the hour and minutes it was a fastball, and if there were two dots it was going to be an off speed pitch.
  • He has prepared different fields for the World Cup and Olympics.
  • He’s good buddies with George Brett who wrote the forward to his book, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man. I can’t wait to read it.

Mr. Toma gave me his business card and a ton of great stories. I could have talked to the guy for the rest of the night, but finally he said, “Ok young man. You’re gonna get me fired if don’t get back to work.” 

Hibachi Dinner with Drew Sutton and the Red Sox #1 fan:

When Drew and his wife found out I’d never had Hibachi before, it was determined that I hadn’t fully lived life and we were going to right that ship tonight. I found out that you sit around a flat grill like table while the chef comes and cooks right in front of you. There are about 10 seats around each Hibachi, so frequently you’ll have multiple parties sitting at the same Hibachi.

Anyways, Drew is a really chill guy who likes to keep a low profile, so when this dude decked out in Red Sox gear walked over towards our table with his parents, Drew gave me that look like “Franco, don’t go announcing that I play for the Red Sox.” I was offended. Come on Drewbie! I was chillin in the Rays locker room yesterday. I’m not going to act like a rookie.

Sure enough, the dude starts asking us if we went to the Red Sox game. We all say yes. Then he asks where we were from and why we were in Fort Myers… I’m staying pretty quiet, just laughing to myself as Drew dodges the questions somewhat nervously. “We live in Texas”; “We’re down here to go to spring training games”;  “Yeah, I was at the game today, but left before it ended.” (You might not know that early on in spring training, most big leaguers play 4-5 innings, shower and then leave the ball park before the 7th inning stretch.)

Before the super Sox fan left, I told him I wrote for a blog, gave him my business card and told him to check out www.NextLevelBallplayer.com. Dude, I hope you are reading this right now. Sorry I couldn’t give you the heads up the other night.

Helping Youk Make Dinner Plans

When we were walking to our car, Youk and Mcdonald walked by us and said hi to Drew and then asked where we ate. Before Drew could say anything I jumped in.

Franco: “You have to go eat at the Hibachi place. It’s really good and they have huge portions.”
Youk: “That sounds great. We’ll give it a try.”

I hope you enjoyed your meal fellas… you’re welcome.

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