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|| News Item: Posted 2001-03-30

The Count on Cigars: Spring Training is Smoking
Spring (Training) Has Sprung

By Eric Risberg

Photo by
One of my favorite times of year is a particular Sunday morning when I step into the cool desert air and onto the training fields at Papago Park in Phoenix to watch the Oakland Athletics begin spring training. With the A's stretching and running in the foreground, the popping sound of baseballs being caught in the hardened gloves that have lain idle winter, one can't miss the Ansel Adams-esque view of the red-colored Papago Buttes in the background. So begins another spring photographing baseball players for a month in Arizona.

While some would find it pretty boring watching baseball players basically stand around for a few hours during the first couple of weeks before the Cactus League games begin, I find it a challenge to come up with something new each year.

Along with covering workouts, a few weeks of games and any breaking trades or top players reporting, I also do mug shots of team members that later go onto a CD the AP puts out showing every player in Major League Baseball. (These photos are mostly used for file purposes.)

I have been fortunate to cover the Cactus League for several years, during which I have seen a number of changes. The league has expanded in the past few years, and in 2003 both the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals are tentatively moving to a shared facility in Surprise, AZ.

This spring, it seemed to me that the interest and fan attendance was down compared to previous years. It also seemed that once again, the players are beginning their workouts later and finishing them earlier. The players also seem to be spending more time indoors either lifting weights, doing conditioning, or hitting in cages.

Photo by Eric Risberg/AP

Photo by Eric Risberg/AP
Some of the memories from this spring include:

Watching a former world champion martial artist, Mack Newton, lead a Richard Simmons-type stretching exercise with the Chicago Cubs before setting up a big chart in the middle of a practice field and proceed to give a motivational talk to the Cubs in the hopes of instilling a positive attitude.

Getting a lecture from last year's National League MVP and San Francisco Giants' second baseman Jeff Kent about not crouching down in a small corner at the end of a batting cage as I tried to get a picture of Eric Davis (not Kent) taking some swings in an outdoor batting cage. I had barely knelt down and seen Davis take a couple of swings before Kent decided to play security guard and tell me what a huge distraction I was making. After telling Kent I wouldn't be long, I had barely taken five more frames before Kent asked, "Are you done yet?" I just glared back at him and said, "NO." In contrast to interacting with Kent, it was fun watching Oakland Athletics first baseman Jason Giambi, last year's American League MVP, go through spring training having the time of his life. Often during workouts and even during picture day, Giambi was followed by his dog, Slugger. Having fun seems to come naturally to him.

Photo by
Seeing Barry Bonds leave Scottsdale Stadium with his "business advisor" head down, not smiling, after reporting to camp and brush past a handful of fans and autograph-seekers never once acknowledging their existence or polite greetings for a new season. Speaking of Bonds, on the first full-day of team workouts, he and new teammate Eric Davis decided they didn't need to stretch with the rest of the team and walked into the clubhouse. When the rest of the team, jeered both Bonds and Davis responded with a well-known gesture.

One of the nicest moments of the spring occurred as I was leaving the Famous Door Jazz Club in Scottsdale. As I got up from my chair, recognized veteran umpire Ed Montague standing behind me. I had photographed Montague once during the umpire's strike and met him briefly a number of years ago. When I greeted him, he was just so surprised that anybody even knew who he was let alone remembered photographing him and meeting him before. I ended up staying at the club and having a very nice conversation with him. He wanted to learn all about cigars and ended up telling me the story how his father was the scout that signed up Willie Mays for the Giants. Our meeting led to an invitation for me to smoke a cigar with him in the umpire's room at the end of a game this season.

This was the first year that I did team mug shots digitally instead of on film. In years past, I have set up two Dynalite 400jr mono flash heads and triggered them with radio slaves. I lightened my load considerably this year using the Canon wireless strobes, the Canon 550EX and the Canon ST-E2 flash transmitter. To power the strobes, I used the Dynalite Jackrabbit power pack. At one of the training camps, I arrived in the shooting area and found that two photographers had taken up about twice the space as they had the previous year, and no more AC power outlets were available.

By using the wireless setup, I was able to shoot in a much smaller area than I had before, and I didn't need any electrical power because I had the Jackrabbit. I put the strobes on ETTL, set the camera manually and checked the LCD display a few times, and everything turned out perfectly. (For those who haven't read about it, check out the previous column on wireless strobe by Vince Laforet. I use the transmitter and wireless strobe a lot with great results.)

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin
As far as cigars go, I can pass along three things. This spring, in the dry cigar-damaging climate of Arizona, I began using one of the most useful inexpensive products; the DryMistat made by Cigar Savor ( It's a small humidification device that is the size of a corona cigar, costs $7.95 via mail order or $11 in a store, uses tap water, can easily keep about 20 cigars fresh either in their box or in a travel humidor. It also indicates when it needs to be filled, and lasts about a year.

I have used it in a travel humidor, a cigar case, and in a box of cigars, and it appears to work great. I have tried a number of devices, but this one is the most practical and best-working one I have come across.

With the purchases of full boxes of cigars down, manufacturers are coming out with more tubed versions of popular cigars for those buying individually. There is now a tubed Dominican version of the famous Romeo y Julieta Churchill produced in Cuba.

The Dominican tube looks almost identical to the Cuban one. Ashton recently came out with the tubed Monarch, a double-robusto and the Imperial, a corona. Tubes can be a very convenient way for the occasional smoker to enjoy and carry a cigar. When purchasing a tubed cigar, make sure to open it up and check to make sure it is not dried out. Then try to smoke the cigar within a week or two after purchasing it. Tubes are not meant for long-term storage.

One of the pleasures I looked forward to in Arizona was being able to smoke right at the table in a number of steakhouses right after a meal. Unlike previous years, however, this is no longer the case. Morton's, for example, now limits cigar smoking to the bar.

Photo by
But to the rescue is a brand-new steakhouse called Angelo and Maxie's near the Biltmore area in Phoenix. This steakhouse chain, owned by Chart House and run by a couple of ex-Morton's managers, has eight locations including New York, Washington, D.C. and West Palm Beach. Immediately walking into the restaurant I passed a large wine and walled-cigar display.

The restaurant, which is decorated with many enlarged pieces of cigar box labels and artwork from the early 20th century, has two separate dining areas with one where you smoke during your meal. Highly recommended is the 14 oz. Filet Mignon Au Poivre, if you are a fan of peppered steak. Also recommended is the 20-ounce grilled veal chop. The restaurant also feature 13 different side dishes that go with the steak.

One last port tip before I sign off: I found an excellent bottle of Rozes Late Bottled Vintage 1994 unfiltered port at the local Trader Joe's today for $11.99, an excellent value. This baby can be put away, but is ready to drink and is from one of the best vintages of the century.

Until next time, bon apetit, happy smoking, and cheers, The Count.

(Eric Risberg ("The Count") is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

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