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|| News Item: Posted 2002-03-01

The Rights of Spring (Training)
By Karen Warren, The Houston Chronicle

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
I LOVE spring training.

It's the sound of cleats crunching and scraping from grass to cement, as the players, both the somewhat jaded veterans and the wide-eyed minor league wannabe's, trot across the sidewalks from one field to the next.

And, I love the sound of a well-pitched ball hitting its leathery target. Also, it's the crisp, cool mornings and sunburnt afternoons!

It's like heaven on earth, or the next best thing. It's the winter of my's the signal of baseball season. I believe that all is well with the world, as long as there is baseball!

During spring training I always arrive early in camp and never stay for the games (sadly, that is just the way we do it). So, when I refer to spring training I am talking about the "mundane" fundamentals, the pick off and rundown drills, the catchers and pitchers going over the signs and the pitch out practices.

In my five years at the Houston Chronicle I have been lucky enough to have been sent every year (with the exception of last year, which was a project year for me) to cover the Houston Astros camp in Kissimmee, Florida. Over this period of time I have developed my little Astros "family" if you will.

There are the clubbies, the guys who do the grunt work in the locker room. Cleaning shoes and washing laundry from the early morning hours, until they are the last to leave at night. And, on occasion, staying out late to beat the Royals' clubbies in their annual bowling tournament.

There are the 70-year-old New York-accented retirees who guard the gates and enjoy the thrill of hanging out at the ballpark. (My favorite one is Ray. He was promoted to head of security this year, and it was so cute to watch him strut around with his chest out, happy to feel like he was doing something important!).

And, there are the fans....

The hard core fans, who travel all the way from Houston every year and look forward to standing in line, begging Jeff Bagwell for his autograph. Then there are the professionals who get their cute girlfriends to work the line...they always get the bats signed! The last group of fans are the minor-league season ticket holders. These are the elderly folks who bake cookies for the players and stand in line in the cold rain just to say hello to their surrogate grandchildren, their favorite players from last year's AAA team.

And, then there are the players and coaches...

Photo by
I enjoy watching the progress of the guys who are recovering from off-season injuries and surgery as they work slowly toward opening day. I love listening to Billy Wagner talking to his catcher of the day, as he works on other pitches than his 96-mph fastball!

This year my sweetheart award would go to catcher Gregg Zahn, who was actually polite enough to apologize for farting in front of me during bullpen work one morning! I told him that it wasn't THAT big of a deal, and he said he was SO embarrassed and never would have done something like that on purpose! I told him that in previous years, Tony Eusebio (now with the Rockies) usually kept the photographers gassed out back there.

My "Could You Be Any More of a Jerk" award goes to Craig Biggio. While doing a story on Shane Reynolds' daily camp routine I received an invitation to join Shane, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Wade Miller on a boat bound for their favorite fishing hole. With visions of candid, off-the-field photos still dancing in my head, Biggio begged his way into the fishing trip and bounced me off the boat! (He was peeved at the beat writer, whose post season stories disclosed that Craig had more to do with Larry Dierker's "retirement" than Bidge wanted out in the general public, so he took it out on me!) Bastard!

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
Jimy Williams, the Astros new manager, formally with the Boston Red Sox, was a pleasant surprise for me. He would stop before and after practice and CHAT! Granted, we had Larry Dierker last season and he would regularly hold court and wax philosophical, but Jimy Williams? This man was, according to reputation, going to eat the media for lunch! (And, here he was inviting ME to lunch? Huh?)

Each year I end up spending my birthday in Kissimmee. (And amazingly, I am STILL 29!) This year the Astros PR staff, Warren Miller and Todd "Sparky" Fedewa, treated me to a great dinner and later, drinks at our favorite dive, The Big Bamboo. The Boo has quite the history and was the nightly hangout for Larry Dierker and many of the old Astros. Even though the parking lot is unpaved and literally looks like an officers club leftover from the set of M.A.S.H., but it's worth the trouble to find it on Hwy 192 as you wade past all of the T-shirt shops and outlet malls!

Also every year, Kissimmee gets some sort of weather troubles. My first year it was a devastating tornado, which passed less than1/4 mile from my hotel and killed 14 people in a trailer park across the street from the Astros' practice fields (it killed 42 people in the Orlando area). My husband Robert Seale and I heard the tornado pass by and does sound just like a train. This year's weather trial was a two-day monsoon! During the second day of damp, indoor workouts the head groundskeeper Rick Raasch put out a mallard duck decoy in the newly formed pond between the batting cages and the clubhouse, which, thankfully, provided some funny photos!

Photo by Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale
The rain really put a damper on my departure date as well. I had portraits scheduled that had to be rescheduled and after discussions with by boss Dave Einsel, it was determined that getting the job done right was more important than cutting corners.

So I called to get my flight moved back a day and was told that I was flying on a "class G" ticket (which, from her tone of voice, meant that I was just about scum level, in the airline's eyes!) Apparently, when you turn in an unused (penalty) ticket you don't really rate. And she said that the next loser flight out on that class was Tuesday at midnight! (I finally talked my way onto an earlier flight, but what a pain!)

The final day I was all set up to shoot our outfielders, Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo, and Daryle Ward.

(None of who are known for their blinding speed or trim physiques.)

It was Sunday morning and the sun was finally shining again...Lance looks over at me and says, " What's the story on, here? The slowest outfield in the majors?" (I was laughing so hard, I almost fell into the muddy warning track!)

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
This year after the guys leave Osceola County Stadium the construction crews will begin the process of building a new stadium and clubhouse, as well as the rodeo arena that shares a parking lot with the baseball stadium complex. So, next year it willhave a whole new feel.

And, this year, more so than in the past I have felt that time was catching up to some of my "family". I almost lost one of my retiree gate-buddies to prostrate cancer. And Helen "the cookie lady", is battling rheumatoid arthritis, and is as frail as laundry, fluttering on a line. (Daryle Ward WISHES he could drop 40 pounds as quickly as she did!)

But, like the song says, to everything there is a season...and mine is baseball.

(Karen Warren is a staff photographer at the Houston Chronicle.)

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