The best spring training trip ever

After years of thinking about it, I decided to take my daughter and head down to Phoenix, AZ to experience some of the Milwaukee Brewers spring training camp. And after the experience we had, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

It was so amazing, I don’t think we could ever have as great of an experience as we did.

To really tell this story, I have to go back to Friday, August 9, 2013. The Brewers had just beaten the Seattle Mariners in Seattle, and my daughter and I were sitting behind the Brewers dugout.

When the game ended, Jerry Narron, the Brewers bench coach, came out of the dugout with this lineup card and asked the usher to hand it to my daughter:

IMG_2922It turns out that Narron’s lineup cards are pretty famous. Narron writes in freehand caligraphy and writes out everyone’s names in their native language (as you can see for Nori Aoki in the number one spot of this particular lineup).

My daugher was ecstatic to receive such an unusual souvenir from the game, and I had no idea Narron wrote these the way he did. It was a night we’d never forget.

So on Sunday, August 11, my daughter and I attended the afternoon series finale. She had brought a thank you card to give to Jerry, and when we saw Bill Schroeder, we asked him if he could find Jerry so we could give it to him. When we found Jerry, he said it was actually his brother, Johnny, the hitting coach, and that he’d see if he could find him. He never did, and we had to assume he passed the card on to his brother.

Fast forward to early March of 2014. I was trying to do some research before we got to Arizona so I knew what to expect and could ensure we had the most fun possible.

Yesterday, I wrote about how when you want something, you should ask for it
. And that’s what I intended to do. When I worked for the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Club in 1992, I was a PR intern. I’d spend a good portion of the day fielding call from fans who were visiting the park from out of town or just taking their kids for the first time. They wanted to see what we could do to make it memorable. Often, depending on the situation, we’d hook them up with great seats (behind home plate) or see if we could arrange a player to visit with them for a minute.

With this in mind, I attempted to contact the Brewers PR and marketing departments. Neither answered or returned my messages. And when I finally called the folks at the Maryvale baseball park, they weren’t really able to help me with any useful information.

Not to be denied, I wrote an email to Todd Rosiak, who covers the Brewers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Though it wasn’t his job, he decided to take on the task of giving me some great tips about spring training. He told me when they start practice, when they leave for away games, what their schedule is like for home game days and the best way to meet or interact with some of the players. Unlike the Brewers club, Todd’s advice was invaluable and spot on. It made a huge difference.

On Thursday, March 20, we arrived and headed to our hotel. I tried to find something near the park and ended up at the Red Roof Inn. It was inexpensive and about two minutes away, by car. But it was a bit nasty.

At 3am the first night, I was awakened by the squeaking bed of the couple next door. (They clocked in at just under 45 minutes.) In general, our room was like a prison cell with a king size bed. Outside was a yard light pointing directly into our room. Even with the heavy curtain, it lit up the room.

The next morning, I started to make a negative comment about the room when my daughter jumped in enthusiastically to tell me how great it was. Her excitement contrasted with my realistic unhappiness reminded me quite a bit of this scene from Ghostbusters:

But, as long as she was happy. One of my past co-workers once told me that having a kid is great because it makes all of the otherwise mundane things in your life seem all exciting and new again. This trip would remind me of that idea many times.

On Friday morning, we headed out to Maryvale to watch practice. We got there somewhat early to check out the grounds. While there, we ran into a security guard named Vivian. She was fantastic. She’d been doing this for 11 years and was able to answer all of my questions about how it works and what kinds of opportunities there will be during the day.

I asked her if we were allowed in the outfield grass to try and catch homeruns during batting practice. She said no, but what she does is pick two kids to go out there and shag balls and throw them back to the players. Each kid is allowed to keep one of the balls. (She said this was a Brewers cost saving move… funny, even professional sports teams go through cost-cutting.)

After she explained this, I looked at my daughter trying to help her see that this was her cue to ask. But she didn’t, and we walked away.

When we got some feet away, I asked her if she wanted to do that. She got all excited and asked, “Can I?” I said, “of course, but you have to ask Vivian if you can.”

So we turned around, and she walked up to Vivian alone to ask if she could. When she came back, she was all smiles and said that she would get to be one of the two.

While we waited for batting practice to start, we went down to the right field stand and watched the players warm up.

IMG_1103We were particularly engaged in watching Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez throw. Braun is very deliberate in his form when warming up. He never threw anything other than picture perfect. And Carlos Gomez, my daughter’s favorite player, is obviously a natural athlete. After throwing, he spent most of the morning playing shortstop and fielding grounders. It looked like his natural position.

After watching warm ups, we walked down, and sought out Jerry Narron. We introduced ourselves and told him about the lineup card in Seattle and how amazing the writing is. Talking directly to my daughter, he explained how anything you do in life, no matter how small, is worth doing to the best of your ability. It was kind of like being in a high school assembly, but I was happy he spent the time to impress that on her.

We told him that we wanted to thank his brother, Johnny, so he called him over. We introduced ourselves and talked for a bit. After we mentioned how unusual the lineup card is, he gave my daughter the exact same speech. It was obvious they were brought up by the same parents.

It was now time for my daughter to head to the outfield to shag flies. As I figured, this experience ended up being a once-in-a-lifetime event for her. She was cruising around collecting balls and throwing them back to the players. We could have gone home after that, and the trip would have been worth it.

IMG_1129That’s her throwing balls to Brandon Kintzler. The kid next to her left just before her. She had about 6 balls in her arms when suddenly, the Brewers all started to head to the locker room. In a panic, she started running across the outfield, not knowing what to do with all the balls.

IMG_1140The last one out, Jerry Narron, noticed her running with all the balls and told her to drop them in the bullpen. Then he told her to keep one for herself.

Two balls for one hour of home run shagging work. Not bad.

With all of the players gone, it was time to head toward Surprise to see the Brewers play at the Rangers’ spring training facility.

It was a fun game, and we sat right behind the Brewers dugout with a bunch of other Brewers fans. When I got the tickets, I figured behind the dugout would give us the best chance to interact with the players.

There wasn’t much interaction until the bottom of the fourth. Yovani Gallardo pitched one to Prince Fielder who grounded it to Scooter Gennett. Scooter threw it to Lyle Overbay at first who ran it in and threw it to my daughter before entering the dugout. We’re a few horus into spring training and my daughter now has received three more major league baseballs than I have in my entire life. (And believe me, I’ve been trying for about 30 years.)

After the game, we headed to Peoria to see the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres play. Unfortunately, Corey Hart wasn’t to be seen anywhere, so we left after a couple innings and prepared for the next day.

On Saturday, we woke up and headed to Maryvale to see the Anaheim Angels visit the Milwaukee Brewers. This time, I had gotten us seats right up against the Brewers bullpen down the right field line. With these seats, we could have reached out and touched all of the Brewers pitchers who warmed up that day. Kyle Lohse was the starter that day, and from what we could tell, he had great stuff…

IMG_1172It was really awesome (in the truest sense of the word) to see them pitch from this angle. You could see exactly what their pitches do, and I’m pretty confident, we’d never get that perspective again.

While Lohse was warming up, several Brewers were making their way down the right field line. We were in the third row, and the Brewers fans were all very friendly (as Wisconsin people tend to be), so we were all helping each other out.

My daughter was able to get her picture with Jonathan Lucroy…

IMG_1160Then Robin Yount, one of the all-time great shortstops, and probably the greatest Brewer player in history, came by and signed an autograph for us…

IMG_1179And then, the most exciting moment of the entire trip… for me! My all-time favorite Brewer – the one I most wanted to be growing up – came walking down the right field line. Brewers slugger and centerfielder Gorman Thomas walked up and was more than happy to talk and take a picture…


After the parade of Brewers, we took some time to seek out Vivian, the security guard. My daughter had written a thank you note, and we wanted to make sure she got it. I believe that if someone enters your life and makes a difference you’ll never forget, it’s nice to let them know. She was amazed and gracious, and I’m sure she felt she had chosen well the day before.

Finally, the game got underway. Carlos Gomez led it off with a homerun, which was really exciting for my daughter. Then there was a fair amount of offense, but nothing special.

As I was watching the game, Zach Duke started to warm up in the bullpen. I took a few pictures, but then went back to watching the game.

IMG_1185I started to get into the game when my daughter tapped me on the shoulder to show me that Zach had given her the ball he was using to warm up. Not even two days, and she was on ball number four.

After Duke, Francisco Rodriguez started warming up. As he was throwing, one of the Angels hitters knocked a foul ball down the right field line. Lucas May, the bullpen catcher, had just thrown the ball back to Rodriguez and gotten back in his crouch when the ball arrived right in his glove. He never had to move. The foul ball was a perfect strike.

When I went back to watching the game, my daughter tapped me on the shoulder again to show me that she had been given another ball. This time, it was the one Rodriguez was throwing.

Five balls in two days. It was almost starting to get a little awkward. It was also really hot. I think the only thing we had more of than baseballs were shaved ices. It was my daughter’s diet for the weekend.

After the game, we took our car to the rental facility and exchanged it for a convertible so we could drive up to the Grand Canyon and look at the stars. The Canyon was excellent, and I’m sure we’ll return to hike down into it (something my daughter really wanted to do).

On our way back, we stopped in Flagstaff to visit an old high school friend who’s a firefighter there. We also took a short trip down classic Route 66. Since she’s singing that in her chorus group right now, she wanted to say she’d driven on it.

Finally, we got back to Phoenix and flew home. All in all, this was one of the greatest and most memorable weekends of my life. I don’t see how spring training could be any better. This trip was all about exposing my daughter to major league baseball, and she had the time of her life. Hopefully, she’ll always remember it.

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