A Wonderful All-Baseball Weekend

“Do you know what Jackie’s impact was?  Well, let Martin Luther King tell you.  In 1968, Martin had dinner in my house with my family. This was 28 days before he was assassinated.  He said to me, “Don, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change. You, Jackie, and Roy will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job.” Can you imagine that?  How easy we made it for Martin Luther King!”

-Former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe

That, perhaps, is the only connection I can think of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to baseball.  I had to wonder, because on the weekend of of the holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday, baseball was swirling in the air non-stop all weekend around Socal.  Tournaments, a 5K benefit, the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation Dinner, and last, but not least, the very first National Baseball Expo.  I almost wish they had rescheduled the Expo–or at least converted it to an outdoor event–because with the focus on baseball, it was too beautiful a weekend to spend indoors.  (And I’m not usually one for spending a lot of time cooped up inside!)

My weekend began on Friday, January 14, with picking up friends from out-of-state who were coming in to town for the Expo, escaping the frigid temps and snow of the Midwest.   A late
afternoon winter league game set the tone for the next couple of days’ events.   Baseball was definitely in the air, and there’s something about going to a game in January that does my soul good.   We grilled Dodger Dogs® to take along with us, a treat that was new and a positive experience for my visiting guests. 

Now, not much would get me out of the house at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but again, another event having to do with baseball was one of them–coupled with a gorgeous day outdoors.   This was the day of the Strasburg/Gwynn 5K at San Diego State University, for the benefit of the Aztecs baseball team, and I met my friend Cathy, a diehard Padre fan, for the early morning start.   The San Diego sun was shining brightly even as I left my driveway shortly after 7, and 15 minutes later I was parking in the SDSU garage with hundreds of others, all of us ready to get moving for the Aztecs.  The 5K wound around the lovely campus of SDSU and ended at the baseball field, where there were refreshments, music and autograph sessions all around.  There, a festive atmosphere welcomed us as Stephen mingled freely among the runners and walkers, wearing his old Aztecs uniform, was interviewed by several local and national media outlets, and made himself accessible to fans of all ages.   Hall of Famer and Aztecs manager Tony Gwynn, beloved local icon, was making his first public appearance on behalf of his team after his recent cancer treatments.   Local favorite baseball family, the Boones, were there signing, too (Bob and Bret Boone had participated in the 5K); the current SDSU team, all in uniform, signed their 2011 team photo for fans and seemed to be taking it all in stride.  All in all, there was a real baseball groove going on, with so many families participating in the events.  All participants received an autographed photo of Stephen and several other freebies (tickets to Aztecs and Padres games).  As noted above, Stephen was pretty accessible to fans and media alike.  There were jokes made that it should have been
an “18K” instead of a “5K” in deference to Stephen’s masterful pitching
performance.

I had last been here at SDSU in early November for the annual Red-Black Series.  But after that, baseball took a back seat to football as the vastly improved Aztecs won the Poinsettia Bowl, and the hoops team won its first 20 games of the season without a defeat.  Yet here we were, back to having it be all about baseball on a glorious day.  California state budget cuts might loom, and that’s what prompted this event in the first place. 

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The event was a benefit for the Aztecs baseball program that turned an overweight and underwhelming, but obviously talented, pitcher from West Hills High into the certifiable sensation of both amateur and professional baseball.  Since the (Tommy John) operation, Strasburg has been working toward his degree with public-administration courses, but also getting his lesson in resilience from the SDSU head coach whose own name adorns the Aztecs ballpark.

“He came by the office,” said Tony Gwynn, also present at Saturday’s event.  “He feels like he’s ahead of schedule. He feels like he’s gonna be able to throw sooner than anybody thought.  I was telling him, ‘Hey, slow dowwwwwn. Tommy John, man. Tommy John.’ “

From the Washington Post:

“The program really needed it this year,” (Strasburg) said.  “They’re all Aztecs
to me.  We’re all here for the same reason, because we love the game and
we love this school.   It’s great to give back.”
Strasburg 5K.jpg

Once Cathy and I were finished with everything, this was followed by a late morning baseball tournament game and post-game BBQ; then we were on our way to our next event.  We met up with my friends from Illinois and jetted up the coast to the scenic town of Del Mar, north of San Diego, “where the surf meets the turf.”  Known for its thoroughbred racing in the summer and other events throughout the year which take place on the seaside fairgrounds, this was the scene of the first National Baseball Expo, which we’d been awaiting for several months.  Bing Crosby Hall, named after one of the racetrack and fairgrounds’ founders, was the location, and since this was the inaugural edition of this event, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, although I had some idea.  I wasn’t disappointed.  If you love this great game, you wouldn’t be either. 

“The National Baseball Expo is an exciting consumer show that will be a “must attend” event for all Southern Californians who share the enthusiasm for America’s pastime.

The ad in several baseball publications I receive certainly piqued my curiosity.

“Vendors will encompass every potential baseball interest a consumer might desire.  It truly will be the one-stop shop for everything baseball.”

The All-Star Fanfest, at which I worked last summer, celebrated the love of Major League Baseball.  This expo was not limited to that alone.

Inside, Crosby Hall was teeming with people of all ages sharing that love for the game.  I was pleased to see that this event covered nearly every aspect of the love of the game of baseball, from playing to being a fan.  I was also proud that San Diego was the location for such an expo.  Exhibits and displays, ranging from instruction, to baseball gear, to autograph sessions, to memorabilia (my favorite).  I ran into several people I’d come to know in the
local baseball community over the years, as well as many visitors from
out of the area.  Some were from other parts of the country, but in
particular I encountered a few of my L.A./Dodger fan friends here, too.

Over the course of the weekend, some of the highlights were as follows:

-White Sox veteran Omar Vizquel was on hand to fielding demonstrations.  

-Former Dodger Reggie Smith was there to discuss his playing days, his sense of fulfillment in working as a baseball instructor, and in particular, gripsize.com, a concept he’s working with today.  From their website:

“If you play baseball, you will be given the proper bat handle size for both hands and the beginning and end point of your stride at the plate.  Your perception of the point of the release of the pitch and the position of the ball as it approaches the plate will be precisely accurate.  The wrong bat handle size or an imbalance stance at the plate and the perception of the release of the pitch and the position of the ball as it approaches the plate will be inaccurate.  Reggie Smith tested these perceptual changes with over 50 major league players during 2009 Spring Training in Florida.”

-Among the vendors were some of the best baseball schools around.   Former Oakland Athletics star Eric Chavez showcased his baseball academy in Rancho Bernardo.  (Chavez would also this week privately work out for the Dodgers.)  Gonzalez Sports Academy, which was established a couple of years ago by then-Padre, now Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez and his brother Edgar, had established a strong presence, too. 

-Padres ace Mat Latos and All-Star closer Heath Bell were on hand for interviews and fan autographs. 

-Free samples were given of a variety of products.  When I was handed some packs of sunflower seeds, and opened them only to note the brand name on the package was Giant sunflower seeds, I almost choked!

--Weekend-long appearances by several players from the AAGPBL. 
These spunky ladies are always a hit wherever they go.

On the second day of the expo, I wore my “Diamonds for Women” Tshirt and fielded a few inquiries about the site. 

The event attendance thrived in the early afternoon hours on Sunday, and we were content to immerse ourselves once again in baseball and nothing but.   Also on this day, with so many pieces from the memorabilia dealers discounted for the last hours of the expo, I was happy to pick up some rare photos from the 1960s and ’70s-era Dodgers, some signed by the Dodger coaching staff.  It’s interesting to note that within a couple of days, two of the coaches on the staff had passed away. 

But the prized item of all wasn’t for sale; it was simply being transported like the precious item it is, by an elderly lady who carried an autographed baseball in a case, from exhibit to exhibit.  She was wondering if anyone could appraise the value of it–“not that it’s for sale, mind you–I’m just wondering.”  That rare baseball was signed by the Boys of Summer–the 1955 Dodgers.  My eyes lit up.  It turned out the woman had lived in Brooklyn and regularly attended games at Ebbets Field with her family:   “We would get a different player’s autograph each time we went to the park.  It was a wonderful time in baseball.”   She told me she’d moved to California from New Jersey only two years earlier.  We talked for quite a bit afterward about the many former Brooklynites I know around this region, but the Padre players (and at least one former Dodger) who were on hand for autographs during this time frame were very interested in perusing this artifact themselves.  They called out the names as they identified the players’ signatures, marveling at this small piece of history before their eyes.

On Sunday, the 2009 Little League champions, Park View LL, were on hand for autographs 17 months after their phenomenal run through Williamsport, PA being crowned the Little League World Series victors.  Copies of the book written about them last year were available for purchase, with the authors also present to sign them.

As mentioned above, I also loved that this expo was a celebration of the game, not just any one team, not just any one facet of the game.  The many conventions and caravans that take place at this time of year are often focused on individual teams rather than on simply the love of baseball.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me the game is bigger than any one team, bigger than simply being a fan and spectator, or a player.  This expo encompassed all of the above–in baseball terms, covered virtually all the bases. 

I loved seeing so many families present in Crosby Hall.  The $10 entry fee ($5 for kids) made this event affordable for so many, and while the majority of the vendors were male, I was happy to see so many young females perusing the exhibits.  Some kids came in uniform straight from playing in their own winter league games.

However, since this was indeed the first ever National Baseball Expo, I did note some room for improvement and expect that my suggestions will be taken into consideration.  The organizers were accessible and provided an email address for me to send any feedback and ideas for future editions of the expo.  There was even talk going on of moving it to Petco Park, although I liked the concept of the location remaining north of the city, so as to allow easier access for fans from Orange County and Los Angeles.  Still, since there is talk of expansion to other cities (and at least to the Bay Area), this might not be an issue in the future.  Whatever changes or additions are made, I am simply happy I had the opportunity attend the very first one. 

Later in the afternoon, as everything wound down, we ducked our heads into the San Diego Ski and Snowboard Megasale next door in the Exhibit Hall (admission free), before leaving the Del Mar fairgrounds.  And on the way out, I thought about how in just five months I will be hauling assorted items from my own baseball memorabilia collection to these same grounds for the San Diego County Fair, at which I enter the annual Home & Hobby competition in the Collections Division.  

The day was capped off watching a late afternoon game just a couple of miles inland, with a nice ocean breeze blowing off our backs.  I could almost swear it was really baseball season! 

Let everyone else fixate on football or shoveling snow.   For awhile on a lazy, sunny afternoon, the crack of the bat and cheers of the fans were all I could hear. 

This was also the weekend of the Professional Baseball Scouts Dinner in Los Angeles, something I enjoy seeing in the spotlight, as scouts are the “unsung heroes” of baseball.  There may be a lot of glitz at the awards presentation, but there isn’t much in the job itself.  Last year another friend and I attended the event, but this year it was just too much to fit into one weekend.  I’m envious of several of my friends in L.A. who did go to this dinner after spending the day in Del Mar (although none of them did the 5K, too).  Still, these are some true diehard baseball fans!  

My out-of-state friends were thrilled with their experiences of this mid-winter trip.  Unless you were going skiing or boarding in our mountains on this weekend, no deep freeze was needed for a few days of drowning in the love of baseball, both on and off the field.  It sure beat the alternative!

Because as much as I love a great baseball discussion, or reading a good baseball book, there’s nothing quite like being at a game.  The National Baseball Expo ran a close second, though.

Other notes…

–In an earlier era (pre-McCourt owned Dodgers), the beginning of January used to mean “winter workouts” began to take place at Dodger Stadium.  That all changed in the mid-2000s, and now the new tradition is prospects mini-camp, which took place in Chavez Ravine the week before all of the above.  I still miss winter workouts, though.

–Congratulations to Bert Blyleven for finally making it into the Hall of Fame!  The former Santiago High star’s induction is long overdue.  And while no Dodger player has been inducted in over a decade, still, an amazing total of  7 CIF players produced by L.A. area high schools between 1969-1978 are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame–certainly cause for pride in SoCal’s baseball roots.  (If you can name the other six, you know baseball!)  That decade corresponded with my own youth and budding interest in this beautiful game.  Blyleven has often cited his inspiration as the ’60s-era Dodgers when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale reigned on the mound, as his family moved from Canada to Orange County, CA when he was a child.   He is a most deserving candidate.  And with the passing of Bob Feller last month, native Angeleno Bobby Doerr is now the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame.

–Congratulations to Trevor Hoffman, who retired this month after a wonderful career which he leaves as the all-time saves leader.  Hoffy, who grew up not far from where Blyleven did in Orange County (Savannah High, University of Arizona), will join fellow ex-Padres Mark Loretta, Dave Roberts and Brad Ausmus in the Padres’ front office this year.  That’s one classy F.O., and I might add, Hoffman is the only one of the four who did not play for the Dodgers, too–although his brother Glenn coached for them before moving on to the Padres’ coaching staff. 

5 Comments

Long time, no see. I was there on Sunday to see the kids from Chula Vista. Had my son and 4 of his teammates and we all had a good time. Got a question here about Strasburg. Someone said the 5K is going to be a regular event every year, do you know anything about that?

It was a lot of fun hanging out with you! Hope I will see you guys again soon. Give me that email addy again as I want to make suggestions too. Lots of good stuff going on there.

George Brett, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Tony Gwynn, Gary Carter, Blyleven and who else?

I will have to think about that one! The Expo was great stuff and I’m glad I made the trip down for it. I agree, those Padres have some pretty good guys in their front office. Let us know how the Blue Bombers book is.

Well, I see all the work I was doing on our Annual Report at work prevented me from getting back here a couple of weeks ago! LOL…I must stop working so hard. :)

Sam, I think they are going to try and hold that annually, to benefit SDSU. Cathy, I sent the email address. Sadpadres, Robin Yount is the seventh CIF player from that 10-year period who made it into the Hall of Fame. That’s pretty good that you got 6 of them right! :)

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