Murti: Memories From Covering My 1st Yankees Spring Training In 2001

Bombers Return To Tampa This Week

Sweeny Murti
February 10, 2020 - 12:01 pm
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This week I begin my 20th spring training as the Yankees reporter for WFAN. 

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My first spring training, in 2001, began with the Yankees arriving in Tampa, Florida, as the three-time defending World Series champions. And they had just reinforced their rotation by signing free agent Mike Mussina. He was the first in a series of high-profile acquisitions who for me made every offseason a new kind of season — one in which the games stopped for a while but the action did not.

I have collectively spent more than two years of my life in Tampa, almost exclusively in the months of February and March. Here are a few memories from my first spring in 2001.

A general view of the players on the field during the national anthem before a spring training game between the Yankees and Blue Jays on March 2, 2001, at Legends Field in Tampa, Florida.
Ezra Shaw/Allsport

There is always a ceremonial feel to the first workout for pitchers and catchers. The Yankees played this up by sending their top starters out to the bullpen all at once for their first 10-minute throwing sessions. On the first four bullpen mounds were Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez and Mussina. On the fifth mound was Dwight Gooden, a nod to his veteran status more than anything and not a signal that he had a firm grasp on the fifth rotation spot.  

Gooden’s catcher was David Parrish, the Yankees’ first-round pick in 2000 and the son of former All-Star Lance Parrish. The nerd in me came out then because I remembered that 19-year-old Gooden struck out Lance in the 1984 All-Star Game. The younger Parrish got a brief call-up to the majors a year or two later but never made it into a major league game. 

* * * * * 

One morning I saw a little window of time to leave the complex for some breakfast, so I got into my car and headed south on Dale Mabry Boulevard. I was stopped at a red light — Tampa has the longest red lights on the planet — when a car pulled up next to me and the driver began signaling to roll down my window. It was Gooden.  

I rolled down my window and heard Doc yell out, “Hey, man, you got a flat tire!”  

“Oh ****, really?”  I said.

“Nah, man, I’m just messin’ with ya,” Gooden laughed. And as the light turned green he peeled out down the road, leaving behind some rubber from his own tires.  

Bells should have gone off in my head when Gooden was leaving the complex so early, but I was young and more concerned with breakfast than a story. The next morning Gooden, who had pitched to a 7.90 ERA in six spring outings, announced his retirement.  

And I swear he remembers the flat-tire gag as much as he remembers winning the Cy Young Award or pitching a no-hitter because he asks me about it every single time I see him. Every. Single. Time.

* * * * * 

After some injuries early in the spring, the Yankees brought another ’86 Met, Sid Fernandez, in for a tryout. It seemed a little desperate — El Sid hadn’t pitched anywhere in four years. But he had a relationship with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre from his Mets days, so the Yanks gave him a look. Fernandez pitched to a 5.29 ERA in 17 innings and didn’t make the team. He then made one appearance for Triple-A Columbus and never pitched again.  

* * * * * 

George Clooney stopped by to hang out at camp one day. Yes, that George Clooney. He was in Tampa shooting part of “Ocean’s Eleven,” and during batting practice he hung out in the dugout chatting easily with the reporters. I was still getting my feet wet, so rather than talk to Clooney, I intently watched practice. I’ve since learned early spring workouts really aren’t important enough to miss the chance to talk baseball with one of the biggest movie stars in the world. I promise I will not make the same mistake if Jennifer Aniston stops by next week to watch BP. 

* * * * * 

After a night game in Tampa early in the spring, I went to the Bennigan’s on Dale Mabry to meet a few colleagues for a late meal and a drink. I went to the bar to wait for them and saw in a seat across the way a familiar face. It was Bernie Williams, mildly trying to go incognito with a generic baseball cap pulled down low. Dozens of Yankees fans surrounded him, but no one seemed to recognize him. Bernie waved at me. I waved back.  He waved me over to his side of the bar.

“Sweeny, how you doing?” Bernie asked as he reached out to shake my hand. 

I had been on the job for, what, two weeks? I didn’t think any of the players knew my name yet.  

Bernie offered to buy me a beer. I told him thanks, but, no, I was just waiting for some friends who would be here shortly.

The Yankees' Bernie Williams takes a swing at the ball during a spring training game on March 2, 2001, against the Blue Jays at the Legends Field in Tampa, Florida.
Ezra Shaw /Allsport

“I heard you’re a Phillies fan,” Bernie said to me.

“Well, I’m from Pennsylvania,” I said. “I grew up a big Phillies fan.”

At that moment, I flashed back to a Yankees-Phillies series the previous summer in which Bernie steamrolled Mike Lieberthal at home plate twice in the same game.  

“Wait!” I exclaimed. “You ran over my catcher last year! Twice!”

We both laughed.  And then it occurred to me that Bernie had been checking up on me. Wow, that was something. Were the players really trying to learn more about me while I was trying to learn more about them?

I thanked Bernie and left him alone. But it was the beginning of two decades of pretty cool dealings between Bernie and me.  

* * * * * 

My introduction to the world of A-Rod was when the famous Esquire article came out that spring. You know, the one in which the Rangers shortstop took a swipe at his then-bestie Derek Jeter. And it was major news since Jeter was practically the face of baseball, while A-Rod was the still unsullied superstar, the best player in the game with the richest contract in professional sports.  

A-Rod met with reporters a week or two later in the dugout before a Rangers-Yankees night game in Tampa. He sounded contrite, bothered that he had unintentionally hurt one of his closest friends.  

I circled back to the Rangers clubhouse not too long after, when A-Rod spotted me in the hall and asked what I thought about his apologetic remarks. I told him he came off genuine, and he told me the last thing he wanted to do was harm his relationship with Jeter.

What is clear to me now is that it was not the last time A-Rod was concerned with his image, but it was the beginning of the end of the Jeter friendship as we knew it.

* * * * * 

Scott Brosius and Paul O’Neill were two players I had a very hard time connecting with. No matter the subject, they didn’t really seem interested in talking to me. Maybe they both knew that 2001 was going to be their last year and they didn’t really have the time to get to know a rookie reporter. Or maybe I just asked bad questions and wasn’t any fun to talk to. I get along fine with Paulie these days, and while I’ve seen Brosius a few times over the years, I don’t know him all that well.  

* * * * * 

Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing yips became topic No. 1 early in camp. They didn’t improve. Halfway through the exhibition schedule, Joe Torre made a change, switching Knoblauch with his left fielder, Alfonso Soriano. At just 25 years old, Soriano was blossoming. He led the Yankees that spring with a .348 average and five home runs.  

Soriano was a joy to cover in both of his tenures as a Yankee — fun to watch and fun to talk to. Knoblauch was interesting for a while, but he shut down reporters altogether about halfway through the 2001 season. I saw him once with Kansas City the following year and then once on the road in Houston about 10 years later. It’s a shame what happened to him as a player because he came to New York on a path to the Hall of Fame. And for a while, it looked like Soriano was headed there, too.

* * * * * 

Despite their rich rotation, the Yankees still had trouble finding a fifth starter. Gooden and Fernandez didn’t make it. And for the time being, neither did young Ted Lilly or veteran Scott Kamieniecki.  

Christian Parker, acquired along with Lilly in the Hideki Irabu trade with Montreal in 1999, suddenly emerged midway through the spring. He broke camp as the Yankees’ fifth starter.

Parker made his first — and only — major league start April 6, 2001. Turns out Parker had been pitching through a sore shoulder in order to win the spot. Later that summer, he had shoulder surgery and never pitched in the majors again.

Every spring, when managers talk about wanting players to be smart about injuries, I think of Parker. In fact, I tracked him down last year and spoke to him about it, a conversation you can hear in an upcoming “30 With Murti” podcast.

* * * * * 

Jeff Sparks was another guy who got my attention that spring. Because you could hear him throwing from across the field. During bullpen sessions, Sparks would grunt like Nolan Ryan on every pitch. But he didn’t throw anything like Ryan. And despite being tutored by former Cy Young Award winner and screwball specialist Mike Marshall, Sparks gave up seven runs in just 3⅓ spring innings and never pitched professionally again.

* * * * * 

As I introduced myself around to the different guys, I made a point to befriend Allen Watson. “Watty” was from Queens, and I had met him a few years earlier at a WFAN charity basketball game at his alma mater, Christ the King. I told Watty I watched him rain 3s on us poor chumps from the radio station. He laughed, and when I told him I’d be around the team all season, he said, “Don’t worry, man, I’ll take care of you.”

Watty was cut soon after, and I haven’t seen him since.

* * * * * 

From the outside, David Justice seemed like a fun guy to talk to, but in spring training, I had little success getting him to open up. I remember one particular interview that was met with a lot of one- and two-word answers and zero eye contact. After about the third or fourth question, Justice looked right at me and said, “Aren’t I a terrible interview?” It was his way of trying to make me leave him alone.

Several weeks later, during the first road trip of the season in Kansas City, I sidled up to Justice’s locker and began asking him questions about the great Braves teams of the early 1990s. I asked if he remembered a leaping Otis Nixon catch against the Pirates in 1992. Justice sprang from his seat to re-enact both the catch and his reaction to it since he was standing just a few feet away when it happened.

We talked for the next 45 minutes until it was time for him to take the field for batting practice. From that point on, DJ and I were good.

I paid some dues with those early rounds, but by biding my time, I eventually figured out that to get some guys to talk, you just have to figure out what they want to talk about.  

* * * * * 

Another day I learned you can find breaking stories in different ways. Luis Sojo was on the air with Suzyn Waldman about an hour before an exhibition game in Tampa. I was standing next to Sojo with a headset on when Suzyn asked him which young players in camp had impressed him. 

“Well, I like Wily Mo Pena, but we just traded him to the Reds!” Sojo blurted out.  

Suzyn and I put our heads together and soon figured out that trading Pena to the Reds meant the Yankees were trying to reacquire Drew Henson, who had been traded to Cincinnati the previous summer for Denny Neagle.  Within a short time, the Yankees had announced the trade, and the former Michigan quarterback was on his way back to the Yankees.  

Sometimes it’s the simplest questions that give you the most interesting answers.

* * * * * 

Some of the guys I got to know that spring are people I still chat with now and again, such as Nick Johnson and Shane Spencer.  

But the player I connected with the best was Randy Choate, the chatty lefty reliever whose career went many places near and far for the next decade and a half. Our sessions used to sound so much like a sports talk show that I joked we would one day have our own show together. There is still time, I hope, for “Murti & the Lefty” to find its place on the air.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN.

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