Wild Pitches: April showers give way to shivers
The start of the baseball season saw a premium on heaters, and we're not talking about fastballs.
When you think of baseball, you're supposed to think of that golden sun shining, birds chirping, spring beckoning.
When you think of baseball, you're NOT supposed to think of guys hitting home runs in ski masks. Or snow plows clearing the parking lots. Or fans who could be dressed for the next Olympic giant slalom.
But if you were looking for those harbingers of spring in a ballpark near you last week, you sure as heck weren't looking anywhere north of, say, Cancun -- or east of, oh, San Diego. Not in a week when five games were snowed out and about 40 more were played in weather more suitable for the Manitoba Curling Association.
"We're definitely not the Boys of Summer right now," said Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf.
No, the Boys of Summer never shiver. But the boys of baseball never stopped shivering last week. So here's Wild Pitches' look at baseball's Winter Olympiad:
There aren't enough long-sleeve shirts in the world to stuff under a guy's uniform when it's 27 degrees out. So if you saw some players walking around last week, looking as if they'd just eaten 17 ice-cream sundaes, that's why. The magic word: Layers.
"I think it was colder here (in Philadelphia) than it was when I went to the Bears-Packers game at Lambeau Field in December," Braves reliever Ray King told Wild Pitches.
So King made outerwear makers everywhere proud. He wore TWO jackets -- a stylish blue Braves jacket with a cool black MLB jacket over that.
"That might be a first," King said. "That could be a historic moment. But as long as I'm warm, I don't care."
Even multiple jackets have their limits, though. And by limits, we mean the old coconut. So when it came to headgear, anything went last week.
We always thought that nothing says springtime like the sight of Robert Fick playing first base wearing a ski mask OVER his baseball cap, or Vinny Castilla wrapping a scarf over his mouth at third base.
"Hey," King said, "it's not a fashion show."
It's a good thing, too. Castilla had enough fabric wound around his head to outfit an entire neighborhood. But was he ashamed of himself? No way.
"It was FREEZING out there, man," Castilla defended himself. "I played in Colorado, but this was the coldest I've ever been."
"It's a good thing we don't give verbal signals," King laughed. "He wouldn't have heard a word."
But some people know better than to dress for a ball game as if they're Admiral Byrd heading for the North Pole. There's a term for those people: Veterans.
In any kind of weather, you depend on the men in the bullpen to put out your fire. But in weather like this, you might mean that more literally than you had in mind.
Our old amigo, John Kruk, tells the story of a night in Salt Lake City, when he was in the minor leagues, where it was so cold that the relief pitchers tried to find warmth by lighting a fire in a barrel. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
"Next thing you know," Kruk reminisced, "I'm out playing left field, and I smell something. I look out at the bullpen, and smoke is everywhere. And the whole bullpen is on fire. It was bad."
Allow yourself to imagine that scene for just a moment. OK, fine. We now return to John Kruk for the punch line.
"Those (bums) were warm, though," Kruk chuckled.
Phillies reliever Dan Plesac happens to be a 17-year veteran. And not only that. He's played 12 of those years in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. So he knows cold. And Plesac, calling on that veteran wisdom, said the object is NOT to make yourself too warm too soon.
"If you put those big parkas on and you have your mittens and your leg warmers and your face mask, when you have to take them all off, it's like you went to Antarctica," Plesac said.
And he ought to know. Plesac, after all, put in seven years in the coldest baseball place on earth -- pre-domed Milwaukee, where winter finally gives up somewhere around the 4th of July.
"My first two years in County Stadium, we had no heaters in the bullpen," Plesac said. "So everyone tried cramming into the bathroom for warmth. Imagine 20 guys trying to cram into one little bathroom with one toilet. You'd walk in, and there'd be eight Brewers and eight Yankees. You didn't have room to unbutton your pants in there.
"Then in '88, we finally got a heater, like the ones the Packers used to use. I thought that was good. But it took some getting used to. I used to stuff a baseball and my gum inside my glove, so if the phone rang, I was ready. But one night, I reached in there and the gum was frozen to the leather on the mitt. So I pulled it out and there was still some leather on the gum. When I put it in my mouth, it was like eating a Rawlings granola bar.
"So then I took the glove and put it next to the heater. I didn't know it would singe the glove. When I came out of the game, there were all kinds of cuts and scratches on my hand from the inside lining of the glove -- because I melted it."
You would think a guy from El Camino Real wouldn't be able to handle these wintry climes he lives in. You would think, being a true southern Californian, Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf would consider the three scariest words in baseball to be wind chill factor.
But Wolf told Wild Pitches he's more adaptable than he may look.
"The East Coast is like a virus," he said. "It grows on you."
So Wolf has learned to use the elements to his advantage, he claims. And he starts by sizing up the hitter: Is he gearing up for baseball? Or frostbite?
"Those Ninja masks guys wear up there -- I like that," Wolf said. "The more a guy has on, the more he's telling me he hates cold weather."
In theory, you would think Wolf would hate cold weather himself. But he's done actual serious research into mind-over-weather techniques. So while some players look longingly toward the tropics at times like this, Wolf looks toward ... uh ... Tibet?
"You kind of have to have that Tibetan monk philosophy," Wolf said, "and kind of block it out. Those Tibetan monks are unbelievable. Those guys actually go out in the cold in a wet blanket. Then they sit there at the foot of the temples all night in the snow and actually INCREASE their body temperature. You can even see steam coming out of their wet blankets."
So how will we know when Randy Wolf has officially willed himself to warmth on the mound? Easy.
"When you see me steaming," he said.
The pride of Curacao
Down there in the Netherland Antilles, they don't worry about ski masks and sweatshirts when they play baseball. That, says Andruw Jones, is because, as best he can remember, the coldest it has EVER gotten in his hometown of Willemstad, Curacao is 85 degrees.
So all it took was one look at Andruw Jones last week to know he hadn't been indoctrinated into the joys of Tibetan monkhood.
"It might be the first time ever I didn't want the ball hit to me," Jones told Wild Pitches. "You can't feel your hands. You can't feel the glove. You can't feel the bat. You really don't want to swing. You really don't want to move."
So 85 degrees, huh? We wondered if maybe the solution to this weather mess was to move the entire first month of the season to Curacao until this Iditarod front blows over. Jones mentioned he was actually helping to finance a new professional baseball stadium in Curacao. We asked if there was any chance he could finish construction by, oh, 7 p.m.
"By 7 o'clock? No," Jones said. "But we're trying for 2005."
Of course, we could all be dead of frostbite by 2005. But we'll leave that vision out there, as something we can all shoot for.
More Weather Channel Wild Pitches
"We're gathering in pubs,
"Cheering for the Cubs,
"Even though they are at home
"In their hot tubs."
Sounds like a hit to us.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com.