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.

Updated: April 18, 2003, 12:05 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

When you think of baseball, you're supposed to think of that golden sun shining, birds chirping, spring beckoning.

Vinny Castilla
Vinny Castilla said there's no shame doing what it takes to stay warm on the field.

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:

The outerwear
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.

Fick
Fick

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."

The veterans
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.

THE FIREMEN
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."

The Californian
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.

Wolf
Wolf

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.

Jones
Jones

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

  • Shovel Kings of the Week: Among the places where snow shoveling replaced infield raking as the No. 1 item on the official grounds-crew to-do list last week was Detroit. What do you do when you have 950 cubic yards of snow sitting on your baseball field? Shovel like maniacs, obviously. So that's what the gang at Comerica Park did Tuesday and Wednesday, trying to clear the park for a Wednesday afternoon game. John Petit, vice president of Comerica Park operations, told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler that his crew put in a combined 1,400 hours worth of furious snow removal to get the park ready for another Tigers loss. They even dealt with drifts two feet high in parts of the bleachers. "We were going to have that as a giveaway -- complimentary snowballs," Pettit joked. "Or better yet, we would have said, 'DON'T take the snow.' Then we would have been ASSURED it was gone."

  • Media Envy of the Week: It isn't often that a ballplayer looks at a sportswriter and thinks, "I'd rather be you than me." But Omar Vizquel admitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes last week that the sight of snow all over Jacobs Field had changed his perspective. "This is when I'd like to be a journalist, sit in a nice warm press box and eat a couple of hot dogs," Vizquel told Hoynes. "Just for a week or two. Then, when the sun comes out, I could go back and play baseball."

  • Missing Sleeves of the Week: Then there was White Sox pitcher Bartolo Colon. Despite a 22-degree wind chill Tuesday in Cleveland, Colon wore his typical short sleeves, to the amazement of his freeze-dried teammates. "I don't understand that," manager Jerry Manuel told the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein, after Colon had gone six innings and given up just two runs. "I have on five sleeves and he doesn't have any. What's wrong with him out there? He must be feeling pretty good."

  • Captain Crunch of the Week: Dusty Baker now has a new item for his Stuff I Never Saw At Pac Bell list. The Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan reports that Baker went strolling into Wrigley Field for the Cubs' home opener Tuesday. And after he'd completed the journey from parking lot to ballpark, he suddenly noticed something funny underneath his feet. "I didn't know what that crunchy stuff was when I was walking down the hall," Baker said. So what WAS that crunchy stuff? Eight decades worth of crumpled up Cubs World Series tickets? Remnants of Dave Kingman's glove? Old Harry Caray beer nuts? Nope. It was rock salt. To melt all that snow. ... And he thought it used to get cold at those night games in San Francisco, huh?

  • Superstition of the Week: The Brewers were 0-6 when they rolled into Pittsburgh last week. Whereupon, on Wednesday, Brewers starter Todd Ritchie helped right the ship by taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. So that's good, right? Uh, not for his pal, Matt Kinney, it wasn't. As Ritchie kept piling up outs, Kinney was afraid to move from his seat in the dugout. Which wouldn't have been a big deal, by ballplayer superstition standards -- except that it was about minus-78 degrees where that seat was located. "I was freezing my butt off," Kinney said. Asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Drew Olson what he was thinking after that fifth perfect inning, Kinney replied: "I was thinking, `I'm going to get pneumonia.' "

  • Cool Song of the Week: All right, one more weather-related note, and we're done. Perhaps you were asking yourself: Suppose you had tickets to the Cubs' home opener last Monday, and it got snowed out. What would you do? Well, anyone stumped by that question obviously hasn't spent much time around Wrigley Field. You would head for the closest tavern, of course. And the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan reports that's just what many enlightened Cubs fans did. Where they heard Bob Dylan's son-in-law, the sensational Peter Himmelman, make up and sing the following little ditty:

    "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.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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