There were plenty of familiar sights at morning workouts in Surprise on Tuesday. The Josh Hamilton batting practice barrage during which the outfield fence had about as much of a chance as Stan Pietkiewicz guarding Moses Malone. David Murphy and Nelson Cruz putting on power displays of their own that, because those two had the misfortune of hitting in Hamilton's group, played like those Mighty Mouse cartoon trailers before the lights dimmed and "King Kong" got started. Marlon Byrd and Bobby Jones getting their work done and looking like they were having more fun than anyone else doing it.
One thing that was less familiar and, as a result, more conspicuous, was the presence of Elvis Andrus. Not "presence" in the "attendance" sense, but in the "charisma" sense. It's hard to describe, though you'll see it soon enough and know exactly what I'm talking about.
I tried putting it into words in October 2007: "For some players, the ball just sounds different coming off their bat. Some can spin a breaking ball in such a way that you know the hitter has no chance before the pitch is halfway to the plate. There are others, like Andrus, who you can tell are different simply by how they carry themselves. I'm struggling as to how to explain it. It's not really a swagger that Andrus has. It's more of a comfortable magnetism. He reminds me of a feature tailback, or a really good cover corner, with that smile that says he knows he's going to beat you more often than not. He's going to be a leader."
The thing that struck me most yesterday watching Andrus huddle up with Ian Kinsler and Omar Vizquel around the bag at second base shortly after infield practice was over to talk about technique on the pivot, watching Andrus march with Kinsler and Michael Young and Chris Davis to the backstop to get ready to hit, not behind them or off to the side -- but with them, watching every single one of his actions, not with the glove or the bat but instead the body language and demeanor, was that he has this uncanny look of a guy who belongs, who doesn't demand attention but attracts it, whose confidence doesn't rise to the level of arrogance but still leaves any hint of hesitation in the dust, who understands that major decisions were made to pave the way for his arrival but who knows he still has something to prove, something to earn.
The only time there's not a smile on Andrus's face is when his game face takes over. I studied the kid yesterday morning, trying to spot even a momentary sign of a 20-year-old peeking peripherally at the 32-year-old leader or the 26-year-old other leader, looking for a cue, making sure he didn't overstep or misstep, and it never happened. The comfort level that Andrus displays is so natural that it's arresting.
The other display of total cool, of confidence and fearlessness and poise, that I witnessed on Tuesday belonged to someone even younger.
Our eight-year-old daughter Erica, given the school assignment to research and do a report for the class on someone who has made a difference, decided to make Josh Hamilton her subject. She'd seen him do amazing things on the baseball field for the past year and had a surface understanding of what he'd overcome. But as she watched the MLB Network documentary with us earlier this month, she had questions -- the kind that might actually come more naturally to a third-grade student whose curiosity, simply due to life experience, is less nuanced or contrived, more focused.
As the project was coming together a couple weeks ago, I decided to look into the possibility, however unlikely, that Erica could ask Josh a few questions while we were in Surprise. Great people like Dale Petroskey, John Blake, and Rich Rice underpromised and overdelivered, never letting us (and therefore Erica) get our hopes up prematurely. As my family took batting practice in on Tuesday morning, with MLB Network back on hand to put the final touches on this afternoon's "30 Clubs in 30 Days" Rangers episode, we were told that it could happen, just as soon as Hamilton was done with his work -- though he'd already done two interview spots before morning stretch and would customarily sign autographs longer than anyone else when the workout was done, leaving little time to grab something to eat before the day's 1:00 game. We were told we could play it by ear, and we were guardedly optimistic.
Erica had her seven questions written out -- none about playing baseball -- and was ready. Less nervous than Mom and Dad were for her. Ready.
As Hamilton signed autographs just outside the batting practice field for what was probably 20 minutes, Rice gave us the signal. We waited in the third base dugout, and Erica was all set. Hamilton finished signing and walked into the dugout, a safe haven for him for an entire life and completely unfamiliar territory to the eight-year-old whose small window of time was about to creak open.
The world-famous superstar, a man who has probably done more interviews in the last year than the rest of his teammates combined, made Erica feel like it was his privilege to sit down to talk with her. He looked her in the eye (and she never looked away). He applauded her questions with a raised eyebrow, as if to say, "You're how old?" His answers were thoughtful and honest, not watered down because of his audience, and not sanitized. He made Erica smile a lot and laugh a time or two, and he, and she, made her parents incredibly proud. As much as we've all learned about Josh Hamilton over the last year, as inundated as we've all been with his extraordinary story, I hadn't stopped to think that there was yet another amazing side to this guy I hadn't seen or read about, but I was dead wrong.
Minutes after the MLB Network crew decided to stick their cameras and a boom mike over Erica's and Josh's heads (we're told there's a tiny chance that some of the interview may find its way into this afternoon's program), the interview was done, and he posed for a photograph between Erica and Max. Afterwards, he made Erica assure him that she would send him a copy of the photograph, with her autograph on it, because he just knew she'd be a famous reporter one day.In addition to MLB Network, Ginger Newberg and Scott Lucas were there with their cameras and Ted Price had his video equipment, and for those interested, we'll probably have the interview put up on YouTube in the next few days.
Erica took the experience in stride, neither overwhelmed nor smug, in some ways not unlike the way in which Elvis Andrus is handling his own new experience this spring.
It was a very good day.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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