When my wife Sheena asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I stared at her blankly.
“Nothing,” I said after a few minutes. Maybe that’s not the most polite response but considering I turned 46, and it’s in the middle of the pandemic I really don’t need or want much.
But, then I had a bright idea. I proposed a solo trip to the Baseball Weekend at Hot Springs. A lecture about local baseball history that began with Major League Baseball spring training in the late 1800s and lectures from one of my all-time favorite Chicago Cubs, Lee Smith, and former St. Louis Cardinals (Boo!) Ted Simmons and Al Hrabosky. That meant she’d be in charge of getting my youngest son to baseball tryouts, which I really hated to miss. She eagerly agreed.
So, it was set, I’d spend a carefree afternoon in a large hall at the Hot Springs Convention Center (socially distanced and masked of course) with a bunch of fellow baseball nerds. The perfect way to spend the day after my birthday.
I had an idea of how well-run and fun this would be after attending the first Weekend two years ago with my dad. We opted to attend the Friday night gathering which included a lecture and meet and greet with former Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins and Hrabosky.
After helping get Luke ready for tryouts, I was a little late for the first lecture which featured local historian Mike Dugan moderating a panel of other baseball historians from around the country. They discussed a multitude of topics including New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth’s place in Hot Springs lore and how eventually the Yankees banned him from the adult playground which included gambling, golf and night life.
There was also talk on the Negro Leagues residing in Hot Springs for several springs and great tidbit on how Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Famer Honus Wagner, also a standout basketball player, worked with Hot Springs High School athletes and eventually the Trojans adopted the Pirates’ black and gold as its school colors in honor of Wagner and the tutelage and equipment he donated to the school.
Then Smith took the stage with Dugan. I knew Smith’s figure to be intimidating after watching him on TV, but seeing him in person, even as I socially distanced in the back of the cavernous hall, he loomed large. He was a terrific interview – very personable and chuckled a lot.
I enjoyed learning that he loved longtime Cubs TV and radio play-by-play man Harry Caray, but he couldn’t recall many of the stories because he was “too drunk.” That seems par for the course with Caray who was known for his late-night cocktail-infused dinners. Former Cubs catcher Jody Davis was a favorite of mine from the 1984 Cubs club which won the NL East, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that Smith counted Davis as his top battery mate during his long and illustrious career.
We cleared the auditorium for the second time, for pandemic disinfecting purposes, and Simmons and Hrabosky took the stage. Simmons, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020, is an astute baseball mind, as most catchers are, and very straight forward and serious about the game, which is a stark contrast from Hrabosky, who is known as a brash story teller.
Simmons, who is a former general manager and now a scout, discussed how analytics have become prevalent in the MLB and how older baseball men like him have become extinct. He claims the only reason he’s still considered relevant is because he has learned the terminology of the baseball academics. “It’s hard to argue with a guy who graduated from Duke with a Ph.D. in quantum physics,” Simmons said. Still, on occasions when his gut instinct is strong regarding a prospect, he will gently tell the younger numbers guy, “Based on my experience …” and his voice will be heard. It’s an interesting give and take, which the intelligent Simmons has artfully mastered because unlike other men from his era, he doesn’t write off the whiz kids because he still wants to be involved in the game. Now, that means a different approach from decades ago from front office staff.
Hrabosky, known as “The Mad Hungarian” from his intense approach to relief pitching, was once again animated and opinionated. He doesn’t like the new pandemic MLB extra innings rules that allow a runner to begin the 10th inning on second base, and he questions if MLB commissioner Rob Manfred “really likes baseball” because of that rule. He also thinks youth travel baseball “is a racket” (I’ll drink to that, Mad Hungarian!) and lauded his son-in-law who coaches a 12-year-old team that is all inclusive and doesn’t just cater to upper class suburbanites, which has become prevalent in the travel game.
The final program was a Q&A with the three former players. I took my opportunity to ask Smith about current Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, who has struggled mightily to start the season. Smith pointed out that Kimbrel’s fastball isn’t as live as usual and that he isn’t getting to his secondary pitches to complete his arsenal. He said Kimbrel needs to work his off-speed pitches but to do that the fastball must be electric as usual. He also admitted most of Kimbrel’s problems were mental.
As we adjourned, I wished I was going a few steps from the Convention Center to have dinner at one of Hot Springs’ fine restaurants and return for an evening session. I can’t listen to baseball talk enough.
A big kudos to Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison and his staff, including my dear friend Derek Phillips, who is the manager of the new Majestic Park, which held a ceremonial groundbreaking to begin the weekend with help from the former MLB dignitaries. Majestic Park will be a state-of-the-art youth baseball complex, designed to revive a local youth baseball league and attract teams statewide for weekend tournaments.
Arrison and co. orchestrated a first-class event, the third in the series. Even in a pandemic, the event on Saturday which included a baseball card show and Baseball Hall of Fame photo exhibit was very organized and safe.
Typically, the MLB guests meet attendees after the program and sign autographs, but with the pandemic, the former players signed 8×10 cards beforehand and Phillips dutifully handed them out to attendees, who waited patiently to grab their souvenir on the way in to each lecture. It was a class move by everyone involved to ensure most attendees went home happy. Luke, my Cardinals fan, got the Hrabosky and Simmons cards and J.D., my Cubbie, got the Smith card with him clad in the Cubs uniform.
If you love baseball, you need to mark your calendars for next year’s weekend. Thanks to a dedicated group in Hot Springs, you’ll have an awesome time.