The Time I Played Catch With Scott Rolen
One of my best friends Tim used to work for the Jays. He started on the Grounds Crew, and by the time he left the organization, he had been the Manager of Game Entertainment. That’s not to say that you should all go apply for Grounds Crew jobs in hopes of rocketing up the organization. He had the appropriate Sports Marketing background to make this happen. If you’re wondering what a person in that position might be responsible for, I don’t have his job description, but it included fun things such as who sings the national anthem, and what to show on the Jumbotron. The greatest part about Tim having this position for a while, was that he’s as big a baseball fan as I am. It wasn’t just a job, it was a dream job working for the team that you grew up watching. Way better than the job going to someone who didn’t give a shit.
Being close friends with Tim during this time occasionally provided me with a strange amount of access to certain things Blue Jay related. While I was able to enjoy some of this access periodically, I tried not to overstep my limits. Once in a while I was provided with interesting little insights that the average fan would have no idea about, and every so often I found myself in a situation that the average fan would never find themselves in. As a result, you are going to find that a good chunk of my Blue Jay stories wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Tim. Now, if he wanted to tell you HIS Blue Jay stories, I’m certain it would be worthy of a book. A great read for any true Jays fan. I’ve heard all of these stories, and re-told them periodically when he wasn’t around. Some of them are fascinating. Like ‘holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-happened’ fascinating. My stories fall into the ‘not-that-crazy-but-still-kinda-cool’ category.
I had always wanted to go to Spring Training. Tim went to Florida for 3 weeks every year. It was some of the most important work they would do all year. They would do interviews with all of the players, so they would have footage to use on the Jumbotron at the home games throughout the year. The 162 game schedule is so hectic, that it was really hard to get the players to do these interviews or promotional work during the season, so this was typically done in the pre-season. This seemed like a glamorous work trip to me, but I know it was really hard work. One year my wife and I decided to vacation in Orlando while Spring Training was on, and do a little side trip to that magical place called Dunedin, which I’d only ever heard about. The Spring Training games hadn’t started yet, but the practices had, and guess who got us into the practice facility?
That year Tim wasn’t actually working for the Blue Jays, but was working for a consulting firm that was hired to do his job, and they hired him to do it. Oh, the business world! The only reason I bring this up is because that firm also picked up the contract to do the Tampa Bay Rays game entertainment at the same time. So Tim, who was old hat at running the Blue Jays game entertainment was stationed in Tampa for most of that season, remotely running the Jays as well. That ended up being the season where the Rays went to the World Series (with current Jays David Price and Dioner Navarro), only to lose in 5 games to the Philadelphia Phillies. Tim got an American League Championship ring for his troubles.
When we arrived there, the players were taking some batting practice, but looked like they were just finishing up. Random things that I remember seeing included Jerry Howarth, who is the radio play-by-play voice of the Blue Jays was saying some hellos to the players and coaches. It appeared as if he had just arrived in Florida, and watching him walk around and catch up with people after not seeing them all winter, wasn’t unlike the first day of school, and seeing all your friends at the end of summer break. I remember watching John McDonald taking ground ball after ground ball, while everyone else was standing around like practice was pretty much over, but this guy was putting in all this extra work. He had a reputation for being a phenomenal defender, and just having a peak at his work ethic confirmed how he got there. Hall of Famer Frank Thomas walked past us on the way to the locker room with his bag of bats, and other equipment. He gave us a nice smile and polite wave, which I thought was cool considering we might have been the only people standing around that nobody knew. That was because Tim was really busy. He’d gotten our passes and let us come in and have a look around, but then he had to do a couple of things. My wife and I just walked around and watched the players take turns hitting. We could totally hear all of their conversations. It was pretty fascinating. After a while, Tim came out and got us, and brought us into this room.
His boss, and a cameraman they liked to use were in a room shooting promos with ball players. They would be loosely scheduled to come in after a practice, and spend maybe 30 minutes answering some questions on camera, and perhaps shooting something for one of their sponsors. Tim had to head out because most of his day’s work was to take place at the Rays practice facility, but he introduced us to his co-workers, and asked them to take care of us, and we would meet up later for dinner. So we sat in this room and waited for a few minutes. Tim’s co-workers chatted with us and explained what they did, and we waited for a ballplayer to show up. Every day they would do this, and for the most part the guys dreaded coming in for these interviews. After practicing for several hours, most of them wanted to take naps, or play golf, or who knows what. In walks Scott Rolen.
Scott Rolen was a former All-Star 3rd basemen, who’s best days were behind him, but he was still quite a good player. He was in a crusty mood, so it got real for us right away. Our job was to sit in the background like flies on the wall. The ball players didn’t know who we were. They must have assumed that we worked with them. We’d shake hands as introductions were made. Scott Rolen made it fairly clear that he didn’t want to be there, and he had a long drive back to where he was staying and all sorts of other piss and vinegar. Deb, who was running the shoot wasn’t really one to back down, and showed a little sass when she got her chance. I think Scott liked that, and kind of backed down a bit. It was interesting to see him changeover from spoiled ballplayer to reasonable family man as he sort of realized he hadn’t been too gracious when he walked in. He tried to explain his behaviour, and told us he hadn’t eaten yet, and he has young kids at home that he really wanted to go see, and knowing that there was work here to be done, he decided to ‘play ball’. His interview answers proved him to be a fairly humble guy who didn’t like talking about himself. He was sort of uncomfortable through the entire process. Once that was done, he had to do a couple of ‘action shots’. Like slowly swinging a bat, or making a throw. When they needed him to throw a baseball, they ran into a technical issue. Where was he going to throw this ball? He made the motion of throwing, and hung on to the ball, but it didn’t look good. He needed to actually let go of the ball for the shot to work. If he threw it at the wall, it would make a loud sound, and possibly ricochet off some expensive camera equipment. If someone had a glove, they could catch it, but the only person that had a glove was Scott Rolen. He offered his glove, but the shot would look ridiculous if he wasn’t wearing it. So I finally (meekly) asked Deb if she would like me to stand in front of the wall, and catch the ball? She asked if I would be able to do that without a glove. Scott also seemed concerned. I’d played some baseball growing up. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable talking about that in front of a Major League Baseball Player, but I assured them that if he didn’t whip it hard, that there’s a good chance I would be able to catch it. So after a couple of warm up tosses, we shot that sequence, and it went off perfectly. I didn’t drop the ball, which made me feel useful, and not so bad about basically showing up at someone’s workplace and watching them work. Soon enough, the segment was over, and Scott Rolen left the building a far nicer seeming man, then when he arrived.
“Alex Rios is coming, do you want to stay for another one?” I looked at my wife thinking, man its past lunchtime, and if I’m hungry (with a much bigger reservoir to store food), then she’s gotta be starving, but she probably was recognizing that we were in an extremely unique position at the moment, and said she’d like to stay. This was becoming the most interesting day of my Blue Jay fandom. Periodically people like Pat Hentgen would peek their heads in the door to see if there was time for them. There was a schedule, but a lot of guys just showed up when they felt like it, making for really long, or really short days depending on the shoot. When Alex Rios came in, there couldn’t have been a more stark contrast between personalities. Rios at the time was probably 24. He was a good-looking, happy-go-lucky, extremely talented baseball player who seemed perpetually happy, and was totally easy to deal with. A young female Jays staffer came in before we got started, and wanted to catch up with him about how his winter was. It was a flirty ordeal. I’m not sure what her job was, but she was clearly smitten. Some of us rolled our eyes a few times. Once it got going, it was interrupted again. Vernon Wells came in because he and Alex were supposed to do a quick promo shot together for one of the sponsors. Vernon would not shut up about his tee time, but otherwise was in good spirits. My main memory of their shoot together was that Alex was at least 5 inches taller, and they made Vernon stand on a box. They had fun with it, but you’d never know that if you weren’t there. Once Vernon was gone, Alex had to get into his interview portion. He struggled with it a bit. He is Puerto Rican, and I think he felt a little insecure about his accent. He messed up the line “My name is Alex Rios” so many times it got kind of awkward. Then to make light of it, and maybe to get his frustrations out a bit, he lit us up with “I am ALEX MUTHERFUCKIN RIOS!!!!!!!!!!” We died. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but seemed like a super nice guy. Several years later, my wife and I are always quick with an Alex Rios impression. The joke is totally lost on anyone who wasn’t there.
As much fun as we were having, we had to leave finally. We were so hungry. It was almost 3 and we hadn’t eaten lunch. The story should end here, but I have one more thing to add, which isn’t about the Jays as much as it’s about me being a loser. We went to a restaurant called Carrabba’s which I now know to be a chain, but it was the first one I’d ever seen. I’m reading the menu, and see a dish called the Chicken Bryan which is like a chicken breast with a lemon butter wine sauce topped with goat cheese. Being Canadian, and having learned some French, I try to pronounce things properly when possible. I don’t speak Spanish, but I can pronounce the dishes in a Mexican restaurant. This was an upscale-ish Italian restaurant, so when I ordered it, I took a shot that it was pronounced Bree-yun, and I said that to the waitress, she gave me the blankest of stares, proceeded to take a few open mouthed chews of her gum (like only a waitress in a diner should be allowed to do), and said in a perfect Florida accent, “Yah mean Chicken Bryan??? (pronounced Brian)”. I was like “Yeah…. that”.