Fuller's Old Fashioned Bar-B-Q is a perfect microcosm of American contradiction.
The restaurant and buffet was founded in 1986 by Fuller Locklear, a Lumbee Indian farmer, in Lumberton, North Carolina, and has since expanded to a second location in Fayetteville.
In the latter restaurant hangs a dream catcher and bow and arrow on one wall, dried tobacco leaves and a basket high above a table on another wall, and a chalkboard that reads "Take a moment to say thank you Lord Jesus" near the counter.
Above one table hangs a painting that, at first glance, looks like a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers, their faces appearing faintly in the clouds high over wooded scenery. A closer inspection and nearby newspaper reproduction indicate that this actually depicts the Lowry Gang, a group of outlaws made up of Native Americans and African-Americans that attacked the white establishment during and after the Civil War.
God, the mythos of the American self-starter, our country's history of plundering and murdering the land's native peoples, and the long struggle to upend white supremacy wrapped into one—all here in a little barbecue restaurant situated in this major hub for the U.S. military, where City Paper photo editor J.M. Giordano and I stop on our road trip to Sarasota, Florida, to report on Baltimore Orioles spring training.
We need a break from the flatlands of the American south and its barrage of billboards trying to lure us to places such as Carolina Premium Outlets, McDonald's, Exxon, JR Cigar, South of the Border, and Mackey's Landing Firearms ("World's Largest!"), so we mount a search for authentic Carolina barbecue, and we just so happen to do this near Fayetteville and Google just so happens to guide us to Fuller's.
This proves fortuitous.
As we leave the restaurant with another nine hours of driving ahead of us, the headline of the Fayetteville Observer leaps right out of the box: "Donald Trump campaigning in Fayetteville today."
The road to Sarasota is long—we've been driving since 6 a.m. and we're still so, so far from blue skies, palm trees, and baseball bliss. Joe takes our rented Hyundai back onto I-95 and we brace for 600-some miles of driving.
But the temptation of interloping at a Trump event proves too strong, and soon we're taking an exit back into Fayetteville. We're journalists, after all, and Trump's ascent is the story of our time, proof that the American experiment is through the looking glass. There's no debate that we need to find our way inside and see the madness, and the people driving it, up close. Then, we'd have a sense of the very thing we were escaping.
Melding the games of politics and baseball, President Richard Nixon is quoted as saying, "I never leave a game before the last pitch, because in baseball, as in life and especially politics, you never know what will happen." Trump's success is proof of that. Turns out Trump would be taping an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity at the Crown Complex ahead of a larger rally nearby—and we were pulling into the parking lot within minutes.
Outside, vendors are hawking knock-off Trump merchandise, t-shirts, their own "Make America Great Again" ball caps, and more. One guy pushes a cart displaying buttons such as "Bomb The Hell Out of ISIS" and "KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts…Left Wing." A woman with her own table of merchandise wears a Trump flag like a cape.
After passing the Secret Service checkpoint around 3:15 p.m., we are inside the arena. It is as simple as walking up and heading on in. But there is more at stake for Joe and I as strangers in a strange land. Trump supporters have never taken kindly to the press. A photographer for Time magazine had been roughed up by Secret Service at a Trump rally just weeks before.
I sit next to an older woman with an “I ♥ Trump” button on her t-shirt. She sees my notebook and asks if I’m a blogger.
I tell her yes, but don't explain that I am on assignment from a paper she would deem a "liberal rag."
In the sweetest way possible, she tells me, "Well, welcome to Fayetteville." She goes on to confide that the room isn't full yet because Fayetteville, home to Fort Bragg, is a big military town and soldiers get in trouble for showing up at a political rally in uniform.
There are, in fact, rows of empty seats and one of Hannity's producers doesn't like the optics; he asks the crowd to call their friends and family to come down for "a great show." And while no one shows up in their military uniform, many wear a uniform of red, white, and blue or Trump-related gear. Some highlights: A man wearing a "Washington D.C.—You're Fired" shirt stylized like Barack Obama's "Hope" poster, an American flag button-down shirt, a woman in a black t-shirt with the GOP's elephant logo in rhinestones.
While waiting, three teen boys ahead of me look at Snapchat and see a Snap of a friend standing in front of Trump's podium in an empty coliseum. The same producer who earlier asked people to call their friends appears again to announce they would put on some music to "get this vibe going," a playlist that includes Donald Fagen's 'Ruby Baby,' Tom Petty's 'Refugee,' Sammy Hagar's 'I Can't Drive 55,' Sly and the Family Stone's 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),' and a hard rock cover of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' that replaces Jackson's vocals with electric guitar.
Eventually, all the seats fill up and organizers bring out more folding chairs. Hannity finally comes out midway through a schlocky cover of Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'' and bellows, "Helloooooo, North Carolina."
He breaks into a call-and-response gimmick to resuscitate the rotting corpse of the Bush presidency, insinuating that liberals still blame everything on ol' George W.
After a variety of scenarios, he'd jokingly ask the crowd, "Whose fault is it?"
From my vantage point, it's hard to see over the raised signs and cellphones trying to snap a picture. Both men sit down on stools. The studio lights seem to give Trump a paler complexion, but the screens to the side of the stage confirm he indeed maintains a copper hue.
Hannity lobs a softball: If Trump wins Florida and Ohio, he'll be well on his way to the nomination. How would that make him feel?
"It would make me feel great, because we're going to beat Hillary," Trump replies, drawing cheers. "We're going to make America great again. It would make me feel great."
He then runs through his platform.
U.S. trade deals are "done by incompetent people."
Companies like Carrier, Ford, and Nabisco are moving jobs out of the country. "That's not gonna happen with me."
He's practically from North Carolina because he owns a golf course just outside Charlotte. "It's like an incredible property, with great people, great members. And everybody's happy. Most beautiful homes you've ever seen."
He then shifts gears to one of his favorite targets: Mexico, which he says is "the new China" in terms of luring away American companies.
"As sure as you are sitting there, we are going to bring our jobs back into this country for the first time," he tells Hannity, to huge cheers. "And we're gonna stop being the country that's just pushed around."
Regarding a wall on the Mexican border, he assures the audience, "That's a Trump wall, beautiful wall. It'll be done properly."
He continues to peddle snake oil. "I tell you what, we're gonna make our compan—our country so rich, it's gonna be so good. We're gonna make it good again, we're gonna make it vibrant again."
Throughout it all, I sit motionless in my chair, taking notes and no doubt wearing a quizzical look on my face. People all around me whoop and cheer, and all I can do is sit dumbfounded, trying to process what I am seeing, wondering how we got to this point.
And then it becomes clearer—when I turn from Trump toward the crowd.
Trump is the savior who will fix all their problems. Everyone cheering him on is a blind follower, utterly devoted and unquestioning. The scariest thing about this Trump rally isn't Trump himself—it is people's unwavering love for him and their unwillingness to even look past the surface.
Twenty minutes later, Joe and I are back on I-95, barreling away from Fayetteville.
"I think he's gonna beat Hillary," Joe says.
I think about it, and agree. There are enough Kool-Aid drinkers to make it happen.
Later, a video surfaces on Twitter showing an older white Trump supporter sucker punching a black protester at the larger rally held just after the Hannity taping. We had escaped unscathed, but it was clear that a rage was bubbling over, and anyone who provokes the beast will get hurt.
Just after midnight we stop at the Best Airport Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, an electronic sign informing us it is "73:??:??PM." Our $55 room smells like your grandmother's perfume, a strong mix of a flowers and rotten fruit. But hey, it has two beds and was far away from the scene in Fayetteville. And that was good enough, because we'd soon be waking up to make the rest of the drive and catch the Yankees taking on the Orioles at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium.
A few weeks earlier, Joe had sweet-talked our way into this assignment of "reporting on spring training" and even got us a nice little budget for gas, lodging, and wheels. This road trip is meant, in part, as a look into the communities big and small across the Sunshine State that play host to afternoon exhibitions of the Great American Game against a backdrop of sunny skies and palm trees. This is the ideal part of the social contract we all take part in: work long enough and put into the system and you too can lead this charmed existence during your golden years, the same existence that millions in Florida have.
Any young person with a job can tell you that Baby Boomer greed, the decrease in good-paying full-time jobs, and the pending implosion of the Social Security system may make this all a fallacy, but never mind that for now; we were on our way to an escapist brush with the good life.
Yet another reason to rent a Hyundai and barrel down I-95: because fuck it, right? It's not even clear—it's never clear, really—if City Paper will still exist by the time spring training 2017 rolls around. So might as well get in while the getting's good.
Our flea-bag motel room is a far cry from the Florida we were looking for, but we are close.
And we are tired.
And what could possibly go wrong?
Somehow during the night I manage to fuck up my big toe. I'm not even sure how. I wake up and feel a throbbing pain with every step. In my mind, I had visions of being half-awake and having my foot jammed up against the wall, but that could have been some strange dream my mind concocted to explain the pain.
I hobble toward the bathroom.
"Watch out for that cockroach in the bathtub," Joe says.
He isn't kidding.
Never mind the shower, then.
The route down, with its thick woods and squat, rundown ranchers, the scenery feels like it might be the home of "Florida Man," the mythic hillbilly that has captured the attention of the country with his crimes that border on insane performance art. "Florida Man" has become something of a viral hero, both a way for urban liberals to laugh at and grapple with the weirdness that goes on here.
A few recent examples from the Twitter account @_FloridaMan: "Florida Man Arrested for Speeding While on Way Home, Poops in Back of Police Car," "Florida Man Sneaks Into Police Station Bathroom to Shoot Heroin," and "Florida Man Tries to Hide Identity During Traffic Stop by Chewing Off Fingertips." And let us not forget the Florida Woman: "Florida Woman Fights to Keep Her Pet Alligator Who Wears Clothes and 'Rides' ATVs." These aren't jokes, either—they're based on real headlines.
"Florida Man" cohabitates this land with coked-up meatheads, retirees, Cuban-Americans, surfers, ravers, weird Southern hipsters, racists, and any number of other American subcultures, making Florida one of the most fucked-up places in our union.
But all these people are onto something. In addition to the weather and seemingly endless supply of beaches and lakes, Florida encourages a devil-may-care lifestyle. It's the rush to spend millions on waterfront properties in spite of projections of rising water levels. It's lying out in the sun all day until your skin has the color and consistency of a 7-Eleven hot dog. It's realizing you live in a small slice of paradise and making the most of it while you can.
After hitting some traffic, we arrive late for our first game. It's the second inning, and the Orioles are already down to the Yankees 2-1. In 2011, the Orioles invested $31.2 million into the complex here in Sarasota, turning the drab facility into a beautiful Spanish revival vacation home-qua-baseball park. The concourses are spacious, there's not a bad sightline in the place, and the area beyond the left field fence is dedicated to a bar and picnic area.
The great Cubs announcer Harry Caray once said, "It's the fans that need spring training. You gotta get 'em interested. Wake 'em up and let 'em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll."
Ahead of this Yankees game, the biggest storylines in early March are that the Orioles haven't won a game yet and South Korean signee Hyun-soo Kim, penciled in as the team's Opening Day left fielder, remains hitless.
There's plenty more to follow in this spring campaign, but the fans I see as I hobble around the stadium don't seem terribly concerned with the team's 0-9-1 and record to this point. And why should they be? The games don't count for anything and, as you can see, are allowed to end in ties, an outcome described in American sport as "like kissing your sister."
Baseball's detractors call the game slow and boring, and one thing about spring training baseball is that it seems even more relaxed than the 162-game grind of the regular season. The beauty in the motions of a 6-4-3 double play or a runner stretching a single into a double are all still here, but everything is low-stakes. Guys who would normally play the entire game in the season are allowed to leave once they're pulled after a few innings. It is somewhat rare for a manager to send all his starting players to road games.
But the game is still the game, and spring training provides an intimate look at how the best players in the world go about their work.
As much as I'd like to see all this, the aching toe is still bothering the hell out of me and I am now on a quest for a pain reliever. Joe comes with me as I hobble east on 12th Street to a 7-Eleven to snag some Aleve.
On our way back, we notice a stream of fans leaving. It is now 4-1 Yankees. Then, in the bottom of the 7th, hope. With the bases loaded, Kim pokes a ball toward the hole near short for an infield single, scoring a run. Infielder Steve Tolleson follows it up with another single to tie the game at 4-4.
Kim's first hit—how about the team's first win? Both teams went scoreless in the 8th and 9th, resulting in a tie. Pucker up.
Seated in the press box, unable to really get out and take in the scene at the stadium, I feel our first day at spring training is a bit of a lost day. We leave the complex to drive around town a bit, get a sense of the area. Sarasota is like Towson by the sea. There are tall buildings, parts that feel urban, but also plenty of strip centers and houses with yards.
On a friend's recommendation, Joe and I go to O'Leary's, an open-air tiki bar adjacent to a park on the water. A few tropical drinks in a public park seems like the appropriate Florida thing to do. We devise a plan—after a few drinks—to go out at night, see where the fans drink. We head to a place we heard about, Mr. Beery's, a craft beer bar located in a small two-block district of bars and restaurants south of downtown. But the bar didn't serve food and we were hungry. Wandering in search of a restaurant, I am lagging with my bum foot. The pain and my ginger gait got to me, so we grab dinner at the stoner-friendly Munchies 420 Café, home to famously fat sandwiches. There isn't anyone wearing black and orange in the joint.
"Sports aren't as big here as they are up north," our bartender tells us.
Our day is a bust.
Back at the motel room, I dip my foot in a bucket of ice before what was to be a big Friday. The Orioles were playing the Yankees in Tampa, roughly an hour north of our room, and we decided on another detour: Hulk Hogan's invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker over the site's publication of a video showing Hogan having sex.
There's an element of Florida weirdness to the tape itself. Hogan, a resident of Clearwater Beach, is seen copulating with Heather Clem, the wife of Tampa shock jock Bubba The Love Sponge Clem—that's his legal name.
Bubba The Love Sponge filmed the 2012 encounter using a home security system. Someone leaked the video to Gawker, and the site posted an edited-down clip along with a written commentary from editor A.J. Daulerio in which he described the entire sex tape as "a goddamn masterpiece."
The trial, taking place in St. Petersburg, had already provided a wealth of ridiculousness and depravity. In earlier testimony, Hogan—birth name Terry Bollea—distinguished that his character had a 10-inch penis, though Bollea himself did not. Daulerio, no longer an editor for the site, also appears in a taped deposition played for the jury.
One of Hogan's lawyers asks, "Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?"
Daulerio responded, "If they were a child."
"Under what age?"
What's this got to do with baseball? The Orioles? Baltimore? Nothing, but it's a trial everyone—well, at least everyone in the media—is watching that combines the all-American institutions of the First Amendment, sex, and professional wrestling in the theater of the court.
And besides, my foot is feeling better and I am more mobile. Joe and I take the elevator upstairs and peer into the small glass windows to make sure we were in the right place, and there is Hogan, a black bandana atop his head and massive shoulders looming over the back of the courtroom chair.
As we enter, the bailiff stands up and gestures for Joe to take off his beat-up Orioles cap. He complies and we take a seat.
Shanti Shunn, a digital marketing strategist retained by Hogan's team, is on the stand talking about how the sex tape went viral in October 2012. Different versions of the tape amassed 99,149 views on YouTube, uploaded by users such as MichelleFry58815, mikerants, and MyNiggahhh.
A chart shows how nearly 4.5 million views came from a host of other websites: 910,433 on LiveLeak.com, 29,641 on HardSexTube.com, 43,719 on CrazyShit.com, 23,792 on DeviantClip.com, 1,640,214 on WorldStarHipHop.com.
A brief recess follows Shunn's testimony and the judge reminds reporters not to talk to any of the parties—a challenge since it is easy to stumble across Hogan coming out of the bathroom or Gawker CEO Nick Denton conferring with his attorneys in the halls. I want to just butt in and start firing away questions, but can't.
Just before court resumes, Hogan looks at something on his phone, and I study his hands: massive mitts, large veiny paws that have experienced years of suplexing and body slamming.
Jeff Anderson, an intellectual property specialist at CONSOR, takes the stand next, testifying that Gawker gained about $15 million from posting the Hogan sex tape, and that the site's overall value increased by $54 million from the time it was published to the time it was taken down. How did he figure this exactly? His methodology involved looking at their increase in traffic—the Hulk page averaged 798,821 views per month during the seven months it was up—and noting how unique users multiplied at Gawker. He then used the valuations of other sites to determine Gawker's value pre- and post-Hogan.
This all sounds a bit convoluted and bogus, and Gawker's attorney, Mike Berry, implies as much. He asks Anderson during cross-examination if any of CONSOR's valuations had resulted in an increase in real dollars. Anderson is combative, asserting that unique visitors to a website provided a "common denominator value." But he is not aware of an instance where his methodology was used to measure the value of a single post.
As a member of the media, I've heard for years about the supposed importance of hits and unique visitors. More eyeballs on stories means more eyeballs on ads, which is what gives us the money to keep the lights on. Good web traffic is supposed to stem the tide of diminishing ad sales, or at least that's the hope everyone in the business is desperately clinging to. It is a bit harrowing to hear that a lot of this is hot air, especially as a defense for a huge web publishing company.
Recess is called again, and I bolt down to the media room to text Joe that everyone is taking a break. He had gone outside to position himself for the perfect picture of Hogan exiting the courthouse. I return to the bank of elevators and, suddenly, realize I am standing mere feet from the man who body slammed Andre the Giant, the star of "Mr. Nanny," the guy who just testified in a court of law that his penis was not, in fact, 10 inches long. He's there with his legal team and a court representative. We all squeeze in the elevator, and Hogan and I are standing shoulder to shoulder. I had so many things I wanted to ask him—How much coke and steroids was going around the WWF in the '80s? What's Vince McMahon like? Did you know you were being filmed by Bubba the Love Sponge Clem?—but his legal team and the court representative would have almost certainly clamped down on any questions. Hell, Hogan might have put me in a headlock. I just stood there. Quietly.
As the doors closed, a woman joked she was glad she didn't have to take the stairs down to the main floor.
"I don't even think I could make it up and down the steps," quipped Hogan.
Team Hogan got off on the second floor, leaving just the court representative and me. The elevator stops on the main floor, and before we part ways, I had to ask one question: Why is it Hogan can wear a bandana but my friend had to take his hat off?
She said Judge Pamela Campbell had ruled it was fine for Hogan to wear a plain bandana. This was reportedly a self-confidence thing for the balding wrestler.
Hogan never shows—some local photographers tell Joe and I that lawyers advise their high-profile clients to eat lunch inside—so we set off for Tampa.
Situated in the shadow of Raymond James Stadium, where the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers play, George M. Steinbrenner Field is, like all things the Yankees do, big. Seating 11,000 fans, it's the biggest spring training stadium in Florida.
We're already running late because of our detour to the Hogan trial, and at the press entrance we learn our passes have somehow gone missing. Security guards in navy blue blazers with the Yankees logo stitched on the breast pocket radio around to find their whereabouts. George, the press gate attendant, has gone inside to watch the game, they surmise.
The Yanks have already scored two runs in the first inning by the time our credentials are found. Once Joe and I pass through the gate, we begin roaming around the complex like we have the ultimate all-access backstage pass. Nobody stops us.
We walk through the bowels of the stadium along the third base line, past the exclusive club behind home plate, with its etched glass windows displaying pinstripes and the team's logos, and past the staff dining room.
The corridor leads outside to a parking lot for VIPs and employees, and a utility area for the grounds crew. There is only a chain link fence between the Orioles bullpen and us, and Joe and I are able to poke our eyes in the gaps on the mesh material covering the fence like a modern-day knothole gang.
On the field, the O's are giving up more runs, but we really don't care because we're making up our own adventure as we go. We continue on behind the left field wall, underneath one of the scoreboards. There's a swamp just beyond the fence, and you can see a few busted up baseballs sitting in the mud, baking in the Florida sun.
We then head out to one of the practice fields to stand on the plate. Is this real life? I keep waiting for some security guard to come out and yell at us, but it never happens. Back underneath the concourse, Orioles pitchers Andy Oliver, Chris Jones, and Dale Thayer walk past us on their way to the clubhouse as we continue exploring.
Joe asks a security guard about accessing the photo pit near the dugout, and the guy radios down to let us in through the clubhouse. Next thing I know, we're standing in the dugout behind pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti. Manager Buck Showalter is less than 10 feet to our left, having a chat on the dugout railing with Brady Anderson, a former outfielder and the current Vice President of Baseball Operations, and bench coach John Russell.
We'd really died and gone to baseball heaven.
On the mound, Orioles starter Mike Wright is struggling, having already given up three runs in two innings. He had just walked catcher Brian McCann on four straight pitches when Showalter comes over to confer with his pitching coaches. "Want to let him go one more?"
Wright stays in to face second baseman Starlin Castro and continues to have problems with command.
"That's a good pitch," Wallace hollers during a close call. "How about it, Michael?"
Castro walks, and out comes Showalter to bring in reliever Mitch Horacek. A pitching change—one of the most benign, common things in the game—had suddenly become one of the coolest things I'd ever seen.
As Horacek warms, Joe and I walk in the dirt in front of the dugout railing to the photo pit, lest someone from the team turn around and ask us what the hell we were doing there. The Yankees manage to score four more runs, two of which were charged to Wright, bringing the score to 7-0.
With the pit located next to the end of the dugout nearest the foul pole, we still have an amazing view of the field and are able to look over and see all the happenings on the Orioles bench. Only a handful of players likely to make the Opening Day roster had made the trip, but this is an opportunity to see some of the organization's better young prospects, including catcher Chance Sisco and first basemen Christian Walker and Trey Mancini.
I am caught up in my front-row seat and all the little intricacies that play out before me. Like an umpire cordially talking with Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson and a fan yelling "Grease the palm there, Dickerson. Grease the palm."
Or, while the team is at-bat, first base coach Wayne Kirby joshing the same umpire from the dugout. "Hey 1-4, why don't you come over to first base? You scared?"
Kirby has a similarly playful exchange with Yankees third base coach Joe Espada during the bottom of the 5th, though I can't really make out any of the words.
Our previous excursions on this trip had put Joe and I up close and personal with the ugly side of fame, one man drunk on power and running a campaign for president, another celebrity fighting for his reputation (and some compensation for its loss). Now, just for a moment, I am a fan, and close enough to the team I've rooted for since I was a boy to see all their inner-workings and ticks. It is pure. There is no noise, no bluster, no salacious details. Just baseball—on a level I had never seen before.
Hours later, Joe and I sit in the Bahi Hut, a tiki bar where almost everything, including the decor, is unchanged since the 1950s: on the wood-paneled walls are tiki masks, an ink drawing of a Polynesian woman, and surfboards. KC and the Sunshine Band and Boz Scaggs are the soundtrack, and the boozy cocktails are cheap. Our bartender is a woman who goes by the name Frosty. Joe says he's having flashbacks to his disco queen mother. "This is the Club Charles of Sarasota," he says.
We settle in for a few rounds of Hurricanes, Rum Runners, Mai Tais, and something called a Scoobey Snack (coconut rum, melon and banana liqueur, served on ice with OJ). All this liquor on an empty stomach—though Frosty did provide a small bowl of Chex Mix and wasn't cheap with the refills—gave a more than healthy buzz.
Earlier, a team official informed us that the best time to get interviews with players is at 8 a.m., when the clubhouse is open to press. Though I'm not yet sure what questions to ask, I'm determined to wake up early to interview members of the Orioles. Who will be there? I don't know that either.
Still, there's no stopping the fun now. Thanks to my bum foot, this was really our only night to cut loose in town, and we're making a point to get our kicks in.
After grabbing drinks south of downtown, Joe and I return to Bahi Hut for a few more cocktails. We're really rolling now—or at least I am—and go to a beer bar back on Main Street for last call. We're starting to argue like an old married couple. Who's up for a round? No, I got the last one. Who got the last cab? Following some debate, Joe grabs an Uber after we determine it's his turn and we make it back to the motel by 2 a.m.
Five hours later, I lumber out of bed. My foot's feeling much better but as I shower, I try to organize my questions for the team. How do the Orioles spend their time down here? How is spring training different than the regular season? Does a slate of almost all-day games give players more time to hang out? Go to the beach? Whatever? Essentially, did they get to live it up in Florida the way fans and residents do?
Hair still sopping wet, I drive to the complex, hunched toward the wheel, trying to keep my bleary eyes focused on the road. The sun is starting to brighten, and I have to squint to see the road ahead of me.
Once at the complex, I head toward the locker room. The whole thing is an odd ritual. Some players are seated in front of their lockers, waiting for a reporter to approach with questions. Others are in and out—you've got to catch them while you can. The journalists hover in the center, scanning the team, angling for the best quotes. Almost everyone on the team is in warm-up gear, without hats, jerseys, baseball pants, or anything you typically see on the field. As someone at their first open clubhouse, I feel approaching a ballplayer for an interview is like trying to find a dancing partner at the prom.
I hope that telling the players how we road tripped down here from Baltimore might warm them up. Well, this seemed like a good approach to my hungover brain anyhow.
Once reporters were allowed in and I got a chance to survey the room, I saw jocular centerfielder Adam Jones seated at his locker in one corner of the room alongside outfielder L.J. Hoes and figured that was the spot for a good quote, along with a dash of humor. I got even more than I bargained for, including some good-natured ribbing on arbitration—when players with a certain amount of time in the majors can negotiate salaries above the league minimum—locker room haircuts, and rookie hazing. Here is our full conversation.
City Paper:I'm doing a different kind of story here. We did a big road trip down. I'm trying to get a sense of the spring training vibe from you guys. Is it different than the season? Being here in Florida?
Adam Jones: You're asking a veteran and a rookie.
L.J. Hoes: Whoa, whoa, whoa, I'm a rookie?
AJ: Goddamn right you're a rookie.
LH: I'm a rookie now?! Wow!
AJ: No arbitration, you rookie.
AJ: If you ain't been to arbitration, you're rookies.
LH: That's harsh.
AJ: It is harsh. No arbitration, you guys are rookies.
LH: No, that's harsh.
AJ: Rookie right there, [outfielder Henry] Urrutia. [Second baseman Jonathan] Schoop's a rookie.
LH: Schoop ain't a rookie. That's terrible.
AJ: Nah, he's going to arbitration [after] this year. Are you going to arbitration?
LH: I missed it by a month.
AJ: You're a rookie.
AJ: You've still gotta dress up. In drag.
LH: I haven't dressed up in three years, bro.
AJ: That's three years—You're gonna be dressing up as RuPaul this year.
LH: RuPaul. Whaaat?
AJ: That's you this year: RuPaul.
LH: [Busts out laughing]
AJ: I found you. Made the team, you're RuPaul.
LH: RuPaul, really?
AJ [to City Paper]: What vibe you trying to get?
LH: When's the barber coming? I need to get a haircut.
Unknown person: [Reliever Pedro] Beato cut hair.
AJ: Beato, he cut good hair.
LH: Where Beato at?
AJ: Right there. He over there. Yeah, he cut good hair.
CP: So the vibe, is it more loose? Are you able to go hunting, play golf…
LH: It's always loose with us two.
CP: Well that's why I came right to you guys.
LH: This is the corner, man. You came to the right corner.
AJ: We're able to play a game for a living. We're still able to play a game for a living, think about that. So, we come every day happy. No matter what happened the day before, we're happy that we have the opportunity to play a game.
CP: What are some of your favorite spots?
LH: Sleep. Go to sleep. I go to his house to eat dinner a lot. He takes care of me. That's big brother over here, he looks after me.
CP: Favorite places to go out here in lovely Sarasota?
LH: I don't go out.
AJ: I want you personally to go to Beach Club, about 10:30 at night.
CP [laughing]: Yeah?
AJ: Buy out the bar, drink top shelf.
LH: Drink all top shelf.
AJ: Which is Stolichnaya [laughs].
LH [to City Paper]: You like steaks?
CP: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
LH: Go to Hyde Park.
AJ: Go to Hyde Park, oooh.
LH [to City Paper]: You like sushi?
CP: Not big on sushi.
AJ [to City Paper]: Hey: Expense. That. When you go to Hyde Park, expense that. That sonofabitch is gonna be expensive.
CP: I don't know if I could get away with that.
LH: It's gonna be about $250, for yourself.
AJ: Well, if you're drinking top-shelf too.
LH: Yeah, you gotta drink top-shelf.
AJ: Don't drink Bud heavy.
LH: Nice little filet. And they got this lobster appetizer. Ooo hoo-hoo-hoo.
AJ: It's lightly fried... Awww, man.
CP: All right, you guys are killing me right now.
AJ: It's probably one of the best appetizers I've ever had.
CP: So obviously you guys are working, you're getting ready for the season, but is it more relaxed would you say?
AJ: Whatchya mean? In terms of what? Like, are we stressed out about something?
LH: I'm stressed out. I'm trying to make the team. So, I'm stressed out.
AJ: Of course.
LH: Nah, I'm just playing with you, I ain't stressed out.
AJ: Me personally, I don't think that anybody in here's stressed out. We all have a common goal. Most of us in here know what it takes. Those that don't will get a good grasp of how we do business. And I see a lot of players see how we do business, and they know that we work and put in a diligent effort, and we expect good results.
CP [to Jones]: Now, you've gotten into hunting in the last couple years. You make it out hunting around here?
AJ: Ah, that's my private life.
And you know what? That's cool, that's perfectly fine for him to draw that line. Pivoting, I ask Jones about his talks with owner Peter G. Angelos about spending more money on the team. He joshes me a bit.
"It yielded results, didn't it?"
"And that's all that matters, right? You don't need to know everything. Do you read every treaty that's implemented by the U.S. government?"
"There you go. But you follow it."
Following that artful dodge, I laugh and thank both players for their time. Jones thanks me for my energy and Hoes compliments my hair—I think he is messing with me, but he insists he likes the curls. I'll take it.
I then make my way across the room to where starting pitchers Miguel Gonzalez and Yovani Gallardo, one of the team's big offseason acquisitions, are seated.
They seem a bit divided on the idea if spring training was any different than the regular season.
"I think it's always the same," says Gonzalez. "We're here to compete. We're here to get our work in. I think that's the most important thing. What do you think, G?"
"I think I would say it's a little bit more relaxed," counters Gallardo. "But at the same time, you're preparing yourself for the season, which is the fundamentals, the basic things, the small things that you want to do during the season, which I think can be very important to a ballgame. Yet, you see the guys a little bit more relaxed and having a bit more fun."
There's more down time, though, Gonzalez says, and that means spending more time with the family.
"That's always important, especially in our culture"—both Gonzalez and Gallardo are Mexican—"We like to hang out and spend time with them."
Their rotation mate, Chris Tillman, exemplifies the balance of putting in the work and enjoying the Floridian splendor.
"The only thing that makes a difference is there's a lot more guys. That's the only thing that we change up, but we still go out to try and win every day," he says. "And I think everyone's just as competitive in spring training as they are in the regular season. As far as that's concerned, not a huge difference."
But there is a little bit more time for enjoying yourself with games ending earlier and veterans sometimes getting done with their work around 12:30 p.m. on days when they don't have to travel to road games, and Tillman says he spends a few days a week fishing or enjoy the scenery.
"[It's] good to get outside, hang out with my dog, go to the beach. Just hang out. Super relaxed."
In Sarasota, there are plenty of spots to bring your pole.
"Everywhere in Sarasota's good. I mean, you've got salt water, you've got fresh water everywhere," he says. "There's water just about everywhere you go here. Everything holds fish."
As Jones said, players know they're living the charmed life. It's easy for fans to hold professional athletes at a distance, as the millionaires they pay to play a sport. But is anyone going to begrudge a ballplayer for finding a few extra moments with his family or squeezing in time to cast a line and hang with his dog? I should hope not; they're still mere mortals after all.
Some time later, the players begin pulling chairs toward the center of the clubhouse for a team meeting, meaning it's time for the press to leave. While the other reporters head to the workroom to begin transcribing and preparing their stories, I leave the complex to try and get another hour of sleep. Mostly, I lie in bed feeling increasingly miserable.
By early afternoon, Joe and I are back for a game against the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles showed signs of life in the early going, jumping out to a 4-1 lead after two innings.
My interaction with the players was satisfying, but I still wanted to hear about the symbiosis of baseball and the Florida vibe from the fans. There is no shortage of people who confirm what I already know: the weather's terrific, the stadium's great, the baseball's fun.
But when I speak with Shannon and Chris Robertson of Catonsville, I know they had their finger on it.
Detroit Tigers legend and notorious hateful racist Ty Cobb once said, "Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest." Here, though, the Robertsons notice how everyone is so friendly to each other, even fans of opposing teams.
"It's like, we're both on vacation," says Chris, 25, of Twins fans in the stands.
"So everyone's happy," Shannon, 24, quickly adds.
This extends to the players, too, in Chris' eyes.
"It's incredibly more laid back," he says. "And you can tell with the players—even though they're serious, they interact more with the fans."
The O's tack on two more runs in the 6th and 7th innings for an 8-1 victory, their first of the spring. Spring training records don't mean much, but even Showalter, in his postgame remarks, says he'd started thinking about how long it had been since the last time he shook hands with his players and staff after an Orioles win.
After Showalter's press conference, Joe and I are back in the Hyundai for yet another long drive. We drive until it gets dark, with nothing ahead of us but the taillights of the other drivers and a path of white and yellow lines leading us back to Baltimore. Back to work. Back to long sleeves and a coat. Back to Trump and all the madness. Back to the lingering fear of a doomed future.
In short, back to reality.
At least the team and Opening Day wouldn't be far behind. The 162-game season will be a much-needed and welcome distraction from everything else.
Epilogue: On March 15, Trump won the primary election in Florida, as well as contests in Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri, making his path to the Republican nomination a little more clear.
Three days later, the jury in the Hogan trial awarded the wrestling star $115 million in damages, $55 million for economic injuries, and $60 million for emotional distress. That following Monday, they added on another $25.1 million in punitive damages, including $100,000 for Daulerio, who reportedly has no assets. Denton has vowed to appeal and written that crucial evidence and testimony was withheld during the trial.
As of March 28, the Orioles have gone 9-4-2 since winning their first game on March 12.