This Terminator of a winter finally fades as a memory. It was indeed like a movie monster who wouldn’t die, who rose up again and again, for one last kill or thrill. I’ve still got a pile of filthy ice and snow in the shadows of my driveway. I walk past it gingerly, lest I wake it.
The bitter winter, combined with the fact that I couldn’t honestly tell you anything about anyone who starts for the Knicks, has made the crack of a bat and the slap of a ball hitting a glove welcome noises indeed. Prospects of success for NY based baseball are iffy at best this spring, but like the green tips of the crocus, cautiously poking their heads out of the foxhole as the smoke clears from a protracted battle, there is hope.
I actually don’t care who wins or loses. The base paths slice through green swatches of grass and balls fly into at least occasionally blue skies. It’s enough, for right now. Plenty of time to complain about the Yankees and actually be entertained and even enthralled by something happening in Washington DC later on. (@jefferypix are you listening? @markkrajnak, a Metroliner to DC is in our future.)
I’ve never been a baseball photog, say they way fellow shooter Ron Modra of Sports Illustrated was for many years, concentrating his attention and considerable skills on the boys of summer. (If you are a fan, his book, A Baseball Life, is quite a lovely visual poem to the game.) As this collection here shows, I’ve intersected with the sport in cursory but lively fashion, shooting the charm of rookie league ball in Pulaski, Va. as well as roaming the storied tunnels of Fenway and Yankee Stadium.
Professional ballplayers of all stripes I have found to be generally economical folks when it comes to the expenditure of energy. They are paid to explode with physical grace and prowess when the bell rings, or the buzzer sounds, or when the ump shouts the blessedly familiar command of “Play ball!” Any activity outside the foul lines or baselines, especially on game day, is greeted with reticence, or occasionally, outright grumpiness. Concentration is key when your physical gifts are such that you are paid millions of dollars to exercise them. Distractions are not welcome, especially aggressive, ambitious ones that are invariably embodied in the heaving bosom of the anxious photog, who blurts out impassioned descriptions of unrealistic expectations within seconds of meeting the player at hand.
Hence, I readily forgave all the looks, scowls, or slumped shoulders I confronted over the years when the team PR guy would introduce me as “the photographer, you know the one I told you about three times, emailed you about six times, told your agent this would be happening on multiple occasions and then texted you again this morning about at breakfast?”
I got used to hurry up mode, photographically. As George Brett said to me, “We’re gonna shoot a couple pictures here real quick, huh.?” Yes, we are, emphasis on the “real quick.”
McGwire never said a word to me. He was not talking to the press as he closed in on the homer record. We were all so entranced by that summer of boom with Big Mac and Sammy Sosa duking it out, that we ignored what later was pretty obvious. I mean, the press loves a story of a big guy, with a big swing and a nickname like a cheeseburger. Following him in the tunnels, we passed Walter Iooss Jr., who was sport photog royalty and knew McGwire. Walter blurted out, “Mark, two minutes.” Big Mac kept moving, and said nothing.
I thought geez, if he blows off Walter, he might actually hit a piss ant like me with his bat if I pester too much. I backed off and went with a 400mm.
El Guapo, Manny and Pedro were a hoot.
And Eric Davis was the soul of athleticism.
Bird was a lovable original, Big Papi gave me twenty minutes and signed a ball for my nephew.
Carlos Beltran, who I shot for the premier cover of SI’s Latino baseball issue, was a gracious, non-stop smile machine.
Covering rookie league ball was the most fun, though. Far removed from the star power of the show, these kids, many of them away from home for the first time, played hard for love. The sweat was real, and the fans were in lawn chairs near the base paths. Hope swelled in the summer twilight, and you didn’t need a credit card to grab a hot dog and a beer. A couple bucks in your pocket would do.
I could make unhurried observations with the camera. I became part of the scenery, and while folks were chatty about the story I was doing, at the same time, neither were they overly impressed or bothered. I was pretty much ignored, which is the greatest gift your photo subjects can give you. My down home introduction to the team came on the first night. A NASCAR event had every hotel booked for a hundred miles in all directions, so I slept on a cot in the umpire’s room at the ballpark. Me and several dozen crickets, chirping and fluttering the night away. Welcome to the rookie league.