MESA, Ariz - Jerry, my often-tardy double header running mate, sat hunched over the breakfast table, his head buried in the most recent issue of Vineland magazine when the thought occurred, Should (Alfonso) Soriano slip to fourth in that lineup? he says without looking up from his oatmeal.
Thus begins a frenzied day of 18 holes, two missed exits and nine hopeless innings, at least for the inner Chicago Cubs fan among us.
Spring training and golf go together like Tinker to Evers to Chance, the famed double-play connection of Cubs lore. But the tone had been set before dawn, baseball was central, golf background noise to the larger meaning.
General Info on Cubs Spring Training
General Info on Cubs Spring Training
One could almost hear the baritones of James Earls Jones echoing through the corridors of the Courtyard Marriott, Baseball is an American constant, golf a way of keeping time between 1 p.m. starts.
Not that the morning distraction didnt offer a compelling alternative, but Spring Training is a B-12 shot for a battered baseball soul, particularly for those whose sporting fortunes ebb and flow with the W flags raised over Wrigley Field each season.
Call it batting practice, 18 holes of desert diversion on a well-healed patch of turf called Longbow Golf Club just down the 202 Loop from HoHoKam Park, the Cubs spring digs.
Longbow is understated at first blush, the low-slung clubhouse inviting and utterly lacking the formalities associated with some of the areas more-pricier offerings.
From the first tee, the club drips comfort golf, complete with a no-nonsense, albeit slightly half empty, starter. Instructions from Sunshine Keith, the starters double-secret moniker, include warnings not to go right off the first tee, Youre dead. Left off the first tee, Youre dead. Or over the green, Youre dead.
If you cant spin the ball here youre in trouble, Sunshine offers. That pin (placement) on (No.) 2, for example, is unfair as hell.
Although he wont be teaming with Dr. Bob Rotella anytime soon to pen a self help book, Sunshine was helpful, if not entertaining.
The overall golf course, however, was infinitely fair and its simplicity quickly gives way to its genius. Even at 7,000 yards, Longbow is a sneaky good, well-crafted layout with plenty of punch.
Of course, when the daily dance card is dominated by opening pitches, the most important element, like any good real-estate deal, is location, location, location. Greater Phoenix-Scottsdale may enjoy an embarrassment of golf riches ' Grayhawk, We-Ko-Pa and Golf Club of Scottsdale quickly come to mind ' but the logistics of a 1 p.m. start demand an early tee time, easy highway access and no more than a 20-minute commute from 19th hole to Section 114, Row 2.
From Longbow to HoHoKam is a 15-minute hop on paper. That is, of course, if you dont miss the Country Club Drive exit, like Jerry and I did, and can avoid the traffic snarls, like Jerry and I didnt. General observation: Mesa will never be mistaken for Wrigleyville, but than what could be?
Even with the detour we made it to our seats, two rows up on the third-base side, to hear the opening lineups and join the friendly confines festivities.
HoHoKam is a 1950s style stadium, built back when baseball, not amenities, was the most important thing. Four hundred and ten feet to straightaway center field, 350 to the corners and a Gringo Dog stand perched on a hill just the other side of the left-field wall.
Just to prove a point we solidified Spring Trainings ageless connection to golf with a tour of the souvenir shop. For $28 one can land the gift for the Cubs fan that has everything except a 220-yard stinger from a buried lie, a McArthur Gift Set complete with Cubs logoed golf towel, tees and golf ball.
Even when the Arizona Diamondbacks go for 5 runs in the fourth, the resilience of spring, and a few visits by the beer vendor, buoy our spirits. Besides, as Jerry often points out, this is Spring Training, T-Ball, an exhibition to renew the frozen fans soul. Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs ace, put in two hitless innings before he called it a day, and, as a Cubs fan, one learns to savor victories large and small.
By the top of the fifth inning, the Cubs are scoreless, the sun scorching and manager Lou Piniella begins his long march to the mound, and the connection between baseball and golf solidifies even more.
Should Carlos Marmol be the Cubs closer? Will Alfonso Soriano ever take a first pitch? Less than 10 minutes from HoHoKam, the conversation continues at a classic post-game waterhole, Old Chicago, and the questions drift back to golf. Should I have laid up on 10th? Did Sunshine Keith say the pin on the second hole was unfair as hell?
One good day, two great games. Baseball and golf, the endless enigmas.