TERRE HAUTE —
It’s springtime, so I’ll be gone for a few days to chase ghosts in the desert.
In fact, I’m already there — and, by now, I’ve probably caught myself two or three ghosts, with another full week to go.
Many of the chunks of ectoplasm I’m chasing have a name and a numeral on the back of their polyester uniform. Other ghosts wear white shirts and bolo ties or brightly colored golf shirts with a team logo embroidered over the heart. A few of them carry notepads, maybe one or two lug a cassette tape recorder.
The great thing is, none of these ghosts will run away when I approach. They are beyond friendly — even the ones like Reggie who scowl and pretend to hate everybody — because, truth be told, they all like being chased and caught. Especially if you offer to buy them a beer, or you just keep quiet and let them talk.
Besides, a lot of these ghosts know me. I’m one of them. I come to Arizona every now and then to chase them … and myself.
I joined their ranks in the desert in 1973. Many of them had been coming to Arizona each spring way before I ever showed up. But they welcomed me like an old-timer, even though I was a girl who’d hardly ever swung a bat at a ball or tried to catch a high hard one in left, right or center field.
The notebook I carried helped. So did knowing when to keep quiet.
That first spring was back when the desert dominated Phoenix and Scottsdale. Today, it’s the other way around. Then, the population of Arizona’s capital was a bit under 600,000. Today, it is more than 1.5 million. The greater Phoenix metropolitan area is home to about 4.3 million people.
Back in ’73 at night, you could lose the lights of town in about 10 or 15 minutes and drive forever into the starry, black-sky desert. The only company you’d find along the roads and two-lane highways was silhouetted and mute: giant saguaro cacti.
The population explosion — and the accompanying expansion of incorporated land mass — make chasing ghosts in the desert a little trickier, but not impossible. A good memory helps: a good baseball memory, that is, which is different from what passes for a good memory in the rest of the world.
A good baseball memory is gauzy-rose about everything but recollections such as RBIs and ERAs and the precise placement of a 25-year-old slugger’s front and back foot at the plate. A good spring training baseball memory is even gauzier-rose; it’s all about speed, power, promise and names — names of guys who looked so fine in the March desert sun, but who barely stayed long enough in the bigs to get two lines in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
To find high-quality ghosts, all I have to do is be silent and listen in the hot, dry air for those names and the stories of promise.
These days, of course, I must hazard the congested traffic of the 21st century and travel to some patch of ground upon which baseball has been played each spring for many decades. Never mind that the facilities atop these grounds have been expanded and tarted up to accommodate lots more people, people who like Jumbo-tron light shows and loud-speaker hip hop with their Cactus League competition.
The ground itself is sacred, and sacred ground draws ghosts.
No matter the ballpark — be it in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa or Tempe — I know I can always find one of the best ghosts who ever roamed these parts right in the stands. He’s about six rows up from the field, directly behind home plate. When he’s with me, he isn’t the wiry, bespectacled infielder who played for the New York Giants from 1946 to 1953, or the graying manager of the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles/California Angels or Minnesota Twins.
With me, he is assistant to the president of the Oakland Athletics, white-haired and wearing a straw planter’s hat and clip-on shades over his eyeglasses.
His name is Bill Rigney, and he is the center of my ghost universe.
He has been in the Sonoran Desert in the spring since the late 1950s, when a rich New Yorker named Horace Stoneham began to carve out an ethereal training facility — Francisco Casa Grande — so his relocated-to-San Francisco Giants could lose their winter bellies and regain their throwing arms.
Rig’s got more than two lines in the Baseball Encyclopedia. But his fair-to-middlin’ major league statistics have nothing to do with his prime spot in my ghost universe. I spend the most time with Rig for the same reason Art Howe, who managed the A’s and the New York Mets, made this statement to the Associated Press on Feb. 20, 2001:
“He had so much knowledge. He was such a great baseball guy. He’s seen everything that can happen in this game. He always had good, sound advice. You would always come out feeling good about things after you talked with him.”
The occasion for Howe’s observation was the day Rig’s beat-up old body packed it in and freed his ever-young spirit to ride the winds to wherever he felt like going. That could be to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium for the 1951 World Series, to his minor league playing days in the Pacific Coast League, to 1962 when he was named AL Manager of the Year (Angels), or to 1970, when he steered the Twins to the AL West championship.
Or Rig could choose to sit with me and a half-dozen other acolytes in any incarnation of Phoenix Municipal Stadium, HoHoKam Park, Hy Corbett Field or Scottsdale Stadium.
The good thing about being a ghost is, Rig can be in all those places at once, the same way the 60-year-old me can chase (and catch) the 24-year-old me, the 1978 desert darkness or the 55-year-old Roger Angell.
Probably the best baseball writer who ever lived, Roger is 89 and still writes for the New Yorker magazine. I called him the day before I left to chase ghosts in Arizona.
“I’m looking at a picture of us right now,” he said, from his home in Manhattan. “It’s one of my favorites. Rig is at the head of the table. We’re all at the Pink Pony.”
From the rest of the people in the photo, including Roger’s wife, Carol, we figured the picture was taken somewhere in the mid- or late-1990s. We had been coming to “The Pony” — a fixture on Scottsdale Boulevard — for about 25 years by then.
“The Pony is no more,” Roger said, and I said I knew, but that wasn’t going to keep me from visiting it while I was in the Valley of the Sun. Genuine Baseball Hall of Fame ghosts hang around in the air above The Pony.
“God, I envy you,” Roger said. “Have a fantastic time.”
I told him I might have to squint my eyes tight at some of the present, and focus hard on the gauzy-rose past, but I was pretty sure a fantastic time was guaranteed.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or email@example.com.