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"Unless you're leading the Dog, the view never changes." - sign just outside the Yankees spring training clubhouse, Legends Field, Tampa, Florida



by modernerabaseball.com

Spring training of 1999 was quite unusual. Well, actually, that's putting it quite mildly.

It's not often the No. 77 on the roster is occupied by someone noteworthy, yet alone the most successful musician of All-Freaking-Time.

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It's 10:30 p.m. in the Padre clubhouse and - pardon the pun - the natives are restless.

Restless because Lennox Lewis has not been declared the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world despite the fact that he has just clobbered the daylights out of Evander Holyfield for 12 rounds.

Catcher Carlos Hernandez - sitting on a small chair in front of his locker pumping weights while viewing the television monitor above - is now up from his chair. And he's quite livid.

Yes, March 13, 1999 had been a long day for the defending National League Champion Padres. For starters, it was the team's first split-squad day of spring training.

Many of the Padres minor leaguers and reserve players competed in the afternoon at the nearby Maryvale Baseball Park against host Milwaukee while most of the projected opening day starters hosted Sammy Sosa and Company in an evening tilt at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Garth Brooks? He played in both games. Well, three games actually.

That's right, the man seeing the most action on this day wasn't Matt Clement, Reggie Sanders or even Tony Gwynn, it was the certified highest-selling solo artist in U.S. music history.

Brooks went 0-for-2 in the 2-1 loss to the Brewers. He then played in a second, shortened game at Maryvale that won't count in the Cactus League standings (as if anyone's really paying much attention the standings anyway). Finally, as some 9,000 shouted "We Want Garth," Brooks walked up to home plate and pitch-hit against the Cubs. He proceeded to line-out.

Back inside the Padres clubhouse, Brooks is changing out of his uniform into his street clothes. He's also enjoying his dinner - a hamburger from McDonalds. It's been a long day for Brooks, but that's doesn't stop him from asking this reporter "Have we met?"

I am in shock.

Garth Brooks asking me if we've met?

It becomes abundantly clear after just the first 10 seconds of conversation that Brooks is a truly ordinary man with extraordinary qualities.

"I'd play the first game and all the second game if they'd let me," said Brooks. "It's the simple fact you're lucky as s--- to get to do this. I think anybody else that wants to play baseball would do the same thing."

Brooks is doing more than just playing baseball. If he just in spring training to play baseball, the Padres organization would be the laughingstock of professional sports. That's because Brooks has about as much baseball talent as Barney. If Brooks ever does hit the ball out of the infield, it will be accomplishment.

In January, Brooks announced the formation of Touch 'Em All, a charitable collaboration among Major League Baseball (MLB) players, entertainers and corporate partners which will contribute money to various children's charities, both nationally and in San Diego.

Funding will come from MLB players through donations based on performance in categories such as base hits, home runs, stolen bases, strikeouts and saves. The funds will then be matched by entertainers and corporate sponsors.

The baseball bug bit Brooks last spring when he pitch-ran for the Padres in a Cactus League game. Brooks' baseball salary has been donated to the foundation, not that he needs to collect a salary anyway.

In speaking one-on-one with Brooks, you come to quickly understand what makes him tick and what he values most. According to Padres officials, Brooks has spent evenings on end signing CDs, posters, baseballs and other items for fans. Bear in mind, Brooks has no security guards surrounding him. None.

During my interview, Brooks was asking most of the questions. He was curious to know how I got into journalism, where I attended college and where my family lived.

For a brief moment, I literally thought I was dreaming, drunk, or both. I couldn't believe the course this conversation had taken. It was if I was interviewed - by Garth Brooks, no less.

When I finally wrestled my title as Interviewer back from Brooks, he hesitated. Probably because my next question was: "So, how do you think you're playing?"

Brooks' face quickly became sullen.

"I'm tired of always telling these guys I'm sorry. I want to contribute. It's up to me to fix that."

An intense competitor, Brooks despises failing at anything. Fortunately, he has an amazing spirit that helps him meet new challenges head on. Like September 24, 1993 when he rode a high-wire - end-to-end - across sprawling Texas Stadium in Irving singing "Ain't Goin' Down 'Til The Sun Comes Up" before 65,000 onlookers.

Remarking on my schooling at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, I related that I had been in attendance that night. I also related how it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen at a rock concert.

"Yeah, I was scared," Brooks said of the high-wire act. "But it was great."

Though he was now smiling, Brooks' eyes showed absolute exhaustion. As I shook his hand for a second time, I thanked him again for his time and wished him well. To which Brooks replied, in his down-home Oklahoma drawl: "Hope to see you again for my sake."

As I headed down the narrow hallway that would lead me back outside and to my rental car, I had to pinch myself again and again.

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Feb 26 2002, 13:06:02
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