Alex Rodriguez -- perhaps you've heard of him -- will roll into the spring training camp of those New York Yankees this week. And we know it will be a special time for him because it's written right into his title:
"Special" spring instructor.
And as special spring instructors go, it doesn't get much more special than A-Rod. For one thing, the Yankees are still paying him more negotiable American dollars ($21 million) this year than they'll pay Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley to man the left side of their infield ($18.1 million combined). So kids, maybe you too can grow up to be a special $21 million instructor someday.
And for a second thing, he's A-Rod! Meaning, he has a chance to be maybe the first special spring instructor in history to attempt to do some actual instructing. In between interviews, of course.
But before he gets rolling, somebody ought to let this guy know what he's getting himself into -- because the history of special spring instructing tells us that occasionally, an unforeseen plot twist or two can break out. And if there's even a remote chance that an unforeseen plot twist can break out, you can guarantee it will be breaking right over A-Rod's locker any minute now.
So if he's concerned about that, he might want to consult a fellow named Goose Gossage. He won't even have to look far to find him.
The Yankees have invited Gossage to do his special spring instructing thing for many years now. And we've noticed it always seems to consist of more than just instructions on how to grow a Fu Manchu mustache and other useful ballplayer stuff. That's because every year, some enterprising reporter decides that an excellent way to make it through a day of spring training coverage would be to ask Gossage what he thinks of, say, modern three-out relievers ("Soft!"), or modern front offices, with all their fancy numbers ("Nerds!"), or those out-of-control bat flippers like Jose Bautista ("Disgrace!").
Then, the next day, Gossage gets called into a meeting with the manager, Joe Girardi, and the general manager, Brian Cashman, after which he says, "I lost my mind for a minute," and soon transitions smoothly right back into his own personal special spring instructing niche.
But the best part of being a special spring instructor for the Yankees is that, if Gossage's special style isn't your thing, at least you're surrounded by more fellow special spring instructors than players.
Or it seems like it anyway. This year's special guest stars in this camp include Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Hideki Matsui, Lee Mazzilli, Stump Merrill and, lest we forget, Nick Swisher. It's a George Steinbrenner thing, Cashman says, because, well, of course it is.
"George, obviously, really respected history," Cashman said. "And he always tried to stay connected with the past. Very few teams can pull that off."
And that's true. Then again, very few teams have an alumni list to rival the Yankees' list, which includes approximately 478 living Hall of Famers. So you never know which of them you'll run into on any given day in Yankees camp.
ESPN's own Doug Glanville spent just one spring (2005) as a Yankee. But he still looks back on it as practically a supernatural experience.
"It's almost like there's some sort of UFO service for spring training," Glanville said, "because people just, like, drop out of the sky and just appear. Like one day, you walk in and, in full uniform, is Ron Guidry! And Yogi Berra! They just have some sort of space shuttle service or something. I don't know where they come from. It's like time travel."
And that's not their only form of travel, either. Back in the spring of 2006, The New York Times' Tyler Kepner wrote a thoroughly entertaining piece about how Berra plowed himself into special spring instructing. It includes a tale of Berra, Guidry and Mazzilli driving to a road game (by car, not by space shuttle) with Joe Torre. Whereupon they had to pull into a gas station so Yogi and Mazzilli could visit the men's room. In full uniform, naturally.
"I'm sure people were looking around, wanting to know where the cameras were," Torre said. "They must have thought it was a commercial."
During Glanville's spring in Yankees camp, he found himself out on a back field one day, running down fungoes hit by that mammoth former Washington Senators masher, Frank Howard. Who was, yep, yet another special spring instructor.
"And he hit those things with such frequency, he was like Iron Mike," Glanville recalls. "He was like a machine. He just kept hitting and hitting. And after a while, you need a breather, but you don't want to say anything because he's Frank Howard, and he's like 6-foot-7. And of course, he's trash-talking the whole time, screaming at you: 'Come on, Glanville. You've gotta get back to that ball.' I remember Damian Rolls was in our group, and he was asking: 'Is this how it normally goes?'"
But special spring instructing isn't ever really "normal." And it isn't only a Yankees thing, either. Pretty much every team is into it now. And when those special spring instructors come to town -- any town -- you never know what might transpire.
"It's almost like there's some sort of UFO service for spring training ... because people just, like, drop out of the sky and just appear. Like one day, you walk in and, in full uniform, is Ron Guidry! And Yogi Berra! They just have some sort of space shuttle service or something. I don't know where they come from. It's like time travel."Doug Glanville, MLB analyst at ESPN
Back in the mid-1990s, the Philadelphia Phillies decided it was time for them to join the special spring instructor fad. So they kicked it off with an invitation to their Hall of Fame left-hander, Steve Carlton, to stop by their camp for a week and impart his wisdom on the mind-over-matter side of pitching. (Not to be confused with his mind-over-media side.)
Except that Carlton didn't just confine his insights to pitching. He also didn't go home when his week was up, once he discovered that this special spring instructing deal was a totally sweet gig.
Plus, it gave him a forum to tell one Phillies staffer she could will herself to get taller. He also told a Phillies pitcher he could will himself to be invisible. And legend has it, he told one pitcher that he could have shrunk the bone spurs in his elbow with his mind if he could have learned to use his brain to alter his body chemistry. Oh, and one more hot topic in his repertoire: Time travel!
The pitching staff actually found him pretty darned fascinating. But management, from all indications, wasn't quite as fascinated. It turned out be Carlton's final year on the special spring instructing circuit, much as the Phillies still maintain their love and admiration for him. Hey, they just willed him to be invisible, right?
Speaking of Hall of Famers, do special spring instructors get any more entertaining than Rickey Henderson? ESPN's Dallas Braden tells a tale of Henderson rocking into Oakland's camp a few years back and injecting himself into a drill in which Braden was working on his snap pickoff move to first. Next thing he knew, Henderson was leading off first and challenging Braden to pick him off, which Henderson proudly told him would not be possible. So they went at it. Not once. Not twice. But until Braden was sweating profusely and Henderson was covered with dirt.
"This drill was not to get me better," Braden says, knowingly. "This was a moment for Rickey to remind us of just how deep the roaring fire should burn inside of a man on the field."
And that, friends, is special spring instructing at its finest. It's not always about the betterment of the instructee, you see. It's very often about the pride (and ego) of the fabled special instructor. But it's still an awesome baseball tradition. Think of being a 20-year-old kid in his first big league camp. And now here comes Reggie Jackson or Rickey Henderson or (spoiler alert) Alex Rodriguez to offer you tips around the cage. Even if those tips go something like: "Hey, who taught you that swing? Your grandmother?" We could tell you many more fun tales of special instructors you wouldn't believe. Mr. T, the actor? Charlie Pride, the singer? Bunny Mick and Joe Tanner, America's foremost special bunting instructors? They've all pulled into somebody's spring training camp. And you know what we can tell the world about them? They were special. That's what.
"Why is everybody special?" Glanville muses. "That's what I wonder. Why do you get to be declared special? I'm really trying to figure this out. Do you get a higher salary? Is it the rental car that they get you? Are you upgraded at National or Alamo or something? Does a guy feel bad if he's not special? Do you have to be a special instructor, instead of a semispecial or a quasi-special instructor? I don't know what the rankings are. But somebody needs to document how this is all made out."
Yeah, somebody needs to get on that -- and in a hurry, too. After all, we're just hours, maybe minutes, away from Rodriguez rolling into Yankees camp. And you can't help but ask: Is "special instructor" an adequate title to describe him?
"They should put an 'extra' in front of that," Glanville recommends. "I think it's more appropriate. 'Extra special' instructor. Because they gave him this interesting in-season retirement party, I think that puts him in the special category."
Yes, Alex Rodriguez, extra-special spring instructor. Seems fitting ... since they're sure as heck paying him extra.