MESA, Ariz. — These are fields of postponed dreams, of lush grass and neatly sculpted mounds topped by shiny white pitching rubbers that have yet to be stained by tobacco juice or stabbed by the spikes of a frustrated pitcher.
The baseball diamonds at Gene Autry Park, home of the Angels for the first part of spring training, were empty Thursday as the long-discussed player lockout became a reality. No padlocks barred the way to the curious who occasionally wandered in from McKellips Road, but the deserted fields and vacant batting cages transmitted the mute but unmistakable message that baseball would not be played here.
For those used to living by the rhythms of the game, it was a sad and frustrating message.
"Usually, on the first day it would be chaos. This is much too quiet," said Jeff Anderson of Mesa, one of three groundskeepers charged with maintaining the condition of the fields during the spring and later for the summer rookie league games. "This is just totally different. We took a lot of preparation to get the fields back in shape. They'd gotten pretty run down from other city activities. They're ready now. It's time to play ball. Too bad (the players) aren't here."
Pitchers, catchers and players recovering from injuries were permitted to report Thursday, and the Angels had scheduled the spring's first workout for Saturday. But with owners and players still at odds over a new collective bargaining agreement, the only sounds to be heard at Gene Autry Park were the hiss of the chill wind and the whisking of brooms as groundskeepers swept away stray bits of grass and pebbles outside the administration building that overlooks the fields.
Once in a while, the eerie silence was broken by the sound of a car driving into the parking lot. Rod McKenzie of Goderich, Canada, 160 miles north of Detroit in Ontario, pressed up against the fence and pointed his camera at the main field to capture the image.
"I don't even know what this whole (lockout) thing is all about," said McKenzie, who is driving through Arizona for his vacation. "I didn't think the players would be here, from what I heard. It's too bad, isn't it?"
It's worse than merely "bad" to Brian Bossard, the field manager in charge of the Mesa facility for the past five months. As a third-generation groundskeeper--his grandfather plied that trade in Cleveland and his father kept up the tradition at Chicago's Comiskey Park--Bossard grew up with baseball, and he keenly felt the silence Thursday. Proud as he is of the manicured fields and precisely outlined basepaths, Bossard would rather see the lines obscured by dirt kicked up during hook slides and the other normal activities of spring training.
"It's frustrating; waiting around gets old," Bossard said. "Without a doubt, we'd rather be busy."
Bossard said he had not received official word about the lockout from the Angels' organization and knows only what has been in newspapers and on television. While talks go on, he and his crew will continue to rake and sweep and water fields that already appear perfect, except for their emptiness. The wooden benches, their brown and green paint peeling, will remain stacked outside the building, and the batting cages will stand in jumbled profusion.
"Whatever the players and owners decide, whenever the players and owners decide it, our facility is ready to go," Bossard said. "We're ready any time they're ready. We're keeping the facility up to the state where they could play tomorrow."