The countdown to the Phillies’ first spring training with Joe Girardi as manager is at 13 days, and it’s always fun to see what the new guy does differently from his predecessor. One thing Girardi has in common with Gabe Kapler is that he’s not an advocate of early starting times for workouts.

Girardi wants the morning dew to be gone when the players take the field, and he sees no reason for a crack-of-dawn wakeup call. It’s possible the workouts in this spring training will also look very similar to the ones under Kapler because bench coach Rob Thomson remains the field coordinator.

That said, there are likely to be some noticeable differences, too. Girardi is sure to put his fingerprints on the way things will operate during his first spring training.

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Kobe Bryant's death Sunday reminded this writer of a plane ride he took with the NBA superstar in the summer of 1999.
Mark J. Terrill / AP
Kobe Bryant's death Sunday reminded this writer of a plane ride he took with the NBA superstar in the summer of 1999.

Kobe Bryant and I spent a flight together in 1999

Cover baseball long enough and you’re sure to have some stories. I have my fair share. I covered the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 because they started in the middle of a series between the Phillies and Dodgers. You remember something like that forever.

I was in the air on my way to Atlanta the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 because the Phillies were about to open a vital series with the Braves that night. By the time we landed, it did not seem nearly as vital.

In between those two mega-news events was another unforgettable occurrence in my beat-covering career. On June 20, 1999, I finished covering a six-game West Coast trip that had taken the Phillies to San Diego and Los Angeles. The Phillies had lost, 3-2, to Kevin Brown and the Dodgers on a Sunday afternoon to finish their trip 3-3, and I had a red-eye flight home that night to Philadelphia.

As I waited at the gate for boarding, I noticed that Kobe Bryant was going to be on the flight, too.

In those days, if you were a frequent flier, it was not uncommon to get first-class upgrades and I was fortunate enough to have one for the cross-country flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, Kobe had a first-class seat, too.

The surprise came when I realized I was seated next to Bryant, who was already an NBA star at the age of 20. Kobe had the window. I had the aisle. We also had something in common. We both wanted to go to sleep as most passengers do on a red-eye flight. Kobe covered his ears with his state-of-the-art headphones, and I put in my earbuds. We both fell asleep before the flight left the ground.

At that point, we had not spoken a word. Kobe, as it turned out, would initiate our first conversation. As we ascended, I awakened to a tap on the shoulder.

“Could I get out please to go to the restroom?” Kobe asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Normally they make you wait to we level off, but I don’t think the flight attendants will say anything to you.”

They didn’t. Kobe went to the bathroom and returned to his seat, and we both went back to sleep until we were about 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia International Airport. The sun was rising and a few of the flight attendants politely asked Kobe for his autograph. He happily obliged.

That was my opportunity to start a conversation. I broke the ice.

“You must love seeing the picturesque oil tanks every time you return to Philadelphia,” I said.

Kobe smiled.

"You know what, there’s no place in the world I would have rather grown up than Philadelphia,” he said.

What a wonderful answer, I thought.

I kept the conversation going by asking Kobe who he thought would win the NBA championship. The Spurs, who had eliminated Kobe’s Lakers in a four-game sweep, were playing the Knicks, who had reached the Finals despite being a No. 8 seed.

“It’s the Spurs’ year," Kobe said.

He was right. It was San Antonio’s first of five titles.

Four days earlier, the Lakers had hired Phil Jackson as their head coach.

“Did you meet Phil yet,” I asked.

“Yes,” Kobe said.

“What do you think?" I followed up.

“We are going to win championships with him as our coach,” Kobe said.

He was right again. The Lakers won it all the very next year against the Pacers. And the year after that against the 76ers. And the year after that against the Nets. By the time he was done, Kobe had five championship rings.

I was so impressed with the manner in which Bryant had handled himself during our brief encounter that I did something I never do. I asked him for his autograph, and he signed my boarding pass. I lost that piece of paper long ago, and like everyone else, I was shocked Sunday when the world lost Kobe Bryant, his amazing teenage daughter, and seven other people aboard the helicopter that crashed in Southern California.

At the time of our flight together, Kobe Bryant was still two months removed from his 21st birthday, but it was already clear how special he was going to become.

The rundown

This is a pivotal season for Nick Pivetta, and the Phillies righthander opted for a change to his off-season routine. He moved from western Canada to Southern California and went through workouts with the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, the White Sox’s Lucas Giolito and Atlanta’s Max Fried, among others.

One of the new faces among the Phillies’ guest instructors in spring training this year will be a familiar one. Ryan Howard, No. 2 all-time on the team’s career home run list, will serve for the first time as a guest instructor down in Clearwater. This is his first assignment in a team-related capacity since his playing career ended after minor-league stints with Colorado and Atlanta affiliates in 2017.

Perhaps Howard can help slugger Rhys Hoskins recover from his second-half slump. The Phillies’ former first baseman talked about the current first baseman during the winter meetings.

Speaking of Hoskins, after doing another good community deed last week, the first baseman talked about the adjustments he has made this winter with the assistance of new hitting coach Joe Dillon.

This space has been used before to tell the abridged version of the 1900 Phillies’ sign-stealing scheme involving a spy glass and electrical wires, but our Frank Fitzpatrick provided a detailed account of the incident that long preceded the recent incidents involving Houston and Boston.

Important dates

Feb. 12: First workout for pitchers and catchers in Clearwater, Fla.

Feb. 17: First full-squad workout in Clearwater.

Feb. 22: Grapefruit League lid-lifter vs. Detroit in Lakeland, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

March 26: Season opener vs. Miami in Marlins Park, 4:10 p.m.

April 2: Home opener vs. Milwaukee, 3:05 p.m.

Benito Santiago at his introductory Phillies press conference.
YONG KIM / Staff File Photo
Benito Santiago at his introductory Phillies press conference.

Stat of the day

On this date in 1996, the Phillies signed catcher Benito Santiago to a one-year contract worth $1.7 million, and it ended up being a quite a deal for the team. Santiago, in his only season with the Phillies, hit .264 with a career-high 30 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Santiago, Mike Lieberthal and Stan Lopata are the only Phillies catchers to hit 30 or more home runs in a season. Santiago had the highest WAR among the Phillies’ position players that season, but the team still finished last. Santiago signed with Toronto as a free agent after the season.

From the mailbag

Question: Your comment about Randy Johnson being the greatest lefthander ever could be contested. He did not win as many games as Warren Spahn, who did not even win a game in the majors until his late 20s and pitched successfully into his 40s. He did win more games than Sandy Koufax, but even though his career peak lasted only about 6 years, he was for that time perhaps the greatest pitcher ever, left or right.

— Peter Handler, via email

Answer: Thanks for the email, Peter. I probably should have written that Johnson was the greatest lefty of his era because it really is difficult to compare eras in baseball. Johnson is the greatest I ever witnessed with my own eyes, and I write that reluctantly because I loved watching Steve Carlton pitch and some of my greatest childhood memories are of his 1972 season.

Spahn, Carlton, Koufax and some others could also be included in the debate, and the arguments for each pitcher would be lively ones.