IT STARTED innocently, as many traditions do. Thirty years ago, baseball barely observed St. Patrick's Day during spring training. Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, proud Irishman that he was, always made sure that corned beef and cabbage was the dinner entree at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. That was about it.
And then Tug McGraw decided to have a little fun.
It's a well-worn tale by now. How McGraw, who had proclaimed St. Patrick's Day his favorite holiday, conspired to have his entire uniform dyed green the night before. How at the old Jack Russell Stadium on March 17, 1981 - although the exact year remains a point of contention - he came in to pitch wearing his special duds. How nonplussed umpire Nick Colosi waved him off the field.
Longtime broadcaster Chris Wheeler doesn't recall all the details, but he vividly remembers the scene.
"Tug popped out of the dugout. Nick Colosi went, 'No, no, no.' He kind of threw cold water on the party that day," Wheels said with a laugh yesterday. "I don't ever remember seeing [anybody wear green] before. It wasn't like the guys were wearing green hats in those days. That became a tradition later. This was just impish Tug being the leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day."
The Phillies came out for the exhibition against the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday at Bright House Field wearing green shirts and caps. About half the standing-room-only crowd followed suit. Mixed in with the fans wearing their usual Phillies red, the stands looked like a Christmas package of M & Ms.
And if it seems like the Phillies are always at home on March 17 these days that's because, well, they are.
"They send out a questionnaire 6 or 8 months before spring training," director of team travel and clubhouse services Frank Coppenbarger said. "Do you want an overnight trip? What week would you like your off day? Do you want more than one off day? Is there any home-and-home opponent you want to have to start the spring? Are there any dates you must be home? And we always put St. Patrick's Day. We want to be home on St. Patrick's Day."
Coppenbarger has been with the Phillies since 1989. That year the team came out in green jerseys, caps and even green pinstriped pants. In the years since, the extent of the wearin' o' the green has varied. In recent years it's just been hats and tops. "Pants are a hard thing to deal with. For instance, even today we've got two or three kids coming over from the minor leagues and you just don't know, even at the beginning of the day, what you're going to encounter sometimes," he said.
The latest twist to the ensemble is having the date circling a shamrock embroidered into the side of the hats.
Over the years, the Phillies going green on March 17 has become almost as much of a Clearwater tradition as the St. Patrick's Day blowout at O'Keefe's. Fans plan their spring-training trips around the date, the team sells oodles of themed merchandise. Yesterday's attendance of 10,816 was a BHF record. The Phillies even turn around and sell the game-used uniforms, with the proceeds going to charity.
Different teams observe the day in their own ways. The visiting Blue Jays yesterday stuck to their standard road uniforms. Some teams just wear green hats.
The Phillies make a big deal out of it. And they should. Somewhere, McGraw - who always said the manager could use him any way he wanted on March 17 but that under no circumstances could he be expected to be in any condition to pitch the following day - had to be smiling.
AROUND THE BASES
* Lucky charm: Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran is still having knee problems that cast a shadow over his 2010 season. But when he's despondent he pulls an old baseball card out of his locker and pores over the back. "When I feel down, that's what I do. I look at my numbers," he told the New York Post. "I see how many times I have driven in 100 runs [eight]. I say, 'You know what? I'm a good player.' "
* More New York mess: The Major League Baseball Players Association will be keeping a close eye on how new Mets manager Terry Collins uses closer Francisco Rodriguez this year. K-Rod's $17.5 million option for 2012 becomes guaranteed if he finishes 55 games this season. For a team looking to cut payroll that doesn't figure to be competitive, there's at least a financial incentive to make sure he doesn't vest his option. The union would argue that this violates the spirit of the agreement.
The New York Post noted that in the team's first 26 games last year, six of K-Rod's 10 game-finishing appearances were non-save situations.
* Relatively speaking: The Los Angeles Times reported that Dodgers nonroster pitcher Tim Redding is the nephew of Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie Norton on the classic "The Honeymooners" TV series starring Jackie Gleason. Randolph is the only surviving member of the cast.
* Union man: Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie is probably paying a lot more attention to the NFL's labor situation than your average baseball player. According to the Boston Herald, Lowrie did a research paper on the differences between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the National Football League Players Association as part of completing his degree work in political science at Stanford.
* Weighing in: Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters at the start of spring training that slugger Miguel Cabrera was in the best shape of his career. The Detroit News subsequently disclosed that Cabrera came to camp at 270 pounds, at least 25 more than the team wanted him to be.
* Can't catch a break: Steve Bartman, who infamously reached for a pop foul in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS and, depending on your perspective, might have cost the Cubs a chance at their first world championship since 1908, has remained in seclusion ever since. But, according to USA Today, he plays a leading role in a new documentary called "Catching Hell" that was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.
PHAIR AND PHOUL
* Streaking: Jimmy Rollins said at the start of spring training that he expects the Phillies to win at least 100 games this season. If he's right, it will be the fifth straight season the team has improved its record from the year before and the first time it's ever happened. They won 89 games in 2007, 92 in 2008, 93 in '09 and 97 in '10. The closest the Phillies have ever come before was when they won 59 games in 1972, 71 in '73, 80 in '74, 86 in '75 and franchise-record 101 in both '76 and '77.
* Going up: Research for Tug McGraw's first green uniform turned up a factoid that helps illustrate how quickly spring training has gone from being a relatively mom-and-pop operation to big business. According to Wikipedia, Phillies spring training tickets cost $8, $6 and $5 in 2003, the last year of Jack Russell Stadium. This year at Bright House Field they go for $34, $29, $26 and $23, and $13 just to sit on the berm.
* Legal briefs: Jimmy Rollins was awarded $194,753 last month in a default judgment against a couple he sued for allegedly misspending the money he invested in a documentary about the life of late rapper Tupac Shakur, according to the City News Service. Instead, he claimed, the couple spent the money on themselves.
Rollins sued Stephanie "Bright" Riley and her husband Suaman "Swoop" Brown for fraud and deceit, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract in Los Angeles Superior Court last June 8, according to the report. Rollins said he paid $135,000 and expected to recoup his investment plus 25 percent of the royalties but that he found the couple never intended to produce the documentary because it had already been put together by a third party that had signed a distribution agreement. His total award covered his original investment plus interest and legal costs.
* Just in case: It probably doesn't matter because the Phillies a) shouldn't have to trade for a starting pitcher this season and b) don't appear to have the payroll space to take on Seattle's King Felix Hernandez even if they did. But Foxsports.com reports that Hernandez has a clause in his contract that allows him to block a trade to 10 teams each year and that this season the Phillies are on that list. Of course, players often insert such language as much as a bargaining chip as a desire not to go to a given team.