Two months into a brand-new season, the Arizona Diamondbacks are under new management and in second place in baseball's five-team National League West Division. Of course, fewer than a third of the team's 162 games have been played, and just before a weeklong road trip, the boys in purple and teal have dropped four of six at home against division rivals San Diego and L.A. And if that's not enough, on the evening of June 2, the team is about to face one of the most dominating pitchers of the past decade, and the most recognizable face of the "New Mets," Pedro Martinez.
So with a certain amount of realism looming, what's the Diamondbacks media relations office concerned about? Well, us.
Could it be our devastatingly pithy review of Coldplay's latest album? Our ability to stand on our tiptoes and stare Troy Glaus right in the Adam's apple?
Whatever the reason for their misplaced anxiety (all we want to do is talk about music), the Diamondbacks' media gatekeepers have deigned to allow us one, and only one, entrance into that most sacred of places, the visitors' clubhouse -- provided that we don't, you know, approach any of the "bigger names."
Try Luis Gonzalez, Craig Counsell, Shawn Green, Troy Glaus. And all five starting pitchers.
Now none of this, you understand, is the fault of the players. The D-Backs, on the whole, are young, friendly, Vandyke-wearing, iPod-owning men of warmth and good cheer.
Relief pitcher Lance Cormier shares a 20 GB iPod with his spouse, and volunteers that he's currently listening to a compilation of Christian rock artists made for him by starter Russ Ortiz.
Rookie catcher Chris Snyder is another iPod owner. A mini, in his case. He's just bought the new Dave Matthews CD (he likes it), but the pregame ritual has its own music. "When I'm going to the park," Snyder says, "I listen to a lot of like heavy stuff -- Metallica, Disturbed, stuff like that."
Snyder says that outfielder Luis Gonzalez (forbidden fruit to us) is not only the clubhouse leader, but also the head iPod guy. "He's got like two million songs on it," says Snyder. "He's got every song you could think of."
But our clubhouse focus this afternoon is reserve infielder Matt Kata.
"I have, in general, just a real appreciation for music and musicians," Kata says.
The calluses familiar to every beginning guitarist are evident on the fingertips of his glove hand. Three months prior, for his birthday, Kata's wife bought him a Fender acoustic.
"Was it exactly what you wanted?" we ask.
"The calluses?" he asks.
A funny boy, that Matt Kata.
The third-year Diamondback is also a major league Bob Dylan fan, a handed-down gift of taste from his father and older sister. He's even picked up a Dylan guitar tab book.
Kata's favorite album: "Ah, definitely Blood on the Tracks."
Early on in Arizona's ill-fated 2004 campaign, Matt Kata was the D-Backs' starting second baseman, but a torn left labrum ended his year in late May. Over the off-season, Arizona picked up Royce Clayton at short, and brought back Craig Counsell at second, so Kata, still a relatively young 27, found himself without a chair when the music stopped. With Alex Cintron, another middle infielder, on the bench, Kata spent part of this May with the Triple A Tucson Sidewinders in the Pacific Coast League. But the ever-optimistic second sacker made the most of his time, even on the road.
"When I was in Memphis," he says, "it was great because one of the mornings I went over to the Stax Museum -- Stax Records, you know -- Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes and stuff. So I went through the Stax Museum and kind of got the Memphis connection to the blues. And at the end of it, they had a Dylan photograph exhibit. Sixty previously unreleased photographs."
Kata, like seemingly every Diamondback not named Shawn Estes (the left-hander prefers to wear Oakley Thumpers -- sunglasses with earphones that'll hold about 20 songs -- during his daily warm-up), owns an iPod. This is a very good thing for road trips. After all, not every town has its own Stax Museum.
"It's like my American Express card," he says. "I don't leave home without my iPod."
Kata, kind soul that he is, allows us to blubber for a time about our own dead 40 GB, part of that reverse Midas thing that's going on. We're damn near in mourning.
"I can shuffle my iPod," Kata says, "and a song will come on, and I have a vivid memory of something. It just sparks. I could go shuffle my iPod and give you a little story about it."
Kata reaches into his locker underneath the stands at Shea Stadium and pulls out his 30 GB iPod Photo. He hits shuffle, and the first song pulled is by OutKast, something off the Stankonia CD.
"Nah," Kata says.
He hits shuffle again. Up comes Jason Mraz.
"You don't want to do Jason Mraz," we say, and, like a roulette wheel, the shuffle spins again.
The third song up -- we swear on our depleted battery -- is track five off Dylan's Blood on the Tracks: "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go."
"Yeah," Kata says, "Blood on the Tracks is freshman year at Vanderbilt for me. I don't know if it was maybe like a preface of the breakup with my girlfriend. We were dating senior year [of high school], but that freshman year I get the call. She's away. We're separate. I get the call -- 'Oh, I kissed another guy' type thing. We ended up getting back together, but it wasn't the same after that. That's a good one right there."
Absolutely. Anyone who's ever listened to Blood on the Tracks knows that, never mind the lyrics, the sound alone is enough to break your heart. And needless to say, this is one odd moment in a major league clubhouse. At this point, there's nothing left to do but say our goodbyes.
Now about that reverse Midas.
The Diamondbacks go down to Pedro and the Mets that night, 6-1. Estes takes the loss. In the first inning, in a freaky stroke of karma, the stadium's automatic sprinklers engage and water soaks the infield for a two-minute artificial rain delay. Whether there's a connection, starting second baseman Craig Counsell (we promise we didn't so much as nod at the guy) commits three errors, a conclusive career high. It is, in fact, the second night of a streak that will see the D-Backs win but six of 20 games.
But don't blame Matt Kata for Arizona's recent run of bad luck. Two days after he talks to us, he's shipped back to Triple A.