Butts in Seats

Marlin Munchies

Oy, the resonant crack of wooden bat on ball, the pop of fastball into catcher's mitt, the soft murmur of Big Leaguers comparing hedge funds. Spring training brings a feeling of deep-seated well-being to Tailpipe, like eating a doughnut fresh from the fryer.

But when the 'Pipe got to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter the other day, his beloved local team the Marlins must have been in a bar somewhere, celebrating the announcement of plans for their new stadium. About time, of course. This old car part has seen the vast stretches of empty seats in Dolphin Stadium during the baseball season, and clearly what the Marlins need — now that Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera have been traded to the Detroit Tigers — are some sparkling new empty seats to play in front of. Pop open the champagne, boys.

No Marlins, but the St. Louis Cardinals were in Jupiter in force, like a rollicking wave of red. The Cardinals, the 2006 World Series champs but a big 2007 disappointment, rippled with energy on the sunny field, with Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel smacking the ball off their bats. Children and autograph hounds clung to the fences, roster cards in hand, begging for a broken bat or worn ball.

In the bleachers, though, a lot of eyes were on a slight man in a "Wizard of Oz" hat. No, Cards fans, it wasn't Ozzie Smith. The four-and-a-half-foot-tall dude munching hot dog after hot dog was a real Munchkin: Mickey Carroll, one of few surviving cast members from the Wizard of Oz movie. As a Munchkinland townsperson in the film, he wore a purple jacket and handlebar mustache. Now, in a blue blazer and that cute little hat, the 88-year-old St. Louis resident says he tries to come to Florida for Cardinals camp every year.

"It's about 5 degrees in St. Louis this time of year, with ten feet of snow," he said. "It's a beautiful day here. Why not sit outside and eat some hot dogs?"

During lulls in practice, Carroll told old showbiz stories to anyone who would listen and signed autographs (on photos of the cast from Munchkinland he carried with him in a bag). He wore a pin on his blue sports jacket commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz, which was released in 1939. "You make one movie your whole life, and it happens to be a hit," he said in his high-pitched Munchkin voice. "Go figure."

Carroll said that, despite the biggest budget ever for a movie at the time (more than $2.7 million), he got only $25 a week, a pittance compared to the $500 per week he was making in vaudeville.

He told stories about Judy Garland (she and Elvis Presley were "the two greatest artists in American history," Carroll said authoritatively), and he described doing a song and dance for Al Capone as a 10-year-old boy in Chicago. There were even a few tidbits for serious movie buffs in the audience. The famous tornado scene? It was Carroll himself, not actress Clara Blandick, who voiced Auntie Em in the howling wind. Carroll stood up and belted out a perfect rendition of "Door-theee!" as if screaming into a twister.

The 'Pipe couldn't resist trying to get this octogenarian firecracker to sign on as a Marlins fan. If Carroll bought a season ticket, that would guarantee at least one little butt in the South Florida seats.

No soap, Carroll said. But he offered an autographed picture.

"May the magic of Oz always be with you," he wrote. "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

Tailpipe passes those sentiments along to the Marlins. But stay away from those poppy fields, boys.

Take the Boat

It should be safer to go by plane from Haiti to the United States than riding in a rickety, overloaded boat. But the gap between air travelers and boat people may be narrowing, judging by reports from an American Airlines flight last week.

Carine Desir, a 44-year-old Haitian woman, was on Flight 896 from Port-au-Prince to JFK International Airport in New York last Friday when she experienced heart failure. According to Desir's brother, Joel Desir, who was on the flight with her, flight staff at first refused assistance, then grudgingly trotted out faulty life-saving equipment. Both of the flight's emergency oxygen tanks that flight attendants used to administer to Desir were empty, and a defibrillator appeared not to work. Desir died before the plane could make an emergency landing in Miami.

Then the pilot elected not to stop in Miami to unload the body. The flight staff moved it to the first-class cabin, and the flight continued to its scheduled destination in New York.

"If this was a JFK flight from London, this would have never happened," says an American Airlines flight crew member who has worked the Port-au-Prince flight. "I hear it from Haitian passengers all the time," said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They get treated like shit."

A standard preflight routine calls for flight attendants to ensure that first-aid equipment is working, the crew member says; it's also standard procedure to stop at the nearest airport when a passenger dies.

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