Spring Training – Heroes, Passion, and Surprises

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AP/Nathaniel Fein via Flickr

Monday Morning. I arrived home on Saturday, and now I am evaluating my first trip of many planned for this season. What did I learn this spring training? After all, in my last post, my feeling was that although there were some rough patches, I will go back to spring training again and again. I love the game and spring training is where it starts. I also learned about heroes, passion and possible surprises.

Heroes – All Hail Ichiro!

I could wax poetic – about the great Ichiro’s accomplishments. He’s only the third man to have more than 4,000 hits – yes 1,000 in Japan, but 4,000 is still a great achievement. Additionally, 3,080 hits in 17 years are awe-inspiring. 1 Also, let’s agree that basketball is the sport where we refer to players by their first name – Kobe, Lebron etc. It’s not done in baseball, but Ichiro Suzuki is “Ichiro”. Then, there is his defense and his arm – even on display the last week of his career.

Lava via Flickr

Question: now that we elect players to the Hall of Fame unanimously – see Mariano Rivera – how can anyone not vote for Ichiro?

What I realized when I woke up early during spring training to watch Ichiro’s last two games is that players revere the game’s icons. Their admiration for the man that had played so long on two different continents, achieved so much and did so with dignity, was obvious: He realized the dreams that they all want to achieve. And when it was over, they showed their profound respect as the great warrior left the field for the last time.

Keith Allison via Flickr

Then there is the sight of Yusei Kikuchi crying as Ichiro left the field. Kikuchi was pitching in his first MLB game – at home in Japan – after playing in Japan. Ichiro led the way for guys like Kikuchi to play in America and Kikuchi idolizes Ichiro.

Finally, Ichiro finished in Japan, in front of his adoring countrymen. Baseball seems to be very prone to these wonderful events.

Wonderful, Ichiro Stat

Do yourself a favor and follow Sarah Langs on Twitter – that alone almost makes Twitter worth it. Moreover, when great stats like the similarity between Ichiro’s first and last game occur, relish the fact that the baseball gods are watching. I’m serious.

Ichiro’s first career MLB game (2001): Mariners beat A’s, 5-4

Ichiro’s final career MLB game (2019): Mariners beat A’s, 5-4

Sarah Langs – Tweet – March 21, 2019

Passion – Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer

Friday was our double-header day. In the late morning, we drove the 40 minutes or so to Tradition Field to watch the Metsies host the Cardinals. The Cardinals brought the “A” team and the Mets played the “B” team. Two position players (Carlos Gomez and Rajai Davis) were non-roster invitees and are no longer with the team. Another, (Travis d’Arnaud) will likely start the season on the injured list. Finally, all six pitchers are not on the 40-man roster and I don’t have the patience to figure where they are now. The result – Cardinals 15 – Mets 5 in a rather tepid and uninspired display.

That evening we were back at Roger Dean Stadium watching the Marlins host the Nationals. A small crowd was in attendance, likely bolstered by the promise of fireworks after the game. It’s too bad that the Marlins don’t draw like the Cardinals or the Mets as those who stayed away missed a great experience. They missed a surprisingly good Marlins team (more below) and Max Scherzer.

Along Came Scherzer

I went to watch Scherzer warm up before the game, and that is where I saw his passion. He would throw a pitch and visibly grimace if he didn’t get the ball to do what he wanted. He was noticeably happier when he threw a good pitch – “good” in his mind. It’s Friday night and he is warming up to pitch to the lowly Marlins, with more important games looming in the near future.

Frustrating Warm Up

Last year, we saw Scherzer pitch and were awed by the way he threw strikes – especially first pitch strikes. He always put himself in the dominant position over the poor hitter. This year we were behind the plate, and the same was true. However, what I noticed this year was his command. “Control” is the ability to throw strikes, “command” is the ability to locate the ball in the strike zone. The first pitch strikes were strikes, but they were also in parts of the zone that the hitter could not hit well.

During the longish top of the seventh, we wondered if we would see Scherzer in the bottom of the inning. He had already thrown 84 pitches, and we thought that was enough. Indeed, as the top of the inning dragged on, we knew we would not see him again. Nope – he wasn’t done.

We read later that he wanted to go seven – and go seven he did.

Surprises – The Marlins

The experts say that Marlins are rebuilding and have no chance to make the playoffs. Ignore that they won 15 games out of 28 — they stink. Wait ’til next year.

Ken (my spring training companion) noticed it before I did – the Marlins played well. Then I read Ken Rosenthal’s article in The Athletic. Rosenthal reports that many are impressed with the Marlins play this spring. No one expects them to outperform the PECOTA projection of 67 wins, but they look better than expected. 2

New Dawn

Ken left early to watch the sunrise each morning while I tried to write or watch Ichiro. He followed suit on our last day and took this picture.

Opening Day Is On The Horizon…

The sun is rising – baseball season starts on Thursday and I’ll be in Washington watching Scherzer and DeGrom go at it. Enjoy the season.

More later….

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Spring Training – “For The Love Of The Game”

Middle Innings

The game falls into three distinct phases. In the first couple of innings, you are enjoying your new surroundings, savoring the first beer of the night and anticipating how the game will go. In contrast, the last few innings of a close game are tense, how will it end? The middle innings, like a novel, are where the story develops. The same is true for my spring training trip – the story developed in the middle games and was where I reaffirmed my “love of the game.”

Two key themes were the so called “road roster charade” and the rain. Yes dear friends, I learned that it actually rains in sunny Florida.

Monday – Cardinals vs. Phillies – Where’s Bryce?

Unfortunately, and not terribly surprising, visiting teams in spring training don’t bring the “A” team if they have to travel far. The league argues that there are rules against this travesty happening. After all, they don’t want fans to pay a lot of money and have high expectations only to be disappointed, or do they? MLB’s rules state that at least four players who either played MLB ball last year or have the chance to do so need to play at least three innings of a spring training game.1. So what’s wrong with this lineup?

The Phillies “B” Team

In comparison, this is the Phillies projected 2019 lineup per MLB.com 2 the bolded ones appeared in Jupiter:

1) Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2) Jean Segura, SS
3) Bryce Harper, RF
4) Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5) J.T. Realmuto, C
6) Andrew McCutchen, LF
7) Odubel Herrera, CF
8) Maikel Franco, 3B

Rotation and closer:
1) Aaron Nola, RHP
2) Jake Arrieta, RHP
3) Nick Pivetta, RHP
4) Zach Eflin, RHP
5) Vince Velasquez, RHP
Closer: David Robertson, RHP, or Seranthony Dominguez, RH

So, no Bryce, no Rhys, no J.T. And where’s McCutchen and Segura? Clearly, the Phillies did not field a compelling team on Monday and the fans deserve better.

Although the Phillies train in Clearwater on Florida’s west coast and Jupiter is on the east coast, it’s not that far away. Per Google Maps, the drive from Clearwater to Jupiter is 209 miles which equates to 3 hours 29 minutes travel time. I assume the busses are nice, it’s not clear why the players are not expected to appear.

Thursday – Is That The Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders?

Similarly, George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa is only 194 miles from Roger Dean Stadium. It’s only a 3 hour and 9-minute drive. Yet the team that appeared seemed to be more like the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRaider, the Yankees AAA farm club than the mighty New York Yankees.

Normally the minor league players in the major league spring training camp wear numbers 50 and above (Aaron Judge’s #99 is an exception). However, Thursday’s Yankees lineup featured 5 players with numbers higher than 50.

Not The Real Yankees

Moreover, no one in the starting lineup was a member of the Baseball Prospectus top ten prospects 3.

Meanwhile, the game drew a standing room only crowd. The Cardinals’ regulars outclassed these dregs from the Yankees farm system and won 11 – 3. We went back to the hotel pool after six innings.

Standing Room & “Yankees” With High Uniform Numbers

MLB can do better – and the Yankees should have more respect for their fans.

Tuesday/Wednesday – “Buckets of Rain”

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears…

…Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must

Bob Dylan 4

For the first time in 16 years of Spring Training we experienced a rain out. It poured for most of the day. It was an awe inspiring tropical rain storm with high winds and sheets of water. We stayed near the hotel and didn’t do much.

It was still cloudy on Wednesday and there were a few episodes of light rain and drizzle, but we got the game in. In comparison to Thursday’s drubbing of the so-called Yankees, the Cardinals lost 6 – 0 to the lowly Marlins. My opinion of this spring’s version of the Cardinals is that they are playing a somewhat uninspired brand of baseball. I don’t sense a fire in their belly. They’re not hitting, and their defense is spotty. They’re not a team that should beat the Yankees 11 – 3.

“For The Love of The Game”

Credit where credit is due, “For The Love of The Game” is third and somewhat maudlin installment in the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy. I’m a bigger fan of “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” but still, recommend you watch it. With that said, I am simply borrowing the phrase to explain why I will continue to come back to Spring Training.

Despite the great “road roster charade”5, and despite the rain, not to mention the rising ticket prices, I’m having a great time. Yes, Florida – I’m coming back! You see, I love the game.

I love what my father used to call “performance art” when the teams change sides. The ritual of the players running onto the field, warming up, then throwing the ball once “around the horn” before play begins. I love the sights, the sounds, the smell of fresh grass. I love sitting in the sun watching to see what will happen next. “Get me a weiner before I die!

One more thing I love is meeting baseball fans – those who understand the world as I do. After Monday’s game, we got a beer at DAS Beer Garden, which is down the street from Roger Dean. We started talking to a guy in a Phillies jersey and compared notes, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Brye Harper, and Chase Utley. Yes, Chase Utley. Sorry Mets fans, despite the shameful play in the playoffs that broke Rubén Tejada’s leg, Utley was a great hard nose ball player. I’m guessing he’d ride the bus to play one more game.

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Spring Training – “Beware of Darkness”

Saturday morning was cloudy – and the clouds never really went away. Not an auspicious start to Spring Training in normally sunny Florida. We found the Beatles station on Sirius as we made the short drive from the West Palm to Jupiter. Along the way, we compared notes about our favorite albums — we both like their middle period starting with Revolver. However, I lose a little interest around Sgt. Pepper, not enough guitar – too much orchestration.

Then the subject turned to George Harrison, All Things Must Pass and one of my favorites – “Beware of Darkness”:

Watch out now, take care
Beware of falling swingers
Dropping all around you
The pain that often mingles
In your fingertips
Beware of darkness

Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night

Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for

George Harrison1

It occurred to me that the long winter was over and was time to look ahead. What started with the indifference displayed as the powers that be laid me off — the bleakness and dread that followed was over. It’s now spring, the season of baseball’s resurrection. “Beware of Darkness” indeed!

Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium

Home for the week is Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium – a nice little ballpark in Abacoa – a seemingly manufactured town in the middle of Jupiter. Yes, I am a Mets fan, but as I mentioned in a previous post, Jupiter works for us. We’ll see the Mets play three times this week along with the Cardinals, Marlins, Nats, Phillies and Yankees.

Roger Dean “Chevrolet” Stadium

Roger Dean Stadium was built in 1998, for $28M which equates to $43M in today’s dollars. It is one of only two stadiums in Florida to host two major league teams – the other is FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches which opened in 2017. 2 Since the two stadiums are only roughly 20 minutes apart, there are four teams to choose from. The Cardinals and the Marlins in Jupiter and the Nationals and Astros in West Palm Beach. Also, the Mets are only 30 minutes north of Jupiter so there is a critical mass of five teams in a small area.

The entire Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex is about 100 acres; each team has six practice fields each. Their two separate clubhouses border the outfield fences making a nice target for the hitters.

The Roger Dean Chevrolet Complex via Google Maps

The Cardinals and Expos were the original tenants. The Cardinals moved from St. Petersburg because MLB agreed to let the Tampa Bay Rays train there instead. In 2002, the Marlins replaced the Expos as part of their sale to Jeffry Loria.

Saturday – Mets vs. Marlins “WTF Seth Lugo?”

I’m a superstitious Mets fan – I’m sure others are as well. The deal is, if things are going well, don’t move. Don’t go to the bathroom, don’t get something to eat – don’t move! It’s spring training, I’m not in true game form and I simply forgot.

Everything seemed fine, the game started under cloudy skies but only a little drizzle at times. I was pleased that the Mets jumped ahead 6 – 0. Jason Vargas was throwing well and Conforto was raking. He hit a two-run blast two get the scoring started. Along the way, the Mets implemented a “hit and run” possibly a second one as well – I honestly didn’t know that the hit and run was used anymore. They also attempted a squeeze bunt.

Jason Vargas

A “Dean Dog”

Then I forgot the admonition – “don’t move if things are going good.” I was hungry and got a wonderful “Dean Dog” and all hell broke loose. A “Dean Dog” is a classic hot dog. It is 100% beef and cooked on a griddle so it gets nice and crunchy on the outside. Although it’s optional, I recommend the sauteed onions and peppers. Finally, brown deli mustard is available. Need I say more? Anyway, during the season I’m going to have to remember to not jinx fate by breaking the spell with food etc. Even if it is for a great hot dog.

Of course, Seth Lugo didn’t help. In one inning he allowed three hits and four runs. He also made a nice little catch on a short pop up but promptly threw the ball past first base letting the runners advance.

Refreshments and Dinner

At that point, the clouds started to really darken, and we made our getaway: out the stadium and down the street to the Civil Society Brewing Company where we sat through the resulting downpour drinking some interesting IPAs created on site.

Later, we ate dinner at Captain Charlie’s Reef Grill – a place that should not be missed. We met Ross, the owner a few years ago and make a point to reserve seats at his station. Then we let him choose a series of small plates that are delicious. Everyone should go and skip the large plates for a series of assorted small ones.

Not a bad first day. “Beware of Darkness” indeed.

Sunday – Cardinals vs. Marlins

The weather was much improved for day two – St. Patricks Day. The Cardinals wore green, the Marlins wore pastel blue. I sported my old green and orange Mets cap bought six years ago on another spring training St. Patricks Day game.

We worked out in the morning – trying to absolve some of the sins from the first day’s eating and beer drinking. Then we headed for Roger Dean – that’s just about all I have.

Paul Goldshmidt

The Marlins actually no-hit the Cardinals for eight innings. Yes, that never happens – teams don’t get no-hit in spring training. However, Trevor Richards started and pitched six innings of no-hit ball, striking out six and not walking anyone. Drew Steckenrider and Austin Brice followed with an inning each of no-hit ball. In the top of the ninth, Dexter Fowler hit a sharp single to right off Tayron Guerrero, Paul Goldschmidt did the same and we headed for the hotel pool.

No-Hitter in Progress

Under the heading – “Utter Minutiae:”

Could anyone design uglier socks and hopefully they are only worn for St. Patricks Day? Although why would anyone want to offend St. Patrick with said socks?

We had a “Mad Hungarian” sighting.

Al Hrabosky – “The Mad Hungarian”

And saw Derick Jeter in the flesh – seemingly pleased to own the Marlins.

Derek Jeter
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Spring Training – “The Best Week of the Year”

“Life Begins Anew!”

When my father was alive, he would call on that special February day and exclaim: “Life begins anew – the pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training!” It is in that spirit that we start our annual spring training adventure that we call “the best week of the year.”

It all started in business school in the late ’90s. I met a new friend – Ken – and we realized that we were both baseball fans. Soon, our discussions began. “Wouldn’t it be great if we went to spring training?” Or, “It’s freezing here, and we could be in Florida.” Or, “Another opening day and we didn’t go to Spring Training!”

In 2004, we called each other’s bluff and decided to give the adventure a try. The result is that this year is the 16th installment of the weeklong tradition that we call “the best week of the year.”

Where Should We Go?

An evident and excellent question, when we started planning was “where should we go.” Each of us had been to Florida and knew our way around, but had not traveled for Spring Training. We wanted a convenient place where we could indulge in baseball, sun, good food, and relax. We didn’t want to drive a lot. Finally, it would be a plus if we could see the Braves (Ken’s team) and the Mets (my team) occasionally.

There are currently 15 teams playing throughout Florida. In 2004, I believe there were a few more, so we thought we had many choices. In actuality, we only found one spot that fit our needs. However, it was a great choice.

We started deliberations – where all deliberations tend to start – at a local Starbucks. I brought a Spring Training map divided into three sections – Central, West Coast, and East Coast to help us decide where to focus. Later, I listed the games at each stadium for the four days that we had scheduled to be there. Yes, when we started, we thought that a short, four-day trip would be enough. Silly idea!

Jupiter, Florida was the best choice that year, and we have been going ever since.

Why Jupiter?

Many towns/stadiums only support one team, and thus, daily games are likely not available. Since Jupiter hosts both the Cardinals and Marlins, we can expect to see at least a game each day. “At least” a daily game, because we can see a second game at another stadium if the planets align correctly.

Why not one of the other areas that also support two teams?

  • There are many teams clustered around Tampa. However, two of those teams are the Yankees and the Phillies. With our allegiance to the Mets and the Braves, do I need to explain the issue? OK, we don’t relish the thought of spending a week dominated by the Yankees and the Phillies. After all, it’s supposed to be a vacation. We’re more comfortable on the other coast, buffered by most of the state of Florida.
  • Fort Myers has the Red Sox and the Twins. However, it is one of the more isolated of all the Spring Training sites. It would be difficult to find other games when needed.

We also found that Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium is a nice place to see a game — not too big, not too loud, you can sit close to the action, easy parking, good food, and beer. We also like hanging out in the area. The people are friendly, the lodging is as good as we need and the restaurants are wonderful.

In 2015, our situation got even better when the Astros and Nationals moved to a new complex in West Palm Beach. Now we have even more choices. Also, the Mets have always been just 45 minutes north, so we can go there as well.

A Twin Bill?

On the rare occasion that there is not a game at Roger Dean, we can try West Palm or Port St. Lucie. We also have the twin bill opportunities discussed above. Last year, we were enjoying a beer at a microbrewery just down the block from Roger Dean.

Please take a moment and consider this concept to understand the joys of Spring Training fully. After enjoying the sun in a small ballpark watching baseball, you can walk five minutes to a microbrewery. Any more questions as to why we go?

Anyway, we were enjoying a beer at a microbrewery just down the block from Roger Dean when we noticed that the Mets and Nationals were playing in West Palm Beach that evening. I used the MLB app to buy tickets to the game. A few hours later, we were watching Zach Wheeler try and figure out how to pitch. He had a rough night and was a far cry from his brilliant second half of the season. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer displayed the brilliance of throwing first pitch fastballs and having excellent command.

Travel Plans

We more than enjoyed our first four-day trip, but of course, the trip was too short! So, the next year we pushed the schedule to five days. When five days wasn’t enough, we extended the tours to six days. Finally, we “cried uncle” and began renting condos or rooms at a resort for their minimum of seven days. Still not enough, but we worked for a living and had to go home.

Early on, we tried to fly down early on a Saturday morning, in time for the afternoon game. By doing so, we avoided paying for a hotel room on Friday night. Initially, we’d return late on the last day of the trip after seeing most of an afternoon game. However, that arrangement was not satisfactory. It made Saturday a very long and challenging day, and we missed a lot of the final game.

Additionally, In March there is the risk of missing the Saturday game if bad weather causes delays. One year, we were stuck in Baltimore when we changed planes. The plane was frozen to the tarmac and needless to say, we were late to the afternoon game.

Our Time Tested Ritual

Our time-tested ritual is to fly down on a Friday evening, so we avoid any transit problems. We stay in an inexpensive hotel near the airport when we arrive around midnight. The next morning we have a leisurely breakfast, go to the game, and then check into our hotel/resort. Later we have a nice dinner at one of Jupiter’s fabulous restaurants. For the rest of the week, we work out at Gold’s Gym in the mornings, and then go to a game. The days end with a dip in the pool, drinks from the pool bar and an excellent meal that evening. We follow this routine until we have to fly home the following Saturday after seeing eight games in seven days.

Making Arrangements

Our friends say that we have the arrangements down to a science. Ken reserves rooms by mid-November, once he knows which week in March he can take off. He has flight reservations before the end of the year. Once we know our flight schedule, I reserve a rental car.

MLB publishes the Spring Training schedules by mid-December, and we confirm our choices. I buy the tickets as soon as they go on sale – usually the second Saturday in January.

Unfortunately, this year I didn’t realize that the tickets went on sale the first Saturday in January. Consequently, I bought the tickets on Wednesday and two of our three Cardinal hosted games are in seats past third base. I had to buy bleacher seats for the third game when the Yankees make a rare visit. I bought them from Stubhub no less. As you might expect, Cardinal tickets go fast; Marlins tickets do not.

Our final statement when the trip is over is “only 51 weeks until we can go again.” This year, I’ll have many more baseball miles to go before I’m ready to think about Spring Training again.

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