Waiting for Spring....Spring Training
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
-- Rogers Hornsby, Baseball Hall of Famer
Staring out the frosty window here in Ohio, the harshness of winter is apparent. Every outdoor object is blurred as the snow is not just falling from the sky, but actually blowing sideways. Wind chills are hovering in the negative single digits. Roads are covered with a thin sheet of ice and are quickly becoming too treacherous to venture outdoors. Cabin fever has set in and the baseball season cannot come soon enough.
Oh, I am definitely waiting for spring… Spring Training, that is.
My trek to the Southwest to watch Spring Training baseball has become an annual tradition. Just like the tradition of calling off work to take in the festivities at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario on Opening Day. These winter-avoidance getaways began back in the days when the Tribe trained in Winter Haven, Florida, and my obsession with all things baseball has evolved into a must visit to the desert every March.
Here are some highlights from prior trips.
The Valley of the Sun
The Phoenix area’s moniker as the Valley of the Sun is well deserved. This place is the perfect venue for baseball in the spring. The weather is consistently outstanding, that is, usually about 50 degrees warmer than in Ohio. Visitors will experience a panorama of cloudless, azure-blue skies. Cool, cloudy days are rare. The average precipitation is about one inch per month, and none of it will be snow.
The best part of Spring Training is the sheer optimism that a new season affords. No players are on the disabled list. There are no prolonged losing streaks or batting slumps to cause concern. Granted, this could all change by summer, but we can bask in the hopefulness for now.
Pre-season also brings a degree of mystery. Who will pitch in the back end of the starting rotation? Which young prospects will impress and challenge for a position on the big club? How will top draft picks look in an Indians uniform? These questions will be answered by April, but for now, it’s fun to consider “What If”.
At the Ballpark
The diamond and field of green amid the clear blue skies make Goodyear Ballpark a vacation-like vista. In the pleasantly warm sun, palm trees tower over the outfield fence in perfect formation, bringing a reminder of the toothbrush-styled light standards surrounding the upper deck at Progressive Field.
Goodyear Ballpark is a wonderful place to take in a ballgame, even if it’s just a practice game. Most of the seats between the dugouts are in the shade by the third inning. These are the most expensive seats, just like at a bullfight.
Good seats for Spring Training games are easy to come by. My perch behind home plate is one of the best seats in the house. My nose, home plate, the pitching rubber, second base, and the center field 410’ sign, form a perfectly straight imaginary line. So close to the action that I can:
- Call balls and strikes, and of course, I do
- See the stitches spinning on a nasty curve ball
- Pick up a deceitful, late-breaking slider, which is identified by the dark “dot” that appears for a split second on the bottom of the ball
- Hear the distinctive smack of leather as an unhittable fastball bores deep into Carlos Santana’s catcher’s mitt
- Break the silence by the sweet sound of the baseball connecting with a wooden major league bat
- Relish the best sound of all, the dialogue “here comes the 2-2 pitch” uttered by Tom Hamilton in his wonderful broadcaster’s voice as his words waft down from the press box above.
Practicing to Become Perfect
There is no doubt that Spring Training is all about working on the fundamentals. The sacrifice bunt, turning the double play, the timing of the first baseman tossing the fielded ball to the pitcher covering first base. All this gets repeated ad-infinitum in the spring, because there just aren’t practice days available once the regular season begins.
Watching the players perform these drills at the practice complex is very entertaining for the baseball addict. Taking in infield practice was like watching a performance of the fine arts.
Visualize this scene from a prior camp: Jack Hannahan taking grounders at third. An exaggerated scooping motion to ensure the glove is in position to receive the ground ball, the two-step to the side, setting the front foot, loading up the arm, throwing across the body while dragging the back foot. The result is a pill that is launched on a rope 100 feet across the diamond to the first baseman. It is mesmerizing, like a ballet. Or more appropriately, like a fielding clinic.
This was not lost on youngster Lonnie Chisenhall, who watched every one of Jack’s moves. Lonnie then takes grounders repeatedly as he strives to replicate the flawless footwork, the balance, and the confidence just exhibited from the elder Hannahan.
It’s a beautiful thing. And for me, a lot more entertaining than sitting through a performance at Playhouse Square.
Watching batting practice sounds tedious, but I find it very enjoyable. Ten swings in the cage for each hitter. Rapid fire. Multiple sets. Balls being relayed from everywhere and tossed into a bucket.
One morning, Matt LaPorta steps into the batting practice cage and put on this tremendous display:
- First pitch: Matt launches a rocket to deep center field and it eventually bounces high off the “batter’s eye screen”, the large dark green surface beyond the center field fence that provides the backdrop which enables the batter to track the flight of a pitched baseball. At Progressive Field, that ball would have landed next to an evergreen tree beyond Heritage Park.
- Second pitch: Smashes a towering fly ball that easily clears the fence in left-center. Back-to-back homers.
- Third Pitch: Line-shot to the gap in left-center. Would have easily been a double.
I marveled at this three pitch sequence. Sure, it sounds meaningless, since it’s only batting practice. Sure, it’s just Tribe instructor Johnny Goryl, tossing meatballs over the heart of the plate. But I think about a guy like Matt LaPorta, who has struggled to make it big in the major leagues. It has to be frustrating for him to fall short of what have been huge expectations. If LaPorta could gain the confidence and become comfortable enough at the plate to repeat this sequence once per week during the regular season, he would become one of the top hitters in baseball. There is such a fine line between stardom and the minor leagues. Still, I always rooted for Matt LaPorta to make it and I hope that he finds eventual success in the majors.
Always in Our Hearts
Before he passed away, Indians’ Ambassador and Hall-of-Famer, Bob Feller was a regular at Spring Training and was like royalty among Tribe fans. I had the honor to meet Mr. Feller during prior Spring Training visits. Mr. Feller was usually resplendent wearing an Indians jersey bearing his number 19.
I often had chats with Mr. Feller, and once reminded him that back in the 1960’s he visited my hometown of Struthers, Ohio several times to attend our Little League All-Star Game. Mr. Feller would speak to all of us kids after the game, and told us the importance of honesty and hard work. This wonderful man, who many consider the greatest right-hander in major league history, stayed until everyone got an autograph. I always had him sign my baseball glove. Then, by the next year, the autograph had worn off and was unrecognizable; so upon his return the following year, he signed my glove again, in the exact same spot. Mr. Feller also umpired our All-Star Game, and he even called me out on strikes once. I still remember that the pitch was high and outside. Surprisingly, Mr. Feller did not recall that errant pitch.
Fans or Fanatics
There are four types of fans who I witness at the Goodyear Ballpark:
1) Diehards – always wear an Indians baseball cap, jersey or tee shirt with the name and number of their favorite Tribe player – still lots of “MARTINEZ 41” and even some “VIZQUEL 13” jerseys in attendance. Diehards keep score in their own spiral-bound scorebook. They act as the unofficial official scorer, and provide quick judgment on whether any batted ball is a hit or an error, way before the scoreboard flashes the decision. They can recite the rulebook chapter and verse.
Over at the practice field, prior to the game, dozens of Diehards are playing catch, while the players warm up. Yes, Diehards bring their own gloves.
2) Retirees – they attend the games because they have nothing else to do. They are in The Valley of the Sun all winter long, some are there all year long. Being around the ballpark is by far the highlight of their day. The men typically wear plaid shirts or shorts and floppy safari hats. Retirees rarely leave their seat, for fear that they will never find it when they return. Their skin has the look of an alligator, tanned from too many seasons in the sun. This is my future self in 20 years… or maybe two years.
3) Semi-Retirees – They still live in Ohio nine to ten months out of the year, and spend an extended vacation in Arizona. They usually work part-time at the ballpark or for the Indians. They tell their stories and actively promote Goodyear to recruit future semi-retirees. When Spring Training ends and just prior to the arrival of scorching desert heat, semi-retirees return to Ohio to enjoy the regular baseball season. They are sure they have the best of both worlds.
4) Dude, let’s party - These are people who come to the ballpark only for the beer and the Margaritas. These are people (young and old), to whom the game is merely background, like wallpaper that is so familiar, you don’t even notice it anymore. They don’t know the players or even the teams, or even the significance of WAR or WHIP. Diehards despise these people and are offended at their lack of interest in the game. These folks usually get louder as the innings roll on. Fortunately, they are usually gone by the fifth inning.
The Baseball Autograph Collector
I once met a very interesting man who introduced himself as a “Retired High School Physics Teacher from Chicago”. Now that he has lots of spare time, his mission in life is to acquire autographs from current or future major league players, one signature per baseball. He currently has signatures from 1,400 professional baseball players, 125 of them are Hall-of-Famers. He catalogues each ball and stores each in his secured basement (what a museum that would be). During his visit to Goodyear, he was seeking out the signature of one Indians player: Asdrubal Cabrera.
Here is his favorite autograph story: In April 2009, Mr. Retired High School Physics Teacher attended an Angels game and afterwards Nick Adenhart, a young Angels pitcher who had just pitched for the victory, autographed his baseball. That evening, the young Adenhart was tragically killed in a car accident when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a drunk driver. Then Mr. Retired High School Physics Teacher pursued another mission… he had to find Nick’s father and present him with this autographed baseball. After many calls to Angels and Major League Baseball executives, the connection was made and the mission completed. It was likely the last baseball that Nick Adenhart ever signed and his father greatly appreciated receiving this keepsake.
The Cactus League games move at a leisurely pace, so there is plenty of time to talk baseball with other fans. I make several friends, many of them from all corners of Ohio. Nearly all of them are eager to share stories about their love for the game.
These fans relish getting into discussions on baseball history, debating current issues regarding our national pastime, and challenging each other with thoughtful statements and questions:
“Best catcher ever - Gotta be Number 5, Johnny Bench”;
“Most dominant left-handed starting pitcher in your lifetime - Koufax, Carlton, or Randy Johnson?”;
“Best team of players with Italian heritage - position-by-position”… I was adamant about selecting the starting right fielder to be the great Rocco Domenico Colavito.
Like the athletes, baseball fans use Spring Training to get ready for the upcoming season. Cactus League games serve to fine tune the “chatter” they will use while watching games during the regular season. Here’s a sampling:
“C’mon seven-three, you got this, whatya say now, kid?” (Number 73 will definitely be in the minors this season).
“Hey, there’s ducks on tha pahnd, shoot ‘em home” (probably a fan from Parma).
“That’s picking ‘em up, and layin ‘em down” (a Retiree, describing a player stretching a base hit into a double. The Retiree obviously listened to famed Tribe radio broadcaster, Jimmy Dudley, as a youngster).
“C’mon Blue – how could that be a strike?” (OK, that might have been me).
Standing on a Corner, in Goodyear, Arizona
Goodyear, Arizona was established way back when Tris Speaker roamed center field at League Park (so you don’t have to look it up, it was 1917. By the way, Speaker hit .352 that year). The city is named after Akron-based Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, who bought the parcel of land to grow cotton, which was used in the process to manufacture threads for vehicle tires.
When the Tribe last played in a World Series, the population of Goodyear Arizona was a little more than 10,000. Today, the population has swelled to nearly 70,000 people.
Roads are expansive, and some have as many traffic lanes as I-271. Condos have popped up all over, and most of them are inhabited by Retirees or Semi-Retirees. City planners anticipate rapid growth, and the migration of people from the Cleveland suburbs will keep them growing.
Goodyear feels like an oasis in the desert. The terrain is typical of the Southwest, you can still see tumbleweed rolling all over the place. The ever-present mountains on the horizon present a beautiful backdrop to the desert landscape.
The people in Arizona are very friendly and have the utmost respect for citizens from the great state of Ohio. Arizonians actually want people from the Midwest to visit their fine state. Arizona’s approach to government is “We will build it, and they will definitely come”. So they build roads, office buildings, hotels, restaurants, manufacturing facilities, and most importantly, state-of-the-art baseball complexes.
Just a few more weeks of waiting, Mr. Hornsby. Then, look out. Arizona, here I come.
Great article. It makes me wish I was going to spring training this year. I got tickets to Opening Day to see the KC Royals vs the Twins. Standing room only, same as last year. However, I hope the game is a lot better than last year. The Tribe rocked Luke Hochevar for 7 runs in the top of the first. Royals fans booed him when he came back to the dugout. The Tribe then swept the Royals 3 straight.
Cody Allen (40-man roster)
Scott Barnes ((40-man roster)
Trevor Bauer (40-man roster)
Preston Guilmet (non-roster invitee)
Trey Haley (40-man roster)
T.J. House (40-man roster)
Matt Langwell (non-roster invitee)
C.C. Lee (40-man roster - injured)
Danny Salazar (40-man roster)
Giovanni Soto (non-roster invitee)
Roberto Perez (non-roster invitee)
Jesus Aguilar (non-roster invitee)
Juan Diaz (40-man roster)
Mike McDade (40-man roster)
Chris McGuiness (40-man roster)
Cord Phelps (40-man roster)
Tim Fedroff (40-man roster)