SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – He has checked out and gone home so the statute of respect towards fellow hotel guests has expired, I guess.
I arrive at my hotel here the other night and the place is spread out enough that they recommend that you let them throw on to a golf cart for transport to your room, not just your bags – but you. And we go about 20 yards in the darkness when a big, broad guy with short hair sort of steps in front of the cart and the bellman/driver says “excuse me” and the fellow turns around and sort of stares for a moment before saying “Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda froze there for a moment,” and with a genuine laugh, hops out of the way. And he looks really familiar and while I’m staring at him I realize he’s staring at me and our light bulbs go off simultaneously and as I say “stop the cart for a second,” he smiles.
“This is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” he says with another patented Jim Lunchpail Thome laugh. I say back to him “this is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” and we trade career anecdotes and I ask about the Yankees and he says “I doubt it.” And we try to figure out if we first met in 1993 or 1994 and he says he’s working out but otherwise he’s pretty much by the pool each day and I should try to find him when I get back from the ballpark each afternoon. And I joke about how I nearly made his latest free agency academic by running him over with a golf cart and we say good night.
And Thome, who is easily the most universally respected player in the game, is still unsigned despite Twins rumors and Yankees rumors and the reality that somebody should sign him with an idea of convincing him to manage them in a year’s time because the other players think he’s pretty much the epitome of professionalism and knowledge. I think he knows he can’t play in the field any more but that would still let him fit in at Yankee Stadium because lord knows almost none of them can field any more either.
Thome was how my Cactus League jaunt began but the amount of additional quality human beings whom I’ve known forever that I’ve again been able to spend time with exceeds all my previous spring training trips. In the Angels’ camp it was Mike Scioscia (28 years) and executive Tim Mead (28 more), and from their opponents the Reds, writer Hal McCoy (about 10). At the Mariners’ facility it was consultant – and should-be Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (33 years), and manager Eric Wedge (20 years) and our traditional greeting of “Happy Birthday” (we share one; he’s much younger), and the announcers Dave Sims (32 years; we both worked for Charley Steiner in the 1981-82 timeframe) and Rick Rizzs (12). Rick was nice enough to ask me to come on his broadcast for an inning. Then I found out it was after Bob Uecker of the Brewers (36 years) was going to come on for an inning and as I said to Rick on the air: “I thought you liked me.”
At Wednesday night’s Team USA exhibition I got to visit with manager Joe Torre (32 years) and first base coach – and another guy who is a no-brainer Cooperstown pick – Dale Murphy (30). And today in Glendale it was the Texas staff: manager Ron Washington (10), coach Dave Magadan (11) and coach Dave Anderson (30 years ago this month I interviewed him at Vero Beach when we thought he might be the next Dodger rookie-of-the-year – “boy were you wrong,” he said, again). Upstairs I had a great chat with Rick Monday, who I’ve known for 33 years as everything from a player to a World Series star to a rival sportscaster when he was on Channel 11 every night in LA at exactly the same time I was on Channel 5.
To top it off, of course, was my annual visit with Vin Scully. I readily admit that it took me nearly three years to screw up the courage to introduce myself to him – and I was on local tv in LA during all that time – and when I finally did he said he was relieved, because he thought I’d done something to offend him. I’m sure Vin is not the saint we all portray him as, but that’s really just a hunch because nothing I’ve ever seen him do suggests otherwise. The self-deprecation never ends; even today his first words after hello were “thank you.” I said you’re welcome and then asked him what I’d done. He said “thank you for writing that excellent and kind blog about the Piazza interview.”
Ohhh, yeah. That was nearly a month ago and that was what he wanted to talk about. We batted back and forth the singular personality that is Mike Piazza, but mostly he was talking about friendship and support, and I mentioned that this was the kind of loyalty his kindness and patience engendered, and that I knew I spoke for many when I said I felt like it was our job to fire the arrows when he was attacked – especially when it was as unjustified and as inexplicable as it was in poor Piazza’s self-destructive book. And then there were the usual friendship questions that I invariably suddenly realize are being asked and answered by the Babe Ruth or William Shakespeare of his field and I remember why it took me three years to stop shaking long enough to say hello back in 1988.
So I know Vin for 25 years now – and remember that this represents only about 40 percent of the time he’s been bringing you Dahhh-ger base-ball. And if you wonder how much of a self-starter you can be as you begin your 64th year at one job, Vin and I visited for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he had to pre-record something for his broadcast and when I looked back in his booth after that he had begun his daily ritual of scribbling and reviewing notes for the game ahead. The exhibition game. The exhibition game on a drowsy Thursday afternoon. The exhibition game three weeks before the season begins. And he would continue to do so for at least an hour.
Talk about a role model.
Later in the week here I’m going to formalize what shallow insights I’ve been able to glean from the games I’ve seen (hint: Billy Hamilton) but for now I’m thinking of everybody that Spring Training provides me the opportunity to see again, from Thome to Scully.
That’s fifteen men who I’ve known for a total of 390 years. And every moment of that time, with every one of them, has been a privilege.
It’s been a pretty good trip, huh?
Managers promoted from own AAA team 0
Managers promoted from coaches 6
Managers already working in organization 5
Hires directly from other organizations 19
We’ll wrap this up tomorrow night with some thoughts on individual players and awards, but let’s do the last of the six divisional previews first.
seem to you as if Brandon Wood has been on the verge of breaking in to the LOS
ANGELES line-up since Mark Langston was the Angels’ pitching ace? Whether it’s
been four years or forty, this is the first time the team is actually relying
on Wood, and the
pressure is probably a lot more intense than generally understood. If Wood does not produce
a power-filled season, or doesn’t hold on to the job, the Angels will have to
revert to the Chone Figgins-driven line-up, only without Chone Figgins. It’ll
be tough enough adjusting to Erick Aybar at the top of the line-up, without the
Halos also failing to add the last layer of punch they missed so dearly in the ALCS
last year. The emergence of Kendry Morales and the resuscitation of Howie
Kendrick gave life to the club last year, but face it, four key positions are
beginning to creak a little bit with age, including the now three ex-Yanks in
the line-up. Torii Hunter should be terrified at Mike Scioscia’s insistence that
he may occasionally use Hideki Matsui in left. If placed between Matsui and the
periodically mystified Bobby Abreu in right, MLB might consider letting Hunter
ride a Razor. Pitching is deep but once you get past Jered Weaver, not very
intimidating, and Joel Pineiro might have been the off-season’s most overrated
signing (Fernando Rodney might have been the second, but with or without him,
the bullpen is the team’s top asset).
looks like an all-or-nothing proposition. Anderson, Braden, and Cahill might
emerge as world-beaters. Sheets and Duchscherer could make remarkable
comebacks. Bailey could expand on a ROTY season. Or literally any one of the
six could lose his job by June 1. The ailments of Joey Devine and Michael
Wuertz thin out an already thin pen, and the line-up, while energetic and
dynamic, does have to play 81 games on the road against teams that actually hit
those things where, you know, the ball goes past those walls behind the gents
standing on the far lawn – what are those called again? Honestly, if your
line-up looks like it could be beaten up, man for man, by that of the Royals,
you could be in for a long summer, even if every one of the pitchers come
strategic building in SEATTLE over the last two years – Figgins, Wilson,
Gutierrez, Lee, even Byrnes and Snell and League (to say nothing of Wakamatsu)
added to the Ichiro/Felix base, it would seem it would be almost impossible for
the Mariners not to be favored. But as I have suggested before, Jack Zduriencik
managed to make the one move that could undo all the good ones. Ask the 2004-05
Dodgers, who thought he was the guy who could take them over the hump. Ask the
2006 A’s, who thought he was the missing piece (and surrendered Andre Ethier to
get him). Ask the 2007 Padres, who brought him in for the stretch run (and
infamously coughed up the division to the Rockies). Ask the 2008 Rangers, who
signed him, only to start shopping him at mid-season. Ask the 2009 Cubs, who
gave him $30 million for three years and sent him home before the first year
ended because nobody could abide his presence any more. Ask the fans he’s
confronted, the reporters he’s confronted, the play-by-play man he ran up
several flights of stairs in hopes of knocking silly. It’s not as if Milton Bradley
has had a few problems. This is six clubs in six seasons and the longest he
lasted with any of them was until June 29th of the second year. I
don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but Bradley will do
something to cost the Mariners the division. And if this somehow does not come
to pass, he will have earned an apology from me – but probably will not have
asked for it, because he would have already experienced an epiphany in which
his consistently uncontrollable behavior would have appeared as unacceptable to
him as it has to everybody else, and he would have apologized to the Cubs. And the Rangers. And
the Padres. And the A’s. And the Dodgers (and just for good measure, Cliff Lee
is not only hurt – he has the most nagging and unpredictable of injuries for a
baseball player, ‘something in the abdomen.’)
line-up in TEXAS frightens me. I know Josh Hamilton is not going to hit 57
homers. I understand Vlad Guerrero has aged. I’m sure Chris Davis could repeat
the first half of 2009. I noticed Ian Kinsler’s on the DL. Without them this
is still the most potent batting order in the division. So the Rangers’ questions are, as
ever, on the mound. But in addition to reclaiming Darren Oliver and bringing
back Colby Lewis from banishment, Texas has one other answer to those
questions: Neftali Feliz. It is impossible to watch him pitch and not see
either a super closer, or a 250-strikeout starter. Either one of them will do
the Rangers fine upon his maturation; for now, a dominating 8th-inning
presence will probably win them the division. And it will be fascinating to
watch any player struggles completely overshadowed by the good or bad conduct
of a manager – not to make a comparison that would be slanderous to the
good-hearted Ron Washington, but we haven’t seen that since Billy Martin died,
and it occasionally helps a team get on with its business while the skipper
takes the heat.
As suggested, I like Texas. Oakland’s pitching could jell to challenge them;
Milton Bradley could go AWOL on May 1 and save Seattle’s season; Brandon Wood
could be everything the Angels ever wanted from him. But I don’t think any of
those things are going to happen. Rangers by a five or six game margin, with
the others following in a jumble I can’t quite yet discern.
FORECAST: I think Tampa ends up with the best record, Texas the worst, and the
Rays will handle the Rangers easily. The Wild Card will go to Boston, most
likely, and they should probably dispatch Detroit, setting up a re-run of 2008,
including the TB victory. This time I like the Rays to win the Series, five
years after other owners seriously murmured about moving them or contracting
Game One, Wednesday, New York: Burnett
Game Two, Thursday, New York: Gaudin? Chamberlain?
Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Sabathia*
Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Pettitte*
Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Burnett
Game Six, Wednesday, New York: Game Two Starter or Sabathia*
Game Seven, Thursday, New York: Sabathia* or Pettitte*
Game One, Wednesday, Anaheim: Lackey
Game Two, Thursday, Anaheim: Saunders*
Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Weaver
Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Kazmir* or Lackey
Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Lackey or Kazmir*
Game Six, Wednesday, Anaheim: Saunders*
Game Seven, Thursday, Anaheim: Weaver
Game One, Wednesday, Anaheim: Lackey
Game Two, Thursday, Anaheim: Kazmir*
Game Three, Saturday, Philadelphia: Saunders*
Game Four, Sunday, Philadelphia: Weaver
Game Five, Monday, Philadelphia: Lackey
Game Six, Wednesday, Anaheim: Kazmir*
Game Seven, Thursday, Anaheim: Saunders*
1 HR, 8 RBI, .178 BA, .290 OBP, .290 SLG. (107 At Bats)
5 HR, 25 RBI, .235 BA, .305 OBP, .417 SLG. (115 At Bats)
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that annually, Terry Francona lets me sit with him, on the bench, during a spring training game. This is half out of friendship and half, I think, to remind me how little I actually understand about managing – or baseball itself – compared to the pros.