I have a few more things gleaned among the cacti to report (besides the fact that Billy Hamilton is the fastest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and seems to be going faster than freeway traffic).
But first, the photo album from a week in the incredibly convenient Cactus League:
No, this is not the world’s oldest, saddest boy band. Nor, despite the angles, are Manager Terry Francona of the Indians and President Theo Epstein of the Cubs actually resting their heads on my shoulder (they’d join me in saying ‘thank goodness’). I was privy to witness the reunion of the Men Who Made The Red Sox Great at HoHoKam Park, two weeks ago tomorrow. They’re both among my baseball friends and typically we spent almost no time talking baseball. Also got to see Billy Williams, Dale Sveum, and Brad Mills that day, too (“Nice to see you back with a Major League Team,” I said to Millsy. He smiled and was respectful enough to say nothing, but he looked 10 years younger – as did Tito).
This is not Jackson Browne, though I’ve seen them both in the last 18 months and if the gentleman spotted at Peoria during a Brewers-Mariners game dyed his hair, they’d look like brothers.
That’s Ted Simmons, now an advisor in the Seattle front office, and simply put one of the smartest men in the sport. When Pirates fans harken back to the last winning Pittsburgh team they invoke the names of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds (and occasionally even Stan Belinda), they don’t mention the last winning GM: Ted Simmons. He was just getting into the rebuilding of the post-Bonds Pirates when he suffered a heart attack during the 1993 season and retired. He’s been a coach and executive since – and that was after his 46.5 WAR (greater than Hall of Famers with careers of similar length like Nellie Fox, Kiki Cuyler, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Lombardi, and the just-elected Deacon White). Narrow that down to catchers (Bill Dickey 52.5, Gabby Hartnett 50.7, Simmons 46.5, White 44, Lombardi 43.6 – and you occasionally hear Jorge Posada’s name mentioned at 39) and it’s obvious that “Simba” is a Hall of Famer. Despite a career line of .285/.348/.437 and seven .300 seasons, his work was overshadowed by being Johnny Bench’s exact contemporary for 15 years, and then spending nearly all of his last five at DH or 1B.
Dale Murphy returned to the game last season in the Braves’ tv booth, and returned to uniform this spring as the first base coach for the USA team in the WBC. One of the older arguments for the Hall was the “wozzy” test – “was he considered for any length of a time one of the top five players in the game?” After two MVPs and a decade as one of the most feared hitters/least feared people in the game, Murph kinda flatlined starting with his 13th season in the majors. But again, WAR puts him in historical context. Lou Brock’s a 42.8, Jim Rice a 44.3, Chuck Klein a 41.5. Murphy: 42.6 – and in this time when one element in the Cooperstown ballot has suddenly taken on added importance (“character”), his was and is impeccable – and generous.
When I tweeted this photo I believe I said that I first interviewed George Brett in 1980. In fact, that was when we were first “introduced.” I actually interviewed him in 1976, 1977, and 1978 during the A.L. Playoffs – the “nice to meet yous” came during the 1980 World Series during a memorable and scatological interview about the hemorrhoids that plagued him during the post-season. This might have been the same day I met a mid-level Royals’ executive named Rush Limbaugh (how would you ever forget a name like that). He and Brett remain best friends, and George and I laughed our way through 15 minutes in the KC dugout, which no matter how you diagram it means baseball trumps politics every time. George remembered that ’80 interview of course, but also (to my surprise) recalled that I got to interview him – for Fox – after his election to Cooperstown in ’99.
This, of course, is Wash.
All the other guys on the photo tour are Hall of Famers, or should be, or might very will be (Terry Francona needs one more measurable success in his managerial career to cinch a spot – and he’s only 54 – while if Theo Epstein also turns the Cubs around, he’s a lock).
The first person to tell you he’s not getting to Cooperstown – surely not as a player – is the ever-affable skipper of the Rangers, Ron (.261/.292/.368, ten years, one as a starting player) Washington. But few figures in the sport are greeted with greater affection, by his players and rivals alike. Just to amp this shot up a little bit, check out the copyright. That’s Jon SooHoo, who I’ve known ever since I was a local sportscaster in LA and who has shot 30 years of incredible images on behalf of the Dodgers.
There were many other men I’m proud to call friends who I didn’t trouble for photos: Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin – the average was about three a day, and it emphasized that while we get swamped by scandal and controversy and stats and new-age stats and boasting and showboating, the game is about good people whom you get to know and cheer for, for a very long time.
But occasionally, even in middle age, you make new acquaintances. While I summarize my thoughts for a future post, take a look at this, which might be – pound-for-pound – the best baseball stadium built in this country at least since 1962:
I have never seen a faster baseball player than Billy Hamilton.
This is not a statement constructed out of great insight. But it is one that requires attendance, and it mainlines into a conversation I had with the former National League outfielder and coach Gary Varsho the day after Hamilton led me to my conclusion.
Varsho, now an Advance Scout with the Angels, was noting – more in sadness than in anger – the diminution of the Advance Scout in this age of video and digital file-sharing and 24/7 television. He noted that nearly everything of value he can tell his employers about the team they will next face is the stuff they don’t show in the broadcasts, or cut out of the videos. Or worse: it’s stuff they can’t show. Varsho cited the example of a prominent MLB catcher who falls into ruts of repetitive pitch-calling. You have to experience it, complete with the trips to the mound, the foul balls, the repetitiveness, that three days of in-person baseball drags you through. The guy just won’t follow a curveball with two consecutive fastballs. Just won’t.
And this is where Hamilton comes in. I’ve seen the television coverage and the videos (though you have to admit, slo-mo might depict a beautiful running form, but you can’t tell if the guy has the speed of Billy Hamilton or George Hamilton). But the context of being there is the magic wand.
The Angels’ facility at Diablo Stadium in Tempe is perpendicular to a fast-moving highway just beyond the right field fence. Almost inevitably, your attention occasionally drifts from the field to the ceaseless droning of thousands of cars and trucks all going around 65 for three hours. But when you manage to balance the two you suddenly have an unexpected bonus: you have an idea of how fast the players are running compared not to each other but compared to highway traffic.
I don’t mean it literally of course. But the constant motion is actually an excellent optical framework, and, bluntly, it makes some of the guys I saw that day like Zack Cozart and Mike Trout look kind of slow (I’m not insulting somebody by saying they look slower than a BMW doing 65, am I? Nor saying they look slower than a rookie with the Reds?).
Billy Hamilton did not look slow. He hit a grounder moderately hard toward Mark Trumbo of the Angels at first base, and that’s when it happened. Hamilton took one step out of the batters’ box and he was not merely at his full speed, but he looked competitive with the cars moving side-to-side in the distance. This extraordinary acceleration was also evident to Trumbo. His fear could be smelled in the press box. One bobble and he’s dead, one hesitation and the routine out becomes a close play.
For whatever reason, Trumbo hesitated. He couldn’t accelerate as Hamilton did and wound up frantically shoveling the ball to his pitcher for a 3-1 putout by a step. And Hamilton was running just as fast in that last step as he was in his second one out of the box. He looked like he could survive – at least in the slow lane – with the cars on the freeway.
I have not only never seen anybody faster, but I’ve never seen anything like it.
Last Saturday I would see the Reds’ bench coach – my friend, the former great Giants shortstop – Chris Speier. I asked him if he’d ever seen anybody definitively faster than Hamilton. He could think of no one. “Especially in terms of his acceleration. By the second step,” he began. I interrupted him and told him the freeway story. “Exactly,” he said with a laugh.
Speier warns there are all kinds of rough edges here. Hamilton is clearly not an intuitive shortstop and will doubtless never see anything other than emergency service there again. But his instincts in the outfield are good and developing quickly. Speier is more worried about the deleterious ancillary effects of Hamilton’s speed. “He still thinks he can position the bunt at the very last second, or swing at the very last second.” In other words, Hamilton thinks he handles the bat with the same accelerative ability that his legs provide. He can’t.
But of course we can only see that in person. Which is why we have bench coaches – and why we need more Advance Scouts. And why there are still things in baseball that have to be seen to be believed.
Like Billy Hamilton’s speed.
TEMPE, AZ – Say you’re a Mets fan.
It’s ok – even in the hypothetical, you only have to remain such through dusk next Monday.
You’ve cobbled together a five-day weekend starting this Thursday and you are determined to spend it with your beloveds in Spring Training. Do you like the way this relaxing trip sounds? A two hour and fifteen minute crack-of-dawn flight to Orlando and then the drive down to St. Lucie (or to Ft. Lauderdale and then the drive up to St. Lucie) in hopes of making first pitch of the home game against the Marlins on Thursday, then to a hotel somewhere, then the 100-mile drive to Lakeland for the Friday matinee against the Tigers, then either a new hotel or another 100 miles back to St. Lucie for the Saturday home game against the Astros, followed by the blink-of-an-eye 40-minute jaunt to Jupiter for the Sunday with the Cardinals, and then another 100 miles to Lakeland to see the Tigers again there, where it starts raining in the 4th, by which time you’d already seen all of the Tigers you wanted to see anyway and the Mets are now off on Tuesday and even if you stayed in Lakeland for a sixth day the nearest game is nearly an hour away in Orlando?
You like this?
Any chance you would prefer the four-hour flight to Phoenix where your hypothetical Mets have joined the 15 other teams in a Cactus League in which the longest ballpark-to-ballpark trip is an 80-minute drive? Where if even if your team was on the road for the entirety of your trip, you could easily find decent enough accommodations in almost guaranteed rain-free environment so that your total time in the car for the five days combined is less than just one of those 200-mile roundtrips to Lakeland? Where if you’d suddenly seen enough of the Mets – or if they simply took a day off – there would still be as many as six other games to choose from, all of them around the metaphorical corner?
In Arizona, it’s a struggle to remember which highway you’re supposed to take for each of the 28-minute drives to the ten different parks. In Florida, it’s a struggle to drive to almost any of them in time for first pitch.
The other day, Florida Governor Rick Scott reportedly asked for five million dollars to spend on preserving his state’s increasingly fragile Spring Training ecosystem. Unless he finds a way to move his cities closer together (or at least the teams they host), he might as well ask for fifty million – it won’t make much difference. With their new mini-Fenway beginning its second year of use, the Red Sox are seemingly ensconced in Ft. Myers until further notice, but the second newest park in the Grapefruit League is the Phils’ successor to Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater – and it’s now a decade old. The Pirates play in a lovely, historic, old school park in Bradenton – that moves a little in the wind. There’s surely nothing wrong with Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, but compare it to any of Arizona’s new facilities – especially the palace the Dodgers and White Sox share at Glendale – and it looks a little shopworn and inconvenient.
Arizona, for decades the ugly sister in the Spring Training family, married well. When the Cubs jilted HoHoKam Park in Mesa for yet another new facility down the road scheduled to open next year, Oakland jumped at the chance to upgrade from Phoenix Municipal, into which they had slid when the Giants upgraded to Scottsdale. As of today the A’s are happy to be lame ducks for 2014 while HoHoKam is remodeled (with some seats removed) and then commit to at least 20 and as many as 30 years in the place the Cubs no longer want.
Arizona has one notable drawback. Excepting the Arizona Fall League, the Spring Training facilities are of almost no use here after April 1 (unless there are large groups of people you don’t like who you’d like to torture by forcing them to sit outside in three-digit temperatures). There is no equivalent to the Florida State League. There is no particular mandate for this, of course. You certainly could start one. Arizona used to field Phoenix and Tucson teams in the PCL without taking any more dramatic health steps than installing misting devices at the Phoenix games.
It would seem Florida is hanging on mostly by dint of tradition. After a quarter century of meanderings
through places like New Orleans and Atlanta and resorts in Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas, most of the major league teams were settling into the Sunshine state just as real estate boomed in the ’20s. But there was always a “western” component, and in fact only nine of the 30 big league clubs have never held camp in Arizona (or at least California in the pre-Dodgers/Giants days).
Not counting World War II, when travel restrictions saw the Dodgers training at Bear Mountain in New York and the Reds in Bloomington, Indiana, the Chicago Cubs haven’t trained east of Mesa since 1916 (for the record, that was in Tampa, and the Cubs spent part of WW2 in pre-Larry Bird French Lick). There are six clubs – most of whom would surprise you – that went back to Florida after the experience. The Cardinals tried California in the ’20s and the Pirates were in San Bernardino, California, as late as 1952. The Astros began life as the Colt .45s in picturesque Apache Junction, AZ, in ’62 and ’63, and the Orioles held four of their first five camps in Arizona. The Red Sox were in Scottsdale from 1959 through 1965 and – as part of a stunt in which they swapped camp sites with the Giants for one season – in 1951, the Yankees trained in Phoenix.
Unless you’re a Northeasterner driving to the Tampa area to see the Yanks, Phils, Sox, or Jays, there is no longer any real advantage to having your team play its exhibitions in Florida rather than Arizona. However, more reasonable and realistic concerns exist for the fans who are left behind. The Reds-Cubs exhibition at HoHoKam on the 26th won’t be on radio in Cincinnati until 10 PM that night. On the other hand, it’s doubtful any young Yankee or Red Sox fans are catching those 1 PM weekday exhibitions from Dunedin. More over, instinct suggests that a kid with a tepid interest in baseball who fights his way home from school on a snowy March afternoon to find himself able to watch an entire exhibition game from the glorious glare of Arizona starting at 4 PM Eastern might become a fan for life, and maybe a future Spring Training voyageur.
Don’t get me wrong. I went to my first Spring Training 41 years ago in Ft. Lauderdale and it still grieves me that the Yankees don’t play there any more. I love McKechnie Field in Bradenton, and I brooded when the Dodgers abandoned Vero Beach for ‘Zona and left the footprints of Campy and Jackie and all the rest to be rediscovered by future baseball archaeologists. But since 2006 I’ve tried to do the day game/night game doubleheader thing at least once each spring in Florida and only about half the time did I make first pitch of the nightcap. Here I’ll have enough time between each game for an actual dinner.
Besides which tradition isn’t always as big a deal as us traditionalists make it out to be. The Texas Spring Training circuit was viable if not vibrant for nearly twenty years ending about 1941, with the Braves, Cardinals, and Tigers all taking turns as the home team in San Antonio. I mean, I don’t see anybody mourning the fact that the Phillies moved out of New Braunfels in April, 1939. They were heading for Florida because it just made more sense there. Just as it makes more sense for them (or more realistically the Pirates, Cardinals, Astros, and Twins) to head out here now.
Ah, the joys of spring training games showing up on my television, enabling me fleeting glances between hospital visits of a spring that here in New York seems a long way off.
These have been bouncing around my head all off-season; some are tempests in teapots, some a little more substantial – I just havent heard many of them asked…DID the Yankees actually upgrade? Acknowledging that a healthy Nick Johnson, freed of all defensive worries, could win a batting championship (or at least the On Base crown), is a trade-off of Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Melky Cabrera for Curtis Granderson, Johnson, Randy Winn and Brett Gardner really a win? Has Cabreras clutch late-inning hitting been forgotten, or merely written off as a statistical fluke?…ON the other end of the Granderson trade, do the Tigers know Phil Coke wasnt that great against lefties during the first half of last year, and basically stopped getting them out at all after September 1 and in the post-season?…HAS Roy Halladay ever been tested in a pennant race? Does it matter? I seem to recall several clubs drooling over the various Javier Vazquezes who pitched in obscurity in Montreal and Arizona and even Chicago…DID the Angels look at Joel Pinieros last months worth of work in 2009? Did they break out his fly-ball to ground-ball ratio? Did they note that a sinkerball pitcher who cant get the ball down will probably end up in mopup relief?…WHY hasnt anybody else written that if Milton Bradley doesnt sink the Mariners, theyll be the first?…lastly IF you are the Nats and you have as exciting a prospect as Ian Desmond and you havent unloaded Cristian Guzman, why do you go ahead and sign Adam Kennedy?