“I can feel the first breeze of summer”
I’ve spent the better part of the last month or so traveling around the various camps in Arizona and Florida, and it dawned on me while sitting at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale the other day that I have now been to every Spring Training stadium in Major League Baseball. I don’t know what this means, exactly, but I suspect it is something along the lines of what it means to be, to borrow some “Spaceballs” parlance, your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. Which is to say it means absolutely nothing.
But somebody on Twitter asked me to rank my Top 3, and I’m going to take it to the next level. Let’s just rank them all.
23. HoHoKam Stadium (Cubs): I actually have nothing against HoHoKam personally. But the Cubs are abandoning this place after this year. And if you’re not good enough for the Cubs, who play their regular season games in a 99-year-old building with a cramped clubhouse and a rat or three roaming around the batting cages, well, what can I tell you?
22. Tradition Field (Mets): First went to this park when I was like 14, and it hasn’t changed much in the time since. It has a tradition of blahness.
21. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium (Blue Jays): This place is also just… whatever. And it always seems to be 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.
20. Hammond Stadium (Twins): Another whatever. Looks nice from the outside, though.
19. Camelback Ranch (White Sox/Dodgers): Totally state-of-the-art, of course, and I like the desert motif. But this place is rightly criticized for the lack of shade. And the Dodgers ditched the quintessential Spring Training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., to head here so there’s some sentimental docking of points on my not-at-all-scientific system.
18. Space Coast Stadium (Nationals): I always want to call it Space Ghost Stadium. I totally get the Nats’ complaints about their setup and their distance from the other Florida teams. As far as fan experience is concerned, Space Coast is certainly serviceable.
17. Champion Stadium (Braves): This is a very nice building and all. On its own, no complaints. But I just can’t get behind the whole Disney World experience. I feel a little bit more broke just talking about it.
16. City of Peoria Sports Complex (Padres/Mariners): I’ve been here. Multiple times. And to be honest, it left absolutely no lasting memory with me. I just had to do a Google image search to even remember what it looks like. Nice enough.
15. Surprise Stadium (Royals/Rangers): Open concourses down the lines, plenty of shade. No unpleasant surprises here.
14. Osceola County Stadium (Astros): Pretty generic, overall. But it’s small and cozy, the way you want your Spring Training experience to be.
13. Charlotte Sports Park (Rays): Lots of standing room and picnic areas and good sightlines. Solid spot.
12. Tempe Diablo Stadium (Angels): The only spring stadium I can think of that has a line of cabs waiting outside at all times, because the parking situation is rough. Overall, though, nice place, beautiful backdrop.
11. Maryvale Baseball Park (Brewers): I generally tend to gravitate toward the old-school places, and I like Maryvale. Definitely in need of some upgrades and not in the best area, but it’s a charming place.
10. Roger Dean Stadium (Cardinals/Marlins): One of the better Florida parks, situated in a nice little neighborhood in the great city of Jupiter. It’s just a shame it’ll probably get abandoned if and when the Nats, Mets, Marlins and Cards find a way to get closer to the other Florida clubs.
9. Phoenix Municipal Stadium (A’s): Maybe I’m crazy, but I love this place. Great access and sightlines, great mountain backdrop. But the A’s are going to ditch it because they want an improved clubhouse and scoreboard system. So they’re going to go to HoHoKam, which will get some upgrades, in 2015. Oh well.
8. Ed Smith Stadium (Orioles): Barely recognized this place from my Reds beat days when city of Sarasota remodeled it for the O’s. They did it right. What once was a soulless mass of concrete is now a stunning spot with a wide concourse, plenty of shade and crabcake sandwiches. Love it.
7. JetBlue Park (Red Sox): The fan access on the back fields is surprisingly great, and the stadium is a magnificently modern recreation of Fenway Park.
6. Joker Marchant Stadium (Tigers): This place marries today’s needs with old-school Spring Training charm as well or better than any other. It embraces the military motif associated with the former Army pilot training ground.
5. Goodyear Ballpark (Indians/Reds): The Big Chipotle, as I call it, might have stolen some design elements from the burrito chain, but the in-ground ballpark is a beauty, and the Wiffle Ball field for kids is a big plus. Bonus points for the Jamba Juice concession. Only downside is that it’s separated from the Reds’ and Indians’ facilities because of a “ballpark village” concept that, to date, has resulted only in a big, empty patch of dirt.
4. Bright House Field (Phillies): It’s got a tiki bar and Hooters girls working as ball girls, so you’re not going to find many red-blooded American males complaining about their experience at Bright House Field.
3. Scottsdale Stadium (Giants): Location, location, location. Right in Old Town Scottsdale and a jewel of spot. Only downside, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting a ticket.
2. McKechnie Field (Pirates): This is really the last of the old, old ballparks. I know it had some renovations done before this spring season, so I haven’t seen it in its current concoction. But it’s been my experience that McKechnie Field brings you back to that vibe of how Spring Training used to be.
1. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (D-backs/Rockies): A palace of preparation. Every element is state-of-the-art. They’ve even got free suntan lotion in the concourse. Not as big a fan of the parking spots specifically reserved for “low-emitting or fuel efficient vehicles only,” as they discriminate against those of us who don’t have the budget to shell out $26K for a freaking Prius, but whatever. The Talking Stick walks the walk.
All right, for the first time in a long time, with my stay in Arizona coming to a close, let’s get into the nitty gritty about the Tribe.
EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF SPRING TRAINING CAMP…
- Let’s just begin with the one of the most surprising developments of this or any camp — Scott Kazmir is very likely going to come away with a rotation job. It’s one of those great Spring Training stories. “I’m hopeful,” Chris Antonetti said, “it’s a great 2013 story, not a great Spring Training story.” The fifth spot is still being decided between Kazmir and Carlos Carrasco, who was effortlessly dominant against the Giants in his last start (five innings, two hits, one run, no walks, five strikeouts, 55 pitches). But Carrasco can be optioned out and stands to benefit from a little Triple-A seasoning after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John. Kazmir, whose Minor League start was watched by front-office staff and ownership alike Sunday, likely has the job.
- The biggest question – among many – with Kazmir is how he’ll hold up over the grind of a season as he accumulates innings. He pitched just 70 innings last season, after all. “That was the idea watching him all spring,” Francona said. “When he came in, he was about midseason form. To his credit, he had worked really hard to do that. Then you’re like, ‘OK, can he hold this and build?’ I know it’s only Spring Training, but to this point, his stuff has held every time out, so that’s really encouraging.”
- Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, but if Kazmir is still in the rotation in the second half, don’t expect any restrictions on his innings. “In a lot of cases when we limit guys, we know they’re going to be here for multiple years,” Antonetti said. “With a guy like Scott, who’s a free agent, it’s a very different set of circumstances. I don’t expect that we’ll have significant restrictions on him.” In other words, they’ll eke out every last out from that arm, if they can.
- Lord only knows what to make of this rotation, which I’ve compared to truck stop dining on the turnpike. The Indians feel Justin Masterson has done a fine job focusing on pounding the zone and keeping the ball down, and they feel he’s embraced the No. 1 starter mentality. But Masterson had trouble avoiding the big inning last year, and that was the case in his start against the Reds on Sunday, when he was hit hard in the first. Masterson feels his travails last year really came down to just a handful of bad innings. “I had seven games that were really bad, and it made everything look bad,” he said. “Within those games, it was just one inning.” All the innings count, of course. “It’s good that Justin has taken some time to reflect back on things and think about adjustments he needs to make,” Antonetti said. “But I don’t want to read too much into it.”
- What should we read into Ubaldo Jimenez’s improved command in camp? Well, for one thing, we must acknowledge that it comes with a compromise, as his velocity is simply not what it was in his Rockies heyday. Jimenez seems more willing to accept that compromise. “We don’t want him just to throw BP fastballs over the plate, because that’s not the goal either,” Antonetti said. “But for him, it gets back to the goal of him having a consistent, repeatable delivery. If he can do that, the stuff and strike-throwing will still be there.”
- Speaking of Ubaldo, I watched Drew Pomeranz pitch the other day, and suffice to say the Rockies are still waiting for all that potential to turn into reality, too. Pomeranz tweaked his mechanics this spring and is getting his fastball into the low 90s again. But he’s still not quite as consistent with his command as he’d like to be, and there’s still no telling if his stuff — reliant as it is on the curve — will play very well in Coors Field. The mechanical improvement was a big one, though, in building the kid’s confidence. “I’m not feeling lost like I did last year at times,” he said. “I think in years past I’ve been good at making pitches when I need to in tough spots. But if you’re not confident in the way you’re feeling or your mechanics, it’s hard to do that. This year, I feel like I can catch my breath and lock in and make a pitch.” Still no telling who “won” that trade.
- The Tribe isn’t sweating Brett Myers’ unsightly spring stat line (12 runs on 19 hits in 12 2/3 innings). “He’s shown the arm strength we expected,” Antonetti said. “We’ve seen secondary stuff with his breaking ball. He’s just had trouble… one of his challenges has been strike-throwing. He’s walked a lot of guys, which is atypical for Brett. But we’re confident he’ll be ready to go.”
- The Indians aren’t going to rush Chris Perez back for Opening Day just for the sake of having him there Opening Day — an “artificial deadline,” as Francona said. But any concern that he might not be ready early in April, if it existed at all, seems to have dissipated.
- Both of the big-ticket acquisitions — Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — have a daughter on the way midseason (Swisher in May, Bourn in July). Sixteen years from now, they’ll both be a wreck, but for now they should be fine.
- I spoke with Jay Bruce a bit about his buddy Drew Stubbs, who had a decent .255/.329/.444 slash line with 22 homers and 77 RBI before bottoming out (.213/.277/.333) last year. “So much upside,” Bruce said. “He’s one of the fastest guys in the game. He had a poor year last year for himself and he still stole 30 bases. In my opinion, there’s not a better center fielder out there, as far as getting to balls, running balls down, the closing speed he has, great arm, has a very good sense of where he is on the field. He’s ridiculously athletic. If he can go out there and just learn the [right field] position, there are a few little glaring differences between right and center that aren’t going to be a problem for him. He’s not going to miss a beat. He’s got a chance to be a special player if he puts it together. He has the ability to hit for power, steal bases, play the outfield and really change the game in a lot of ways. I hope the best for him.”
- Stubbs is intriguing, all right, simply because he’s such a Wild Card. But he’s still not putting up consistent at-bats just yet. “To his credit, he’s worked on his mechanics to the point where they’re so simple right now,” Francona said. “I’m not sure he realizes how good he should be. There’s no movement, just a nice little simple approach. He’s so strong and when you see him hit it, it comes off like a rocket. And he’s got the kind of speed where even when teams know he’s running, you can’t stop it.”
- I love that Jason Donald and Armando Galarraga have been in the same clubhouse (Reds) this spring.
- The great John Perrotto, of Baseball Prospectus, has taken a particular liking to the nickname the Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff bestowed upon Michael Brantley — “Dr. Smooth.” And the nickname has legs. As Brantley told a giddy Perrotto, it was used by a surly Yankees fan at Yankee Stadium last year when he yelled, “You suck, Dr. Smooth!” An insult and a compliment, blended beautifully.
- Despite being late to the party, the Indians’ take on the “Harlem Shake” worked out well enough. But why wasn’t Antonetti involved? “They tried to talk me into doing it,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure there was nothing that would reflect poorly on anyone and that nobody would get hurt. Obviously I wanted the guys to have a good time. But I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any negative repercussions.”
- Tons of love for Jason Giambi in that Tribe clubhouse. The guy has blown people away with his insight and intelligence and approachability.
- You’ve got to appreciate how much Vinnie Pestano generally and genuinely cared about playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. It’s amusing to see people use the Americans’ ho-hum history in this tournament as some sort of referendum on baseball in this country, completely ignoring A. the small sample, B. the number of guys who defensibly opt out and C. the fact that it’s played at a time of year when many of the Latin American players are in midseason form following winter ball. Pestano noted that the Classic takes on a U.S. vs. the World tone. “I don’t know if we had one crowd more for us than against us,” he said. “It’s almost a lose-lose because you’re expected to win, and yet there are so many other great baseball-playing countries out there. Just because you have U.S.A. on your chest doesn’t mean you have any advantage.”
- A common critique of the Goodyear facility when it opened was that the fan experience had taken a nosedive from the decidedly fan-friendly conditions at Chain O’ Lakes in Winter Haven. But the Indians have improved the situation considerably this spring, with “fan liason” Rik Danburg now on-hand to handle concerns, answer questions, keep people apprised of the schedule, etc.
- Jason Kipnis has been eating at this P.F. Changs-owned Asian restaurant chain called Pei Wei rather frequently down here, loading up because he knows we don’t have Pei Wei in Cleveland. I don’t blame him. It’s good, fresh food served quick. (I believe I first experienced Pei Wei several years back at the urging of Indians iTrac vision coordinator Jason Stein, better known here and everywhere as “The Master of Self-Promotion.”) Anyway, if anybody with even the slightest amount of franchisinal (not a word… don’t look it up) influence is reading this, let’s get a Pei Wei in Cleveland, all right?
- By now, there’s really not much about Life Under Tito that hasn’t already been said. Francona is really bringing the best out of this group simply because he relates to players so well, and that point has been hammered home quite consistently. There was one anecdote, though, that I thought spoke to that point quite well. It came when the Indians sent Mike McDade down after a strong camp and had to tell him, as so many others have told him, to be sure to watch his weight moving forward. Francona approached that conversation in a positive light. As Antonetti recalled: “His message was, ‘You’re a really good player, you can do so many great things, you’re great hitter from both sides of the plate. We think you have a lot of potential. And you’ve heard it before, but you need to take care of your body to take advantage of your potential.’”When players get instruction from Francona, they know he’s coming from that positive place. “Inevitably, in any relationship, you’re going to have those moments where you have to have tough conversations,” Antonetti said. “It’s more constructive to have those conversations once you already have a relationship in place. Terry works really hard to establish those relationships. And it comes from a genuine place. He really is a caring person. He cares individually about every guy in that clubhouse, and I think the players feel that. So that gives him the ability and platform to, when something needs to be addressed with a guy, he can talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I love you, but these are things you need to do to get better’ or ‘You didn’t run that ball out’ or ‘Walk me through what you were thinking in that situation on the bases.’”
- Possibly the biggest news of spring camp: Nick Camino, of WTAM, became the first sober person in America to order a steak at Chili’s. And he lived to tell the tale.
- Later this week on Indians.com, I’ll have a special story about the 20th anniversary of the Little Lake Nellie boat tragedy that claimed the lives of Steve Olin and Tim Crews. I really hope you’ll take the time to read it.