Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Spring Training Photo Essay - Part Five

Our final game of the 2013 Spring Training season took us back to Joker Marchant Stadium to see the Detroit Tigers take on the New York Mets. Max Scherzer (DET) was facing Dillon Gee (NYM). The pitchers, although both talented and major cogs for their teams during the regular season, were not huge factors in this game. Scherzer in fact only lasted 2.2 innings. Six of his eight recorded outs were by strikeout but that may have had more to do with New York than him.

We decided to sit in the berm seats this game. The berm is a weird area. Fans bring their own blankets and lay and relax. Some did not even seem remotely interested in the fact that a baseball game was being played in front of them. Staff members come along and collect trash as well as offer to take pictures of folks. They also made a very large deal about this strawberry shortcake dessert they sell. Apparently Joker Marchant is the only stadium where you can purchase a hand-delivered piece of strawberry shortcake while sitting in the grass. not doubt this is true.

As for the baseball, the Mets seemed barely more interested in this contest than the berm fans did. In fact, they barely swung their bats at all. 

New York's offense through the first six innings: 
5 walks
2 hit-by-pitches
2 stolen bases
11 strikeouts
2 hits
1 run

Detroit was only slightly better but their offense at least was lacking some of their big bats. I'm not sure I can say the same for New York. David Wright was off playing for Team USA. Other than that, everyone was there...they just aren't very good. 

The main attraction of this game was Detroit's left fielder. He looks like Miguel Cabrera. He swings like Miguel Cabrera (visually). He is Avisail Garcia, AKA Mini-Miggy! And his future is bright. This afternoon was nothing to write home about but after his postseason performance last year and his striking resemblance to one of the best hitters alive, the sky is the limit. 

As may be obvious, this final photo essay is a bit lacking in the photo department. To be honest, not much happened that was worthy of capturing. But going to Spring Training baseball is not always about seeing something special. It is about watching your favorite players close up and without their entire guard up. It is about sitting (or lying) in the sun, in Florida and taking in a fun experience. It is about spending time with friends and family and paying $8 for turkey leg...which, in hindsight, I probably should have taken a picture of. It was pretty noteworthy.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Spring Training Photo Essay - Part Four

We attended two Yankees games this trip. They occurred back to back, one Tuesday evening and the next Wednesday afternoon. In game one, the Yankees took on the revamped Atlanta Braves. Atlanta looked loaded with the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman. New York...did not. I had not even heard of the players who were starting at third base and in right field for the Yankees this evening, had not even heard of them! This would not be a good sign for our offensive production.

We decided to stick it out anyway. After all, George M. Steinbrenner Field is as close a Spring Training stadium gets to feeling like the real thing. There are more seats, a legit second deck, the famous facade and beer vendors who know what they're doing.

When one vendor was questioned about his product: "If it ain't cold, I'll take it back and drink it myself!"

When another ventured into a section where a second foul ball just hit after the first made quite a dent in one gentleman's leg: "He's a man; he's not crying." 

And then there was the beer guy who looked like James Harden.

"No, his hair is like mine. I'm older."

As for the game itself, it was the right amount of ugly. Yankees starting catcher Chris Stewart came up two straight times with multiple runners on base. He ended both innings and stranded all five runners. At one point, Brett Gardner was on first with a man on third and stole second base only to have the Braves catcher fake a throw down to second and pick-off the runner at third base. Eduardo Nunez proved once again with some of his defensive adventures that he is probably not fit to play shortstop. And, of course, there was an inning where both the pitcher on the mound and the first baseman were wearing jersey number 94. 

The scene outside afterward was perfectly pleasant. After all, this game didn't count. Braves shortstop Tyler Pastornicky had the ultimate Spring Training performance at the plate. He reached base twice on errors, advanced to third on another error, scored on a balk and managed one hit: an infield single. 

The second Yankee game would be during the sunlight, against Robinson Cano and the Dominican Republic WBC team. After seeing what they did to the Phillies, confidence was not high in the Bronx Bombers. Although Cano was the enemy this afternoon, he got a huge cheer. This had plenty to do with the fact that he is the Yankees best player. This also had a lot to do with the large number of Dominican fans in the crowd. 

The Dominican players once again acknowledged the crowd like nothing I have seen. They were constantly tossing things back and forth. People would toss balls, shirts, flags, whatever into the dugout and they would get tossed back, signed. The players were just having a good time, like they should, especially knowing what type of offense they have at their disposal.

Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda fared quite a bit better than Cole Hamels did against the Dominicans. He went 3.0 innings, allowing no runs and just two hits, while striking out four. Take that Cole! The DR in general were not nearly as explosive as the other day. But it would have been impossible to repeat that performance. Nevertheless, they collected 8 runs on 12 hits and put away the pitiful Yankees. 

Eduardo Nunez had another bad game in the field. He hopped one throw, alligator-armed a play and just seemed to have no confidence throwing the ball from short. Meanwhile, the Yankees offense didn't manage a hit until Zoilo Almonte knocked a home run out in the seventh inning. With just two hits, the Yankees bats sprung a leak and were hemorrhaging smoke faster than these stacks; a fate that has unfortunately continued into the beginning of the regular season.

My Spring Training Photo Essay - Part Three

Game three featured quite a treat. We would get to see the Dominican Republic Team play against the Phillies in preparation for the World Baseball Classic tournament, which would kick off in a few days time. In future news, the Dominican Republic won the World Baseball Classic in steamroller fashion: they didn't lose a game the entire tournament. This was not a surprise after seeing them play in person.

Sitting directly behind the DR dugout, we had a great vantage point of the field and the excitement that is Dominicans watching their countrymen play baseball (even if the game doesn't count). The Dominican fans were very loud, very animated and very excited to be here. It led to some slight racism on the part of white people. They seemed genuinely upset that people were yelling and cheering so obnoxiously in Spanish. Also a point of blatant jealousy: the Dominican players were throwing balls and other memorabilia into the crowd at an alarming rate and not a single item (NOT A SINGLE ITEM) went to a white or non-Spanish-speaking person. In fact, two separate groups of gentlemen seemed to each collect a good half dozen balls. Whether they knew the players personally and just happened to be sitting close is up for debate. Either way, Team DR loved the atmosphere and spent a lot of time chatting with fans nearby. It was pretty fun and refreshing to see.

Today's starter for the Philadelphia Phillies was ace Cole Hamels. Above is a photo of how Hamels felt about himself prior to this afternoon's game. He was cocky as hell, standing on one foot and all, knowing he's untouchable. After all, he is the best pitcher on a team that has Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. 

What Hamels may not have been aware of was the roster he was about to face. The lineup of the Dominican Republic team was so stacked, most All-Star games have less star power. Here was the starting nine with a quick description to accompany each player:

Jose Reyes (stud)
Robinson Cano (stud)
Edwin Encarnacion (stud)
Nelson Cruz (borderline stud)
Hanley Ramirez (stud)
Miguel Tejada (former stud)
Carlos Santana (borderline stud)
Ricardo Nanita (some Dominican guy)
Alejandro De Aza (future stud)

Bobby Cano and the rest of the Dominicans had confidence. But even they didn't know what type of show they would put on this afternoon. Here are some of the numbers from the early innings: Cano collected three hits, including a home run; Reyes hit a home run, a single and stole a base; Tejada went 4-4 in his first four plate appearances; Encarnacion had three hits to his name; Hanley had four hits, three went for extra bases, one was a home run and he knocked in three. Poor Nelson Cruz was the only man not having fun. He managed to be the final out in each of the game's first three innings.

Here is a photo representation of how Cole Hamels felt after his outing. His cockiness long gone, Hamels instead is resigned to staring off into the distance from his place behind the bars that Team DR seemed to place all around him. Hamels' final stat line: 2.2 innings pitched, 8 earned runs, 12 hits allowed. Ouch.

The only things more newsworthy than Hamels' day was Jose Reyes' beard and Phillies' sorta-prospect Darin Ruf. Ruf, of 'Spring Training Photo Essay Part One' fame and the future of the Phillies (according to someone, somewhere) went 0-4 with three strikeouts. 

This Dominican Republic team looked unbeatable, foreshadowing of how the actual WBC would play out. DR final stat line: 15 runs on 28 hits. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Spring Training Photo Essay - Part Two

Game Two brought us northeast to Lakeland, FL for the Detroit Tigers - Houston Astros game on Monday afternoon. This was my first time to Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. It is a bit campier and more "spring trainy" than some of the other arenas...not that there's anything wrong with that.

No, that doesn't look right......That's too crooked and off-kilter for any Major League club to play their Spring Training games there. Oh yeah, that's right. That's Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Okay, this looks better. Exhibit number one of Lakeland being campy and spring trainy: we parked in a church parking lot a few blocks away and walked to the stadium. The parking was free except for whatever you wanted to donate. Contrasted with the fact that you had to pay $5 extra to come early for batting practice and Joke Marchant gave off a weird vibe. 

We had good seats again, one row behind the visiting team dugout. This would become a freakin' awesome trend. Lakeland's campiness exhibit number two: they had free food giveaways every other inning. Free hot dogs giveaways were succeeded by free ice cream giveaways which were followed by free pizza giveaways, which was culminated in an ole fashioned 50-50 raffle. There is no discernible difference between Tigers spring training games and the local summer league team in your town other than the players on the field. 

And the palm trees! I think every stadium everywhere should have palm trees in the outfield no matter the gardening costs. This was a picture of the Berm seating (picnic-style grass where you bring your own blanket and chill out in left field). It would be exhibit number three except for the tiki-bars and drink stations littered behind the grassy knoll.

And the fact that it got kind of crowded.

Today's starters were Rick Porcello for the Tigers and some poor sap for the Astros. Houston's team is so bad that we could not be sure who would even make the Major League roster. Here is the actual starting lineup of people who are supposedly big league caliber:

Jose Altuve
Fernando Martinez
Carlos Pena
Chris Carter
Jason Castro
Justin Maxwell
Rick Ankiel
Matt Dominguez
Jonathan Villar

Probably their best everyday player is second baseman Jose Altuve, pictured here. That is his actual size. This photo has not been altered. Altuve's height: 5'5". In fact, if you google "Jose Altuve h" auto-finish predicts you will type "height" before "highlights" or "home run" or even "Houston Astros."

The Tigers meanwhile put a pretty impressive team on the field. Although Miguel Cabrera was away playing for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, we did see Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, and big Prince Fielder. What's that? You want a picture of Prince Fielder standing next to Jose Altuve? Alright, if you say so.

Against those odds and a mostly normal Tigers lineup, the Asros' pitchers struggled. When their starter was taken out, it was beyond awkward to hear people yelling that he sucks from just a few feet away. You could literally stare into his eyes as he stepped into the dugout. Huge props to famous people. I can't imagine getting yelled at by complete strangers all the time.

On the other hand, the normally strikeout-scared Rick Porcello had tons of swing and miss stuff, which greatly pleased the Tigers faithful. Porcello, who later won a spot in the team's starting rotation for this season, struck out seven 'Stros in 5.1 innings pitched.

Tigers' skipper Jim Leyland was pretty happy with the game. He decided to lounge in a beach chair in front of the dugout all game long. The Houston coaches were a little more active. We could periodically see fingers pop up above the dugout lip, shifting defensive alignments and moving outfielders. The couple times we noticed the fingers and the moves, it worked perfectly, with the ball magically traveling to where the fielder shifted to. Good for you Houston. It is the little things that make it all worth while.

The level of campy wonder melted away as the game progressed. With vendors trying to get clever and sell more product, one started yelling odd phrases like "lemon-flavored kool-aid!" thinking that would somehow HELP his lemonade sales. This was matched only by the crowd yelling odd phrases. People seemed to love that Tigers' reserve outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo has the same last name as a man recently involved in a pretty big college football scandal.

As the game came to a close, the Astros battled back a bit against Detroit's bullpen. Their pen is made up of a ton of guys who had like one good season. Joaquin Benoit is there; Octavio Dotel is still milling around; so is Phil Coke; Al Alburquerque might be the best of the bunch. He struck out the side in the eighth, making his case even stronger.

Unlike Clearwater, where the fans left by the second inning because autograph time had ended, the fans in Lakeland waited for something else. As soon as the winner of the 50-50 raffle was announced in the eighth inning, they headed for the gates.

My Spring Training Photo Essay - Part One

For the second consecutive March, I took a trip down to Florida to see some Spring Training baseball. The area: Tampa/St. Pete. The weather: iffy. The baseball: awesome. With the 2013 regular season about to throw its first pitch, let's take a photographic look through some of my Spring Training moments.

Okay, so the weather wasn't perfect. On the way to Game One in Clearwater, FL to see the Philadelphia Phillies host the Toronto Bluejays, it was a bit cloudy, and more than a bit chilly. Temperature at first pitch in the 40s. Yes, that's degrees. Yes, that's Fahrenheit.

Alright! We made it!

People were bundled up, and rightly so. We were going to see only the truest baseball fans this afternoon. (More on that in a second.)

Yeesh. Time it took me to regret not packing a winter hat: six minutes.

But even in the unpleasant temperatures, Bright House Field has a way of seeming pleasant all the same. After all, we were sitting down the third base line, two rows from the field, to watch some of the best players in the world do their thing.

Little did we know, we were also going to watch a lot of this: grown men and women climbing over each other to get a piece of material written on by another adult, most likely younger than they are.

Cole Hamels was a big draw. Guys lined up with bags of balls, one for each player who passed by. The man sitting next to us had a terrible time of things with a signed Mike Schmidt bat. Apparently the autograph did not come out pure. He was forced to "wipe his Schmidt" (his words, not mine).

The other interesting thing about these autograph hounds is that many leave after the first inning or so. They buy their tickets to get there early and grab the signatures. Once the game actually begins, they head to Buffalo Wild Wings. Look how cleared out my section became when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard called it a day during the middle innings and headed towards the showers.

An actual game did take place. See, here's proof: Jose Bautista at the plate! Joey Bats hit one out in this contest on the sixth pitch he saw...after taking the first five to draw the count full; but he was not the star of the day. That distinction belonged to two men, one from each side.

The Toronto star was newly acquired Emilio Bonafacio. The speedster Bonafacio put all his skills on display very early in this game. He reached first on a bunt single in his first at-bat. From there, he stole second base...and stole third base...and scored a run on a throwing error. He also managed to show off his known fielding skills by committing one distinct error and blowing a double play. You have to take the good with the bad.

The main attraction for Philly tonight was not Ryan Howard, although he did hit one out (literally out of the stadium, over the palms in right field). It was also not young outfielder Dominic Brown, even though he too hit a home run out of Bright House Field. The Philadelphia star was none other than semi-prospect, questionably-futured Darin Ruf. There was no good to take with his bad though.

Ruf started in left field on this day, and did not quite belong there. He took a bad route on one of his first plays. He displayed a very poor throwing arm on his next. He compounded things with a strikeout at the plate. He actually did manage to throw Adam Lind out at the plate. But the throw was not as much a strike from left field as it was one of those ducks a quarterback throws when he gets his legs taken out by a defensive end but the throw lingers long enough to fall into the hands of a crossing tight end who got bumped off his original route. After mid-innings moves, Ruf was slid over to first base where he promptly dropped a double play ball.

Some final thoughts on this Sunday afternoon contest:

I did not get a picture but you'll have to take my word for it; Rajai Davis was looking very dapper with his blue on blue on blue ensemble. His blue jersey was framed by blue, knee-high socks and a blue glove.

Dominic Brown is going to be a fan favorite if he isn't already. When he got taken out of the game and went past the left field stands to head off the field, he went through and signed every single thing put in front of him. Even once the action started back up after the pitcher's warm-up tosses, Brown continued down the line, signing away.

When Andy LaRoche was put into the game as a late-inning replacement, even the in-stadium announcer called him Adam.

This game was televised live on MLB Network. It might have been the last time that Ricky Romero starts a game on national television.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

68 Predictions for this year's Big Dance

(68) The ACC will only get five teams in the tournament this year.

(67) The Virginia Tech Hokies will not be a bubble team this year, although they will look back fondly on the years when they were.

(66) Florida State will not be one of the five either.

(65) No ACC school will make it to the Sweet Sixteen this year.

(64) Maryland will advance farther than North Carolina and North Carolina State.

(63) Everyone will continue to hate Duke.

(62) Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor will be the only four Big 12 schools in the NCAA Tournament.

(61) Baylor will get a 9 seed; some major college basketball writers/bloggers will think it too high while others think it too low.

(60) A vast majority of brackets will pick Baylor to win their first round match-up and a large percentage of these people will be properly berated for considering it an upset.

(59) Oklahoma State will advance the farthest out of any of the Big 12 teams.

(58) Kansas will have a better seed than last year (they were a 2) but will not advance as far as they did a season ago. (These all can’t be bold.)

(57) Connecticut will not make the NCAA Tournament. (Yes! Guaranteed correct!)

(56) For the first time in recent memory, the Big East conference will not be the conference with the most tournament bids.

(55) Syracuse will not be the highest seeded Big East school but they will advance the farthest in the tournament.

(54) Notre Dame will get upset in the first round by a team seeded lower than them.

(53) The same thing will happen to the Georgetown Hoyas.

(52) The Big 10 usurps the Most Tournament Teams throne from the Big East.

(51) The Big 10 becomes the undisputed best conference in the land, perfectly mirroring what happened to their schools during football season.

(50) Three Big 10 teams will make the Elite Eight.

(49) Someone will remark how the Big 10 is now “the SEC of basketball.” They will be given no credit for wittiness and will be criticized for the comment more than they are praised.

(48) With multiple teams in the Final Four, the Big 10 will still fail to win the National Championship.

(47) Washington will fail to make the NCAA Tournament.

(46) Both the university and Tony Wroten deeply regret that he left school early to enter the NBA draft.

(45) Both the university and Terrence Ross also regret that he left school early, although Wroten seems to not care at all about this.

(44) With only two schools winning their first round games, everyone will be quick to jump on the story of the continuing demise of the Pac-12 conference.

(43) This will gain steam when Arizona gets bounced earlier than expected in March Madness.

(42) The storyline will take a turn when UCLA outplays their seed and makes it to the Elite Eight.

(41) The SEC’s Florida Gators will be a 1 seed heading into the Big Dance.

(40) The Missouri Tigers will be a 2 seed in their first year in the SEC.

(39) Kentucky will be a 3 seed after making huge strides during the second half of the regular season.

(38) With three of the top 15 teams in the country, the SEC is the most top-heavy conference in the nation.

(37) The SEC will claim ownership of one quarter of this year’s Final Four.

(36) Stony Brook wins the America East conference and gains an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

(35) With the addition of VCU, the Atlantic 10 stakes its claim as the best high-major conference in the country.

(34) Temple wins their first game in the tournament from their perch as a double-digit seed.

(33) VCU goes farther than any of their old peers in the CAA.

(32) A team with an under .500 overall record wins the Atlantic Sun conference tournament and is automatically invited to the Big Dance.

(31) Weber State and Montana have such an awesome battle for the Big Sky conference crown that, if anyone cared, it would be described as “what college basketball is all about.”

(30) The winner of the Big South, as a 16 seed, gives a scare to the 1 seed they are paired with. The 1 seed ends up winning by a reasonably slim 12 point margin.

(29) Cal State Fullerton leads the nation in scoring and nabs the Big West’s automatic berth.

(28) It what has become an ironic, “winner leaves town” situation with many of the best schools departing, rumors immediately start to fly after George Mason wins another CAA title.

(27) For only the second time since 2005, someone other than Memphis wins Conference USA.

(26) Youngstown State upsets tourney favorite Valparaiso in the Horizon League final to advance to the Big Dance.

(25) The winner of the Ivy League gets undue credit during their first round blowout loss because “gosh, they have a great graduation rate.”

(24) The Fairfield Stags win the MAAC and enter tournament play as the only Connecticut school representing. What up Nutmeg State!

(23) Ohio University wins another Mid-American Conference title and, for the third time this century, numerous people will mistakenly pick them to advance to the Sweet Sixteen thinking they are Ohio State.

(22) After winning their first ever MEAC Conference championship a season ago, Norfolk State repeats, but sees no such tourney magic this time around and gets soundly romped in their first contest of the NCAA Tournament.

(21) Creighton does not win the Missouri Valley Conference but snags an at-large bid, to the disgust of many bubble teams.

(20) With a regular season title, UNLV gets back to the top of the Mountain West for the first time this century, wins the conference tournament as well, and captures their first March Madness win since 2008.

(19) Sacred Heart, Central Connecticut State, and Quinnipiac are all bounced from the Northeast conference tournament, to the shear delight of all Fairfield fans. Nutmeg State bragging rights abound!

(18) With no at-large bid in play for an Ohio Valley team, the championship game is a barn-burner between Murray State and Belmont, with the Bruins ultimately coming out on top.

(17) Bucknell steamrolls through the Patriot League and receives one of the better seeds for any mid-major in the tournament.

(16) For the second consecutive season and the second time since Stephen Curry happened, Davidson triumphs in the Southern Conference and makes the NCAAs.

(15) Oral Roberts (the Southland champ) and Southern University (the SWAC champ) will play each other in a “round one” game, a.k.a. one of the play-in games.

(14) North Dakota State runs through the Summit League regular season but gets upset in the conference tournament, crushing the spirits of their loyal fan base.

(13) In the Sun Belt tournament, an interesting occurrence develops. Florida Atlantic and Florida International team up; Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock do as well; so do the two Louisiana squads: Monroe and Lafayette. The three super teams enter, but all for naught as Middle Tennessee still wins the conference and gets the automatic berth.

(12) Gonzaga, West Coast powerhouse and perennial mid-major darling, is once again knocked out a bit early from the NCAAs. People begin to wonder if the praise is unwarranted as the Zags haven’t made a deep tournament run in their last 13 tries.

(11) With Utah State looking nearly as dominant as they were in 2010-2011, the Aggies get taken down in the WAC final by Denver and have to settle for the NIT.

(10) Throughout the tournament, Florida Gator’s big man Erik Murphy becomes a breakout star. The long-range shooting senior displays his inside-outside game to perfection, averaging nearly 18 points per game in tournament play.

(9) In a sweet union, Florida’s coach, Billy Donovan, becomes widely considered one of the best coaches in the country after another long tournament run cements his legacy.

(8) On the opposite side of the spectrum, with the failures of Carolina and NC State so highly publicized, the draft stock of Tar Heel James Michael McAdoo and Wolfpack forward CJ Leslie will plummet with NBA teams unsure of how well the two will do at the next level.

(7) Since tournament play can make such a big difference with how pro scouts determine players deal with adversity and top competition, Trevor Mbakwe will skyrocket up draft boards following his stellar tournament performance for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

(6) With coaches not immune to this development either, Fairfield Stags head man Sydney Johnson will receive a few offers from high-major programs following the tournament.

(5) Since it’s always about the money, much like Shaka Smart and others in years prior, Johnson will return to Fairfield after a contract restructuring goes in his favor.

(4) The Final Four is comprised of Michigan, Ohio State, Missouri and Syracuse.

(3) Missouri will face the Michigan Wolverines in the tournament final.

(2) Laurence Bowers is named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. This, after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, is one of the better stories in all of college basketball.

(1) Behind Bowers and Phil Pressey, Missouri upsets tournament favorite Michigan to take the NCAA Championship.

A copy of this article can also be seen on College Sports Madness by following this link.

The image at the top is a registered trademark of the NCAA