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.