If one must be in Phoenix in March on business, it is important to observe the real business of that month in that city – baseball. So I did.
Spring training is different. Some say it is no longer necessary because the players work out year-round and don’t need to get in shape for the season. Others say with all the trades and shifting rosters, it is essential for teams to have the opportunity provided by the short spring training “season” to adjust to one another, work out the kinks, practice some things that won’t be easy to do during the regular season (does anybody bunt anymore?), and so on. Mostly, spring training is for pitchers, and by the third week of March, they’re mostly tuned up.
Games are different too, because winning is not the primary goal. For the regulars, it is about a hole in the swing, a new pitch, adjusting to the shift or dealing with whatever weakness the player or coaches may have identified. For the newbies, it’s all about making an impression that might get you to the Show, preferably on Opening Day, but if not then, certainly in the first call-up. So a pitcher may stay in and keep throwing even if he’s getting shelled because “he needs the work.” A slugger won’t necessarily get pulled for consecutive strike outs.
That said, the regulars rarely play after the fifth inning, and from there on the minor leaguers on the field are mostly anonymous because they have high numbers and no name on their jerseys.
I saw six games in five days and had company for each one. The first was a slug-fest between the Indians and the Royals, final score 17-7 for the Royals with 32 hits between the two teams. There was a vocal fan behind us who had a couple of memorable lines: on a grounder hit by Alex Gordon, he said “It’s all about launch angle;” and again, when Gordon appeared to slow down between third and home suggested “Get out of the kitchen and learn how to run!”
My only night game (a relatively recent addition to the spring training playbook) featured the Mariners against the Giants. Given the housecleaning the Mariners deemed necessary and the high likelihood that the Giants will finish out of the money, this seemed likely to be the first minor league game of the year. The draw was 45 year old Ichiro Suzuki, who looked bad striking out twice, preparing for Opening Day in Tokyo in what will be (we can only hope) his final big league (partial) season. You know when their hopes rest on journeyman shortstop Tim Beckham that it will be a long season.
The Giants provided a note of levity when they brought in switch-pitcher Pat Venditte in relief. I think he’s the only one playing now, and he changes pitching arms batter to batter. The rules provide that he must signal the umpire which arm he will use, so a switch-hitting batter has the last word. Venditte didn’t fool many batters, giving up the hits and runs that led to the Mariners 8-4 win. One observant fan, noting Venditte’s lack of success from either side, advised loudly “you’re gonna need a third arm.”
The next day saw us at Sloan Stadium, home of the Cubs, who took on the Rangers on a sunny but chilly day. The unusual aspect of this game was that Chicago started all of its regulars except Addison Russell and most played through the fifth inning. Yu Darvish pitched and actually looked pretty good. The other uncharacteristic feature of the game was the 1-1 score till the end when the Cubs pulled it out, 2-1. (Spring training games typically see plenty of runs.)
The best play of the game was turned in by Delino Deshields of the Rangers making a diving catch in center – twice! I was amazed until I realized that this was Jr., not Pops, who I had decided must have been playing since the ’50’s.
Next was the Brewers vs. the Padres at Maryvale Park, the Brewers home. No Manny Machado to boo, and the Brewers took and held the lead on three runs scored on consecutive pop-ups to left that were stylishly misplayed. Brewers pitcher, Brandon Woodruff, threw his fastball at 99 mph and his change at 81. That’s tough on any hitter. Ryan Braun should have been but seemingly wasn’t embarrassed on a clean double to right when he dogged it and got thrown out at second. No matter – Brewers won, 6-2.
On to Camelback Ranch, home of the Dodgers and White Sox, who just happened to play each other in their “home” stadium. Most of the parks in the Cactus League are shared by two teams. It would be interesting to learn how those pairings come to be (they’re not always from different leagues), but that is beyond my ken.
This wasn’t a very interesting game. The Dodgers scored two in the second and that was it. The new, trimmer, Kenley Jansen pitched the fifth, apparently to get in his work, but wasn’t terribly impressive.
One thing we noticed here and in the previous game was that sometimes the NL teams let their pitchers hit (bunt) and sometimes they use a DH, even occasionally changing within the game. I couldn’t figure out a pattern to it, and maybe there isn’t one. Ask your baseball expert friends and let me know.
The last game was also at Camelback, featuring the Dodgers against the Brewers in a reprise of the 2018 NLCS. Looked like the Dodgers had it well in hand (and they did) until the scrubs came in and Milwaukee charged back to take it 9-8.
I had dogs at each ballpark, but none were memorable save the legendary Dodger Dog, which was long, cold and terrible.
Other than that, it was a great way to start the year. We’ll hope for many more baseball adventures as the season unfolds.