AndyO Blog

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mariners vs. Mariners: Spring training 2012

Arizona vacation - Day 3 (Friday)

In all my travels to Phoenix, I've never attended a MLB Spring Training game. Today, we visited the Peoria Sports Complex, home to both the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres, both part of the Cactus League. Today, the Mariners held their first intersquad game (basically, Mariners vs. Mariners).


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Catching up with Shannon

Before we went to the game, we stopped by the Mariners' administrative office to see a college friend of Brenda's, Shannon Drayer, who reports for 710 KIRO and ESPN and writes a Mariners Blog. It was nice to see Shannon after 20 or so years (I also knew her in college). Shannon told us where to go for the intersquad game, and said it was quite rare to see all the main players on the same field at this point.

The Thrill of the Grass

If I'd walked into the cornfield at the end of Field of Dreams -- the place in the outfield where Shoeless Joe disappears -- the Peoria Sports Complex is what I might expect to find. This is a place built for baseball. The size and scope is amazing, and it includes:

  • One main stadium (lighted)
  • 12 full size practice fields (6 lighted)
  • 4 half fields
  • 8 covered major league hitting tunnels
  • 12 minor hitting tunnels
  • 30 practice mound galleries

But there's a big difference between this facility and the MLB ballparks: Here, some of the barriers between fan and player are removed. For example, you might run into a MLB player as he walks between the clubhouse and one of the fields (we ran into Charlie Furbush).

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We walked under the blazing sun to Practice Field #1 and found a spot in the covered, metal bleachers. Out in the field, MLB players were practicing on an immaculate field -- but it wasn't too much different from the ones I played on as a kid (at least the way I remember them). The dugouts are right next to the bleachers and are above-ground (although the dugout is hidden from the fans by a black tarp). The on-deck circle is right in front of the bleachers.

I almost expected one of the players, like Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, to ask me from the on-deck circle, "Is this heaven?"

No, it's Peoria, Arizona.

The Game

When the game starts, the crowd is at first silent. No one is used to being in such an intimate setting with the players, coaches, and umpires. As the game proceeds, fans begin to call out to their favorite players, rooting them on. And unlike in a stadium (at least where I usually sit), they're all within earshot of both the players and the fans.

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Being this close to the action makes you realize the true speed of a major league pitcher -- or the bat speed of the hitters. Many of the hits I couldn't even follow into the outfield. You realize that this is how the players see the game and, except for the speed of it, it's not too much different than what you see on a Little League field.

But this isn't Little League. This is "The Show." To get to this level as a player, you're in an elite group. Only around 10% of all the players who make it to the Minor Leagues get called up to the Majors. In this game, I think some of the 10% were there. They don't even have a name on the back of their uniform.

One unnamed player walked up to the plate. He stood there patiently in the batters' box and got walked. Once he got out to first base, he walked off the bag as if to celebrate. And the pitcher picked him off.

Perhaps that was the end of his dream? Perhaps not.

The Ichiro Effect

Then there's Ichiro. I've seen him play many times in Seattle, but when he walked out of the dugout right in front of us, it was like a movie star strolling onto the field. One young Japanese fan waved at him, and I half expected Ichiro to wave back. But this is Ichiro, the stoic Zen warrior preparing for battle against the pitcher. 

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There aren't many people who can hit a fastball going 85 or 90 mph -- especially in front of thousands of people. For the ones who can, it takes a superhuman level of concentration. The routine Ichiro goes through in the batter's box is how he focuses, how he prepares. As I watched him at close range, I got the feeling that it doesn't matter if there are 100 people or 25,000 people watching him. He goes through the same routine.

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Later, as Cameron and I were walking back from the bathroom, it looked like the game was over. When I talked to my mother-in-law, she said that Ichiro left the game with all his bags. As soon as he left, half the fans left with him.
Which made it easier to find a seat in the bleachers.

A hidden game

We left before the game was over. I can't tell you what the score was or what inning it was. There's no announcer at a game like this. But stories were enfolding if you knew where to look. I read about most of them after the game, including:

  • Ichiro getting moved down the order to 3rd and Figgins getting moved to leadoff batter
  • 19-year-old Taijuan Walker, pitching against big league hitters and doing very well (I guess this is a guy who didn't start pitching until his Senior year in high school.)
  • Munenori Kawasaki playing on the same field as his hero, Ichiro (evidently, Kawasaki said he would only go to the major leagues as long as he could play with Ichiro)
  • After the third out in the second inning, the manager asked for another batter and Miguel Olivo stepped in the batter's box. Evidently, this was so Vargas could get his pitch count.
  • Brendan Ryan hitting a home run and running into the dugout after passing first. We thought this is just what they do in a game like this. But I read in Shannon Drayer's blog that it was about not disrespecting his own pitcher, Oliver Perez.

It's interesting how we've come to depend on the announcers and TV commentators to explain what we've just seen. It makes you realize how mass media distorts a game and takes away the immediacy of a live event. But even when we attend the live event at the ballpark, it takes on a different reality.

Which brings me back to Field of Dreams. In that movie, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is sitting in the bleachers at his personal ballpark, watching some of the greatest players play in front of him. For much of the film, other people who don't believe in Ray's dream can't see the players on the field. But then, the magical world opens up to them, too.

Watching an intersquad game is a lot like that. The players, who have until now been phantoms on TV, have suddenly come to life under a bright blue sky. There are no announcers or big screens to distract you. There are sounds from the small crowd and the ballplayers themselves. Now you can see baseball the way it was meant to be played.

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posted by AndyO @ 5:56 PM   1 comments links to this post

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A passage to Phoenix: likes and dislikes

Yesterday, we flew down to Phoenix to visit my mother-in-law and significant other, Gar. Traveling can always be a little stressful -- especially with kids. Here's my view of the trip yesterday in terms of people or events that either a) Increased my stress (dislike) or b) decreased my stress (like):

 

Dislike: The TSA agent in SeaTac airport: "Sir, you need to stay with your bags and make sure they go through the scanner! We don't have anyone to push them through!"

What I thought at the time: I haven't heard the "that's not my job" excuse in a while. It's good to know this practice is alive and well in the government sector. It was a little weird to see a TSA agent act like an asshole, as every other agent I've met has been professional and courteous. (I have to think of that quote, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Still.)

 

Like: My kids, who behaved the entire flight down to Phoenix.

What I thought at the time: We've come a long way from the days of fighting and kicking the seat in front of us. But it did help that I set up the boys with a movie on Brenda's Kindle Fire (Kung-Fu Panda 2). Even better was the short, two-hour flight. (For the first time, I never heard, "Are we there yet?)

Drew on the plane

Dislike: The woman who booked a flight down to Phoenix at the last minute and split up her entire family (including a 4-year old).

What I thought at the time: I didn't care, as I wasn't sitting next to her. But Brenda was. I'm always impressed with the grace of people who try to help -- like the man who switched seats so the woman could sit next to her daughter. Or Brenda offering to entertain the girl with our DVD player.

 

Dislike: The Alaska Airlines pilot who bounced our 737-900 off the runway upon touchdown.

What I thought at the time: Well, there was a brief moment of terror as the plane bounced up (hello, Zero-G!), and I wondered if we were going to come down OK. Cameron thought it was fun.

What I thought later: The more I thought about this landing, the stranger it seemed: Usually you glide in and hover over the runway (ground effect) before touching down. But this time, the plane seemed to drop -- almost as if the wind changed at the last second, and we lost our lift. My hat's off to the pilots who can handle this kind of stuff, as scary as it seems from the cabin.

 

Dislike: The lady in front of me on the plane who stood up as soon as the plane stopped, and then complained about how slow everyone was exiting. She also kept leaning into me from the aisle.

What I thought at the time: Here's a tip to those with claustrophobia or agoraphobia: Don't stand up as soon as the plane lands, because then you'll be standing in the crowded aisle, which will only compound your problems.

 

Like: The Alaska Airlines baggage claim. The bags were there when arrived (a first for me).

What I thought at the time: Wow!

What I thought later: Oh, yeah, it took 20 minutes to exit the plane and 10 minutes to walk to the baggage claim.

 

Like: The guy at the Hertz rental counter and the great, open design of the rental car center.

What I thought at the time: Architectural design can lower one's stress level.

 

Dislike: Getting pulled over by the police as soon as I arrived in Avondale. (I made a mistake by thinking the turning lane was for both left and right turns.)

What I thought at the time: I hate making mistakes like this. Fortunately, the officer was nice and cut us some slack because we were from out of town.

 

Like: Carol and Gar meeting us in a parking lot (after we got pulled over by Avondale's finest) and guiding us to their house. We felt very welcome!

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posted by AndyO @ 5:15 PM   0 comments links to this post