Alphabetically speaking, spring training has it all

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 10, 2013 

A spring training roundup, from A to Z.

The Athletics, whose 2012 payroll was cut from $67.1 million to $61.2 million, showed up at camp last year looking as hopeless as any other team attempting to rebound from a 74-88 record. They finished 94-68, worth first place in baseball’s most competitive division. So what I’m saying is, yes, Mariners fans, there’s a chance.

Bats make something like a “thwack” when they connect with a ball. Spring training tends to be a laborious, repetitive grind toward the end of March, but the sound of that “thwack” never gets old.

Cactus League play begins for the Mariners on Feb. 22, when they’ll face the Padres in the annual charity game at the Peoria (Ariz.) Sports Complex. The contest used to be unofficial, as opposed to all the other exhibition games that don’t count.

The Designated Hitter, introduced by the American League in 1973, is 40 years old this season — and there’s still no consensus on whether it’s a good idea.

Albert Einstein once said: “You teach me baseball and I’ll teach you relativity. No, we will not. You will learn relativity faster than I will learn baseball.” The great scientist sold himself short. Baseball is a simple game, unless Tim McCarver is describing a balk.

French Lick, Ind., is best known as the home of Larry Bird, but it also served as the spring training site for the 1943 Cubs. Wartime rationing confined big league spring camps to an area east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River.

Is another Gold medal awaiting Japan in the World Baseball Classic? Japan won the first two tournaments but will compete this year without such stars as outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitchers Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Hope springs eternal when pitchers and catchers report, but I wouldn’t spend a buck wagering on the chances of the Houston Astros winning the World Series. They’re listed as 200-1 longshots. No other team is listed beyond 100-1. (The Mariners are 75-1.)

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over!” Well, yes and no. Spring training games that are tied after nine innings usually are over — by mutual consent of the managers — if the tie extends beyond the 10th inning. Some fans complain about this. Then again, some fans will complain about how the root canal surgery was over too soon.

Juice: Once upon a time, it described a healthy morning drink associated with the citrus crops of Arizona and Florida. It now means something else, something dark and forbidden. Juice is a curse word.

A “K” is scorecard shorthand, of course, for a strikeout. Few tasks in life are more stressful, and less satisfying, than keeping score after the fifth inning of a spring training game.

Leadoff man for the 2013 Mariners? With Ichiro out of the picture, the job figures to belong to Dustin Ackley. He hit .233 in that role last season, with a tepid .296 on-base percentage, but there was this: Ten homers, two triples and 15 doubles. When Ackley batted anywhere other than leadoff, he had only nine extra-base hits.

“Marlinsania,” Sports Illustrated called it. The magazine’s Feb. 29, 2012, issue featured a cover story about new Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, seen laughing in the dugout with shortstop Jose Reyes, a big-ticket acquisition from the Mets. “Marlinsania” was a brief phenomenon. The outspoken Guillen turned out to be a train wreck, and by Aug. 12, the doomed manager submitted a lineup that found the Marlins with one player — Reyes — remaining from their season opener.

Night games contradict the essential lure of spring training — relaxing in the sun — but the Mariners will play four of their 35 Cactus League contests under the lights. No harm, no foul, just dwell on the bright side: 31 day games.

Orange baseballs? Late Athletics owner Charlie Finley persuaded Major League Baseball to experiment with them during a spring training game in 1973. Feedback was negative. Hitters were accustomed to identifying breaking pitches by the spin of the red laces on a white ball, and the orange ball confounded them. (Or so they said. Cleveland beat Oakland, 11-5, so somebody saw something.)

Practice fields — there are 12 of them at the Peoria complex — are the way to go for those curious about the prospects. While Eric Wedge is overseeing a morning drill with the big leaguers — pitchers’ infield practice, for instance — take a walk, get lost, and savor the sound of a thwack in the distance.

Quotable: “The best way to convince the manager you’re in shape during spring training is to get a tan.” (Courtesy of Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Edward Charles Ford, whose nickname was “Whitey.”)

Restaurants are not uncommon on Peoria’s (Taco) Bell Road. There’s maybe 12,000 fast food franchises within walking distance of the ballpark, and almost as many places for a more relaxing meal. Beware, though: At 6:30 p.m., the sidewalks are teeming with hungry and thirsty baseball fans. And at 9, everything shuts down.

Statistics mean next to nothing during spring training. A hit is a hit, sure, but don’t read much into a seventh-inning homer tagged off a pitching prospect targeted for Double-A Palookaville.

“The Trade” is still another 40th spring training anniversary of note: In 1973, Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich shocked the world by swapping families. The unusual situation had usual consequences: Peterson’s marriage with the wife of his best friend worked out, Kekich’s marriage didn’t.

One of these years, I will grasp the concept of UZR, an acronym for the Ultimate Zone Ratings that determine a defensive player’s proficiency. But I’ve yet to read an analysis capable of converting the UZR formula into the kind of laymen’s terms either I, or Albert Einstein, could understand.

Van Lingle Mungo pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. A fireballer who won a few more games than he lost, Mungo was celebrated in a 1991 Dave Frishberg song whose lyrics contained only the names of ballplayers prominent during the 1940s. The day that song doesn’t give me shivers is a day I don’t want to finish.

It’s called spring training, only we’re in the middle of Winter. Winter training doesn’t pack the same zing, no? Winter training sounds like a tradition borrowed from the USSR.

Aside from juice, X-ray might be the worst word spoken during spring training.

Yuma is an Arizona town where the Padres once trained. It took most of a day to get there from Phoenix, and most of a night to get back. How dreaded was the Yuma trip? Healthy players suddenly showed up lame, and volunteered for X-rays.

Don Zimmer, the Tampa Bay consultant on the eve of his 65th year in baseball, won’t be able to attend Rays spring training workouts on a daily basis. Zimmer will try to make the trip from his Florida condo once or twice a week, but he’s hooked up with tubes, so wearing a uniform could be a challenge. And yet, Zimmer wants to be there. He wants the jolt of springtime in the middle of winter. He wants to hear the thwack.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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