PEORIA, Ariz. - The sunrises are beautiful in Peoria, and if you're looking for spring training autographs from the Seattle Mariners, it affords the best little-known opportunity available.
Hundreds of fans spill into the camp for workouts that begin around 9 a.m., following players and coaches around the various fields, bullpens and batting cages, always separated by chain-link fences.
Problem is, most often, even having that close access to the players doesn’t mean an autograph is forthcoming.
Once players hit the fields, they’re working. If they’re walking between fields, they’re not often inclined to stop and sign for a covey of fans – they’re en route to more drills.
No, batting practice and bullpen sessions are, in large part, the chance to watch Mariners up close and occasionally listen in on conversations that range from educational to hilarious.
What can you expect while up close and personal with ball players?
Ken Griffey Jr. used to sit on the bat rack inside the covered batting cages and chat with fans just a few feet away. He’d take his turn in the cage, get his work in, then talk to anyone and everyone.
Junior loved to tease, and was especially fond of joshing kids.
In Mike Hargrove’s first spring, rains forced the team to work out under those same covered cages – and more than a hundred faces, young and old, were pressed up against the fence watching.
During stretching, Hargrove saw too many players taking it easy, and unleashed an obscenity-laced rant that got their attention and left most fans open-mouthed.
You want an inside look, sometimes you get it. And more.
As the sun rises just before 7 a.m., however, players begin driving into the team parking lot. The manager and coaches are usually on hand an hour earlier.
As players walk from their cars toward the Seattle clubhouse, they pass within yards of the open gate and fence where fans can stand.
Quite often, if called by name, they’ll walk over to that fence and chat with fans, sign balls and baseball cards, pose for a photo or two and then get on about their business.
One of the reasons? At that time of day, there simply aren’t many fans.
There are two good reasons.
First, getting to the parking lot by 7 a.m. makes for an early morning – hey, writers do it all spring, and they’re half-fried by March.
Second – and remember this if you plan on doing it – no matter how warm the afternoon in Arizona may be, dawn can be downright cold. So layer up. Wear something to keep you warm that can be taken off as the day wears on.
Behind each of the diamonds on the complex are metal stands available on a first-come, first-taken basis. Early birds sit up front, closest to where players will be working out.
Dogs of all sizes appear throughout camp, and a leashed pup near the fence is almost certain to draw a few players over.
And the next few weeks are probably the best time to get a little face-time with the Mariners – before the games start.
During the first week of workouts for just pitchers and catchers, the work doesn’t last much beyond 11 a.m., but you can watch pitchers work their bullpen sessions and listen to the instruction they get on the mound.
Normally, the pitchers are broken into two groups and each throws every other day. That means if you’re watching one day and your favorite pitcher doesn’t throw, he’s almost guaranteed to work the next day unless he’s battling an injury.
There’s no charge to enter the complex of fields, and those who arrive before the workout, even if not quite at sunrise, should probably wander over to those batting cages.
Until position players report to camp, many of them show up and take batting practice against one another. And check before leaving camp, too – sometimes players sleep late and show up for later cage work.
Young fans looking for a little instruction should check out all the fields being used, which is easy to do, since they’re all back-to-back, cloverleaf style.
On each field, players may be working on a different fundamental. At times, bunting stations are set up. On a second diamond, pitchers may work on pickoff moves or covering first base on ground balls.
Once everyone is in camp, each infielder gets ground balls from a different coach, while in the outfield players shag baseballs shot into the air via machine.
Yes, Ichiro Suzuki will be out there, too. And yes, he occasionally catches balls behind his back.
The truth is, you can never be certain what you’ll see in camp. Adrian Beltre, for instance, would often stay on the infield after teammates went in because he wanted another 50 or so ground balls.
When he coached in Seattle, Larry Bowa would grab one or two young infielders every morning about 7:30 and drag ’em out to one field or another for “early work.”
So show up early. There’s a snack shop open about 9 a.m. with sodas, coffee and hot dogs, and plenty of places to eat within walking distance.
One thing about being at the parking lot at dawn, though. Don’t expect to catch Ichiro then. He tends to time his arrivals in camp for about 10 minutes before the workout.