Sports

Who’s on first, really?

Seattle Mariner warm up before practice starts. Ken Griffey is the high kicker leading the pack. - Photo by Meri Schiller
Seattle Mariner warm up before practice starts. Ken Griffey is the high kicker leading the pack.
— image credit: Photo by Meri Schiller

Mariners spring training, for me, started with FanFest at Safeco Field back in January. We were introduced to a few of the players and more importantly, the manager and the general manager, Don Wakamatsu and Jack Zduriencik, respectively. I asked both what, in their opinions, would have to happen for 2009 to be considered a successful year? Of course, winning more games was part of the answer, but Jack Z’s answer has stuck with me. He said that he is a fan, just like me. Some players may be playing for pride of their country or to improve their stats. In Jack’s opinion, they need to learn how important the fan is and should be playing for the fan. I liked that answer!

So in February off to Peoria I went, to spend two weeks enjoying perfect weather, not too hot and definitely no snow. I’ve always been prepared with baseball cards for most of the players and coaches. It’s always been easy, because I know most of the names and faces on the 40-man roster. In addition, there are usually 15 to 19 nonroster invitees, of which I recognize half. No such luck this year. The numbers of known players are almost reversed because this is a monster of a rebuilding year. Many on the 40-man roster are unkowns and most of the invitees are as well. Who the heck are these guys? It really is a year of “Who’s on First?”

The Mariners we’ll see in 2009 will be completely different. Beltre, Betancourt, Morse, Burke and Clement were the only position players in camp from last year. Eleven total, including Ichiro, Johjima and Lopez, were at the World Baseball classic and didn’t return until their national team was eliminated. Right now, this team is forming friendships and hierarchies based on the players there. Griffey, Branyan, Beltre and Sweeney seem to be a core group. If Sweeney makes the team, I think he may become the new Buhner, always yackin’, joking, encouraging and coaching. Everyone says he his a wonderful influence in the clubhouse and we saw why. The talk we heard is that Branyan and Sweeney might platoon at first. Griffey and Sweeney might platoon at designated hitter. Chavez and Griffey might platoon in left. Betancourt might be replaced with Corona or Cedeño so there truly is a atmosphere that goes far beyond “Who’s on First?”

The news media was reporting that there would be thousands of people to greet Griffey when he showed up for camp. In Peoria, we were prepared to be overwhelmed with that many people. On Griffey’s first day there were only 30 to 40 people. When he walked out to the practice fields, most spectators didn’t even notice him. There he was – Junior, The Kid, the guy who saved baseball in Seattle, a future Hall of Famer – 4 feet away from avid fans and most didn’t recognize or respond to him. There was no “Hi, Griffey” or “Welcome back, Kid” – there was nothing but silence. Of course his jersey number was covered, he is a little heavier and he was surrounded by a group of players. Once the players were out on the practice fields and people realized they had missed him, then it became a game to see if you could identify Griffey from 100 yards away, milling around with 12 players who were all dressed alike. (He’s the only one with his jersey covered and his shoes had so much white on them, how could you miss him at 100 yards?)

Griffey did stop for autographs (sorta) on his second day in camp. Now, understand, the players walk to some of the practice fields on a roped off lane, against a cyclone fence that might be 100 yards in length. There was a crowd of 30 to 40 people hanging on the rope hoping for autographs. They were extremely quiet as Griffey passed by, visiting with Rick Rizzs. Junior, not pausing to stop, accepted an item from a fan and slowly autographed it as he continued his walk. The fan had to keep pace with Griffey in order to get his item back. The rest of the crowd began moving up the rope line with Junior. All in all, he signed about four items. The whole time, it was very quiet and solemn as everyone seemed to be using their library voices to not disturb him. Interestingly, Jeff Nelson (former pitcher with the Ms) walked up that same roped-off lane about 100 feet behind Griffey. Nelson is now working for a local radio station. Three years ago, this same crowd would have been clamoring for Nelson’s autograph, but now no one recognized him. As he walked, I did ask him if he missed all of this and, with a smile, he said no.

During the past seven years, we’ve seen many different styles in the way spring training runs. Last year’s manager John McLaren seemed to repeat drills over and over. There were lots of challenges between players and coaches with losers paying off winners in golf balls. This year showed mucho organization with smaller groups of players working together, constantly on the move from one area to another. We saw one day’s training schedule and every 15 or 20 minutes the groups were moving from batting cages to rundown drills to situational put-outs to sliding and so on. No one was standing around. Interspersed with this, you’d see Wakamatsu sitting with groups talking and talking and talking in mini seminars.

We’d ask the players, “Are they working your fannys off?” and the standard reply seemed to be “No.” We asked one of the coaches about this, the reply was “why should their fannies be worked off?” If you’re working smart, listening and doing it right you don’t have to exhaust yourself. Made sense to me.

There are constant reminders that there is plenty of hard work going on. There are the endless buckets of balls that a coach is using to hit grounders to Adrian Beltre. Beltre still has soft hands and looks smooth and quick. The catchers work with the pitchers in an area called the six-pack. Several coaches will be working with the guys as they’re pitching and 60 feet away, coaches are working with the guys that are catching. We listened to pitching and bullpen coaches Adair and Wetteland working with Jason Vargas on the difference in pitching when his foot was planted in the middle of the pitching rubber versus off to the far left. On the other side, Roger Hansen, the catchers' coach, was working with Rob Johnson on the “strike two” stance of catching. As a sidebar, Roger Hansen runs the Breakfast Club at the camp. As a player (especially a minor leaguer), Roger might be inviting them to have breakfast with him. What they don’t realize is that the invite is a result of breaking a camp rule and they’re really going out running, not having a nice breakfast. Roger told us that many of these kids are only doing what they would do at home, especially if from a foreign country. Hot plates in hotel rooms along with pets are a no no. Roger said that there was no truth to the story floating around a couple of years ago about live poultry in rooms that was to be butchered and eaten.

The first day of baseball in Peoria finally came in the form of the annual charity game with the Padres facing the Mariners. The Old Bats' seats are in an area where all the players have to walk past us as they enter and leave the game so there are usually lots of people crowding in on us looking for player autographs. There was one little boy named Tyler from California who was probably 7 or 8, looking for any autograph. He didn’t care who it was. He just wanted an autograph on, of all things, a football he brought with him. We helped him get a couple of autographs, but found he had much more success when he “accidently” dropped the football onto the warning track and a player would pick it up, autograph and return it to him.

The first day the Dodgers played in Peoria was a pretty big deal. Joe Torre, along with Don Mattingly and Juan Pierre, were there. Manny Ramirez was not as he had not signed a contract yet. There seemed to be thousands (really hundreds) of Dodger fans, all wanting autographs. Joe autographed a couple of items, but finished shortly before he got to us. As Torre walked away I called out in a low, reprimanding, motherly voice, “Joseph Paul!,” to which he immediately spun around. I asked if he would autograph for these old ladies who would trade him for a Tootsie Roll Pop. He replied that he liked that kind of a deal. So, we each got an autograph and he got a chocolate Tootsie Roll Pop. That was the game where the Dodgers lost 18-2. Their two runs came very late in the game. Torre looked pretty grumpy as he walked by after the game and needless to say, did not stop for any autographs.

We had the opportunity to visit the ball park where the Dodgers and White Sox play. It’s a brand new park and this is the first year that these teams are playing in the Peoria area – Glendale on Camelback Road to be exact. It’s so new that the landscaping in the parking area is not complete. Heaven help them if it rains. They’ll have a giant mud bog on their hands. It’s called Camelback Ranch, not ballpark. I don’t know what’s with the ranch part, but it is a different ballpark. Most parks seem to be oriented with home plate in their southwest quadrant. Not so at the ranch. Its homeplate is in the northwest quadrant which was a little disorienting. The main buildings, which were new, looked old and rusted out as if they might have been part of a mining operation in a former life. The staff working the ranch are all new were a little frenzied as it was their fifth official day of being open for business and they were still working kinks out of their systems. The day we were there, the temperatures got into the 90s with no shade. The seating hosts did keep a close eye on us (we were the only people in the far left field section) making sure the blazing heat wasn’t getting to us.

We also watched a nighttime exhibition game between the Mariners and WBC team Australia. This was the first game for Griffey to make an appearance and he created quite a stir with fans. His first at bat was truly amazing with flash bulbs going off as pictures were being taken. Simply stepping to the plate resulted in hundreds of flashbulbs exploding their light. Each pitch thrown generated more flashes. His first at bat became a walk. The flashbulbs didn’t diminish with Griffey’s second at bat and this trip to the plate was so close to being a home run. Exciting? Yes. Something else with the game that was a little weird was that it seemed like the Tacoma Rainiers were playing the Tacoma Rainiers. Former Rainier Travis Blackley was pitching for Australia and Chris Snelling was playing left field. The Mariners' side of Rainiers included Morse, Betancourt, LaHair, Tuiasosopo, Balentien and Wilson. It was like old home week for these guys to meet up again. The ninth inning ended in a 9-9 tie. In Cactus League the games do not progress into 15, 16 and 17 inning tie-breakers. They play a 10th and final inning. Unfortunately for the Ms, Australia picked up two runs in the 10th and the final score was 11-9.

Earlier, back at FanFest in Seattle, the Old Bats had asked Wakamatsu what time he would be getting to the ballpark in Peoria. His response was that he’d be there long before an fans (meaning us) showed up. That sounded like a challenge. So our first morning in Peoria, we made a point of getting to the ballpark before Wakamatsu did. His response was that he “had” to let us win. Again another challenge. The next morning we got to the park a little earlier, as did he – 4:52 a.m. to be exact. Sorry coach Wakamatsu, but you lost again. It was his birthday that day and we had a large bucket of strawberries for him along with a candle and a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” No cake or cookies for him as we knew he was watching his girlish figure. The third day, we did allow this rookie coach to win. But we did have a rather large fluorescent pink sign in his reserved parking slot explaining that we let him win and our box score was now Old Bats 2, Wakamatsu 1. By this time, several reporters were beginning to track the wins and losses of the Old Bats and the coach and our out-of-town scoreboard. The results began appearing on blogs, in newspaper articles and was even announced on KIRO’s Hot Stove League broadcast. The fourth day was our final day and, of course, we beat the coach. Final score: Old Bats 3, Wakamatsu 1. He conceded our win. And what did we win? Who knows but he said he’d pay up when we got back to Seattle.

What would I like to win? I don’t know, but I would like to know “Who’s on First?”

Questions or comments can be e-mailed to jcarlson@courierherald.com

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