Note: I haven’t been commenting much on the Seattle Seahawks so far this season. With the year ending injuries to key defensive stars Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, plus the problems with the offensive line and the running game, I have been, more or less, in “wait and see” mode as regards this […]Read the Rest →
Time, as the saying goes, flies when you are having fun; and fun is definitely what Chris, Tim and I have been having during our brief weekend down here in Arizona at Seattle Mariners Spring Training. All too soon, it seems, we have arrived at Sunday…our last day in the desert. It has truly been a magnificent experience. One of my goals for the trip, besides enjoying the baseball with my good friends, was getting some great photos of Mariner players in action. Specifically I wanted shots of Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Raul Ibanez, Felix Hernandez, Kendrys Morales, Mike Morseand Jesus Montero. I also wanted a shot or several of team Manager Eric Wedge. Going into Sunday I had accomplished them all except for Felix and Wedge, so wrapping up those two was my first priority. Oddly, through the first two days of games and practices we had seen neither, but it was our intention that on Sunday all that would change.
I woke up on Sunday morning, as I had the prior two mornings, to the smell of coffee. Tim had taken it upon himself to ensure that I had a cup ready for me on Friday and Saturday mornings and Sunday was no different. I was the last to bed the prior two nights due to staying up late completing these Mariner reports and therefore was also the last to rise. The morning coffee, both smell and drink, definitely helped to speed the process. Since we were leaving for Seattle later in the afternoon we had the added chore of packing and checking out of the hotel and still wanted to get to the Mariner practice in Peoria by 9AM. We had heard that King Felix was going to pitch a minor league game in the early afternoon and we wanted to see the team taking batting and fielding practice. We also still fancied the idea of getting some autographs plus wanted to see the last of the four games we had tickets for. You can see we had a lot left on our battle plan.
We had breakfast, checked out of the hotel and were on the road to Peoria by 8:40AM. By now Chris had more or less mastered the route to the sports complex and by 9:15 we were walking out into the Mariners practice area. We could see the minor leaguers working out in the distance off to our right, but today was definitely going to be a big league day. Hopefully we would get the chance to see Wedge and the boys and get some autographs.
By 10AM, nothing much was happening but a short while later the entire team came out for batting and fielding practice. Due to it being March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, all of the players and coaches had green baseball caps on; a nice touch I thought. The players divided up in groups of about 5 a piece for batting practice and each player would take about eight or nine swings and then give way to the next player in his group who would do the same. The group would cycle through in this fashion about 6 times so each player got 60 or so swings. The first group we watched had Kyle Seager, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez among others and the second group featured Dustin Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Justin Smoak. Having played baseball up to the high school level I have some concept of what hitting is like. Watching these guys hit, however, is something else again. They make such great contact and generate such phenomenal power. Seeing them up close like you do at these practices is a very special treat to a baseball fan and you get an appreciation for the feats of skill these guys can perform.
For instance, I watched Kyle Seager deliberately hit pitched balls, first to the left side, then up the middle and then to the right. He could hit the ball where he wanted at will. I then watched Kendrys Morales take what appeared to be a nice easy swing and launch a baseball nearly 400 feet into the distance. Once, when Dustin Ackley was hitting, he powered a pitch over the 385 foot sign on the outfield fence at the exact time a pick-up truck was driving down the road just beyond the fence. As the ball disappeared over the barrier all of our eyes, both player and fan, were watching to see if Ackley’s shot would drill the truck. An audible, group gasp was followed by joyful laughter when the ball just missed.
In the middle of batting practice Mariner manager Eric Wedge finally made his appearance. If you watch Mariner games on TV you will get the impression that Wedge is a bit on the stern side; you don’t see him smiling and laughing much. (Of course the way the Mariners played the last couple of years could explain that.) Because of this, seeing Wedge laughing and joking with the players and assistant coaches while the players took their swings presented a whole new aspect of him to those of us watching. The guy was definitely loose, as were the players and coaches around him. It was apparent they all were having a great time.
As the batting practice wound down the infielders started taking fielding practice; Seager taking some grounders at third base and Ackley at second. New Mariner catcher Kelly Shoppach would get the throws coming in from the fielders and toss the ball to the coach who was hitting the grounders. After the infielders had been drilled the coach doing the hitting demonstrated his skill by actually drilling Shoppach on catching foul ball pop ups. Being able to do this is vital for any catcher, as two or three times during the course of a game he will be called upon to do just that. The coach would toss the ball into the air with one hand and then swing his bat upward in such a way as to hit the ball with a glancing blow that would cause it to go straight up in the air, just like it would in a game. Shoppach easily handled the first three or four foul pops hit for him but on the last one he either lost it in the sun or simply misplayed it, as the ball just clipped his glove on the way down and hit him square in the face. Feigning injury, Shoppach collapsed to the ground and lay there for at least a minute while the rest of the players and especially Wedge erupted in laughter. At last he hauled himself to his feet and sheepishly looked at his teammates; “Must be the green cap”, he said.
Welcome to the Mariners Kelly Shoppach!
Practice was over about 11:15 AM and the players left the field to get ready for the afternoon’s game against the Texas Rangers. Chris, Tim and I decided to head over to the stadium early to see if we could get some autographs from the players as they arrived and made their way to the team dugout. Also, for some reason Chris had gotten it in his head that he wanted one of the foot long hot dogs you could get at the concession stand. He’d heard somewhere that they were especially good and had been talking about getting one since Friday. (I was hoping he would so I wouldn’t have to hear about it anymore.) It’s a bit of a hike from the practice fields to the stadium, but one of the cool features the Mariners have in place is that there are a number of small electric motor carts that will haul you around for free. Seeing one of these available we hopped aboard and the driver had us at the stadium in no time. Once inside the park we worked our way down to the dugout and with a few other fans waited in the front row for the players to show so we could try for autographs. Chris took this opportunity to go get his much anticipated “foot long” and Tim didn’t want to sit in the sun and get more burned than he already was, so he went to find some shade. That left me sitting there enjoying the hot sun while looking out at this beautifully kept ball park that spread out before me.
There has always been something a bit magical to me about the configuration of a ballpark, especially the big league parks that are so well cared for. The green grass contrasts with the classic brown of the infield dirt and, on a nice day, the blue sky to create an amazing aesthetic that I really love. The lines and dimensions of the park add to this mix. Everything in a ballpark emanates out from home plate making it a kind of viewpoint; and when you stand in there as a hitter it is as if your action of looking out at the more distant points in the infield and outfield is actually making that space your own and thus, in a sense, your creation. There is something very fundamental about this that I find very, very appealing. It lends a kind of spiritual aspect to the game and may be the factor that inspires such movies as “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” that play on this spiritual quality. There is definitely something about a ballpark and therefore baseball that aligns with the geometry of the universe it seems, and this may be what roots it so deeply in our collective psyche. Also, looking at a ballpark on a beautiful day always makes me remember the many such days I spent playing baseball as a kid and how much fun I had. All of that explains why I could simply sit there by myself and have a great time just looking at this beautiful Peoria ballpark.
Presently my reverie was shattered by two things; Chris returning from getting his “foot long” and the arrival of Mariner players to the dugout. It was time to go for some autographs and Chris seized the moment. A number of fans had lined up by the dugout to do the same thing but Chris was undaunted. He crowded his way in and handed a baseball down over the edge to a player below and when it was returned to him Chris proudly made his way back to me to show me the signature. I took a look at it but there is no earthly way in hell I could tell who it was if not for Chris telling me that it was Dustin Ackley’s autograph I was holding. The writing on the ball just looked like chicken scratch. Anyone could have scrawled what I saw on the ball and said it was Dustin Ackley’s signature. I didn’t doubt Chris for a second that it was Ackley’s signature, but unless you knew that Ackley wrote that way there was no way to prove it. Of course my writing makes Ackley look like a penmanship master, as anyone who has seen it will tell you, so I have no room to complain.
It was coming up on 1PM in the afternoon. The Mariners game against Texas was to start in a few minutes and the stands were starting to fill with fans. More important to us, though, was getting back over to the minor league fields where we had heard that King Felix Hernandez would be pitching the first three innings of a single A game just so he could get his work in. This was a rare opportunity to see one of the greatest pitchers in the game up close and personal. He would be pitching in a ballpark more suited to a high school team with bleacher stands on the first and third base lines that held no more than 200 people. There is no way we were going to miss Felix so Chris and I retrieved Tim from where he was lounging in the shade and caught one of the little electric shuttles back to the minor league fields arriving just in time to see Felix take the mound.
What a sight it was to watch Felix that close and I can only imagine what the minor league hitters he was facing were thinking. “My God!” they must have thought, “Here I am facing Felix Hernandez! The guy who threw a perfect game last year! Shit!” After watching a few of the hitters take their “at bats” however, it was obvious they were not intimidated and it was equally obvious Felix was not sharp. He hit a batter and gave up several long doubles allowing one run in the process. None of that really mattered to us; this was Spring Training after all. I stuck my camera lens through the chain link fence and snapped picture after picture of Felix during different stages of his wind up and delivery. We all had a blast watching him pitch.
After Felix pitched his innings we grabbed another shuttle and went back to the big stadium to catch the rest of the Major League game. We got there in the bottom of the second to find the Mariners trailing one to nothing. Our starter Blake Beavan got us through the top of the third unscathed and then in the bottom of the frame Raul Ibanez brought the crowd to its feet with a long home run to right giving us a 2-1 lead. From that point on Beavan pitched magnificently going six innings and only giving up the one run. The Rangers scored two runs in the 7th inning taking a 3-2 lead thus setting the stage for more hitting heroics from new Mariner Kendrys Morales. Get used to it M’s fans, for I have a feeling you will be seeing Morales do often what he did in this spring game against Texas, and that is launch what proved to be the game winning two run home run in the bottom of the eighth giving the Mariners a 4-3 victory.
Unfortunately for us we missed Morales’s shot because, needing to return our rental car and get to the airport for our flight back to Seattle, we had to leave in the 7th inning. We didn’t find out about the win, which gave us a 3-1 record for the weekend, until we touched down in Seattle and got a chance to get some sports news. For me personally, having seen firsthand this resurgent Seattle Mariner team across three glorious days of baseball and sun in the desert, I was not surprised to hear of Morales’s game winning home run. Also certain is that this is not the last time that the intrepid trio of Chris, Tim and Mark will be spending quality Spring Training time in the Arizona desert.
All I can say is the “Salty Senorita” better be ready!