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The Joys Of Spring Training

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         In 1870 the Chicago White Stockings headed south to New Orleans for preseason workouts. While they were the first team to choose a warm weather site to prepare for the upcoming season, in 1884 the Boston Braves became the first team to schedule actual exhibition games (also in New Orleans).

 

         Now, of course, big league teams are sprinkled around Florida and Arizona. Florida based teams make up the Grapefruit League while those in Arizona play under the banner of the Cactus League.

 

         An increasing number of teams are opting for Arizona, and the Phoenix area boasts more big league teams training within fewer miles than anywhere else.

 

         I recently journeyed to Phoenix to check out the seven beautiful little ballparks in the area housing nine teams. Two of those teams, the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres, share the Peoria complex and the Kansas City and Texas clubs share a site in a suburb called Surprise.

 

         The Cubs (Mesa), Angels (Tempe), Brewers (Phoenix’s west side), Athletics (Phoenix’s east side) and Giants (Scottsdale) have their own little ballparks and practice fields.

 

         Over a two-day span I was able to visit each of the aforementioned sites from my base near Phoenix’s kosher establishments (check out The Jewish Press Dining Guide). I took surface streets, not freeways, and managed to get from one site to another most of the time in less than 15 minutes.

 

         Some of the spring training complexes are absolutely stunning, and all the fields are beautiful. Though the ballparks are fairly similar in seating capacity (from about 8,000 to 12,000 seats), and the main portion of the seating area is just one deck that wraps around from first base to third base, they differ architecturally.

 

         If you want to see something really architecturally different, take in a game or a tour at Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix. The 49,000-seat retractable roof home of the Arizona Diamondbacks is worth a trip in itself.

 

         There are many rookies who have been tagged for future stardom in Arizona and Florida. Let’s take a look at some of them.

 

         Reflecting a startling demographic change in professional baseball, 16 of the top 20 prospects are white and American born; only two are African American, one is from Venezuela and the other hails from the Dominican Republic. (The starting lineup of the Tigers this year has two African American players and seven Latin American players. The best players in the Tigers’ minor league chain, however, are mostly white and American born.)

 

         There will always be a heavy influx of Latin American players but the African American population in the major leagues is less than half what is was 30 years ago.

 

         The Tampa Bay Rays (the team has removed the “Devil” from its name) have the best collection of rookies – four are rated highly. Three are pitchers. Evan Longoria is a highly touted third baseman who can hit for average and power and could be this year’s Ryan Braun.

 

         The Cincinnati Reds also have a couple of future stars. Pitcher Homer Bailey has the potential to be a top starter while many feel Jay Bruce is baseball’s top prospect and Ken Griffey’s replacement in center field.

 

         So things are looking brighter for some small market clubs. Other prospects to watch are Cameron Maybin, outfield, Marlins; Clayton Kershaw, pitcher, Dodgers; Colby Rasmus, outfield, Cardinals; Andrew McCuthen, outfield, Pirates; Adam Miller, pitcher, Indians; Rick Porcello, pitcher, Tigers; Travis Snider, outfield, Blue Jays; Brandon Wood, shortstop, Angels; Mike Moustakas, shortstop, Royals; Matt Wieters, catcher, Orioles; and Fernando Martinez, outfield, Mets.

 

         None of the aforementioned are expected to have the immediate impact Joba Chamberlain (Yankees) or Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox) made when they debuted late last season. Chamberlain breezed through three minor-league levels before posting eye-opening numbers with the Yanks (0.38 ERA in 24 innings while striking out 34). Ellsbury hit .452 in 73 at-bats in double-A, .298 in 363 triple-A at-bats, and .353 with the Red Sox in ll6 at-bats.

 

         While you can see more teams in a concentrated area in and around Phoenix, and three more in Tucson (Chicago White Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies), you have to go to Florida to see baseball’s best teams (Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and the Yankees).

 

         Of course, injuries to key players such as Boston’s Curt Schilling can make a big difference as to where a team ends up in the standings. Before it was revealed that Schilling may miss most or all of the season, the Red Sox pitching staff shaped up as the best in the game. Now it’s like a plate of good gefilte fish without the chrain. It just doesn’t look right. But Boston has some good pitching prospects and one may be ready to replace Schilling in the rotation by the end of spring training.

 

         That’s what spring training is all about – giving good young players a chance to make the most of an opportunity. I’ll be paying close attention to the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues and make my predictions for the 2008 season next month.

 

         I’ll also be paying close attention to the progress of baseball’s tallest and shortest players. They’re in the lowest rung of the minor leagues and, ironically, were on the same team last season – Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, in the Minnesota Twins chain.

 

         Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil has baseball’s longest name, so it’s only fitting that the 7-foot-1-inch pitcher from the Netherlands is pro baseball’s tallest player. He had his name shortened a bit to Loek Van Mil so it wouldn’t take up two lines on roster listings or baseball cards. In 24 innings of pro ball last year, he posted a 2-2 record with a 2.63 ERA.

 

         Chris Cates is a 5-foot-2-and half-inch shortstop who had a chance to show his stuff in the college playoffs last year before signing a pro contract. Cates had three hits in seven at-bats in the Appalachian League before being promoted to Beloit in the Class A Midwest League where he batted only .202 in 129 at-bats.

 

         It’s too early to tell if baseball’s tallest and shortest players have major league potential. Only four professional players out of a hundred ever make it to the majors, and some for only a short time. Some are released before double-A (two rungs below the majors) and others never advance to triple-A (the highest minor league level).

 

         It should be an interesting spring training these next few weeks as we follow our new and old favorites.

 

         Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

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About the Author: The author of 10 books, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before accepting a major league front office position, becoming the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. He can be reached in his Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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