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BACK FROM SPRING TRAINING PARADISE

BACK FROM THE PARADISE OF SPRING TRAINING

Astute Washington Post sportswriter Tom Boswell observed some time ago that one year an ardent baseball fan should forget about season tickets and invest instead in a trip to spring training. How true, how true! I spent the middle ten days in March near the Orioles new spring training headquarters in Sarasota.

Ed Smith Stadium has been beautifully renovated by architect Janet Marie Smith and her team and the seats are refurbished from Camden Yards where she was an important part of the group that built Baltimore's splendid new home. The refurbished minor league facility, Twin Lakes Park, is now only a short ride from Ed Smith and gone forever blessedly are the years when the minor leaguers were in Sarasota and three hours away were the major leaguers in Ft. Lauderdale.

ORIOLES ON THE FIELD: I saw my long-suffering franchise in seven games and though I only witnessed two wins, bookended at Bradenton at night against the already bedraggled Pirates and at Port Charlotte against the Rays, there is no doubt the Birds have an improved offense and should benefit from a full year of manager Buck Showalter and his new loyal staff at the helm.

An improved offense IF they ever get all of the starters on the field at the same time. It took almost all of spring training before second baseman Brian Roberts (chronic bad back and other spinal cord issues) and free agent acquisition first baseman Derrek Lee (complications from thumb surgery) were in the lineup at the same time and that happened after I returned to the cold windy North.

But new shortstop J. J. Hardy has looked good on both sides of the ball and surely one hopes his shoulder and wrist injuries are a thing of the past. He also has an interesting back story that Jeff Zrebiec noted recently in a fine Baltimore Sun story. He is very close with his older brother who served in Iraq and came back from the war with traumatic stress disorder and also had to deal with an impending divorce. J.J. was coming off his round of baseball injuries and realized that his brother’s situation was far worse. They bonded again as brothers, living together for a while, and both have worked their way back to a more grounded and hopeful place.

New DH Vladimir Guerrero sure looks like he will be able to slash and drive the ball forever. The only sad thing about Vlad’s being a DH is that his rocket right field arm is now consigned to the bench because the underrated Nick Markakis should possess that position in Baltimore indefinitely.

Adam Jones in center field has looked good in the spring, too, on both sides of the ball. If manager Buck Showalter can keep the onetime All Star focused, he could be another Oriole centerpiece, no pun intended, for a long time. Those of us who were spoiled by Paul Blair and his successor Al Bumbry, who Earl Weaver said worked harder than anybody to learn center field, were disappointed no end by Jones’s lapses in the field last year.

Bopping utility player Jake Fox has led the majors in spring training homers with 9 (as of March 25) but with only 14 RBI which means situational hitting is not his forte. Even worse he does not have a defensive position. Watching him at first base in one game trying to make a couple of basic 3-1 tosses was painful and he may lack the skills to be an effective backup catcher to Matt Wieters, the over-heralded phenom who I hope won’t be another victim of the Sports Illustrated-cover jinx. So even the offense has lots of questions including whether slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds, imported from Arizona, becomes a solid contributor.

The pitching has not looked good. Young southpaw Brian Matusz couldn't get out of the 2nd inning in a recent game at Fort Myers against the Twins and Brad Bergesen, who I saw three times during my trip, has been alternatively good and bad. And his start on Friday March 25 against the Twins was cut short after four pitches because he was hit on the arm by a line drive off the bat of Minnesota’s Denard Span. In 2009 Bergesen’s fine rookie season was cut short by a line drive off his leg by Royals’s slugger Billy Butler. Let’s hope that Bergesen is not snake bit. Frankly, he may only be a back of rotation guy at best but I fear we don't have much of a front rotation. Yet I dearly hope that under Showalter’s leadership and the increased willingness of owner Peter Angelos to spend some money on proven major leaguers while continuing to invest in the minor league system, that the days of the Woerioles are over.

**RAYS ON THE FIELD: I also got to see the Tampa Bay Rays a couple of times, at Clearwater against the Phillies and at their home base in Port Charlotte less than an hour down the Gulf Coast from Sarasota. Their bullpen is the euphemistic "work in progress," almost entirely rebuilt after setup man Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers and last year’s closer Rafael Soriano agreed to be Mariano Rivera’s setup man on the Yankees.

But don’t ever count out the Rays under the energetic optimistic bright manager Joe Maddon who embodies Branch Rickey’s philosophy of speed and adventure in every aspect of the game. Spending some time at their minor league camp reinforced my view of their solid system. I was a guest of their roving minor league pitching instructor Dick Bosman, a longtime friend, a former Orioles pitching coach and pitcher of a no-hitter for Cleveland over Oakland in 1974.

Among the pithy advice Bosman gives his young charges is this memorable formulation: “There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who don’t know what happened.” That last group, Boz noted, is usually sent home with a pink slip.

Joe Maddon added that sending someone to the minors is not that difficult for him because they still have a place in the organization. It is hard to tell someone that the dream is over and you are being released. But with independent leagues still out there, the player who doesn’t want to hang up his spikes still has that option.

**RAYS OFF-FIELD ISSUES: Playing in an indoor stadium in St Petersburg far from the bigger cities of Tampa and Orlando the Rays may never draw well. Its ownership that lacks the deep pockets of the Yankees and Red Sox continues to look for a new ballpark in a better location.

I overheard this description of the Tampa situation given by a fan at the Phillies home park in Clearwater: “The Rays are where you go to play baseball if you don’t want to make lot of money.”

But again don’t count them out. Especially if the young pitching rotation led by former number one draft pick in the nation southpaw David Price settles in and former Red Sox “idiots” Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez playing on one year contracts find their old magic.

**One final spring training tidbit to share: At the Twins Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the men’s rooms are painted with the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” When you look down to pee, a sign greets you: “Urine Here Again?”
Ah the lovely corn of baseball in the spring when every team is 0-0 and the winter dust is being cleared out by fan and player alike and there is no booing but just the relaxed atmosphere of a sunny breezy afternoon. As one lyric in "Ballgame" says, “I don’t care if I ever get back.”

Well, get back I did into the cold of NYC and catching a cold no less. But warmer weather and better health is ahead, I truly believe. More thoughts on what should be another thrilling season as April takes shape. In the meantime, Take it easy but take it!
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