Weekend in Peoria: Everything but the Games

Inspired by a question from reader LynchMob, I thought we’d try something a little different today. It occurs to me that not everyone has been to spring training, nor do they necessarily know why they should go. If you think it’s just about driving to the desert to watch baseball games, then you’re missing something important.

Aside from the very cool aspect of hanging out with friends old and new (I’ve actually gotten reports of fellow Ducksnorters hooking up because someone was wearing a Ducksnorts T-shirt), you also can visit the minor-league facilities and interact with players in a way that simply isn’t possible in any other environment. In that vein, here’s a little of what reader Didi and I did/saw before the games this weekend.

Saturday: Padres @ Brewers, Maryvale

We arrived at Maryvale Baseball Park around 10:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. start. The stadium itself hadn’t opened yet, but several practice fields were accessible. The first we visited featured minor leaguers taking batting practice. Maybe a dozen or so kids had stationed themselves beyond the outfield fence, waiting to catch or chase down home run balls for souvenirs.

Any time a drive looked like it would clear the fence, one of the pitchers shagging flies in the outfield yelled “heads-up” (particularly helpful for those of us snapping photos and not paying attention to flying objects). The kids then scrambled to retrieve their gift from the sky.

One of the pitchers shagging flies was ex-Padre Chris Oxspring. I have very fond memories of Oxspring from his time with the Lake Elsinore Storm back in ’02. When my wife and I visit the Diamond in Elsinore, we tend to sit directly behind home plate, with the scouts and, often, pitchers who are charting the game. We ran into Oxspring one time there and didn’t really talk to him (he had a job to do), but a couple of young kids did and we were impressed with the way Oxspring handled himself. He charted his pitches, and he also made sure to give his time — cheerfully — to these kids. This is one reason I’ve always wanted to see Oxspring succeed at the big-league level.

Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Chris Oxspring

Anyway, if you don’t know about Oxspring, he’s from Australia and he made a handful of appearances with the Padres in 2005 before heading to Japan. Now he’s back and in the Brewers’ camp. We spotted him shagging flies, and Didi said hello and that we remembered him from his days with the Storm. Oxspring seemed pleased that we knew who he was. He asked how long we were in town, how long the drive was from San Diego, if we were enjoying ourselves — small-talk, really, but nothing he’d been required to say. We wished him good luck with the Brewers and went on our way.

From there, we wandered over to one of the other practice fields with more minor leaguers. This group was mostly standing around the diamond. Some were tossing a football, pretending to catch the ball on the sidelines, using the cut of the infield grass as the boundary. Others were talking about their NCAA brackets. Then the real fun began: dizzy bat races.

The idea is the same as the races you’ll see at a minor-league game: you stand a baseball bat upright on the ground, place your forehead on the bat, circle it 10 times, and then start running. Usually you’ll see two guys competing against each other, but these were timed individual races from home plate to first base. We watched a dozen or more guys “run” (the best part is when the spectators scatter); after much stumbling and laughing, a champion was crowned and everyone packed up to prepare for the impending game.

By this time, the stadium gates had opened so we headed to the main entrance. On our way, we stopped by a couple of batting cages. One player stood in each, whacking baseballs off a tee. They looked a little uncomfortable taking hacks off a tee out in the open like that, and I can’t say that I blame them. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s one thing to give a performance and another entirely to have people watch you get ready to perform.

But what are you going to do.

Sunday: Padres vs Giants, Peoria

Our first trip to the Peoria Sports Complex resulted in a lot of walking. If you’ve never been there before, understand that the Padres share the facility with the “rival” Seattle Mariners. Understand also that in addition to the actual stadium, there are 12 practice fields and that the Pads and M’s operate on opposite sides of the complex. So if you park on the Seattle side, as we did, you’re in for a bit of a haul.

After we parked the car, a shuttle (actually a golf cart) picked us up and took us over to the practice fields. The driver pointed out a few things to us and then let us loose to explore for ourselves. We had no interest in watching Mariners minor leaguers, but this is where we were and baseball is baseball, so we found a practice field and hung out for a bit.

We watched pitchers we’d never heard of field bunts and throw to first base. There were maybe a dozen or so guys out by the mound. The guy in front would simulate a pitch, and a coach standing at home plate would toss a ball roughly in his direction. The pitcher would pounce on the ball and throw to first — inside the baseline or outside depending on the first baseman’s call (we never heard a call of “outside” and frankly, I’m not sure why a pitcher in fair territory would ever throw to the outside).

The difference in skill levels for this drill was amazing. One or two guys consistently jumped off the mound, grabbed the ball cleanly, and made a good throw to first. One or two more could make the play but then maybe put a little too much mustard on the throw. And one poor kid could be counted on to kick the ball or just plain miss it no matter what. He looked like a good enough athlete (I’m one to talk!), but for whatever reason, he couldn’t make the play.

After about 10 minutes of this, we decided to try and find the Padres players. We took several wrong turns but eventually headed in the right direction. By the time we arrived at the San Diego side of the complex, it was maybe a little after 11 a.m. Guys were just finishing up batting practice. We saw Cla Meredith shag some flies and that’s about it.

While the big leaguers were wrapping up batting practice, the minor leaguers in the outermost fields started packing their gear and heading toward the locker room. To get to the locker room, they literally had to walk through hundreds of fans. Among many other less recognizable players, we saw Matt Bush, Jose Oyervidez, and Will Venable make several stops to sign autographs and chat with fans. This was probably the single most mind-blowing scene for me over the weekend: dozens of players in full uniform, having just completed their morning workout, mingling with fans.

San Diego Padres outfielder Will Venable

After most of the players had gone, we ambled over toward the stadium, which had now opened. On our way, we passed the players’ parking lot. We saw the expected BMWs and Mercedes, some with recognizable personalized plates, but there were plenty of “everyday people” cars in there as well — a potent reminder that most of the guys in camp aren’t drawing a big-league paycheck.

We ran into a couple more Ducksnorts readers and stopped by the store to look at merchandise before entering the stadium to watch the game. And, well, you know what happens at a game so we’ll end it here.

So. That’s why you go to spring training.

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22 Responses »

  1. Anyone who has not gone, needs to go. I have been doing it since I was a kid and even at 30, it is my favorite weekend of the year.

    The conversations with players, managment, scouts, announcers, and other misc. people have been amazing. I have a picture of Me and Buck O’Neill last spring. We chatted about KC baseball and his chances for the Hall. He passed away last summer. I am blessed to have been able to spend 3 mins with him after a game.

    We have spoken with Miguel Tejada when he was in the on-deck circle…we have had a discussion with Tony Pena about whether he should hit in run in a specific situation…oh yea, both were DURING the game. Yes, really.

    Eating doughnuts with Mark Grant, talking about Crossword puzzles with AGon and his wife, and an inning spent discussing Japanese baseball with some scouts from the Nomuri Giants are all normal things for us this one weekend a year.

    It is also a time to see some of the young guys…a few years ago, there was an unknown OF in A’s camp. My buddy’s and I were taken with his ability, but also the way he ran. We did not know who he was, but we nick-named him “Prancer” because he seemed to prance when he ran. “I think Prancer is going to have a good year” and sure enough, this kid named Eric Byrnes had a pretty decent season. It was/is cool to be able to say we called that one.

    On March 16 of this year, I was standing 3 feet from Willie Mays. WILLIE FREAK’N MAYS. It was like standing next to Royalty.

    If you have not gone and you are even a passing fan of the sport, it is amazing.

  2. Thanks Geoff and CM. I am planning on taking my boy (he is 21 months old right now) out there next year and hopefully make it a yearly tradition for us. Mom can go if she wants, but it will be for us. My hope is to instill in him the same love for baseball that I have and give him some great memories of time spent with Dad doing fun stuff.

    I am so looking forward to next year’s ST.

  3. Wow, that sounds really fantastic.

  4. As big a Pads fan as I am, I’ve never really considered going. I read all the “notes” copy in U-T/NCT, but don’t follow the games.

  5. That is the best part Stephen…it is not about the games. It is the experience. I think I look forward to being at the practice fields at 10am more than I do to game time at 1pm…

  6. Geoff-
    Read about 1/2 the book on the plane going to/from NY this week. Great stuff, really enjoying it.

  7. #5: Absolutely, CM. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, the actual games are pretty secondary to everything else.

    #6: Thanks, Clayton. That’s good to hear. :-)

  8. Awesome write-up Geoff. I have been to a couple of games while visiting friends in AZ, but haven’t gotten the “full experience” as you described it. I will have to check that out next year.

    Nate Silver at BP made his standings and playoff picks. He’s got the Padres winning the wild card and beating the Mets, but then losing to the D-Backs in the NLCS. A D-Backs-Padres NLCS would be pretty awesome. Silver thinks the PECOTA projection is just about right on for the Padres.

  9. GY … now *that*s what I was askin’ about! Hmmm, why 10am … I wonder what it’s like at 9am?

  10. Denorfia needs TJ.

  11. I’ve been thinking all week of a reason to acquire Damien Miller—other than that a couple thousand enthusiastic Padre fans are wondering what to do with his bubbblehead. Based on his stats,we could then trade him for Mark Lorreta. You guessed it. We could get him back for Meredith and Bard.

  12. Mets optioned OF Ben Johnson and INF Anderson Hernandez to Triple-A New Orleans

    11 – huh?

  13. I read a report that says Marcus Giles has 0 walks in 49 spring ABs … grumble …

  14. 12: There was talk here yesterday about trading for Denorfia. That’s no longer an option.

    13: Saw that too, and the UT story about how he wants to go back to being aggressive. Strange that nobody tells him he drew 59 walks in his best season.

  15. LM, Didnt you get one of those D M dolls they were giving away in Marysvale? #11 was just a bad joke about all the Padres fans I saw with them at the park.

  16. 15 … gaack … no … i didn’t get a DM bobblehead … wow, i’m going to go check eBay … sounds like they’ll be some available there :-)

    Hey, here’s something that’s always fun … and harder than you might think … Baseball Prospectus’ HACKING MASS …

    The HACKING MASS competition challenges you to try and predict the worst/most offensive players in the upcoming season. Win $500 as you try to pick the worst fantasy team of 2007.


  17. BP Monte Carlo simulations (1,000,000 sims) yield this average result …

    NL West Pct3 Avg W Avg L
    Diamondbacks .541 87.9 74.1
    Padres .529 86.0 76.0
    Dodgers .494 79.5 82.5
    Rockies .488 78.8 83.2
    Giants .488 78.3 83.7

  18. I’ve got the Damien Miller doll errr bobblehead if anyone is desperate for it :)

  19. RE: 15 I have an extra one if you want it.

  20. 17: Gotta love seeing the Dodgers under .500 and the Giants last in that.

  21. 18: Mine doesn’t bobble much. I guess its a stiff. Maybe we should bring them to a Brewers game and pass them off en masse.

  22. 21: Great idea.