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.
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.
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.