Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rumor has it the season has started

There’s a rumor going around that the Major League Baseball season has already begun, that the Red Sox and A’s split a pair of games in Japan earlier this week.

Way to go, baseball.

You end the season with World Series games that no one on the East Coast can watch because they end too late, and you open the season with games in Japan that no one on the East Coast can watch because they begin too early.

But, hey, how about all those new fans MLB now has in Japan?

Only baseball can alter the start of the season and disrupt spring training for a pair of teams so it can sell baseball to a baseball-crazy country.

Does Japan have its own thriving professional leagues?


Have Japanese players proved they can hang with MLB studs?


Do Japanese baseball fans follow MLB games?


So, what’s the attraction?


No surprise there.

MLB also sent the Padres and Dodgers to Beijing two weeks ago to begin its marketing campaign in China. Reports from that venture have been mixed.

I don’t have a problem with MLB trying to reach as many markets as possible.

I do have a problem with MLB messing with Opening Day.

Playing games that begin at 5 a.m. our time is absurd.

But, well, you know, Bug Selig.

Now, football does it right.

The defending Super Bowl champs open the Thursday night before the first weekend.

This year it is the Redskins at Giants. At least that’s the early word. The official announcement will made in a few days.

They might also start the game at 7 p.m., which will allow fans to see the start and the end.

What a concept.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mostly good times at Hammond Stadium

Yes, Hammond Stadium at the Lee County Sports Complex, spring home of the Minnesota Twins.

This is another of my favorite Grapefruit League ballparks.

I like the layout, never sat in the stands, but there can’t be a bad seat in the house.
And everyone who works here is Midwestern friendly.

I’ve had some memorable moments in this park.

I remember covering an FSL West Division pennant race between the Charlotte Rangers and the Fort Myers Miracle a number of years ago. The Rangers were managed by Butch Wynegar, who was a pleasure to cover. Plus, I wrote him a letter and asked for his autograph when I was a kid and he sent me back an autographed photo. I still have it.

Anyway, it was a three-game series and every game went down to the ninth inning. Classic baseball between to teams of minor league dreamers who wanted to win a championship.

I had some good chats with Joe Mays, the former Southeast High star, when he pitched for the Twins at this ballpark.

Then there was the Sunday afternoon in March 2006.

I was working on a story about how Rays utility infielder Nick Green was going to play the outfield. I couldn’t get him before the game, so I waited around afterwards to ask him two or three questions.

Meanwhile, George Mason is about to take down UConn in the regional final. It’s the 11th seed about to upset the No. 1 seed, and I’m not a big UConn fan so this game is even more exciting.
Someone had a TV under the stands and I could hear all the yelling as I waited in the visiting locker for Green.

Now I liked Nick Green. Nice guy. Very approachable. Very smart. A good interview.
But he was busy shaving the back of his hands while I waited and George Mason shocked the basketball world.


One of the biggest takedowns in NCAA history and I missed it.

But no one can tell me that Nick Green doesn’t have good hands.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chain O' Lakes sinks into history

Chain O’ Lakes Park in Winter Haven, spring home of the Cleveland Indians, is one of the best in the Grapefruit League circuit.

Built in 1966, it appears older, a throwback to days when fans went to a spring training park to see a spring training game.

Grandstands covered by a roof, bleachers down the lines and behind the left field fence for those hoping to work on their tans, and Dairy Queen at the concession stands. What can be better?

Oh yeah, there’s a good chance you can get Bob Feller’s autograph in the Pepsi Pavilion down the right field line.

He’s signing today. At least that’s what the sign says.

But this jewel tucked off U.S. 17 is on borrowed time.

The Indians are headed to Arizona next season and the condos that are encroaching behind right field will cover this place like the weeds that have taken over my backyard these last few weeks, a product of spring training-enforced neglect.

Too bad.

Another piece of Florida is about to be forgotten.

Wade Boggs trained here. Ted Williams watched him hit, telling the future Hall of Famer who ended his career a Devil Ray with 3,010 hits, not to change anything.

Teddy Ballgame was right.

There’s a photo of Bob Feller outside the gift shop. It lists the Indians in the Hall of Famers and an autograph from Feller, thanking the Winter Haven baseball fans.

This place has charm.

Surrounded by lakes.

Steep in history.

Soon it will be history, and I will miss it.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunglasses, bats and Bics

A representative of a company that supplies sunglasses to major league ballplayers – for free, I might add – sat in the far corner of the Rays dugout Friday morning with a case of sunglasses and mirror.

B.J. Upton went through several pair, checking the look in the mirror before heading to the field for batting practice.

That’s a daily ritual of spring training.

The glove makers stopped by the Rays while they were still working out at the complex.

The bat makers have been here all week.

Nike representatives worked the clubhouse Wednesday.

Me? I’m waiting for the Bic guy to get here to check out the 2008 line of pens. I hear they are lighter and can write upside down, you know, like the astronauts.

As for my notebooks, I’m strictly a Dunder-Mifflin guy. They’re out of Scranton, Pa. I go through Dwight Schrute.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Rays future is in Clearwater

Tampa Bay closer Troy Percival sat in the dugout an hour before Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Clearwater’s Bright House Field and took in the scene when team president Matt Silverman walked by and said, “Welcome to our future.”

The Rays new spring training site in Port Charlotte, scheduled to debut in 2009, will look similar to Bright House, the Phillies’ 7,000-seat spring training park.

There’s two decks, luxury suites, a path that goes around the outfield, berms in right and left field and a tiki bar in left field.

“We looked at all aspects of this park thoroughly,” Rays vice president of public relations Rick Vaughn said Thursday. “We’ll have something similar to this.”

The park in Port Charlotte will hold 6,000, counting the berms.

Except a beautiful park in Port Charlotte, because Bright House is one of the nicest parks in Florida, and certainly one of the best built in recent years.

The Yankees’ Legends Field in Tampa is too much of a stadium, not a quaint spring training ballpark.

The stadium in Disney, where the Braves train and seems to change names every year, is too Disney.

They got it right when they built the new park in Clearwater. It’s spacious, comfortable and easy to get to, located just a long fly ball from U.S. 19.

“I like the whole atmosphere of the ballpark,” Vaughn said. “You’re down on the field and you forget (U.S.) 19 is 200 feet away.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The DH in NL parks? Sure, it's spring

I overheard a Pirates fan who was writing down the lineups for Sunday’s Rays-Pirates game at McKechnie Field mutter about the presence of designated hitters in both lineups.

“Sacrilege,” the guy screamed as he filled out his lineup card.

Well, no, he didn’t scream that.

He just frowned at the notion of designated hitters invading a National League ballpark, even in the spring when the rules are relaxed a little. Witness: pitchers running in the outfield, more than 25 players in the dugout and games that are sometimes scheduled for 10 innings so both teams can use more pitchers.

The Pirates agreed to use the DH on Sunday when the American League Rays came to town because it’s the smart thing to do, especially this early in the spring.

Who cares if Pirate starter Tom Gorzelanny gets his swings?

It’s not like that is a huge part of his game. Besides, he was gone after one inning, so he never would have batted.

Using the DH gives Pirate manager John Russell a chance to give some at-bats to a position player. On Sunday, that was catcher Ronny Paulino.

The DH allowed Rays manager Joe Maddon the chance to get some ABs for Cliff Floyd, as well.

You always hear managers talk about how hard it is to get players at-bats during exhibition games. You never hear them talk about the importance of getting ABs for their pitchers.