Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring Training Trip Report

For the fourth year in a row, my dad, my granddad, and I went to see Rangers spring training in Surprise (near Phoenix) over spring break. This week, I’ll chronicle our trip, including my observations on the Rangers.

Monday March 16:

We left first thing Monday morning and got to Phoenix on time and without any delays. This was a nice change, as the last two years we have had delays that made us arrive at games in the 7th inning.

After landing and getting our car, we drove straight to Goodyear to see the Mariners at the Indians (it was an off day for the Rangers). The Indians just moved to Goodyear from Florida this year and are playing in a brand new stadium, but it was awful. The stadium was very metallic and not very modern and it was just filthy. The metal was mostly just covered in filth and then there were streaks of clear along it that made it look even worse. The jumbo-tron didn't work during the whole game and the scoreboard didn't work until the second inning. Also, the stadium was boring with no personality. We were really disappointed that they didn’t put more effort into building it. We’ve heard that the Indians’ complex, backfields, and clubhouse are great, but we couldn’t tell that from visiting the stadium.

Before the game, Bob Feller was at a booth signing autographs for ten dollars. We paid the $10 and I got his autograph. He was really, really nice and gave me pitching tips. He also told us how he pitched to Mickey Mantle. It was really amazing to find Bob Feller there and then get his autograph.

The game was very close the whole way and it was great to watch. It was 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Luis Pena pitched. He hit Matt LaPorta (a huge Indians prospect), got Travis Hafner to hit into a double play, and then he fell apart. He walked Carlos Santana and walked Wilson Valdez (who hit .216 for the Dodgers last year in 74 at-bats). Chris Gimenez then completely crushed one off of Pena for a 3-run walk-off homer to give the Indians the 4-1 win. The former Rangers that played in the game were Chris Shelton, who went 2-for-3 and played the whole game, and Travis Hafner who went 0-for-3 with a walk and played the whole game.

After we got to our car in the parking lot, the traffic was horrible. The parking lot only had one exit, which is just crazy, and we were near the back. After about ten minutes of not moving an inch, my granddad said that we should go to another lane, and that was a great idea as it saved us about 45 minutes (although they should have had more than one exit – I don’t know what the designer was thinking).

After the game we went to the Outback in Surprise and got burgers and fries. Their burgers are good, but not as good as Mooyah's. Then we went to our hotel (the Hampton Inn & Suites in Surprise – our 3rd year to stay there), watched some TV, and went to sleep.

Tuesday March 17:

This was our first day in Rangers camp. We went to the Rangers workouts in the morning and I got to see Kris Benson throw in the bullpen. He seems to have a smooth stretch delivery, and in the bullpen session he did a very good job of keeping the pitches low. He had decent speed and a good change-up, and most of his pitches would have been right at the knees. I also saw Andruw Jones take batting practice and he struggled the first time through as most of them were fly balls to center field and I didn't see any go out, and the third time through was pretty much the same. But he crushed the ball the second time through,

On Tuesday at the workout, I got to see and talk to a lot of the people I know with the team:
- Josh Hamilton – Josh is a great guy. When he saw me on his way to the field, he went out of his way to come over and say hello and see how I was doing. I got to tell him that I got baptized last summer and he high-fived me.
- Ian Kinsler – I got to talk with Ian a little before he took BP. He was nice as always.
- Rich Rice – Rich is in charge of media relations for the Rangers and this was the first time I met him. He's a nice guy and I want to thank him for the help he gave me during the week.
- Ben & Skin – I got to talk with Ben & Skin from The Fan a lot during the week during the morning workouts. It was fun getting to know them better and talk Rangers with them.
- Brennan Garr – Brennan is another great guy. I got to know him last summer when he was pitching in Frisco. He stopped and talked with us for about 10 minutes on Tuesday morning on his way back from the minor league workouts.
- Thomas Diamond – it's always good seeing Thomas and we talked a few times during the week.
- Jamey, Ginger, Erica, and Max Newberg – they were at the workouts every morning, so we had lots of time to talk about the Rangers.
- Scott Lucas – Scott was also at the workouts every morning during the week and was fun to talk to.
- Kevin Kennedy – This was the first time I had ever met Kevin, so it was really neat to talk with him. It sounds like he'll be working Tampa Bay Rays' TV games this year instead of working for Fox.
- I also got to see and talk with Jon Daniels, Thad Levine, Court Berry-Tripp, Jenny Martin, Evan Grant, Kea Kometani, and Ted Price during the week. It was good seeing and catching up with all of them.

I also played catch with Jamey Newberg's son, Max, who has a cannon arm and always wants to play catch.

The workout crowds were crazy. Probably between 250-300 people were there, most of them chasing after Josh Hamilton wherever he went. In previous years, there were usually about 20-50 people at the workouts, so this was a big difference. It made it almost impossible to talk with the players or get autographs.

I also started my autograph hunt for the week that day. I always try to get the autographs of everyone in major league camp that I don’t already have. This year, there were only nine people in camp that I didn't have: Kris Benson, Andruw Jones, Greg Golson, Joe Torres, Casey Daigle, Omar Vizquel, Justin Smoak, Brendan Donnelly, and Derrick Turnbow. I thought it would be easy, since in the past I've needed way more than that and had no problem getting them. But once I saw the crowds, I knew it would be hard. Tuesday, I got Kris Benson's and Greg Golson's autographs at the workout.

After the workouts I got to see the first part of the first minor league games of Spring Training at noon before going to the Rangers game. There were two different games going on at the backfields. They were playing the Royals. After watching those games for about 45 minutes, we headed to the main stadium, where I got to meet Sean Salisbury (formerly of ESPN, currently of The Fan) and ask him some questions about the Rangers up behind the press box (where he had been doing his show). He was very nice and gave me a lot of his time. There were some minor league questions that he didn't know the answer to, and so he called his partner, Newy, and asked him to come up to answer those. Newy was also very nice and I would like to thank him and Sean for giving me so much of their time.

We got down to our seats in the middle of the second inning. In the bottom of the second Kinsler got such a good jump off of first that there wasn't even a throw to try to get him out. Then Young got a broken bat single, but made a baserunning blunder and got picked off of first by the relay throw. In the top of the third Feldman got out of a jam. The Rangers scored six runs in the bottom of the third as Nelson Cruz got a triple, Marlon Byrd hit an RBI single, Kinsler had a 2-RBI single, Young had a 2-RBI double, and Hamilton had a 2-RBI single. The Rangers had ten batters come to the plate in the inning. In the top of the fourth Feldman threw a quick inning, and the bottom of the fourth was also quick. Feldman allowed five runs in the fifth and looked strong. I think he’s ready for the season. Ian Kinsler went 2-for-3 with 2 RBI’s, Michael Young went 3-for-4 with 1 RBI, Josh Hamilton went 2-for-4 with 3 RBI’s, and Marlon Byrd went 2-for-4 with 2 RBI’s. Derrick Turnbow pitched the eighth and looked like his old self for that inning. He didn’t allow anybody on base and struck out all the batters he faced.

After the game I got autographs from Derrick Turnbow and Justin Smoak. That left me with five players that I needed: Andruw Jones, Joe Torres, Casey Daigle, Omar Vizquel, and Brendan Donnelly.

That night we went to the Phoenix Coyotes game against the San Jose Sharks. This was the second time we had seen a Coyotes game (we also went last year). The Coyotes have a nice stadium (nicer than the AAC). It was a great game, as the Coyotes scored three goals in the first period, but the Sharks came back to tie it in the 3rd period. The Coyotes then scored another goal to beat what was the 2nd best team in hockey at the time, 4-3. Shane Doan scored the game-winning goal with 27 seconds left in the game for Phoenix. We went back to the hotel to sleep after that.

Wednesday March 18:

We went to the Rangers workouts on Wednesday morning, too. At that workout, I got Andruw Jones' autograph, leaving Brendan Donnelly, Joe Torres, Casey Daigle, and Omar Vizquel. That morning, we saw TR Sullivan, my friend from, and Anthony Andro (Rangers beat writer from the Fort Worth Star Telegram) for the first time. I also saw CJ Wilson, Tim Murphy, Michael Schlact, Scott Feldman, Terry Clark, Kevin Millwood, and Blake Beavan for the first time. All of them are great guys and I got to talk with them for a long time.

I focused on watching BP during the workouts this morning. Michael Young did well in BP and, even though he didn't hit many home runs, he hit the ball solidly every time. Chris Davis struggled.

We went to Red Robin after the workout and we got burgers before heading to the Rangers/Padres game in Peoria. Our seats for the game were awesome, the best I’ve ever had. We were in the first row right behind home plate and were sitting about five feet away from the on-deck circle (which was really neat). Before the game, I got an autograph from Brendan Donnelly, meaning I only needed Joe Torres, Casey Daigle, and Omar Vizquel.

The Rangers won the game 9-4 and Nelson Cruz hit a home run. Josh Hamilton also got a bunt single, which was great. He saw that the Padres were playing him back so decided he would take advantage of it and bunted himself on base. The next time Josh came up, a fan asked him if he was going to hit any homers and Josh joked, ‘No, I’m just bunting today’. We noticed that Josh interacted with the crowd a lot when he was in the on-deck circle and Chris Davis did some too, showing again what nice guys that are. Brandon McCarthy threw four no-hit innings for the Rangers, looking great in the process, but Neftali Feliz struggled when he came in late in the game. I’ll be giving a play-by-play description and analysis of this game next week.

After the game, we went back to the hotel for a little while before going to the evening Royals/Mariners game in Surprise. The Mariners won 9-3. Robinson Tejeda allowed three runs, all earned, in only 1.1 innings for the Royals. We went to sleep after the game.

Thursday March 19:

We went to the workouts again on Thursday morning and got to meet Ryan Tatusko, the guy who does the Backfield Diaries for Jamey Newberg's report. He was really nice and he talked with us for a while. CJ Wilson did really well while he was pitching in BP, his first work in a while due to a blister on his finger. He looked strong and ready to go.

The crowd at the workouts was really bad again, though. After the workouts we went straight to the Dodgers/Rockies game at the Dodgers new stadium, which is really nice. We decided to skip the Rangers game this day so that we could check out the Dodgers’ new stadium (they just moved to Glendale from Florida). The Dodgers’ new stadium is as nice as the Indians’ is bad. It has a cool look to it.

The Dodgers won the game 3-2 and we got to see Clayton Kershaw, a big Dodgers prospect, pitch. He threw five one-hit innings, but the most memorable thing about his performance was the fact that he hit a solo home run that put the Dodgers on top and after that they were never behind.

After the game, we went behind the stadium to check out their backfields, which are really nice. They have a lake between the Dodgers and White Sox facilities, with walking paths beside the lake, and they have really nice fields. Each team has a field replicating their major league stadium’s dimensions. They also have an orange grove like they did in Vero Beach, although we didn't get to see it. They had lots of exits from their parking lots and it was easy to get out.

We went to NYPD Pizza (New York Pizza Department) for dinner on Thursday. Their pizza is very good and it's in Surprise, too, near the Rangers’ ballpark. We hung out at the hotel after that and my dad and I watched some of the Lord of the Rings. This is my first time to watch those movies. We watched the first one last month and watched the second one on this trip. These are the extended versions of the movies so each movie is about 4 hours long.

Friday March 20:

On Friday we went to the backfields for a little bit in the morning and saw Mike Hindman for the first time. He had just gotten into town. The Rangers were playing in Tucson Friday and most of them had already left by the time we got to the complex. We watched the remaining Rangers begin their warm-ups and then left to get down to the game in Tucson.

We made the two and a half hour drive down to Tucson to see the Rangers play the Rockies, but Tucson made it as hard as possible to get there. They had all of the exits into downtown closed for some type of construction (they were all closed last year too so it must be a big project), so we had to exit north of the city and wind around the city streets. When we finally got to the stadium, all of the parking lots were full. They apparently don’t have enough parking spaces at the stadium. We circled the parking lot for about 20 minutes, along with dozens of other cars. There was not even a single employee directing traffic or helping people out by telling them that the lots were full and directing them to alternate lots. We saw some signs telling us to go to something called the El Con Mall and take a shuttle over, but we had no idea where El Con Mall was. We finally found an employee who was guarding a VIP parking lot and my dad got her to tell us what we were supposed to do. So my dad dropped my granddad and me off at the stadium so that we wouldn’t miss any of the game (it was only about 10 minutes before first pitch) and went to find parking. He had to go about a mile through gridlocked traffic to the mall. When he got there, there was only one shuttle bus driving the route between the mall and the park and there were hundreds of people waiting for it, so my dad just decided to walk the mile over to the ballpark. When he got in, it was the middle of the second inning. But the thing was, the ballpark was nowhere near full, so I don't know how the parking lot could have been so short on capacity. It doesn’t seem that they planned this stadium very well and they definitely don’t do a good job dealing with the traffic, the parking, and the shuttles.

The Rockies’ stadium wasn't even very good, as it was an independent league team's stadium and there was nothing special about it. It seems very old and doesn’t even have seating in the outfield. They make it so hard to get to the ballpark and then, once you do get there, the Rockies make it hard to park, and then, once you park, the Rockies make it hard to get to the stadium, and then, once you get to the stadium, there's nothing special about it. So my advice is - don't go to a Rockies spring training game.

The game was good, though. The Rangers won 11-5 and Nelson Cruz and Frank Catalanotto each hit home runs. Derrick Turnbow pitched again but really struggled this time. His command was erratic and he took forever between pitches. Cruz ended up 2-for-2 with 2 RBI’s, and Frank Catalanotto got three RBI’s, while Royce Huffman from minor league camp went 2-for-5.

I never was able to get the last three autographs I wanted. I couldn’t find Casey Daigle or Joe Torres all week. I asked Omar Vizquel for his autograph a bunch of times but he never signed.

After the game ended we drove back to Phoenix to check into Embassy Suites near the airport to get ready to leave on Saturday morning. It was nice to have two rooms instead of just one and, when we got to our room, I watched the NCAA Tournament and then my dad and I watched more Lord of the Rings.

We flew home first thing Saturday morning. It was a great trip and has me excited about the Rangers’ season.

I asked 15 players a poll question this week. The following players participated: Josh Hamilton, CJ Wilson, Kevin Millwood, Ian Kinsler, Doug Mathis, Chris Davis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Scott Feldman, Kris Benson, Thomas Diamond, Justin Smoak, Derek Holland, Jason Jennings, Blake Beavan, and Ryan Tatusko.
Question: What do you think should determine home-field advantage for the World Series?
53% - Best overall record of the two teams playing
40% - The team from whatever league won that year’s All-Star game
7% - The team from whatever league had the best interleague record

I would like to thank all the players who answered my poll this year.

I have now been to every Cactus League stadium, so I am giving each one a letter grade.
Camelback Ranch (Dodgers and White Sox) – A
Goodyear Ballpark (Indians) – D-
Hi Corbett Field (Rockies) – F----
HoHoKam Park (Cubs) – B+
Maryvale Baseball Park (Brewers) – C-
Peoria Stadium (Padres and Mariners) – A-
Phoenix Municipal Stadium (Athletics) – C
Scottsdale Stadium (Giants) – B+
Surprise Stadium (Rangers and Royals) – A+
Tempe Diablo Stadium (Angels) - B
Tucson Electric Park (Diamondbacks) – B

Results of last week’s poll:
Who do you think will be the Rangers starting catcher coming out of Spring Training?
Jarrod Saltalamacchia – 74%
Taylor Teagarden – 18%
Max Ramirez – 8%
Other – 0%

Come back next week for a play-by-play analysis of the Rangers’ March 18th game against the Padres.


Lynn Leaming said...

Grant, I always enjoy reading about your trips. You always have so much fun and some GOOD food :) Sorry you didn't get all your autographs. Can't imagine that somebody would turn that sweet face of yours down :) What great memories you have built with your dad and grandad. Those are what are most special about your trips.

EMC said...

Grant -

Sounds like you had a great time - your write up and pictures were terrific as always. Wish I could have been there last week with everyone - maybe next year. See you in Frisco


Jamey said...

Outstanding write-up, Grant. Love how you kept coming back to the autograph quest -- on top of everything else, you have the gift of creating suspense -- and I know you'll grab those last signatures before long.

Great hanging out with you guys at the fields. And thanks for being Max's baseball buddy.

grantlovesbaseball said...

Hi Ms. Lynn,

Thanks for the comment. Most of the non-ballpark food that we have is very good. Thanks. It is very cool that I can have this much fun with my dad and granddad.

Hi Eleanor,

Thank you. I wish you could have, too. See you then.

Hi Jamey,

Thanks you. I hope I do get those last autographs. I enjoyed playing catch with Max.