Sunday, March 31, 2013

And it all begins tomorrow

Happy Opening Day. I'm beginning my 5th baseball season with this blog (hard to believe) and the 5th season at Citi Field (also hard to believe), and I'm pretty much recycling some of my special posts (but they still have meaning, such as an anniversary).

This one I'm taking from my Opening Day post from last year, where I shared a few Opening Day memories. I will except the very short story and sound bytes from Opening Day 1998, which is hard to believe was 15 years ago today.

I remember cutting class during my sophomore year in college to watch Opening Day 1998 (like 2003, also a March 31 opener, and like 2007, against the Phillies) when Bobby Jones started for the Mets.

Here's how the game started.

And this is how that game ended.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Prediction Time

It's Opening Night eve day, or something. The first game is a little more than 48 hours away. How's that? And it's prediction time. I saw 8 Mets games in Spring Training in person, and watched and listened to parts of several others while I was at work (on weekdays) and home (weekends). So I have no idea what I'm talking about.

I posted this on facebook the other day (before news about Santana came out) - ...I want to go on the record and guess that the Mets will come away with 74 wins in 2013. I also clarified it a bit saying that if EVERYTHING breaks right for the Mets, 82 or 83 is going to happen. But I think they're already on the edge of not having EVERYTHING break right. And then we learned that Santana, our former ace, is likely done for the season, bringing an end to his Mets contract, but might also be done as a big league pitcher. I'm not going to get into that here, but it's an example of things not breaking right for the Mets.

So let me try to quantify my 74 win prediction. I am also going to attempt to understand who made the Mets roster, having seen a couple of tweets in the past couple days.

The infield is the most solid piece of the ballclub. Ike Davis at first has been there for a couple of years now, he seems to be healthy, and he can hit for power. Daniel Murphy might be the weakest link of the 4 at 2B. He finally got some big league exhibition game action late in the spring, so I wonder a bit if he's really ready to start the season on top of his game. And I still think he's learning how to play 2B, which makes him the weakest link of the 4 on the infield. Tejada is a solid player at short, especially once we get rid of the images of Jose Reyes out of our heads. And then there's Captain America at 3B. Wright's one that I worry about a bit, only because he was injured, and I get the sense that he's going to try to play through an injury in an effort to lead the club while possibly making things worse. I never followed up on this rumor, but I heard 3rd hand that he did that once already this spring when he went to join team USA and then had to miss the end of the WBC and almost missed the end of spring training. I question things in his head more than things in his game. Valdespin has earned a spot as a fill in and off the bench. I liked Zach Lutz playing at 3B while Wright was at the WBC and then out injured. I'm not as high on Justin Turner as most people seem to be.

Catching is a complete makeover. John Buck seems like a solid major league guy. From what I saw of Anthony Recker, he doesn't scare me. The Mets kept 2 other catchers around for most of the spring (d'Arnaud and Powell, who will be at AAA Las Vegas) which tells me that there's depth there. d'Arnaud would be the regular catcher if Buck were to be injured, and I think he's the real thing. I hope the Mets don't ruin him like they've ruined other prospects.

Outfield has been the butt of jokes during the offseason. You know - the Mets can solve their outfielder problems by moving the fences in at Citi Field again to Little League depth (and they won't need any outfielders). It looks like Marlon Byrd has won a job in the OF. I was an advocate of that after my first game in Port St. Lucie. Mike Baxter is a solid defensive player at the corners. Lucas Duda is a good DH (oh wait, we don't have that in the NL). I was also impressed by Colin Cowgill and it looks like he's won a job. I really really liked the defense of Matt den Dekker, but everyone kept saying that he isn't hitting, and now he's on the minor league DL with a broken wrist (which occurred trying to make a play). With Cowgill, Byrd, and Baxter covering CF and RF, I'm not worrying a lot. It's LF that is the biggest remaining hole. Duda just isn't the guy. Baxter could play it in some alignments, but the Mets seem to have a lineup vs. Lefties and a different one vs. Righties. Valdespin can fill a hole, but he's not an every day player either.

And on the mound. The Mets lost Santana, likely for the season, but it was starting to get to the point that we didn't even know what we'd get anyway. It's almost better to remove that uncertainty. Niese is the best of the remaining pitchers (that sounds bad - he earned that Opening Day start). I don't think he's going to be what Santana was in his best years, at least not in 2013 he won't, but he's going to be the best pitcher going into the season. Matt Harvey also impressed me, and it sounds like he will be the number 2 starter. We don't quite know as much what we're going to get from him, but I really like the potential. And I gave him a fist bump as he walked off the field after a start in Jupiter a couple of weeks ago. Dillon Gee coming back from an injury is the number 3 starter. I think he can be solid. The key for these 3 guys is to go deep into ballgames and give the bullpen a rest. Marcum seems to have earned a spot in the rotation (or a spot on the DL, we'll see), Jeremy Hefner can be a solid number 5 starter. But if something breaks wrong here, like one of these guys going down, and Marcum may start that way, I don't know if there's depth. They say Zack Wheeler has the stuff, but I've also heard that he won't be rushed up to the big leagues. I'd rather play towards the future than the present anyway (though it's somewhat surprising that Matt Harvey isn't going back down for a bit more seasoning).

The bullpen seems to be the biggest mystery about the 2013 Mets coming into Opening Day. I think that's because a lot of these guys are unknown to us. Bobby Parnell will be the closer while Frankie Francisco recovers from whatever it is that's kept him out this spring. I haven't liked a Mets closer in a long time. Parnell is no different. I saw guys like Edgin, Lyon, Rice, Atchison, Hawkins, Burke, and Familia during the spring. None of them really blew me away. But they might be the biggest key to the 2013 season. That bridge from what could be solid starting pitching to what people hope is a solid closer. They're also the guys to eat innings when the starters can't go 7. And if past history is any indication, that will happen a lot. But at the same time, I like that there has been almost a complete overhaul of the Mets bullpen from last year. Something new might be better than what we know and didn't really like.

Of course, none of us know if a freak or fluke injury could take down an important player during the season, or if someone just struggles. There could always be players on the New York-to-Las Vegas shuttle during the season to fill new holes. And maybe there's a trade to bring in a closer or a left fielder during the year. A lot of things could break one way or the other. A week ago, I really wasn't sure if Wright or Murphy would be ready for Opening Day, but it looks like they will be. But maybe Marcum won't be. Santana clearly won't be. And those little things can make a difference.

If they had everyone, including Santana and Francisco, maybe, just maybe, they could have won 82 or 83 games. If things really really break down during the year, they could even reach 100 losses. I think the answer will be in the middle - at 74 wins.

Let's Go Mets! And Happy Opening Day!

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 13

Day 13 - March 18, 2013 - Mets-Cardinals @ Jupiter

One final day in Florida. One final day with the Mets. I pressed my luck by heading out to Tradition Field before my final game with the Mets in Jupiter (located conveniently on the way to Palm Beach International Airport). I was up early, all packed, so there was nothing stopping me from heading to the Mets back fields for one last attempt to get autographs, or even a glimpse of "Captain America", David Wright. And I'll tell ya, I'm a glutton for punishment, because a lot of times, there is just nothing to see back there, and even fewer autograph opportunities. I did see Johan Santana running with his teammates, but then he ducked inside not paying any attention to the fans. Just once, I'd love to see what they're doing when they're in there.

After saying a few goodbyes and taking a few last looks around the back fields, I headed down to Jupiter for the game (already too late to catch the end of batting practice). Jupiter is a nice ballpark, and seemingly, a good one in which to grab autographs (especially for the visiting team). I'll touch more on the ballpark in a minute. Before the game, I did manage to get Jordany Valdespin and Mets coach (and '86 Met) Tim Teufel before the game. I think I saw a few more players signing, but I don't like to push through crowds anymore. It's not my thing.

Matt Harvey pitched this game. I think he's ready for the season as well. I think he's the 2nd best pitcher with the Mets right now (behind Niese). He held the Cardinals down and pitched I think into the 6th. One of the nice things about the ballpark in Jupiter is the space behind the LF bullpen (down the foul line) and in front of the bleachers where fans can go to watch the game and maybe grab a long foul ball, where there is a spot in the corner where you're just feet from the foul line, and where players from 3B dugout have to walk past in order to reach their clubhouse. As he was leaving the field after pitching, and after getting a few fist bumps from his teammates in the bullpen, I did give Matt Harvey a fist bump before he disappeared into the Mets clubhouse.

This is Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, a northern suburb of West Palm Beach. The ballpark, located in a fancyish corner ballpark next to some shops and some expensive homes, was named for a local car dealer, Roger Dean. It was built for the 1998 Spring Training season as a new home for the St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos, all part of the great Spring Training migration of '98. The Marlins and Expos (now the Nationals) swapped Spring Training locations in 2003 when Jeffrey Loria abandoned the Expos in order to buy the Marlins (who had come into the league in 1993 and found Viera as a suitable location, about 200 miles north of their regular season home in the Miami area). The Cardinals had been kicked out of St. Petersburg, their long-time home shared with, at different times, both the Mets and Yankees, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays came into existence and claimed St. Petersburg as their exclusive domain (the Rays playing regular season games at Tropicana Field and holding Spring Training at Al Lang Field on the waterfront until a few years ago). The Expos had previously shared a stadium in West Palm Beach with the Braves (who moved to the new Disney Wide World of Sports complex at the same time). There is one inner concourse, at street level, with concessions that extends from behind the LF bullpen to behind the RF bullpen. The middle portion of it is covered by the press box and suites, providing the only real shade in the park. The rest is open to the elements. Both LF (covered) and RF (exposed) at the ends of the concourses have picnic seating (out of view of the field). The bullpens are down the foul lines with fans being able to stand right behind the LF bullpen and even get autographs between innings and a small berm behind the RF bullpen (which is restricted to berm ticket holders, but those fans can still get autographs). Next to the LF bullpen is also a standing room and handicap seating area that can be an easy place for foul balls. There is bleacher seating behind the LF bullpen over the visitor's clubhouse and a covered air conditioned party deck behind the RF bullpen. There is an inner concourse/walkway with standing room only tickets that wraps from just past 3B around to the RF party deck. When it's not crowded, you can stand and watch the game from the walkway. There is seating in front of it going down to the field and seating behind it between 3B and 1B. The barrier between seating and field is only about 3ft high, so it's real easy to be face-to-face with the players to get autographs on the OF sides of the dugouts. The dugouts also extend back into the seating area with the outer corners open to both the elements and the fans, so that is also a good place for autographs (where the players have to reach up to where the fans are because of how the dugout steps down from field level and where the fans are already a few steps up from it). There is also a large team store behind home plate on the street-level concourse, accessible from inside the ballpark on game days and from outside at other times.

I mentioned that this is a two-team complex (Cardinals and Marlins). Each team has their own clubhouse, training facility, player parking lot, and set of practice fields, and even their own dugout inside the ballpark. The Marlins occupy the LF side of the ballpark, going down about 2 blocks beyond the stadium walls with their practice fields, and have a clubhouse building behind the LF wall. They use the LF bullpen and 3B dugout for their games. The Cardinals occupy the RF side of the ballpark, with basically the same setup including a clubhouse behind the RF wall. They use the RF bullpen and 1B dugout for their games. The visiting teams (when there is one - these 2 teams probably play each other 6 times during spring training where neither team involved in the game is traveling) use the open dugout/bullpen and a small clubhouse behind the LF wall (with the buses parked back there). The team store is always set up to have merchandise for both teams, and the souvenir carts on the concourse are set up for the home team only. Each team has their own gameday program for the spring (and I believe both are on sale for games involving both home teams). The Cardinals tend to draw lots of fans from the midwest to their games (a sea of red down the RF line before games looking for autographs) and the Marlins don't really draw as much. Roger Dean Stadium had been one of the better ballparks in the Grapefruit League in its earlier days (not that it's old or outdated in any way), but in 15 years, especially the past 4 or 5 years, it's been passed by other ballparks, though I can't think of anything that can be improved there.

After the game, a small number of fans will try to grab players from the visiting team as they get on the bus, or into their own cars, behind the LF fence at the corner of the ballpark complex. Players tend to sign there too (since they're not working at this point in the day). I did grab my final 2 autographs of the spring in Bobby Parnell and Zach Lutz. And then it was on to the airport, and back home to get myself ready for baseball season to start for real.

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Spring Training 2013 - Day 12

Day 12 - March 17, 2013 - Mets-Braves @ Port St. Lucie

Final home game in my Spring Training 2013 adventure. And it was St. Patrick's Day. In the morning, I was on the back fields, as per usual. Today, there was a treat. The team had a later-than-normal start. I actually got to see the whole team stretch before they broke up to do drills and hitting on different fields. That used to be the norm, but this year, they've been starting before 9:30 when the fans are allowed inside. And of course, there really wasn't much to see and no real autograph opportunities to get.

In to the stadium one final time, I headed down to the hidden corner of the ballpark that I found on Saturday (down the LF terrace seating past the bullpen, and around the corner to the back of the clubhouse where there is a small set of steps that takes you down to field level and hidden from the ballpark). I had seen that there was another morning picnic, which means that there's a better chance of players lingering on in the back after the Mets complete BP. With the Mets, sometimes, we just have to cling to things like that in order to get autographs. I did manage to get Pedro Feliciano and Jeremy Hefner in that corner (maybe I'll remember this for 2014). And we were this close to a Johan Santana autograph. He was signing and taking pictures with the fans at the picnic, came over towards the steps to talk to another group (this is an area just past the top of the LF upper terrace and just past the back entrance to the clubhouse). And we waited, with the stairs getting a bit more crowded. And a beer spilled down from up top, and Johan went inside. And that was it.

The big attraction was that TV host Regis Philbin was there to throw out the first pitch. And he came out of the Mets dugout to warm up on the field and was holding court for the fans, even posing for a few photos. Like the Mets, Regis had a green version of the Mets BP jersey and hat for St. Patrick's Day. Regis did his thing, even staying with Terry Collins as an honorary coach for the first two innings. And Jon Niese did his thing warming up for Opening Day. The Mets lost, but the results don't count. Niese pitched well.

After the game, I did grab an autograph from fan favorite Mets broadcaster Howie Rose. Howie has a new book out, but I don't have it yet in order to have it signed.

And it was Sunday in Spring Training. That means Bowling Night!! Which meant dinner at Duffy's first (like we need an excuse to eat at Duffy's). Players sometimes come into Duffy's to watch a game on one of the TVs. Jon Niese did, hanging with friends at a table watching his Ohio State game. And these are the candid times when they don't mind signing autographs for us fans. And after dinner, it was my first chance to see bowling night in person. The bowling alley, located at SuperPlay USA (which is attached to Duffy's Sports Bar, all just across the street and around the circle from some fan favorite hotels) is just about a 20 minute walk from the ballpark complex. Bowling started early, around 6pm. By the 4th week of it, a smaller group of players comes out (none of the "big boys - Wright, Santana, Ike, Tejada, Niese, Gee - were there). It was the coaching staff, GM, and Jeff Wilpon, a lot of the younger players, and even a couple of players' families and some of the ballpark staff from Tradition Field bowling. Even Al Jackson and his wife came out to watch. Bowling night is a good time, not just to hang out with friends watching the Mets, but to get autographs and pictures and interact with them in ways otherwise not seen at the ballpark. There was lots of it. And lots of autographs to be had.

I don't normally get autographs on a baseball or a baseball card or anything like that. I'm usually a simple person, going for a simple collection of autographs in the game program. But during my last game at Tradition Field, I got the lead ballpark entertainment person (you know, it's minor league, so they're entertaining the fans between most innings with trivia and prizes or throwing things into the crowd) to hook me up with one of the frisbees they were throwing around. So I decided to be a little different with Bowling night and get the inside of the frisbee autographed. I filled it up with a lot of the players and Mets personnel I had been missing (I was trying really hard to avoid duplicate autographs, and for most of these Mets, it's not worth the trouble to get them again).
LaTroy Hawkins, Travis d'Arnaud, Rob Carson, Colin Cowgill, Sandy Alderson, Brandon Hicks, Al Jackson, Scott Atchison, and Shaun Marcum. Other players like Mike Baxter, Jeremy Hefner, and Anthony Recker were also there. And even ex-Met Josh Thole made an appearance at the bowling alley, surprising both fans and Mets players/coaches. He didn't stay long, but he was certainly greeted warmly by both fans and his friends on the Mets.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 11

Day 11 - March 16, 2013 - Mets-Marlins @ Port St. Lucie

Not much to say today. I went to the back fields. The players scattered inside the stadium once they saw us coming. Actually, they were done with their outdoor stretch and went to other fields to do other things. Outfielders came back to Field 2 (where the fans are) a bit later, pitchers went to other fields to do other drills. There really wasn't a whole lot to see in the morning. In the park, I went to a new (to me) area at the end of the bullpen where, possibly, I could catch players coming off the back fields and going into their clubhouse. That did work out today. There was a picnic just beyond the LF wall for a group of fans, and a few players were brought over. I was able to snag a couple of them when they came back from that group. Namely, Dillon Gee and Matt den Dekker. Sometimes, that's enough for me.

For the game, it was one of those tight games that we came out behind in. 4-2 was the final. No really crooked numbers on the scoreboard (a 2 and a bunch of 1s). No really bad pitching. I didn't notice much else because I spent a lot of the game walking around taking pictures (those things I keep promising posting and never do).

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 10

Day 10 - March 15, 2013 - Mets practice

Another day at Mets camp without a game. The team played up at Disney World, about 2 hours away, and I chose not to go. So I went to the Mets back fields to see what was going on. In the morning, there were the Mets big leaguers who stayed behind on the main field and in the stadium, and minor league teams working out on the other fields.

The big leaguers mostly worked outside of our view. The big bullpen for the back fields is several feet behind security, and that is where some of the pitchers were working after doing the loosening-up throwing in front of us. The hitters went inside the stadium, well out of our view, to take batting practice. There wasn't much more than that happening on the back fields from the major leaguers.

It was all about the minor leaguers on Friday. They invaded the practice fields. Frank Viola is a minor league pitching coach in the Mets system. He crossed between fields (before throwing batting practice to one group). I got him to stop and sign a baseball that had escaped from one of the fields. Aside from Sweet Music, the morning was a real bust.

I did learn that the complex would be open to the public for a minor league game in the afternoon. I came back after lunch to learn that it was 2 games against the Cardinals. And I had read on twitter than Daniel Murphy was going to play 2B and Matt Harvey and Shaun Marcum (both pitchers) would be taking at bats. All true. Anthony Recker was also hitting in the games. From that, I have no real idea how they did. It was to get innings in the field for Murphy and at bats for the others. I did see Harvey try to bunt and Murphy try to field a ball off the pitchers glove that he threw away (don't judge by those two examples).

I am going to write up a ballpark review of Tradition Field and the back fields for people that might be interested in coming down here next spring.

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Spring Training 2013 - Day 9

Day 9 - March 14, 2013 - Mets-Tigers @ Port St. Lucie

Back to Mets camp. And back to the normal routine of going to the back fields at 9:30am, hoping to watch something and maybe snag an autograph before they kick us out in time to get online to enter the stadium for 11:10am (timing for a 1:10pm game). And back to the expectation that the main group of players goes into the stadium to do things out of our sight and we get to see little bits of what other groups do on the back fields.

A few surprises. Before the outfielders were working out, a couple of rehabbing pitchers were throwing. Danny Herrera and Tim Byrdak to be specific. I kind of forgot that they were both in camp. Both good about signing after they finished throwing. Not sure what else they were working on. The other players were just out there doing their drills, most of which is too far away from where the fans are corralled to. The other surprise was down on Field 7, which is part of the baseball quadrangle of 4 minor league fields (this is the one directly behind the LF scoreboard that you might see on TV with the dimensions of Citi Field and a blue screen on the wall; it is also a field with an entrance in CF that goes past the LF corner of the main stadium and to the big league clubhouse, but all far enough away from the last fence that fans are allowed to go to that the players don't have to interact with us), where Terry Collins went down there during a minor league group of players stretching and throwing to chat with his mentor and Tigers Manager Jim Leyland as well as former Pirates coach and current Mets minor league coach Rich Donnelly. They drew a crowd of fans and were probably there for a good 30 minutes to observe. Collins came over to sign before he left, but Leyland did not. This was all ending well past the time that the ushers would normally herd us away from the back fields, but we learned that they're leaving that area open longer on game days now (something new since I had been there 5 days earlier).

In the stadium, there wasn't much action. There never is. Then the game was played, and for the Mets, there still wasn't much action. Dillon Gee was wild and gave up a lot of runs. The Tigers added on a few more after Gee left, and the Mets lost 9 to 1. I didn't notice much more than that. I did notice a very large crowd and a very large contingent of Tigers fans that made the trip from Central Florida (about a 2 1/2 hour drive, mostly on country roads). I think it was called a sellout. They went home happy. We just went home.

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Spring Training 2013 - Day 8

Day 8 - March 13, 2013 - Blue Jays-Pirates @ Bradenton

Day 8 in my Spring Training trip had me in Bradenton, Florida, which is the long time home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. First, for the game. The Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead, then after a lot of scoreless innings, the Pirates marked a come back with a run in the 8th, tying it in the 9th, and winning 5-4 in 10 innings. That was in front of a record crowd at 90 year old McKechnie Field.

For the ballpark. It's 90 years old, and still shows the old time charm of a small minor league ballpark (think a modern day version of the ballparks used in the movie A League Of Their Own. There's an old fashioned grandstand with bleacher seating down both foul lines and extended "box" seating (regular seats, as opposed to bleachers) behind home plate under the press box behind the inner concourse. There is also "box" seating in front of the concourse closest to the field all the way down both lines and behind home plate. Very good sight lines (although the seams in the screen behind home plate, where the backstop and screen have some angles does get in the way) all around. One thing that I like is that with it being a smaller park, they can orient screen on top of the seats behind home plate from the top of the vertical screen up to the press box, thereby further protecting the home plate seats. That's a lot of words, but I like that feature. Most parks I've seen don't have that (and have much much wider gaps between the top of the vertical screen and the press box behind home plate making it hard to have a top screen).

The outer concourse behind/underneath the grandstand is at street level with a narrow concourse behind third and home (along 9th St) and a very wide concourse behind first base. The Pirates also have their clubhouse on the 1B/RF side, with the concourse ending in RF at a fence where fans crowd during the game to try to get Pirates autographs. This is the main concourse, open to the elements, with the large food concession stands and the main team store and ticket office near the front.

The ballpark underwent some renovations for the 2013 Spring Training that included the addition of a new outfield boardwalk that creates a 360 degree concourse/walkway and also includes a party deck in LF and a tiki bar in Right-Center Field. The boardwalk also has OF bleacher seating in LF, lots of concession carts, and bathrooms and a covered area behind the batter's eye in CF. In addition, there are places to look down to the two bullpens (behind the LF wall for the visitors and behind the RF wall for the home teams). It's a very nice addition.

A few interesting notes with the Pirates Spring Training facilities. The Pirates have their training fields in another location in Bradenton. The ballpark is more of a neighborhood facility in town with parking in small lots in facilities adjacent to the ballpark. It was also only in the past couple years that lights were added to the stadium (there is also a minor league team that plays there). The Pirates Parrot is seen throughout the game doing its thing, which includes a lot of mimicry during the pre-game time (if players are stretching, the Parrot will try to do it too; if the players are throwing, the Parrot will be out there with its glove - at this game, one of the Blue Jays players saw that and included the Parrot in the pre-game game of catch that he was having with a teammate). There is also a Pirate mascot for the local minor league team that works with the Parrot in some of the stunts, including their own pre-game game of catch.

Autographs seem to be easy down the foul liens and near the dugouts, but it's always subject to what players are willing to stop and interact with the fans. The clubhouses are not attached to the dugouts, so the players have to enter/exit the field down the foul lines. On the Pirates end, there is an extra gap at the end of the RF foul line seating where the batting cage is stored, which is out of play, where a generous player can stop and sign for fans along the side rail as he leaves the field. I did see this go on during play. The only autograph I was able to get, just because of my moving around, was ex-Met Mike Nickeas, who was catching for the Blue Jays in this game.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 7

Day 7 - March 12, 2013 - Tigers-Phillies @ Clearwater

Day 7 had me traveling to Clearwater, Florida, to see how the Philadelphia Phillies fans live during Spring Training. The Phillies play in 10 year old Bright House Field, named for a local cable television company, which was built as a replacement for their long-time spring home Jack Russell Stadium, also in Clearwater. And the Phillies phans phlock (okay, flock) to Clearwater to fill this ballpark.

The Tigers bounced back from yesterday's massacre beating the Phillies 10-5 with most scoring coming in the first half of the ballgame. The Tigers got to Phillies ace Roy 'Doc' Halladay. A couple of home runs hit in the game.

There are some really nice features at Bright House Field. There are no hidden concourses, like you have in most spring training stadiums. Concessions run down the base lines and behind home plate, just in back of the wide concourse which is at the back of the seating bowl. All with some view of the field. There are suites and a press box and a small amount of upper level seating on a second level that covers the concourse area, mostly behind home plate and towards first base. That provides a wide area of cover (good for today since it was raining up until game time) and shade (good for today since the sun came out before the end of the game). The steel and signage reminds me of the Phillies regular stadium, Citizen Bank Park, with the font used and the color (their dark maroon color from the 1980s).

The other nice feature in the stadium, which I think is becoming a trend in new stadiums in both Spring Training and the big leagues, is the 360 degree concourse. Well, in this case, it's a 360 degree walkway. There's a rather large Tiki bar beyond the left field wall where fans congregate followed by both team's bullpens in left-center, and then berms on either side of the Center Field batter's eye, so they need walkways to access everything, so it was all connected with the main concourse. That also leaves lots of berm seating to help increase the capacity to over 8,000.

It does look like it could a bit of an upgrade in the OF scoreboard and video screen and maybe a new paint job to refresh the color. They could also use better parking. They have fields about a block away (doesn't seem like much, but it was a long walk back to the car after the game, and they had a shuttle bus running before the game because it was raining). And it was $10 to park there. It seemed like they had some land a bit closer to the ballpark (at least on the same side of the street) to use for parking.

But overall, if you can get past the Phillies fans, it is a good ballpark.

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Spring Training 2013 - Day 6

Day 6 - March 11, 2013 - Mets-Tigers @ Lakeland

Monday brought me out to Meet the Mets in Lakeland in a game against the Tigers. I did a ballpark review of Sarasota, but I will skip it for Lakeland because the complex, known as "Tiger Town", is due a $50 makeover starting next year. The Tigers have been in Lakeland since 1934 and playing at this ballpark since 1966.

So instead, I'll say that I stood next to the Mets dugout during batting practice, asked for a few autographs, got none (players said they would sign once they were finished working out, which is fair, but we were kicked out of the area before that happened; then players exited the field in RF to the clubhouse while their dugout was at 3B), and watched the Mets with a blowout win by a score of 11-0. One interesting thing is that the Tigers allow fans to purchase a pass as part of their ticket for an extra $5 to come into the park an hour early (10am instead of 11am for a 1pm game) to see the Tigers take batting practice. For fans of the visiting team, that's not worth it, and I didn't get a real sense of what type of extra autograph access you get that early since I was held outside the ballpark until 11am. The ballpark itself is a nice park, but I could see that it's not quite up to the new standards of Spring Training (especially on the concourses). It is a good place to watch a game. And of course, the new renovations should make it an even better experience.

On to the game. Jon Niese started for the Mets, went into the 5th (no hits through 4, and I didn't see the 5th), but didn't pitch as well as those numbers would indicate. He had a lot of walks but manged to get out of trouble. Justin Verlander, the ace for Detroit, started for the Tigers and did not fair well at all. A couple of homeruns, including a leadoff HR by Valespin did him in, and the HBP on Valdespin's sensitive area (I think it was in the 5th and the 3rd time through the Mets lineup) was it for him. And the Mets kept hitting against the Tigers bullpen, posting runs in 6 of the 9 innings. I wouldn't say the wind aided every home run. And Matt den Dekker made a couple more awesome catches in CF. I would give him the job even though they say he can't hit. The Mets bullpen pitched well, holding the Tigers to only a couple of hits in total and no runs. Mejia and Familia were two of the relievers that I saw (I know there were others, but I think I was getting ice cream and shade).

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Spring Training 2013 - Day 5

Day 5 - March 10, 2013 - Pirates-Orioles @ Sarasota

This is part of my "road trip", spending a couple of days away from Port St. Lucie and the east coast of Florida while the Mets have a long gap in between home games. I'm out on the Gulf Coast checking out some of the spring training sites out here. Sunday's stop was in Sarasota to see the Baltimore Orioles host the Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead of giving a game recap, since it really doesn't matter to the Mets fans reading, I will talk about the ballpark experience since it's very likely not familiar to my readers.

So Sunday's stop was at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. This ballpark was originally the spring home of the Chicago White Sox when the Grapefruit League was thriving (1989), and the Cincinnati Reds moved in during the great Spring Training shift of 1998. The Orioles moved in for the 2010 Spring Training season and renovated the ballpark for 2011. I was very very impressed with the renovations that the Orioles did to the ballpark (since the last time I was there, which was in 2005 for a Reds game). Basically, the ballpark was modernized and raised to what I think are the new standards for Spring Training. First, it doesn't have the appearance of an old ballpark. The physical structure doesn't look like it needs a paint job or is showing its age. The seats and signage are all new or greatly re-done. Basically, I think the baseball diamond and mailing address are the same, and everything else is new. I'd have to look at pictures from my 2005 trip to get a before-after comparison, but I guess I would consider it a new ballpark.

Probably the biggest thing is that you walk around the outside (on city streets in a part of Sarasota), and you know that THIS park belongs to the Baltimore Orioles. Different Orioles logos and signage on the exterior of the building (for example, there are O's logos on the canopies over the ticket windows and banners that, on the outside of the stadium, spell out "Birdland" - 1 banner for each letter). There are Orioles logos affixed to the exterior of the structure itself as part of the overall architecture (as opposed to a fathead decal on the wall). Just like at Camden Yards, the gate doors all have Orioles bird logos on them. You get the idea. This ballpark belongs to the Orioles.

Inside, when entering at home plate, you're greeted by a chandelier-like structure hanging from the ceiling of the entrance way (which is 2 stories high) which has all of the Orioles' championship banners (World Champs, AL Champs, AL East Champs, AL Wild Card team) hanging from large rings which are held together by baseball bats. Inside, there are different Orioles logos and a few photos on the walls. And of course, there is a large team store next to the home plate entrance. They also celebrate the 3 years of Orioles Spring Training at the ballpark since the renovations with the different Orioles Spring Training logos (MLB has a different logo for Spring Training each year with a spot for a team's logo) painted on the walls in a certain area of the inner concourse.

Aside from all of the Orioles stuff (and I probably forgot some of it), there are wide concourses, shade overhang, and a second level concourse at the top of the "upper" level seating. It's not quite as it sounds. Basically, the street-level concourse has an inner side (which is wide, completely under cover with some patio-like areas outside) and an outer side in the seating area with the 100 level seating "below" it (closer to the field) and the 200 levels "above" it (raised up and further from the field) with the "upper" concourse at the top of the 200 level seating. I like that because it gives some drink rail and handicap seating with elevator access that is out of the way of the rest of the seating, plus additional concessions and restrooms. They also have a small lounge with a bar and televisions showing the game and other games, but I got the impression that it's not always open to the public. Plenty of shade on the upper concourse. They had the Orioles retired numbers on the press box facade (behind home plate).

There is also drink rail and table seating beyond the Left Field wall with a concession stand and bathrooms out there. Along the foul lines, there is a low railing and the front row is basically the same level as the field, so there is plenty of space in which to get autographs down the foul lines and next to the dugouts. The bullpens are down the foul lines past the seating areas (not in play) with some access (though you have to reach from above) to both of them. The Orioles occupy the 1B/RF side of the field with their clubhouse beyond the RF wall. Unfortunately, I did not get any autographs because there was no batting practice, and by the time players were coming out to stretch and throw in the half hour before the game started, the ushers were sending people back to their seats.

If you're familiar with other Grapefruit League parks, I would draw comparisons to the Braves park at Disney World with the covering over the highest level seats (though this park has a canopy over the seats to provide more shade rather than just bars that should be holding up a canopy) and for the concourse being at outside sidewalk level (i.e. no ramps or steps up from outside). And also for the foul line and dugout access, though this park had a bit more of it. It also resembled Space Coast Stadium in Viera (home of the Nationals) with the home plate entrance opening up to a wide gap in the seating area to come out to the outer concourse and with the press box right above it that doesn't really go much wider than one or two sections. They have similar left field home run territory seating, but I think Sarasota's is bigger and more attached to the rest of the seating.

One other interesting thing that I mentioned on Facebook after seeing it was how the visiting team enters the complex and their clubhouse. Basically, the team's 2 buses pull up on the street along first base, county police providing security in the ballpark ropes off the concourse to create a secure corridor (think a railroad crossing), and the players get off the buses on to the sidewalk, come through a gate in the patio off of the concourse, and walk right past the fans through the concourse and into their clubhouse. Very low privacy there. I did see one player stopping to sign an autograph for a fan, but I don't know how common that is (considering they're basically holding up traffic). It's probably a bit unusual that the players even arrive that late in the day that fans are already in the ballpark, but on this particular day, there was no batting practice inside the ballpark (for all I know, Pittsburgh, who trains about 20 minutes away from Sarasota, hit at home, boarded the bus in uniform, and drove to the game aiming to get there about 45 minutes before first pitch), so the visiting team didn't need to be there early.

Overall, aside from the souvenir t-shirts and parking being on the more expensive side, I definitely think Sarasota is a park worth visiting. And for the game, the Pirates won 4-2.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 4

Day 4 - March 09, 2013 - Mets-Astros @ Port St. Lucie

Another long day in Port St. Lucie. Once again, I was on the back fields to watch whatever it is they do back there. I think the timing of things has changed since last year since I haven't seen a full squad stretching yet and they don't come out right away. Terry Collins and his coaches were out but not the players. He did come over to see a friend and chatted it up with the couple of us fans, signed a few autographs (of course, for me too). We got treated to a base running drill (to use his words, "teaching base running"). Then they spread out and took BP inside the stadium. The minor leaguers were out, but there wasn't much else to see.

Inside the stadium, during BP, they were a bit more open to signing. Colin McHugh, Mike Baxter (whom I already had from the parking lot the other day), and Anthony Recker all came over to sign. That's something, right? It's better than other days.

For the game, it was Jeremy Hefner's turn to pitch. He looked decent. The Mets seemed capable of putting away another bad team in the Astros. Parnell struggled in the 9th, mostly after he dropped a throw at first base that would have been the final out of the ballgame. Another reliever, Carson, struggled a bit too. But the Mets did win.

I'm taking a mini-vacation from Port St. Lucie and Florida's east coast. For the next 4 days, I will be reporting from games on the Gulf Coast, including a Mets game in Lakeland (not quite on the Gulf Coast), before I return to Mets camp on Thursday morning. I will try to report on these games and what the teams and stadiums are like, just from the perspective of a Spring Training vacation.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 3

Day 3 - March 8, 2013 - Mets practice

Not much to say here. I went to Mets camp to see major league practice for the players that didn't make the long bus ride to Lakeland to play the Tigers. They let us in at 9:30. Players didn't come out until 10. I did see some quality "gym class" time where the players did a running drill. That included the oft-injured star pitcher Johan Santana and the recently-cleared-to-play-again Jenrry Mejia. Then, of course, the regular players head into the stadium, where we can't see them, to hit while the pitchers did some hitting on the main practice field.

Today marked the first day that the minor league teams were officially in camp. So, there was a lot more to see than just big league roster and invitees. I did see that Frank Viola is back coaching in the Mets organization (Single-A Savannah). He did sign some autographs for fans before his group started working out.

One autograph to mention was (if the number he wrote on the autograph is his from the 40-man roster) Darin Gorski. He also stayed around to chat with the few fans for a few minutes. Nice guy. Daniel Murphy was there working out, and one fan mentioned that they got him to sign. Mejia signed for someone on the other side.

The day was over at lunch time. I'll have another post, probably tomorrow, about my afternoon visit to the old Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 2

Day 2 - March 07, 2013 - Mets-Marlins @ Port St. Lucie

Much better day today at Mets camp. First up was the back fields for the morning warmup. There really wasn't much to see. They did their stretching before we were allowed in and all went inside apparently to change jerseys. The main group of players stayed inside the stadium and smaller groups of pitchers and minor leaguers in big league camp split up in the back fields. Some mornings I think the back fields can be a waste of time. At least when the full set of minor league players are in camp (not this early in the spring), there is more to watch because they're always broken into different games on the different fields. But this early, it's quiet back there.

Inside the stadium, the team was finishing up with batting practice when the fans were allowed inside, and of course, the Mets players ran away as soon as they saw us. Okay, not quite, but there wasn't much activity in the fan interaction area as one might hope. Greg Burke, a candidate for relief pitcher, did come over to sign for us. He's new to the club. He did pitch, giving up a 9th inning HR breaking the shutout. He'll do well with the Mets.

Matt Harvey pitched. Dominated may be a better word. Hitless and scoreless through 4 1/3 innings. The bullpen held the shutout until the 9th, and the offence gave Harvey a 1-0 lead when he left and 4-0 lead into the 9th, ending with a 4-1 win. den Dekker hit a HR. Put it in the books.

After the game kind of made up for the back fields being a dry barren place. I was given a tip on where to stand to catch one Keith Hernandez (no Seinfeld jokes, please) after the game to grab an autograph. And after the game, in that spot, he was very very cordial about signing for me and a couple other people. After hanging around on the plaza for a bit, just simply on my way out, I caught up to the crowd at the player's parking lot entrance where, what to me has been a very rare occurrence, players stopping to sign for a small crowd. Ike Davis for one, Matt Harvey, another, and Mike Baxter even out on the main parking lot road (well outside of their gate, but not actually on the street outside of the Mets complex). Nice pickup. Davis hasn't signed much inside the ballpark, Harvey really could be a star, and pitched like it today (and it was noted by someone in the crowd that this was well after the game ended, and he was the starting pitcher coming out not even mid way through, and he was even still at the Mets complex that late), and Baxter plays an important part in Mets history with the bone crushing catch helping to save the Mets No Hitter last June.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Spring Training 2013 - Day 1

Day 1 - March 06, 2013 - Mets-Team Venezuela @ Port St. Lucie

First day in camp. It was pretty quiet in the morning. Early start time, I didn't try to head out to the back fields in the morning. I'll be here for 5 more home games and 2 days without a home game, so I don't care about missing it today. For all I know, they didn't have it this morning. Batting Practice is a more quiet time since the Mets hardly hit inside the stadium where the fans are. A couple of autograph opportunities right before the game, but I don't push in like I used to, and I didn't get anything. I think it was Colin Cowgill and Marlon Bird and John Buck signing.

On to the game, and my first chance to watch the Mets in person in 2013. Jon Niese started, got hit around, the bullpen wasn't helping, the Mets weren't hitting initially, and they were down big. Then they started to come back and at least make it interesting. The ball was moving out to right (Miguel Cabrera of Team Venezuela hit one over the awning beyond the RF berm). In the end, the Mets lost 14-10.

For as much as they looked over-matched against Team Venezuela, we have to remember that one team is a team of top players all playing together getting ready for a tournament in 2 days, and the other team, for as much as we joke about them being a AAA team at best, is a team playing a mix of regulars and bench players, and later in the game, real minor leaguers, that is getting ready for a season that doesn't start for about 3 1/2 weeks, so I would have expected Venezuela to beat the Mets (and any WBC team competing against an MLB team right now to do the same).

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Saturday, March 2, 2013

World Baseball Classic

The World Baseball Classic is upon us. And I don't like it.

At least I don't like it in it's current form.

I like the concept. International competition among the top professional athletes in sports where the talent pools is diverse are the highest level competitions imaginable. Soccer has the World cup, a month-long tournament played every 4 years (separately Men's and Women's; they also have the Olympics, which is sometimes used as a second-tier tournament). Basketball has had International Championships and the Olympics, but I don't know what they have now because I became so disinterested in it. Hockey has their own World Cup (which has no real schedule), and before that, Canada's Cup and the Summit Series (with the old Soviet Union), as well the Olympics every 4 years. Those are some of the greatest competitions on ice, topping even the most dramatic Stanley Cup Finals.

It makes sense that the now-defunct Olympic baseball tournament and the World Baseball Classic are supposed to fall in line with Soccer, Basketball, and Hockey. But there's something missing. First, the Olympics dropped Baseball from the 2016 Rio Games. The Summer Olympics were always held during the MLB season, so it was never the top MLB players playing. Olympic Baseball never caught on as the type of competition that Olympic Basketball and Olympic Ice Hockey are.

So MLB invented the World Baseball Classic, supposed to have started play in 2005 and then every 4 years after that (there was some issue that delayed the first tournament until 2006, but keeping the math based on 2005, so 2009, 2013, and 2017, etc. for the subsequent tournaments). Okay, so why is it a joke? Oh yes, because it takes place during MLB's Spring Training season. It takes place not during the middle of the season when interest is high, or during the offseason when players are all available, but during MLB team's training camp.

It takes place at a time when players are supposed to be getting ready for the season, building up their strength (legs, hitting, and/or pitching), they are taken out of exhibition games getting ready for the job for which they are paid and moved into a high-level tournament. Pitchers are the biggest concern because they are commonly on pitch and inning counts during Spring Training and these days, they are also commonly coming off of injuries and/or surgery in the offseason and are really just getting their feet wet at this point in the MLB season when they are being asked to leave their jobs to play in this higher-level tournament. Or, the more common case, players are asked by their teams NOT to go play for their country and leave camp to play in the WBC, or sometimes, the player decides on their own that they can't play in the WBC. Past tournaments (and I don't know about this year) have had pitch counts for MLB pitchers (I don't know about the wealth of pitchers from other leagues, such as Japan).

I don't think a serious International tournament can have something such as pitch counts and players that are just warming up after an off-season slumber (offseason workouts are more likely the case than offseason slumber these days). So many players missing, and so many not in their top form.

Of course, there probably isn't a good time in which to hold the WBC. Especially if you want to rule out stopping or diluting the MLB's regular season in order to play this thing (I don't know the timing with respect to other leagues, such as in Japan). Offseason? I don't know. Pitchers are tired. Players are tired. Yes, there is a break for most of them in October and early November when they don't go to the post season. But there's surgery for pitchers in the offseason (I consider it more like an oil change and wheel alignment than rebuilding the transmission in most cases). Finishing right before Spring Training starts? Then you need a couple weeks of a training camp probably in January in order to build the pitchers up enough to play, and for the teams going out quickly, it's a stop and start scenario for them, which may not be real good. Video game only? It would be good in a video game to be able to build your own tournament format and play it, but if it's only in a video game, that doesn't help at all. But maybe this is all only a problem we have here in America with MLB players, and that's part of the reason why Japan and Korea have been a lot more successful than Team USA.

But it's baseball. Enjoy it.

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