Tuesday, March 21, 2006

4 Days in the Valley

I just returned last night from my annual trip to Arizona for Spring Training Cactus League baseball. This tradition started in 2003 when, on a whim, I flew out to Surprise to see the Royals play the Brewers and flew home the same evening. The combination of the baseball and sunshine hooked me on Arizona in March.

This year’s trip included me, my son Joey, my brother Harry and my good friend Dan. In the past, we’ve visited Mesa (home of the Cubs), Scottsdale (home of the Giants), and Surprise (where the Rangers and Royals train). This year, we added a new destination – Tucson – to see the Cubs play at the White Sox.

The story of the trip for me was my left ear and the weather. I’ll get to the weather later, but two days before I flew to Arizona, an infection took up residence in my left ear, finally bursting through my ear drum. I took antibiotics the entire trip which helped, but my ear remained plugged up the entire time, meaning I was only able to hear about half of the conversations.

Friday the weather was beautiful. We had breakfast in Surprise then headed to the Surprise Recreation Campus. The Royals’ practice fields open to the public at 10:00, but we didn’t get there until around 11:00. We watched as the major leaguers took BP. On the minor league fields, we watched as Frank White and other coaches worked the youngsters on various drills including pick-off and run-down drills (which seem to be the most popular drills in these camps).

We headed over to Surprise Stadium for the 1:10 first pitch of the Royals/Brewers game. Just like years past, the gift shop took a bunch of my money before the first pitch was thrown.

We sat in our seats right behind home plate and saw Denny Bautista dominate the Brewers’ hitters. The only hiccup was a 5th inning homerun to Core Koskie. We also saw Luke Hudson, Joel Peralta, Joe Nelson, and Leo Nunez pitch as the Royals won 8-4. Offensively, both John Buck and Reggie Sanders were 3-3.

After the game, we headed to the pizza place where we ate last year and had some wings and pizza. Of course, we forgot to show out ticket stubs to receive the advertised 20% off our bill. Oh well. The day ended with some relaxing at the hotel getting caught up in all the upsets in the NCAA tournament.

On Saturday we headed to Tucson to see the Cubs at the White Sox. It was about an hour and a half drive and we arrived around 10:00. We wandered into the White Sox practice facility to see the minor leaguers play in 2 games on adjacent fields. Some major leaguers were there to get some at-bats in, so we saw Jermaine Dye, AJ Pierzynski, and Paul Konerko. After sawing off several bats, Pierzynski brought the broken bats out and handed them to some kids. A nice gesture. Paul Konerko came over and briefly signed some autographs before heading back to the clubhouse.

We headed to Tucson Electric Park around noon to claim our spot on the outfield berm. Unfortunately, we weren’t enjoying the nice Arizona weather that we expected. It was a little chilly with a brisk 20-30 MPH wind blowing right in our faces. I didn’t watch much of the game. I had my XM MyFi with me, so I tuned into the World Baseball Classic game between Dominican and Cuba that was going on at the same time and took a little nap in the sunshine. I awoke with a sunburn and with the Cubs losing to the White Sox. After an exhausting day, we headed back to the hotel in Tempe. I felt sorry for my brother Harry since he was driving while the rest of us snoozed.

The weather really took a turn for the worse on Sunday. We got an early start in hopes of seeing the Cubs practice at Fitch Park in Mesa. We had a delicious breakfast at Denny’s and as we walked to the car, the rain started to fall. We arrived at the park to find several empty fields. We waited around for a while, but gave up and headed to Ho Ho Kam Park where the Cubs play their games. With the temperature around 45 degrees, our best strategy seemed to be hanging out in the gift shop. They didn’t get quite as much of my money as the folks in Surprise, but Joey did get an old-school Cubs cap.

In the concourse, the Cubs wives were having a silent auction to raise money for charity. Several items piqued my interest, including autographed balls of Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek. Also of interest was a Jeff Bagwell autographed bat. We didn’t think the $200 bid price was too bad considering Bagwell is a certain Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, the Cubs wives don’t know much about running a silent auction. We were told the auction would end “around 1:00.” Anybody who’s bid in a silent auction knows that the end time must be precise and well known. At any rate, since nobody had bid on the Reggie Sanders ball by 12:50, I walked over and put down the minimum bid of $20. I waited the 10 minutes until 1:00 and expected to pay for my ball. But, for some reason, they decided to changed the end time to 1:30. At about 1:10, somebody else had bid $30 for the Sanders ball, pushing it out of my price range. They were also selling game used batting helmets for $25 each. I was amazed at how many people were willing to pay for those dirty old things.

The game started right on time at 1:10 in the rain. Joey and I tried to join Dan and Harry, but after a half inning, we were just too cold and wet. Joey hadn’t packed a winter coat, and I’ve been fighting an ear infection and other ailments, so we decided to wait in the car. I used the MyFi to tune into the game and Joey and I got in a nice afternoon’s nap.

By the time the game ended, the clouds were clearing off and the temperature seemed to rise a bit. We found a nearby golf course and were going to try to hit some balls at the driving range. We picked the wrong course, since an employee there caught us in the parking lot to inform us that we weren’t properly dressed. He directed us to a course down the road that would accept bums like us (my words, not his). The driving range there was closed, so we played a quick 9 holes. I was impressed with how well Joey hit the ball in his first every foray onto a golf course. By the time we finished, the sun was sinking and it was getting chilly again. We headed to a Mexican restaurant near ASU and had dinner before getting back to the hotel for bed.

By the fourth day, we were getting tired of the bad weather and were hoping for a good day. Luckily, the sun was shining and the temperature hovered in the upper 60’s. Not quite the Arizona weather we like, but good enough.

We got to Surprise just as they opened the gates to the practice facilities and were able to see the minor leaguers hard at work. Joey and I watched as some very young players (single A?) botched pickoff/run-down drills. The coaches were getting pretty frustrated, so we wandered over to the AA field. We watched as Frank White coached infielders on different situations. In one case, a slow grounder was barehanded by the second baseman who fired to first base. It was an impressive play, but White walked out to the mound to reprimand him. With a runner on second base, White says it is more important to field the ball cleanly than to make a spectacular play at first. If he hadn’t have barehanded the ball cleanly, the runner at second would have scored.

The major leaguers finally made their way to their fields at about 11:00 for BP. We staked out a spot down the right field line in hopes of snagging a foul ball. None came our way, but Chip Ambres finally saw us and tossed a ball our way. Joey ran up to try to grab Alex Gordon’s autograph on the ball, but had to settle for Leo Nunez.

At about 12:00, we decided to head into the stadium, but not before we were able to grab Denny Bautista to add his signature to our ball. Once we were in the stadium, we killed some time down the third base line to soak in some sunshine. Joey was able to get Alex Gordon’s autographed when he walked into the ballpark. Later, he snagged Mark Grudzielanek’s autograph as well.

When the game started, we watched as a pitcher who we thought was Luke Hudson get knocked around in the 2nd inning. The PA announcer told us that Hudson was starting, but the Royals made a last minute change in order to see how Hudson would do in short relief. That gave Danny Tamayo the start and he struggled badly, giving up 5 runs in the 2nd inning. We were also able to see Hideo Nomo and his annoying wind up as he was fairly effective with his slow junk against the Royals’ aggressive batters.

Doug Mientkiewicz had a good game, going 3-3 with a 3-run homerun and 4 RBI’s. The Royals were able to tie it up, but Ambiorix Burgos gave up the lead in the 7th. He opened the inning by giving up a triple to Brian Anderson, who then scored on a wild pitch. Burgos recovered though and was impressive retiring the side.

After the game, we had to hustle to the airport to catch our flight back to snowy KC. Our flight was delayed slightly by the weather, but we made up the time and arrived in KC right on time.

I got home just in time to catch the final two innings of Japan’s win over Cuba in the World Baseball Classic championship game.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow. u type a lot.