By Barry Blair
Baseball season is upon us. Opening day last Sunday was a triple header of games kicking off the season which included the nightcap, featuring the Chicago Cubs at their arch rival the St. Louis Cardinals. The popular Cubs lost to the Cardinals in a close game. Having just finished a few days in sunny Florida, I thought I would touch on some things observed with a Tennessee twist, plus a few other things thrown in as well. In the lovely little town of Dunedin, what a thrill it was to see Detroit come in to play Toronto before a full house, especially with Johnson City native Daniel Norris starting the game. It was his first return to Dunedin since he was traded from the Blue Jays to the Tigers. Coming into the spring, he was said to be battling for the fifth spot in their starting rotation. On this day, he pitched the first five innings, giving up four hits and two runs.
Blue Jays into double play balls and he struck out five batters. A throwing error on an attempted steal by his catcher James McCann led to one of the runs he gave up. He left with the Tigers down 2-1, but they came back to take the lead, before giving up three runs in the 9th inning to lose 6-5. His manager, Brad Ausmus, praised Norris after the game, telling reporters, “He’s maturing as a pitcher…he was good”, he also commented he was “pleased with his ability to make pitches to get their batters to hit into double plays with ground balls.”
Norris appears to be leaving spring training having moved up to the fourth spot in the Tiger’s pitching rotation. USA Today last week picked him as a player to watch this season.
At the Yankees camp at Tampa, I observed several New York batters working with their hitting coach, Alan Cockrell. Remember him? He was a three-year starter at quarterback for the Tennessee Vols back in the early 80’s for Coach Johnny Majors, as well as being an All-American baseball player. He out-dueled Boomer Esiason and Maryland in leading Tennessee to a win in the 1983 Florida Citrus Bowl. Selected as a first round draft choice (9th overall), later that year by the San Francisco Giants in the MLB draft, he left UT a year early to pursue his baseball dreams. He would play 13 seasons in the minors before finally getting called up to the Colorado Rockies for a brief shot in the big leagues. For several seasons he has worked at the major league level as a hitting coach. One of the guys he was working with that morning was the Yankees starting 3rd baseman, Chase Headley. He is also a former Vol. In 2004 he was named the baseball team’s MVP, along with achieving Academic All-American. He first played for the San Diego Padres in 2007 who traded him to the Yankees in 2014 and took over at third for Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees have spent several million dollars upgrading their spring training stadium,
George M. Steinbrenner Field. As the Yankees do, it is the largest spring training stadium with the amenities that go with it, including a brand new two-story merchandise store.
Johnson City’s Will Little, a major league umpire, was picked to work the World Baseball
Championship games played in San Diego. He would normally have been in Florida for the Grapefruit League at this time, but had just wrapped up his duties on the West coast. He called home plate in two of the WBC games I watched on TV. This was quite an honor for the young umpire to be selected for the championship series which drew record attendance and television ratings. Because of the WBC, spring training was a week longer this year and most every team had players in it giving more guys the chance to play in the major league games in Florida and Arizona.
In Orlando, the Braves are playing out their contract through 2018 at Walt Disney World’s Champion Stadium. They will be moving into their own facility soon to be built in North Port outside of Sarasota. This season the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals moved into an adjacent training stadium site in West Palm Beach, further down the east coast and away from the Orlando area.
I also watched a Braves game against the Miami Marlins: The Braves starter was 42-year old knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey. He is a Nashville native and a former Vol pitcher as well. On this day, the knuckler wasn’t working too well and got beaten around pretty good. Let’s hope this isn’t a precursor of things to come for him and the Braves.
His catcher, Kurt Suzuki, struggled a bit catching his knuckleball when it did get by the hitters. The Braves hope they can get a good year out of Dickey as they continue to bring along young prospects in their top rated farm system. As the old saying goes, time will tell. On the day I am writing this article, the Braves had the worst record in Spring Training, but then again the Cubs had only two more wins than the Braves. Nobody is gnashing their teeth over them.
Fredi Gonzales, fired early last season as manager of the Braves, made his return to Champions Stadium as the third base coach for Don Mattingly’s Marlins.
Speaking of Mattingly, he took infield practice at first base with his team and the former Yankee star looked to me like he could still play.
The following morning started with a stop in Lakeland at the Tigers’ facility. The big leaguers were off but over 100 players from the minors were working out on the adjacent fields. The Tigers have also spent a lot of money overhauling Joker Marchant Stadium where they have been playing spring training games for 52 seasons. They have been in Lakeland for 81 years, the longest continuous relationship in the majors. I headed to Bradenton, getting there just in time to catch the Pittsburgh Pirates game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Again, a lot of money has been spent fixing up what is now known as Lecom Field.
The naming rights have been sold and for years was known as McKechnie Field. You now have seating, food, and drinks, all around the stadium, where in the past it went no further than the baselines. The Pirates have trained there since 1969. I had hoped that Johnson City’s Will Craig, the Pirates first round draft pick last year out of Wake Forest, might be moved up for the day to play in this game. He was still listed as being in the minor league camp. Hopefully in the next year or two he will be up with the major league club.
If you love baseball, spring training in the Grapefruit League is the place to be. You’ve got beautiful weather, more intimate stadiums, players carrying in their own bags and equipment, and interaction with the fans. In Dunedin, after two straight foul balls bounced off an SUV parked down the left field line into the players lot, a fan hollered at Tigers left fielder Justin Upton, “Hey Upton, those balls just got your car.” He glanced over, shrugged his shoulders, then replied, “No problem, it’s a rental!”
Only in spring training.