By Barry Blair
It is a bright, beautiful morning in Lake Buena Vista, Florida – the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves.
Waiting his turn to step into the batting cage is a thin, obviously young player. He is wearing the high number 82 on his back, a sign that he is normally somewhere down the pecking order in the baseball way of life. It is a ritual that is taking place all across Florida and Arizona at this time of the year, players jumping in and out and taking their customary cuts at the ball.
The date is March 14, and rosters are still full at this time, a little past the midpoint of the spring season. But there is something different going on here, for when this player quickly glides in to take his turn at bat, all his teammates stop what they are doing to watch. So does the opposing team, the Philadelphia Phillies, who have been stretching and warming up behind the cage, waiting for their turn on the field. Those in the dugouts and bullpens step up to check it out as well. These guys have all seen scores of players take their cuts, and it takes a lot for someone to get their attention like this. He is a right-handed batter, and he quickly takes five swings. The first two leave the yard, over the fence in left-center field, and bound around the sidewalk near the Braves indoor batting facility.
The third one, still on the rise, hits the scoreboard in straight away center field, then bounces hard back onto the field.
Balls four and five are stinging line drive missiles into the gaps of the outfield, stopping only when they hit the wall. When he finishes and steps out of the cage, the players on both teams, shaking their heads, return to their normal activities.
It is the sound of the ball coming off his bat that is different. Scouts say he is the same class of player as Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. At this point, his batting average for spring training games is higher than any player in the Grapefruit League.
The young man’s name is Ronald Acuna, and he is only 20 years old. By late April, he will get his first chance in the major leagues. On this morning, he held the attention of everyone in the ballpark. A lower jersey number will be forthcoming.
Brandon Drury is trying to win the starting third base job for the New York Yankees. He is in a battle with Miquel Andujar, a younger player, for the position. Drury came over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade back in February, with the Yankees giving up second base prospect Nick Solak to the Tampa Bay Rays to get him. It is 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 13, on a side field outside the main stadium at their spring training complex in Tampa. They have a game that afternoon with the Detroit Tigers and some of the Yankees have come over early to take batting practice.
When they finish, Drury stays behind to have a coach hit him balls at third base. For the next hour, he works on hard hit grounders, first to his right side, then to his left, all the while making the long throws over to first. It pays off for him. On the following Saturday, he makes a hard play going to his right off of the bat of the Tigers perennial All-Star, Miquel Cabrera. It makes the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 Plays of the Day, where I see it after returning home from Florida. The next day the Yankees announce the Andujar will start the season at AAA ball and Drury will be the starting third baseman in New York.
For now, the job is his to lose. He knows a sluggish start at the plate starting the season can hasten the return of Andujar. A fast start can change the narrative. Such are the stories of spring training.
Here is a rundown of the games I saw and the stadiums visited. The first day was the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles playing at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
It was a night game, which is somewhat unusual for spring training. But it was a beautiful evening, with a stunning sky and the weather was perfect. An interesting tidbit I learned while down there was that Cal Ripken Jr. has a son, Ryan, playing in the Orioles farm system. He has been released by one team already and then signed by Baltimore, getting a second chance.
The next day it was off to Dunedin to see the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays in what is my favorite stop down there. I arrived early and parked in the VFW parking lot right across the street from the stadium. The club is open, and they invite you in for food and drink.
Early morning showers had to be waited out, but things cleared up by game time. The Blue Jays have announced a new long-term deal with Dunedin, including renovations and expansion to the stadium.
It is always fun to mingle and talk with the many Canadians who come down to support their Blue Jays. They have been coming here since 1977, the only spring training home they have ever known.
Staying in Tampa, right down the street from the Yankee complex, and in the middle of the area to be traveled, works best for me. The following morning, it was the short trip to Steinbrenner Field to see the Yankees and Tigers.
There is much buzz with the Yankees over the addition of National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to their lineup, especially after the emergence last season of American League Rookie of the Year, Aaron Judge. Judge was just trying to establish himself last year in spring training and make the team, pretty much going about without much fanfare. This year is different, as he is hounded by fans and the media everywhere he goes after his record-setting year.
Over 10,000 fans turned out the first day just to watch him and Stanton take batting practice. The Yankees have made several additions to their stadium in the last couple of years, including more bars and restaurants in both the left and right field corners, and they have extended the seating in the outfield. It is the largest of the Florida spring training stadiums.
The last stop was to see the Braves in the Orlando area. They are building a new complex in North Port, near Sarasota, and will be moving there for the 2020 season. The plan is to have it ready in time to kick things off with the last game of the 2019 spring season in the new stadium. When they do move, while they have had great facilities at Disney, no one will miss having to fight the traffic coming and going from Orlando. It seems to only get worse every year.
I saw the Braves play the Phillies as I talked about earlier, and went back and spent the next morning on the back fields watching the player workouts. It was there that I ran into former ETSU catcher Hagan Owenby, who is playing in the Braves minor league system. On this day, they had Fred McGriff back as a special instructor, and he was working alongside longtime Braves coaches Eddie Perez, and Terry Pendleton, who began his career in Johnson City with the Cardinals.
Johnson City is well represented in Florida this season. Will Little returns as an established umpire, following a year in which he was selected to call games in the World Baseball Classic, and also was honored with an assignment in the major league playoffs. Daniel Norris seems to once again be in the battle for a spot in the Detroit Tigers starting rotation. Will Craig with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Will Carter of the Yankees, have seen action with their respective major league teams in some spring training games, but are probably slotted to start the season in the minors.
The MLB regular season starts on Thursday, March 29, which is a few days earlier than it has been in the past. Also, let me close by saying, be sure to come out and support the local teams in the Appalachian League when it starts up in June. We have five teams within a 30-minute drive of Johnson City. One interesting change this year is the affiliation of the Cincinnati Reds in Greeneville. There are a lot of Reds fans who live in the northeast Tennessee area, and that will be a plus for them. Hope to see you at a game!
Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.rightfieldpress.com.