By Barry Blair
(Editor’s note: This is Jonesborough author Barry Blair’s annual dispatch from spring training.)
We start with a beautiful Wednesday morning in Orlando, Fla. Eight a.m. and it is already 77 degrees as the sun continues to rise over the palm trees that surround the Atlanta spring training complex at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Braves players and coaches have been filing in since before daylight.
With over 60 players in their major league camp at this point, some are preparing to make the short trip by bus to Kissimmee where they will be taking on the Houston Astros in a 1:05 game. The rest will spend the morning working out here. By the end of the day, decisions will be made as the Braves start paring their roster to the 25-player opening day limit April 3.
Over the next few days, some top prospects will be reassigned to the minor league camp next door. This is not unexpected. The Braves are loaded with young players, most of whom are considered to be a year or two away from the majors. Remember the names Ozzie Albies, Mallex Smith, Lucas Sims, and Aaron Blair. Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, and the College Player of the Year from Vanderbilt, is in that group as well.
All have been impressive in the big camp, but they will start the year at either AA Mississippi or AAA Gwinnett, hoping to get called up. Also in camp are Jeff Franceour and Kelly Johnson, two of the former “Baby Braves” that burst on the scene back in the 2005 season. They are now battling for jobs as guys that can play several positions and pinch hit when needed, along with being a good presence in the clubhouse in mentoring the younger players. Both are favorites with the Atlanta fan base who are hoping they make the team.
We arrive at Kissimmee, 30 minutes from the Braves complex, for the afternoon game with the Astros. By game time it is in the upper 80s with a brisk wind. The Astros have a lot of good young players, including Carlos Correa, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, and Dallas Keuchel, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, who is pitching today. The Braves are starting with their top pitcher, Julio Teheran. Both are impressive. Teheran replacement Chris Volstad, a veteran who is fighting for a spot on the roster, gets rocked in the Braves loss and by the next morning they announce that they have given him his outright release.
The next morning, we stop in Lakeland, the home of the Detroit Tigers. They are playing the Philadelphia Phillies later that afternoon in Clearwater, which is where we are heading. The plan is to try and take in the Tigers workout for the players not making the trip, who include Johnson City’s Daniel Norris, who pitched a couple days earlier. After watching an awesome batting practice display by Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez, we locate Norris doing drills on an adjacent field with the other pitchers. Soon he comes back to the stadium and gets in his running along with Justin Verlander. He then shags balls in the outfield and chats with former Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon, who is back with the Tigers organization as Toledo Mud Hens (AAA) manager. Norris is in a battle for one of the two remaining spots in the Tigers starting rotation.
We make it across the bay in time for the Tigers-Phillies game in Clearwater. It is over 90 degrees with no breeze blowing. It’s hot and crowded, but we’re not complaining. On the roster for Philadelphia, battling for a job as a backup catcher is J.P. Arencibia, a onetime catcher for the Tennessee Vols. A former starter in Toronto, he spent most of last season at AAA with the Durham Bulls. He is also known around here as the husband of Greeneville’s Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry. The Phillies get two long, and very impressive home runs from rising star Maikel Franco on the way to the win.
On Friday we head out to the beautiful little town of Dunedin to see the Boston Red Sox take on the Toronto Blue Jays. This has become one of our favorite stops. It is the smallest of the spring training stadiums and this is the 40th season that the Blue Jays have trained there.
The Red Sox have two outfielders from Tennessee. Bryce Brentz hails from Knoxville via MTSU, and has spent the last couple of years going back and forth between the minor leagues and Boston. Mookie Betts, one of their rising young stars, hails from the Nashville area. Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, another former Tennessee Vol, is also from Nashville.
Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman, obviously a fan favorite with the Canadians, pitches five shutout innings to start the game and the Blue Jays go on to win in extra innings.
We find a plaque on the stadium wall honoring Daniel Norris as a former Dunedin player who has made it to the big leagues. Major League Baseball announces while we are here that on July 3, the Braves and the Miami Marlins will be playing a regular season game at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to honor our troops.
All in all it is a great trip, with five beautiful days of weather. If you like baseball, this is one trip you need to make. In no other sport do you have the proximity to the players and the action like you do in Spring Training.