(The following was written at 3 PM in a noisy, sun-filled terminal by a guy who wished he didn't have to leave)
Before I arrived here on Friday, I had heard somewhere that the sky is different in Arizona. Up until today and a few instances yesterday afternoon, I wouldn't even have been able to tell if there was a difference to begin with. Figures that the first time Phoenix gets a measurable amount of rain for the first time in forever happens the same time I come to town for spring training.
But one thing that no amount of weather can take away is the sheer fascination of the baseball fan that instinctively flocks to Arizona ants to a cube of sugar on the ground. I noticed it almost immediately upon landing in Sky Harbor International: There were baseball fans everywhere. The rental car line was filled with team hats of clubs scattered all across the state: Giants, Cubs, A's...even a litany of teams that don't even hold spring training in Arizona. Naturally I was the only one around me I could see brandishing Rangers colors but it's okay, I like things that way.
The complex in Surprise is really a sight to see. Everywhere you look, turn, sneeze - there's a baseball guy. Friday afternoon involved a spirited conversation between Ron Washington and John Mayberry Sr. taking place behind the chain link fence of the backstop separating me, the average baseball fan, from the future of the organization playing an intrasquad game.
Jon Daniels was everywhere I looked, usually on the phone. (Typical general manager.)
I saw firsthand what a spirited guy Ron Washington is. If anybody in baseball dislikes this man, I'd like to know who.
Rangers prospect Michael Schlact is one of the most refined, well-mannered guys I've ever seen. He handles himself like a guy who has been in the league for years.
At Saturday afternoon's game, I saw Victor Rojas and had a chance to speak with him again. Victor is quickly becoming one of my most-liked people within the game of baseball for two reasons: 1. He's really the first contact I've made since I began this whole blogging/writing/journalistic experiment around two years ago and 2. You could be miles away from the nearest ballfield but just by talking to the man you get an overwhelming desire to drop everything you're doing and searching out the nearest game, regardless of whether it's professional, college, high school, or Little League.
The ballpark in Surprise, like the rest of the complex shared with the Royals, is impeccable. I compare it to a combination between minor league ballparks, the two that stood out were Frisco and Oklahoma City. Again, never a great deal of fans for the home team, but when you're in Arizona around a bunch of people who just love watching baseball, does it really matter? I don't think so. When I die and go to heaven, I want it to be in a place like Surprise and have every day be spring training. Sure it's hell for players who get sick of the six week grind during the months of March and April, but for me it would be fine. Good weather, awesome scenery, an baseball coming out the wazoo.
It seems like every spring training there's a guy who catches lightning in a bottle. This year, that someone is Matt Kata. He's been a spark plug on offense and has played smart defensively. At this point I see no reason why a bench tandem of Jerry Hairston in the outfield/infield and Kata as an infield/outfielder wouldn't work for this team. We've seen last year what a huge asset having Mark DeRosa type flexibility on your team can do when they need a boost. I'm not trying to say Matt Kata or even Hairston can put up the numbers he did last season, but if they can continue doing what they've put together so far this spring, then boy oh boy.
The pitching has kind of been an iffy situation as of late, although I enjoyed what Eric Gagne brought to the table the first time I saw him pitch on Friday in Surprise. He struggled at first, throwing eight balls in a row at one point and allowing a hit. But then he changed his approach to hitters and began throwing his breaking pitches earlier in the count. Once he started that, he began using the fastball later in the at-bat and it turned out to be a successful move for Gagne - he struck out Kevin Mench and Bill Hall and made them both look clueless in the process. If he can continue throwing his breaking stuff at the level he has during the spring, it won't matter if his fastball isn't approaching the same velocity it was while he was breaking records and winning Cy Young Awards with the Dodgers.
Which brings me to where I am now: Sitting in Sky Harbor International Airport waiting on a plane back to Dallas/Fort Worth, where I hear it�s raining like hell. I already miss the sun even though it�s currently shining through this terminal window making my back hot as hell. But it�s all good�.baseball season, and the best time of the year in my book, officially begins less than a week from now.