"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Baseball Odyssey

For someone utterly un-used to being in any sort of motor vehicle for more than half an hour at a stretch, a two-hour drive is an arduous thing, especially twice in one day. And even more particularly when, by some strange twist of nature, one's right ear is exposed to constant, unavoidable and unfiltered sunshine both ways. (One's right ear is now approximately the color of the "Twins" script emblazoned upon one's jersey, thanks for asking.)

Interstate 75 wanders along the west coast of Florida through vast swaths of palm and cypress which occasionally part momentarily to reveal a fleeting glimpse of an RV dealership or an isolated trailer park. According to MapQuest, it is the fastest way to get from Fort Myers to Bradenton, spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The speed limit is 70, unless you're driving a Corvette, in which case it seems to be around 140. We and our rented Dodge Neon arrived in Bradenton, sans speeding ticket, in two hours and forked over the munificent sum of five dollars for the privilege of parking in front of the smallest auto repair shop on earth, two blocks from McKechnie Field.

If I hadn't been at Hammond Stadium already, McKechnie would have been much more impressive. It is the pearl to Hammond's jewel--a thing of beauty in its own right, but less sparkling. The facade is simple yet elegant, the field well-groomed and inviting, the low outfield wall ringed with palm trees. We were seated four rows up from the field close behind third base. Unlike the Dome, the box seats aren't raised above the field but begin at field level and slope gently upward from there.

The game itself was a delight. The Twins treated us to a perfect mixture of current, potentially current, and future players. Highly-regarded righthanded pitching prospect Scott Baker, a mere two years from his draft date and a 2004 veteran of high-A, AA and AAA assignments, took the mound for the Twins. His task for his two innings of play was, I believe, to practice grooving the ball in on the batters. Word of advice, Scott--just a titch less inside, 'k? You didn't hit anybody, but wow, did you get a load of the reflexes on those first-inning batters?

Boof Bonser followed Baker to the mound, giving a scoreless but unremarkable performance. Dave Gassner then pitched two impressive innings, working quickly, mixing pitches and getting outs. Yay, applied fundamentals! If this is how he usually performs (and his 2004 stats indicate that's a distinct possibility), I can see him being near or at the top of the list should someone in Minnesota fall to injury. Late in the game Scott Tyler came in and surrendered the first Pirates run on a long homer to right. But hey, this is a single-A player, and it was a solo homer. Willie Eyre (who, like Rivas, Ryan, Balfour, Bartlett and Silva, knows how a baseball player should set up his socks vis-a-vis his pants) emerged to wrap up the game for the Twins, coughing up another solo homer to right but, that one pitch aside, looking pretty darn good.

The position players went on a bit of a hitting spree, at least compared to their first two games. Toward this end, the Pirates pitching and defense were obligingly erratic. Mike "Lumpy" Ryan was seeing the ball well, waiting on his pitch and swinging smoothly. Joe Mauer remains the most patient hitter these weary eyes have ever beheld. Jacque Jones showed more patience than was his wont last season, which admittedly isn't saying a whole lot, but is still encouraging. Lew Ford continues to drill himself into the ground whenever he errs in thinking that he's got a fastball in his sights.

The fielders were in midseason form, plucking line drives out of thin air and pouncing on hot grounders with reckless abandon. Cuddyer, miracle of miracles, made not one but two nifty plays and didn't air-mail a single ball to his dear friends, the first-base-side fans. Good show, Mikey! Now keep doing that, and I may eventually forgive you for the last three years. Later in the game, he came on with two runners in scoring position and two outs, and I promised that I would take back every nasty thing I'd said about him in the last week--a full seven days of bad-mouthing!--if he'd just get a hit right now. He lofted a desultory popout to shallow second.

The star of the whole show, in my vaguely humble opinon, was Jason Bartlett. He was composed at the plate, recording two hits and reminding us all that Guzman isn't the only shortstop around who can break the sound barrier on his way to first. But we all knew he could hit, we all knew he was fast. His fielding, footwork and positioning in particular, has been the wall between him and a major-league career. In this game he was nearly flawless. He showed range and good judgement, positioning himself well and reacting correctly to plays that happened too fast to allow for deliberation. And if he still struggles somewhat with a tendency to over-throw, his worst lob was still within reasonable stretching distance for the first baseman, and no outs were ever in jeopardy. In sum, he looked like a major-league shortstop, though he was far from it mere months ago. But he, like Cuddyer, will need to repeat performances like this many times over before we truly believe.

The drive tomorrow is far too long, so we're sticking close to Fort Myers, seeing the sights and taking in a minor-league hockey game. Baseball reporting will resume in response to Monday's game at Hammond Stadium versus the Devil Rays, the morning after which I will be dragged kicking and screaming from my tropical paradise onto a plane bound for Minne-snow-ta. Sigh.

Oh, and if you ever get the chance to eat pineapple sorbet while watching baseball on a sunny day just shy of being too warm, do take it. It's divine.

Look! Photos!

2 rejoinders:

Anonymous sounded off...

Yay! Buttshots!


MM sounded off...

Yay! Crotch bulges!