Next Year is Here

Detroit Tigers @ Chicago White Sox

2012 Regular Season. Chicago White Sox host Detroit Tigers at US Cellular Field on the South Side of Chicago, their first home game of the new year. It’s a great time of year. Those up north can take a break from the long winter and breath in renewed hope for the new season. On Opening Day, everyone is in first place. Its theirs to lose. For the rest of us hopeless fans, It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Next year is here.

Recently minted 25-man rosters hit the floor running and can go from weathering the climatic shock of the beaming grapefruit or cactus hot sun to working the layers of thermals, stretching, and warming up in more ways than one. The weather during game time held near 65 degrees.

It’s Opening Day on Friday the 13th which is ironic in the baseball world of superstition. On this day, an estimated 38,676 paid. When prices at the ticket window are $75.00 for standing room only, you get in the Chicago way, or the second market. Lots of people not at work here, controlled chaos. The crowd was elbow to elbow, like a scene at your friendly neighborhood nightclub. although the drunk and obnoxious may outnumber the bouncers if something breaks out. It’s “Sweet Home Chicago” no less.

For the most part, Chicago White Sox start the season on the road before settling into the south side. The first game ever played here at US Cellular Field was also against the Detroit Tigers in the 1991 inaugural year, when it was Comiskey Park II. You won’t see that game in any Chicago White Sox highlight reels. Detroit Tigers massed 19 hits and scored 16 unanswered runs. On a good note, Chicago White Sox had some winning moments, later in the nineties, to drown that day out.

2012 was the first year without Ozzie Guillen as Chicago White Sox Manager. He and former White Sox teammate Robin Ventura have a side game of career jeopardy throughout the season. Ozzie Guillen jumped ship, as skipper, to accept the manager position with the newly rebranded Miami Marlins. White sox granted him a release from the one year remaining in his contract, within a couple of days, the news came out, leaked by Ozzie Guillen, that he would be heading for South Beach, departing before the start of the final 3-game homestand in the 2011 season with the Toronto Blue Jays Apparently it was part of a marketing campaign to stage Ozzie’s arrival in south Florida and to usher in a new era. Pitching Coach Don Cooper managed the last three games for the Chicago White Sox.

Former White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura was enjoying retirement life with his family in his oceanfront property in California when Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and President Kenny Williams came knocking on his door, during the off-season, to pre-emptively offer him the job as Chicago White Sox Manager. Meanwhile, the party at South Beach would take a hard turn when Ozzie Guillen made comments favorable to Fidel Castro during 2012 spring camp that infuriated the Cuban-American community in South Florida. In Chicago, he would probably get a little shade at most. In Miami, its equal to hugging the third rail. That was the beginning of the end for the Miami Marlins. A sequence of controversial moves from the front office led to a mid-season free agency yard sale and Ozzie Guillen’s dismissal of his duties when the season ended. Robin Ventura was busy with the growing pains of his new position while steering his team to a record of 85-77. After constant pushback for his laid-back demeanor and the upcoming losing seasons, he eventually saw the writing on the wall and ended his tenure in 2016.     

So, what is the name of that park on the south side? Like other naming rights arrangements, it’s a series of shameless bids focused on the highest bidder as opposed to the ring tone of a pronoun mounted over the main entrance. From 2003 to 2016, the name was US Cellular Field. Now, it’s come down to the current “Guaranteed Rate Field.” Maybe it was a good payout but the red arrow on the logo that points down is not good optics, the most out-of-touch signage. But, the good people at Miami Marlins organization said “hold my beer,” securing naming rights this year with loanDepot. They have dropped big money to enter the world of baseball. They will also be sponsoring award presentations and are the official mortgage company of Major League Baseball.   

Opening day this year is on April 8th to start a 3-game home stand against the Kansas City Royals. They started on the road again for a 4-game set with Anaheim Angels. Chicago White Sox come into the 2021 season as an off-season winner. They were busy on the hot stove making additions to put them in the post season conversation. And, there’s another familiar face at the manager position in Tony LaRussa to keep things controversial as usual. Sometimes, bad guys wear black.

World Baseball Classic

2017 World Baseball Classic: 16 countries brought their best national baseball team to compete for the large silver trophy in an international contest that includes current MLB players. They don’t reach this level without the fire of competition. But, playing for your country undoubtedly raises the stakes on this world stage. It’s priceless. The round robin tournament is played in 4-pools of 4-teams.

First rounds were held in facilities listed below.

Pool A: Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul (South Korea)

  • Israel
  • Netherlands
  • South Korea
  • Chinese Taipei

Pool B: Tokyo Dome in Tokyo (Japan)

  • Japan
  • Cuba
  • Australia
  • China

Pool C: Marlins Park Miami. Florida (USA)

  • Dominican Republic
  • United States
  • Colombia
  • Canada

Pool D: Estadio Charro in Zapopan, Jalisco (Mexico)

  • Puerto Rico
  • Venezuela
  • Italy
  • Mexico

Second round hosted advancing countries in 2-pools of 4-teams.

Pool E Tokyo Dome in Tokyo (Japan)

  • Japan
  • Netherlands
  • Israel
  • Cuba

Pool F Petco Park in San Diego, California (USA)

  • Puerto Rico
  • United States
  • Dominican Republic
  • Venezuela

And, the semi-final and final games were held at,

Championship Round Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, California (USA)

  • Netherlands
  • Puerto Rico
  • United States
  • Japan

This was the fourth iteration of the WBC. Initially, it was to be held every 3-years when it first opened in 2006. The second one was held in 2009 but an adjustment is made to avoid from having the events on the same year as the Olympics. That was followed by 2013 and 2017. By this time, Japan wins in 2006 and 2009. Those trophies are found in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Dominican Republic came into 2017 as the undefeated reigning Champions of 2013.

Modeled after the FIFA World Cup, the event was initially sanctioned by International Baseball Federation as a response to International Olympic Committee’s decision to remove baseball from the summer games. World Baseball Classic also helped to achieve the MLB goal of expanding global interest in the sport. The atmosphere brings the best of a play-off game and a national festival in one. Regardless of who’s playing where, its undeniable that the world is watching. Here are two visits from First Round Pool C and Second Round Pool F.

Team Colombia @ Team USA

MARLINS PARK (Miami, Florida). First Round in Pool C Team Colombia Plays in the World Baseball Classic for the first time and the fans make them feel at home. Colombia advanced from a qualification pool with Panama, Spain, & France in March of 2016. Team Israel also debuted in 2017, playing their first round in South Korea. Colombian native Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox) started for Team Columbia and had a no-hitter against Team USA for 5 innings, until Brandon Crawford (San Francisco Giants) snapped it and started a 2-run rally to tie it up in the bottom of the sixth inning. Adam Jones (Baltimore Orioles) had an RBI double in that rally and the walk off hit in the 10th inning. 

Team Dominican Republic @ Team Puerto Rico

PETCO PARK (San Diego, California). Second round in pool F opens with Team Puerto Rico at home versus Dominican Republic, the defending WBC 2013 Champions. Both teams came into the game undefeated, a rematch from the Final game 4 years ago. Fans migrated from around the world to cheer for their country. And, this game was no different. Dominican Republic started the 1st inning threatening to score with men on base and no outs. It ended with a double play that started with a putout in right field by Edwin Rosario (Minnesota Twins) and a great throw to Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals) to get the runner at home trying to score for the third out. Team Dominican Republic Manager Tony Pena was ejected late in the game for arguing balls and strikes. Needless to say, he did not go away easily. Both teams were grinding for runs the rest of the game. Yadier Molina hit a home run in the sixth to serve as an insurance run. He was also on the other end of another epic play in the 8th inning when he threw out Nelson Cruz trying to steal second base and in an apparent no-look tag by Javy Baez at second base. Puerto Rico held Dominican Republic for the win.

As it turned out, both home teams of my two visits (United States and Puerto Rico) met for the final championship game in Dodger Stadium. Puerto Rico entered the game with an undefeated record to no avail. MVP Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) was starting pitcher for Team USA and held the offense to one hit in six innings. Meanwhile, the Team USA line-up who were all-exclusively MLB players combined for 13 hits and 8 unanswered runs. This loss was especially tough for Team Puerto Rico as they also lost the championship game to Team Dominican Republic in 2013. The large silver trophy went to the country where this game was born. Team USA Manager Jim Leyland was asked what this trophy meant to him. “I’ve had the honor of managing for our country. The coached had the honor of coaching for our country. The players had the honor of playing for our country. But this is for the men and women that serve our country. Thank you very much,” said Jim Leyland.

In a “Non-COVID-19 World,” we would’ve already enjoyed a 2020 Summer Olympic Games that included baseball and softball back into the games for the first time since 2004. We would have also been in the midst of championship week once again with the 2021 World Baseball Classic. The good news is the Summer Olympic Games are back on track for Summer of 2021. Qualifier games are expected to be played in June. The bad news is that the World Baseball Classic has folded with no clear path to rescheduling it. Among other factors, its fate hinges on the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and players union and, once again, the event finds itself overlapping with the timeline for the summer games. But, the storied relationship between the powers that be does not end nor start there.

Major League High School

2012 Central Florida Spring Break Slam was a nationally recognized 16 team tournament held at 3 schools in the greater Orlando area; Dr. Phillips High School, Wekiva High School, and West Orange High School. It gave these scholastics athletes a genuine opportunity to show what they had to professional scouts and college coaches. The premiere event was scheduled to be televised on the local Bright House Sports Network.

The first game of this weeklong tournament was played at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida. Fun fact, there is a little high school located on Turkey Lake Road, behind the main entrance to Universal Studios, where some MLB players first chased their dreams to play in the big leagues. Those Dr. Phillips Alumni are Dan Miceli, A.J. Pierzynski, and Johnny Damon. They are among the numbers retired in right field of the Dr. Phillips Panthers home field. Alongside them, you will also find the number 19 for the late Scott James Muhlhan who played for the Dr. Phillips Panthers in the early 1990’s. Orlando Sentinel reported that Scott James Muhlhan died from cancer on Sunday January 11, 1998 at the age of 23. “It was Scott James Muhlhan’s cool composure and fiery determination that helped him succeed both as a baseball player and a businessman.” wrote Martin Comas of the Sentinel staff. After leading his team to the state play-offs, he went on to attend University of Central Florida where he also played and received a degree in Business Management. After which, he followed in his father’s foot steps as a pharmaceutical salesman. This is the Scott James Muhlhan Baseball Complex.

City of Windermere’s Olympia Titans faced Satellite Scorpions from City of Satellite Beach. Starting shortstop for the Olympia Titans was sophomore Nick Gordon. He is the son of Tom “Flash” Gordon who pitched in the big leagues for 21 years. He was also on hand for support. From a distance, Nick’s hopping silhouette at shortstop slightly resembled that of Ernie Banks. That may be an unfair comparison but it was my first thought. His brother Dee Gordon has been an MLB player since 2011. In 2020, he was an infielder for the Seattle Mariners. This year, he signed a minor contract with the Cincinnati Reds and has been in their spring training camp. He’s remembered for hitting that most unlikely home run in the “Jose Fernandez Game” of 2016, the first game after the said pitcher’s tragic death. Brother Nick Gordon would be drafted out of Olympia High School in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Minnesota Twins. He’s been in their minor league system since then. Last year, he tested positive for Covid-19 followed by being in career jeopardy as every other minor league player found themselves in. This year he was in spring training for depth and was recently optioned back to the minors.

The championship game was held at West Orange High School baseball field in Winter Garden, Florida; home of the West Orange Warriors. Olympia Titans beat the Rockledge Raiders (City of Rockledge) to take the 2012 Central Florida Spring Break Slam title. This game made it 18 wins and 0 losses for the Olympia Titans. They went on to finish the regular season with a perfect 25-0 record in 2012, the first school to do so in Central Florida history. Olympia High School baseball coach Randy O’Neal is also a former MLB player. He holds something unique in his career. On September 12 of 1984, he was called up from the minors and debuted with the Detroit Tigers, pitching in the game to clinch the 1984 AL East Division Pennant. He had the experience of enjoying his debut game with his new teammates and the champagne celebration in the clubhouse.

MVP Jesse Winker was on the national prospect radar. He was also a first-round selectee in the 2012 MLB draft out of Olympia High School and has worked his way up the ranks to finally be promoted to the Major League team on April 14, 2017. Despite his injury and performance setbacks, he continues to hold a job as an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds. At the start of 2021 Spring Training, Jesse Winker found himself sharing Cincinnati Reds camp with Dee Gordon who was competing for the shortstop position, the brother of his old high school teammate. You would think that Nick Gordon’s ears must be ringing. With all the negative impact on the game these days, baseball is one big family that continues to find a way to deal with the adversity. Hitting the ball 3 out of 10 times is still the mark of success and lesson number one has been to learn from failure.

Land of Kaline

Welcome to “Tiger Town.” Since 1934, the City of Lakeland & Detroit Tigers have had the longest working relationship between any spring training city-host and a Major League Baseball team. Oddly enough, 1934 was the year Detroit Tiger Legend Al Kaline was born. He passed away on April 06, 2020; one of 11 Hall of Famers who have died in the last year or so. Just recently, son Mark Kaline posted a message of gratitude to the team for keeping a locker in the Tiger clubhouse with a uniform ready to go for his dad in the 2021 spring training this year as a sign of respect. In 1954, a 19-year old Al Kaline ventured into the City of Lakeland for the first time to report for spring training with the Detroit Tigers. Back then, Tigers trained at Henley Field just a mile and a half north of here. Joker Marchant Stadium didn’t open until 1966. He signed with the Tigers in 1953 and joined the team shortly after high school. Not only did he play for the Tigers his entire 21-year MLB career, he went on the work for the team as a broadcaster, a special assistant to the team President, and a series of coaching positions. Keeping the number 6 uniform in the clubhouse is a tradition 66 years old and counting. Yes, this is the Land of Kaline and it has called me back many times over the years. Visit the City of Lakeland long enough and it will start to grow on you as it did for “Mr. Tiger.” Here are two of my visits.

New York Yankees @ Detroit Tigers

2010 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium; named after a late parks and recreation director. In his first game against his old Yankee teammates, Johnny Damon was back to his Yankee killing ways with 2 hits, including 1 home run, and 2 RBIs, just like his days with the Boston Red Sox. The 2010 regular season ended in an 81-81 record for the Tigers, an even .500. Longtime voice of the Tigers Ernie Harwell passed away little after spring training on May 4th. He spent a big part of his broadcasting career calling the games Al Kaline played in. From 1960 to 2002, his career with the Tigers started and ended here in Lakeland, Florida. First game was called in Henley Field. The last game was here in Joker Marchant Stadium where he held an end of spring training press conference to announce his retirement. Another Tiger tradition was when Ernie Harwell would kick-off with a biblical recital of “Voice of the Turtle.”

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.

Ernie Harwell lived in Lakeland, Florida and only missed 2 games in his 55-year career. Something unique to his life was that, after discovering he had an inoperable tumor, he clearly knew his time in this earth was coming to end. It was a farewell tour like none other.

Florida Southern College Moccasins @ Detroit Tigers 

2017 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted Florida Southern College Moccasins on Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the first game of the young season. There was a celebration of the longstanding relationship between City of Lakeland and Detroit Tigers. A new agreement of $37 million in renovations and a 20-year deal that ensures “Tiger Town” will be here for an un-precedented 100 years. Publix. the new sponsor, is a large chain of supermarkets that also has their Headquarters here in town.

The Florida Southern College Moccasins is a local Division II program. At the time, they had 9 National Championships and 41 post season appearances, were invited to open Spring Training 2017. Campus is located approximately three and a half miles south of this stadium. Baseball Almanac lists 12 Alumni who have played in MLB.

  • Greg Pryor (1968-1970)
  • Andy Mc Gaffigan (1977-1978)
  • Ralph Citarella (1977-1979)
  • Rob Dibble (1983-1983)
  • James hurst (1988-1989)
  • Carlos Reyes (1990-1991)
  • John Hudek (1987-1988)
  • Brett Tompko (1995-1995)
  • Eddie Gaillard (1992-1993)
  • Lance Niekro (2000-2000)
  • Matt Joyce (2005-2005)
  • Gus Schlosser (2010 2011)

Detroit Tigers selected Colin Kaline (grandson of Al Kaline) in the 2007 MLB draft. He did not sign and instead played for Florida Southern College. He later did sign with the Tigers and played in their minor leagues (2011-2012). SB Nation staff writer Ashley MacLennan reported that Manager Brad Ausmus offered the Moccasins a pitcher or two that he had as extras. Florida Southern College declined the offer. Regardless of the crushing results in this game, surely it was a once in a lifetime experiences and Moccasins begged to differ on anyone suggesting this was not a real game.

Grapefruit Classic

Team Puerto Rico @ Minnesota Twins

2013 Spring Training: Minnesota Twins hosted Team Puerto Rico at Hammond Stadium, in Fort Myers, Florida. This area in Southwest Florida is the commercial center of Lee County. Twins have trained here since 1991. The Boston Red Sox also train in Fort Myers. It helps with the schedule to have another team in town. Still, its a challenge to get around in Florida when road trips can be 2-3 hours if you’re lucky. In contrast, the training complexes in Arizona are all 30 minutes from each other. It’s been something to consider for teams who moved from Florida to Arizona. Nonetheless, the game of baseball has thrived in Fort Myers since Thomas Edison lived here over 100 years ago.

Terry Park, located 22 minutes north of Hammond Stadium, first held professional games in 1914 when the Louisville Colonels of the American Association trained there. Roberto Clemente first reported to spring training at Terry Park in the 1950’s. The Pittsburgh Pirates trained there at the time. Little would he know that a team representing his homeland would visit a Major League Team here almost 60 years later. This was an exhibition game to promote the upcoming 2013 World Baseball Classic. On this day, New York Yankees also hosted Team Dominican Republic 125 miles away in Tampa, Florida. Over in the Arizona Cactus league, it was Team Mexico vs Chicago White Sox and Team USA vs LA Dodgers. Today it’s not so easy to understand how important these games where. Back then, if anyone said these games didn’t matter would be lying to themselves. There was no way these matches would end in a tie or a “mercy rule” as is the case in 2021 Spring Training. The thought process is understandable given the concerns coming off a truncated season in 2020. But the optics are terrible for ticket paying customers.

No comparison to the loud cheers in the stands from the Team Puerto Rico faithful at Hammond Stadium. The band even came out to play the “Parrandas” of the island. A source of pride or obnoxious, depending on how you look at it. A win would be hard earned from the Twins. And, that it was; a slugfest. Outfielder Angel Pagan, who’s day job was with San Francisco Giants, led the offense going 2-3 with an RBI. Eddie Rosario was in the line-up for Team Puerto Rico. He was drafted by the Twins in 2010 and eventually debuted for them in 2015. Some of the other known Major Leaguers on Team Puerto Rico were Alex Rios, Carlos Beltran, Mike Aviles, and two of the Molina Brothers (Yadier and Jose). The lead changed 4 times while Team Puerto Rico massed 17 hits to barely top the Minnesota Twins 8-7. After this, Team Puerto Rico would head for San Juan to begin the 2013 World Baseball Classic for the first round in pool C at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.

Minnesota Twins ended the 2013 Regular Season 4th place in their division with a 66-96 record. Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections have the Twins heavily favored in the AL Central Division for 2021. They have good reason to feel this way. But, as someone once prophetically said in hindsight, “that’s why you play the game.”

True Blue Birds

Spring Training 2012: Toronto Blue Jays hosted Detroit Tigers at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Florida; a final tune-up game before team’s head north for the regular season. Blue Jays have trained here since their first year of expansion in 1977; the only Major League franchise to have never changed where they play spring training games. The playing surface has always been known as Grant Field. But, the naming rights to the stadium have changed several times. Today, its known as TD Ballpark and construction broke ground in 2019 on major renovations that increased seating capacity from 5,500 to 8,500. Blue Jays signed a leasing agreement with City of Dunedin, Pinellas County, and state of Florida in a state-of-the-art stadium. Included is a nearby complex. This ensures that there will be spring training baseball in Dunedin for the next 25 years. It’s a beautiful part of Florida best known for the attractions to state parks on Honeymoon island and Caladesi Island; scenic beaches, boating, and trails.

The 2012 Blue Jays were a far cry from the Blue Jays of today. They consisted of journeyman and free agents whereas the upcoming 2021 roster is loaded with young phenoms, highly touted prospects, and overall talent from within the organization. It has been a busy off season as the Blue Jays continue to find the pieces that will make them relevant this 2021 regular season. Omar Visquel signed with the Blue Jays in 2012, his 24th season and on his 6th team. This would be his final year in MLB; an unofficial farewell tour. For the previous 4 years, he averaged 60 hits a year. At the time, he was chasing 3,000 career hits, along with Johnny Damon who was playing for the Cleveland Indians. Omar Vizquel ended with a grand total of 2,877 while Johnny Damon ended his last year in MLB with 2,769. It’s an amazing career without the 3,000 hits. While some of his contemporaries were long retired and settled into a coaching career (like Ozzie Guillen), Omar Vizquel managed to tap into the fountain of youth; sustaining the conditioning needed for a 45-year-old to compete with players twenty something. He even outlived his longtime nemesis pitcher Jose Mesa who retired in 2007. He pledged to hit Omar Vizquel every chance because of a beef from an incident in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

For the Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera was in the line-up; starting the 2012 season as the reigning 2011 AL MVP. He was back in the lineup after a scary moment when, just days before, he caught a hard grounder hit by Hunter Pence under his right eye. CBS Sports writer Matt Snyder reported that Miguel Cabrera left the game bleeding profusely. Apparently, the ball hit the sunglasses Miguel Cabrera was wearing which took the direct hit and drove the sunglasses into his face. As it turns out, that was a blessing in disguise. It could have been more devastating had the ball hit his eye. He played third base in 2012 to make room in the line-up for Prince Fielder at first base. Victor Martinez was the Designated hitter, Prince had just signed with the Detroit Tigers for $214,000,000 a at 9-years; storybook contract for a kid who grew up having batting practice in Tiger Stadium with his dad Cecil Fielder. That honeymoon ended early. Although he had his best season batting average of .313 in 2012, the following year was lackluster for Prince Fielder. He played all 162 games and reached the milestone of 500 consecutive games played. Yet it also led to an abrupt trade to the Texas Rangers in 2014. Financial consideration and neck surgery would affect tenure with the Texas Rangers. There are many debatable reasons for the trade, from his sub-par performance in 2013, to putting Miguel Cabrera back at first, to a laid-back attitude that didn’t sit well with certain folks, etc. Nonetheless, it goes to show that baseball is a fickle game. Loyalties are like apples; they do not fall far from the tree. Miguel Cabrera went on to win the Triple Crown in the 2012 regular season, the first time anyone has reached that feat since Carl Yastrzemski did it with the Boston Red Sox in 1967. It helped that Prince Fielder was hitting behind him in the batting order; pitchers were obligated to pitch to Miguel Cabrera and not give him a base on balls for Prince Fielder to drive him in.

Miguel Cabrera has been delegated to the DH position the last few years. But he’s expected to play more time back at first base this 2021 regular season. Although his time there will be limited, he may need to play first base to stay in the line-up when the Detroit Tigers play in a National League park. Once again, he has the autonomy in the Grapefruit League to work on those grounders. Currently, he has 2,866 lifetime hits, 487 home runs, 1,729 RBI, and a .313 life time batting average. His 8-year $248,000,000 contract carries him to year 2025. That should give him enough time to improve those numbers to a league of their own.

Wolverines at Mets

University of Michigan Wolverines @ New York Mets

2013 Spring Training: The New York Mets hosted an exhibition game with the University of Michigan Wolverines at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida; part of a trend to open the Grapefruit League with an invitation for collegiate teams to compete at the professional level for a day. Some of the things you see in college play remained the same. Players on the Wolverines bench still ran down the foul line for warm-up routines between innings. The game ended with the traditional handshakes with the opposing team. It’s an ideal time for this match-up; Spring Training camps are well underway and Spring Break is travel time for college teams to fine tune their rosters.

New York Mets have been training at Tradition Field since 1988. It’s also home to the Port St. Lucie Mets (Advance-A Affiliate) of the Florida State League. This game also marked a historic event in baseball. The umpiring crew of four included two women; both in the shadows of Bernice Gera (a graduate of Florida Baseball School and first female minor league umpire in 1972). Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets owner at the time, is a U of M Alumni who was on their baseball team. A torn rotator cuff ended that in his junior year of 1956. The baseball and softball complex on campus has been named in his honor. For the Wolverines, it’s an awesome working spring break trip to the sunshine state. They will not all make it to MLB. But this experience is a memory they will keep for a lifetime. 

Still, over 80 Wolverines have historically made it to MLB; Four Wolverines were just signed last year in the 2020 MLB Draft. Hall of Famer Derek Jeter was offered a scholarship to play there and even took classes. But, instead of playing for the program at U of M, he understandably opted for the $800,000 bonus out of high school offered by the New York Yankees who drafted him. The rest is history. Most notable on the list of U of I alumni in MLB is Jim Abbott who, despite being born without a right hand, played for the Michigan Wolverines and went on to become a U.S.A. Gold Medal Olympian in the 1988 summer games, eventually going to play for 10 different MLB teams. One important day in his career is a no-hitter he threw in 1993 for the New York Yankees.

In the line-up for the New York Mets was Justin Turner. This was his last season with the team. The next year he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he is now a 2020 World Champion and the longest tenured player on the roster. Journeyman Marlon Byrd signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets after he completed a 50-game suspension for using banned substances with the Boston Red Sox. Ironically, Boston was where he sustained a devastating injury while with the Chicago Cubs. Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves hit him with a pitch near his left eye. Say what you want about Marlon Byrd. He managed to extend his longevity, after a potentially career ending injury, to a 14-year career at the highest level. And, speaking of injuries, Ruben Tejada was also in the Mets line-up. He later suffered a broken leg in the 2015 NLDS caused by an overzealous slide by Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley at second base. MLB updated its rules after this incident. It’s now considered interference and an automatic out if its determined that a runner tried to make contact with the second baseman.

Wally Backman of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets was on hand as part of the New York Mets Coaching staff. He served as an ideal baseball ambassador for this event. In 2004, he was promoted from within the Arizona Diamondbacks organization to manage the Major league squad. After a series of legal problems became public, he was fired a few days later. He continued to pursue a coaching career after that. Part of that journey was documented in the TV series “Playing for Peanuts.” It highlights his comeback story as the manager of the South Georgia Peanuts of the Independent South Coast League. The locker room entertainment value is through the roof. After this spring training tour, he went on to manage the Las Vegas 51s a Mets AAA-Affiliate of the Pacific Coast League; leading them to an 81-63 record and winning the Pacific South Division title. He won PCL Manager of the year in 2014. Despite the setbacks and eventual fallout with New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, Wally Backman has sustained a coaching career that speaks for itself. He’s been regarded as a player’s manager. Today he is skipper for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

Osceola County Stadium

New York Yankees @ Houston Astros

2012 Spring Training. Houston Astros hosted the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida; a year where they would play their last season in the National League. After this, they went from the National League (NL) Central Division to American League (AL) Western Division. All the other teams in the AL West we’re building championship caliber teams at the time. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were still relevant after playing in the 2010 & 2011 World Series. Albert Pujols was starting the first of his 10-year $240,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Angels; the same time when Mike Trout would be the Rookie of the year and a strong candidate for the MVP every year after that. Oakland A’s were matched with Detroit Tigers in the 2012 AL Division Series and Seattle Mariners played in an AL Wild Card Game. In other words, the Houston Astros were moving to a division that was feverishly developing their organizations from the ground up for sustainable winning. But, Astros were also working on a 5-year rebuild that would put them in a position to win in that group. This was the same year that Houston Astros signed Carlos Correa as the overall first round draft pick. Chicago Cubs and more recently Chicago White Sox have done something similar; focusing on player development, down to the A-ball level. Players from the 2017 championship team, like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, were already with the organization. Long time Astro Carlos Lee was traded to the Miami Marlins later that year.

A game with the New York Yankees was good practice for that; facing a line-up that included players like Raul Ibanez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the lineup. There is always a huge following for the New York Yankees when they are in Kissimmee, Florida. It’s more of a barnstorming atmosphere than the typical methodical spring training game. Of the list of parks visited, Osceola County Stadium is my most attended. But this is true in all the Spring Training venues. There is always a short-list of teams who have the potential to sell out higher priced tickets in any spring training park that they arrive at; a dynamic reserved for a larger market team or a defending champion.

When the Houston Astros pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training the following year, it was a new year, a new division, in new uniforms, with new ownership in Jim Crane, and a new front office; eventually a new president in Reid Ryan, son of legendary Nolan Ryan. Jeff Luhnow was on hand to meet all invitees on their first day at the alternate fields next to Osceola County Stadium. The new general manager hired by the Houston Astros the previous December. The first few days of reporting are usually the best time to interact and get autographs. You’re up close and personal with the players, who rotate from station to station during their drills and exercises. Sometimes it’s just a rope that separates you from the action.

As I walked around, I passed a player and, as a gesture, I wished him good luck. “Thanks,” he said as he headed for the batting cages. Initially, I didn’t recognize him. After looking again, I asked if he used to be a pitcher. “Yes!” he said. He was a position player who reported early to do some work in the batting cages. But it was only natural that he be with pitchers and catchers. It was Rick Ankiel who debuted as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999. Issues with control ended his pitching. His toughest outing was game one of the 2000 NLDS, when Tony Larussa slipped him in under the media radar after many of his pitchers were injured that post season. After a series of setbacks, he came back in 2007 as a centerfielder and reinvented his career. He made the 2013 Houston Astros squad but was released a month later, then picked up by the New York Mets and finally made his last MLB appearance June 08, 2013. In one word; resilient.

The Houston Astros trained here until 2016. After that, they moved to a $148.6 million complex in West Palm Beach that they now share with the Washington Nationals. Sadly, this would eventually leave a void for baseball in Central Florida. Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advance-A Affiliate) called this home until they also moved to a new facility last year in Sarasota, Florida. But, since 1984, Osceola County Stadium has withstood the test of time. Its still a haven for USSSA tournaments, the building along the right field line houses their Hall of Fame and Museum.

Fenway South

Minnesota Twins @ Boston Red Sox

2012 Spring Training at Jet Blue Park; an inaugural year for The Boston Red Sox. They hosted Minnesota Twins at the new ballpark better known to Red Sox nation as “Fenway South.”  Before this, they trained at City of Palms Park, since 1993. Today, that park is home to Florida South Western State College. The Boston Red Sox would report to their new home under precarious conditions from the epic collapse late in the 2011 regular season. With renewed hope that comes from an upcoming spring, they dusted themselves off in an $80 million facility here in Fort Myers, Florida. Bobby Valentine was hired to steer the ship as the Boston Red Sox Manager for this 2012 regular season. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the end as the Red Sox went on to only win 69 games in that campaign. In his 2017 book, “Papi: My Story,” he recalls the 2012 regular season as the worst of his stretch with Beantown. This, as opposed to 2013 when Boston won it all and David Ortiz was World Series MVP; just a year later.

Jet Blue Park opened March 04, 2012. Construction cost was subsidized, in part, by bonds from Lee County, also the owners of City of Palms Park. Seems like a lot of money for something used 30-45 days in the Spring. Grievances aside, it’s a great place for a ball game. The Rookie League GCL Red Sox of the Gulf Coast League also played approximately 40 home games here. In 2013, The Florida High School Athletic Association started to have their final rounds of baseball state championships here in the month of May.

Aside from the mass following of the Red Sox Nation faithful, Jet Blue Park has design elements similar to the iconic Fenway Park. The most obvious is a “Green Monster” wall in left field. There’s a “Pesky’s Pole” to mark foul territory in rightfield, including the signatures and written messages from attending fans. The bullpen locations are also beyond the right-center field wall; just before a “Williamsport” area. Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau was in the middle of a three-year struggle from a concussion sustained in 2010. He came back this year to play 134 games with a .257 batting average. Teammate and catcher Joe Mauer was also coming back from various ailments in 2011. He went on to set the all-time Minnesota Twins record for most games played by a catcher (832).

Dustin Pedroia was also in the game for the Boston Red Sox. His ordeals with the disabled list are well document. After three years of battling injuries, Dustin Pedroia was forced to finally announce his retirement this week. From 2006 to 2019, Dustin Pedroia was 2007 Rookie of the Year, 2008 AL MVP, a 3-time World Champion, 4-time All Star, and 4-time Gold Glove. And a 2008 silver slugger. With 1805 total hits, he ranks 8th with the Boston Red Sox in all-time hits, finishing with a .299 batting average; a 300 hitter if you round it off. He is the only player to attain a World Series Title, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and Gold Gloves all in his first two seasons. Not bad for someone who spent much of the start to his career convincing security that he was on the team. That, along with other discouraging episodes, was attributed to his 5’-9” stature. Being called out on his height or lack thereof, was something Dustin Pedroia grew used to. “I didn’t know there was a height requirement like when you go the theme parks,” he once said. I’m sure that it was a source of motivation.

Last but not least, it was a very hot day at the ballpark. Hydration and occasional shelter are key. The forecast on this day in early April was an average high of 86.5 degrees; reaching an actual high of 91.9 degrees. At times, ballparks are revisited after an inaugural year to address sun and shade issues, both for player and fans. For example, lack of shelter for fans sometimes requires installations of canopies. The Florida sun is unforgiving. In general, negotiating around it requires the skills to both prepare and adapt. We can now add pandemic protocols to that list of acquired skills. The Boston Red Sox announced February 02, 2021 that fans will be allowed to attend at 24% capacity, primarily on the back fields. As of now, they’re set to begin February 17, 2021.

Spartans at Phillies

University of Tampa Spartans @ Philadelphia Phillies

2016 Spring Training Philadelphia Phillies hosted University of Tampa Baseball with an impressive resume best described by the analogy of their mascot, the Spartans. They are the best kept secret in baseball; reigning in the shadows of college baseball. As in the 2006 film “300,” this Division II college baseball program has “stood and fought” with the highest level of competition.  In January of 2014, the Spartans went to Cuba on a good will tour and went undefeated with a 3-0 record. The intent was a cultural exchange. Nonetheless, they played tough teams. Spartan later won the 2015 NCAA Division II National Title. That tournament was held at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, North Carolina. Since their first NCAA Division II National Championship in 1992, they’ve gone on to win (8) total; (5) of those titles in the last (15) years. Spartans have been on the good side of winning baseball; playing .500 since its 1978 season. During that same time, there have been over 50 MLB Amateur Draft Picks who came from University of Tampa.

In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Spartans were invited by the Philadelphia Phillies to play an exhibition game, kicking off Spring Training at Bright House Field (currently renamed Spectrum Field), the Florida home of the Philadelphia Phillies. These invites are not unique to the Phillies. Other teams have done the same. The New York Mets have played University of Michigan Wolverines and the Boston Red Sox have played Boston College. This was the second invitation for the Spartans. Just the year before, Spartans beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2; their inaugural game in the Grapefruit League. Andrew Amaro, the nephew of General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was on that Spartans team. It goes without saying that Ruben Amaro Jr. received ongoing questions about the upcoming 2015 Regular Season. For the most part, Spartans were playing with players at the Triple-A level. Of course, any given MLB team will send invitations to their prospects at varying levels of player development and can have a roster with as many as (45) players in camp. Clearwater, Florida, is “Phillies Nation.” The city has hosted the Philadelphia Phillies Spring Training since 1947.

There’s no doubt that these young Phillies were playing like their life depended on it. Yet, the mutual respect and overall friendliness between the two teams was very noticeable. The Phillies were on the right side of winning on this day, beating Spartans 8-3. For the 2016 regular season, Phillies would go on to win (15) games in the month of April.