The accelerator pounds to the floor, my passport beside me (you can never be too careful coming to Arizona) and the border patrol station quickly shrinks in my rearview mirror. I’m 116 miles outside Peoria and the date shake I inhale is my first true caloric input of the day. Hours earlier, I’d volleyed opinions back-and-forth over the Hertz service counter with a representative, a Dodgers fan just back from spring training: from Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw, to Matt Kemp and…Juan Uribe? After fiddling with the EQ for hours, I manage to calm the hiss from the auxiliary input down from the turbine-like roar to an incessant whisper, allowing me to catch up on the week’s baseball podcasts. Despite a sea of rolling black leather and mid-level sedan comfort, I curse the Hertz representative who had upgraded me from economy/compact, assured that his act of generosity was merely to mask this nagging inconvenience.
Thursday, March 14th – Netherlands vs. Padres:
I show up between the first and second inning and camp on a bench near the left field foul pole, nestled behind the visiting team’s bullpen. Shortly thereafter, Andruw Jones blasts a home run off Eric Stults, which comes to rest not twenty feet to my right – Stults limits the damage on the field, but it does nothing to calm my concerns about him going into the season. The same could be said about my impressions of the Padres’ outfield defense as #HONKBAL left fielder, Randolph Oduber, plays pepper with the centerfield fence, hitting two shots over a bewildered Alexi Amarista, who isn’t making his transition into mighty-mite super-sub look easy.
I refuel with a tallboy of Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale from the craft beer tent and strike up a conversation with a Peoria Sports Complex volunteer, who happens to be a Massachusetts expat, about the weather, the team, and my choice in beer koozie. He suggests I grab a meal at the Tilted Kilt “for the sights.” I flash a toothless grin and kindly excuse myself. I migrate to the visitor’s bullpen, where conversations from the ‘pen alternate in and out of English, pausing only to warm up a new arm or help some kids who let their Nerf football stray onto the tarp drawn above the pitchers and catchers.
One of the lone bright spots for the Padres is Peoria-native and husky jeans model, Jaff Decker, who seems reinvigorated by the setting (and, possibly, some good health). For the night, he totals 6 bases with a no-doubt HR and a line drive double that very nearly blows a hole through the top of the right field fence. On defense, he gets a good read off the bat – who knows if dealing with these desert skies through the entirety of his collegiate years help in this regard – and showcases a strong release that make runners eyeing that extra base buckle their ankles. Injuries and tempered expectations might dim his star, but he’s certainly keen to put on a show during Spring Training.
As the game winds down, Rick, Geoff, and David join me on the berm and we agree to reconvene at the backfields the following morning. Aside from a few scattered Triscuits, between my morning coffee, date shake, and beer, my diet has been mostly liquid. I grab a bite at one of the endless chains on my way back to North Phoenix, prepared to do it all again tomorrow.
Cigarette smoke ribbons through The Maverick, baseball highlights dancing through the haze, and I order my second bourbon and ginger. A drove of 30- and 40-somethings warble through some awful pop-country karaoke – Kid Rock makes several appearances on the playlist. I observe that a soft pack of Newports is on sale for entirely too much money out of the vending machine, as are the Pall Mall’s. There’s an argument breaking out on who gets rights to butcher an Adele song. I unknowingly dip my sleeve into a puddle of some leftover neon blue drink, and decide it’s probably best to catch a cab home.
Friday, March 15th – Phoenix Sky Harbor, backfields in Peoria/Surprise, Netherlands vs. Mariners:
I wake early and hit I-10 to pick up my brother, who’s more than twenty years removed from Spring Training baseball, from the airport. We double up on coffee and travel west down Thunderbird Road towards the practice fields of Peoria. Stopping for gas en route proves to be a bigger chore than intended, as the gas cap release button on the driver’s side door yields no results. We manage to crawl into the nearest Hertz location, on fumes, and determine the fuse has blown – the insidious plot of the Dodgers-rooting Hertz representative to strand me in the inhospitable Arizona desert nearly coming to fruition. We miss morning drills, but load up on ice for the cooler and sunscreen for our pasty complexions (my brother, poor soul, is not used to the sun being that he lives in Portland). Next stop, Surprise.
The camps are split Low-A/High-A on the backfields of Surprise, and we arrive just in time to catch Justin Hancock absolutely shoving it to Adalberto “Magic” Mondesi – a sneak-peek of a nearby scout’s gun shows a top speed of 96 MPH, and the fastball is animated in its arm-side run. It’s only a glimpse, but it’s enough to dream on. Our attention shifts to the next field, where orders are being barked out in Spanish and international imports, Eric Cabrera and Tayron Guerrero are being showcased. Caberera showed some inconsistency with his balance and finish, flying open with the straight stuff but punctuated with a slider that looked promising; it was Guerrero that surprised.
With a big, easy fastball that almost lazily steamrolled its way to 96 MPH, Guerrero blew it past the opposition with great ease. The 6’7″ frame makes 90+ gas looks look like soft toss and, if there was a downside, it’s that seconds after snapping a photo we were rewarded by him tweaking his calf doing seemingly…nothing. Nothing at all. Routinely bouncing off the mound, I suppose. Durability notwithstanding, it’s plus stuff from a projectable frame and my only regret watching him over a couple innings was not capturing more than one pitch on video.
Impressions made and pictures captured, we rush back to catch the Double-A/Triple-A squads finishing up in Peoria. An uneventful half-inning goes by before former first-round pick, Cory Spangenberg comes to the plate. Spoiler alert: having played second base for the better part of a decade, my brother is a huge Spangenberg fan and forces me to train a camera on him. He’s a bit bigger than I remember last year, more mature, and – while still a work in progress – he certainly looks more comfortable in and around second base than I remember in Lake Elsinore.
A lot of my opinion is built off of cage work last Spring Training, but his hitting is a conflicting tale of in-game adjustments. Spangenberg’s stance has widened, and that quick bat boasts a more contained violence. While not the flashiest result, he rewards us in his first at-bat by flashing that plus speed beating out a chopper to the left side of second in a little more that 4 seconds flat.
After wreaking havoc on the bases and advancing at will, Spangenberg steals second and later trots home with an easy run. Obviously, a spark plug like this is desired at the big league level but the promise and production still seem far apart. In his second plate appearance, he makes far more solid content with a top-heavy liner to centerfield for a single.
It goes without saying that Spangenberg looked good on the bases and comfortable in the box, and was easily the best player on the field. Obviously, he has something to prove rebounding from debilitating injuries in his 2012 campaign, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing some improvement from a promising young talent. Especially one with disruptive offensive capabilities in the middle of the diamond.
Amber-tinted and sweating, our pints of beer work in concert with the air conditioning for a reprieve from the outside heat; we sink into the Moon’s vinyl seat cushions and are immediately absorbed in the United States’ contest against Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Angel Pagan races around the bases and, in short order, even the most boisterous U.S. fans are staring down the bottom of their glasses. We empty our glasses and retreat to the abandoned ballpark parking lot. Fishing a couple chilled sports drinks out of the foam cooler in the trunk and strapping on our sun-weathered mitts, we throw the ball around in enough rounds of 21 to swear off catch for the rest of the trip. Arms barking and first pitch upcoming, we trudge through the crowds to meet David and his family at the home plate turnstile.
The Netherlands’ second exhibition game in as many nights at the Peoria Sports Complex isn’t much different from the first. Different opponent (the Seattle Mariners) and slightly different lineup (the swoon-worthy Jurickson Profar getting a shot this night), but the end result (an absolute trouncing of the home team) is very much the same. As previously documented: Jon Garland lulled us to sleep, Wladimir Balentien put on a fireworks display, Mariners fans acted like Padres fans.
What David failed share was that Netherlands bench coach Bert Blyleven, protesting a butchered check swing call by the home plate umpire, was chastised…loudly…by first base umpire, Bill Miller. It was impossible to hear what Blyleven said to incite such a response, but Miller bellowed loudly enough in defense of his crew member to stir a ballpark from its idle chatter to sheer bewilderment. While nothing more came of it, the phrase “ump show” doesn’t begin to explain it.
With Garland on the mound, the first couple innings dragged as the human rain delay’s poor execution on his pitches didn’t help, nor did Dustin Ackley’s defense. The young second baseman spiked a throw, was forced into a feet-first dive on a ball well within the average defender’s range, and straight missed a couple other routine cue shots. Game well out of hand after only a few frames, I trained my camera on Andruw Jones’s extensive stretching – in which the newest Rakuten Eagle undertook a well-choreographed bar routine on the dugout’s top rail, designed to catch the eye of a couple tan twenty-something ladies in low-cut Dodger t-shirts a couple rows ahead of us.
Also, unlike David, I am an asshole that takes pictures of random strangers. As such, a picture of Honkbal’s baseball-headed super fan is available below.
As the crowd dies down and bats above busy themselves in a dogfight with moths, backlit against the stadium’s floodlights, we bound back to the Moon. Geoff, Rick, and Mike are on their way out, but we find a talkative neighbor to substitute for them at the bar. The kind of soothsaying individual whose careful recitation of a map allows him to inject footnotes into his listeners’ history whenever he sees advantageous to advance a conversation. He owns properties in multiple cities, lived in every town you’ve heard of, has friends from all walks of life, and – after his fifth cigarette break – buys his reluctant audience a round of a Kahlua-based drink and invites us for a swim tomorrow at his apartment in Surprise. He leaves us to our thoughts and heads to the patio to bum a grit, which we take as an opportunity to hurl a wad of cash on the bar to cover our bill as well as an overly-considerate tip (what sort of bartender hangs their patrons out to dry?) and escape out the front door. In our rush out the door, we fail to warn the poor soul behind us nursing his Captain & Cola of the shit storm he’s unwittingly strolled into. Alas, we’re free and into the warm night – although coming back tomorrow could present a problem.