Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter Officially Ended on Monday

Despite the calendar saying we have more than a month to go before the spring equinox, winter officially ended yesterday in Bradenton Florida. It ended at about noon when the pitchers and catchers for the Pittsburgh Pirates took to the training fields at their Pirate City facility to start another season of the greatest show on dirt.

Although yesterday was billed as the opening day for pitchers and catchers, when I arrived about 12:30 it appeared that the entire team (including position players) was on the field. I found my friend, Bradenton Marauders announcer Joel Godett who said that even though position players didn't officially start until next week, "... almost all of them are here now. Some have been here two to three weeks already." I guess that means that the 2011 season really started on Monday.

At its peak there were more than 100 fans milling around between the four practice fields. I was pleased to see several of my friends from the stands at Bradenton Marauder games there. I think, like me, they came out to watch "our" kids practicing with the major leaguers.

Six of the 2010 Bradenton Marauders team were on the field including four pitchers, each of whom made the 40 person team. Also there were invitees Tony Sanchez and fellow catcher Eric Fryer. Although Tony gets all the media attention, I think that Eric is a better defensive catcher than Tony. All Eric needs to do (no easy task I'll admit) is improve his ability as a hitter and he will be on his way to the Show in the next couple years.

Catcher Eric Fryer is on the left

Perhaps the sweetest sound in baseball is the "thwack" you hear when the meat of a bat makes contact with a ball. There was no shortage of that sound as players made the rounds in the batting cage. Granted its only spring training, and granted its only batting practice, but I think some of the disgruntled Pittsburgh Pirates fans would have been pleased to watch baseballs rocketing out of the practice fields and over the outfield fence.

While the pitchers were working with their pitching coaches perfecting their motion and putting some extra spin on their curve balls, position players were perfecting their swing during individual sessions with hitting coaches. In the picture below fellow Wisconsin native Jason Jaramillo is seen working with a coach on getting his swing timing perfected.

Yesterday's practice ended about 2:30 or so when the 60 some players on the field retired to Pirate City for afternoon meetings. Before they left a bunch of the players hung around signing autographs and having their pictures taken with fans. This included a boy of about six years old who stood with outfielder Andrew McCutcheon's as his dad immortalized the scene on their digital camera. That kid will likely never forget that scene yesterday.

The Pirates will continue daily workouts at Pirate City until February 25 when they play their first spring training game of the year against the State College of Florida in a benefit game at McKechnie Field. I have a seat for that game (along with tickets for 13 other spring training games) directly behind home plate. I can't wait for the first pitch to be thrown that day, and to watch as our kids from the Bradenton Marauders take to the field and show Pirates management that they deserve a place on the 25-person roster for this year. But if not this year then next. Despite being in prime heckling habitat for the opening game I won't heckle a college team playing major leaguers. However on March 1 the Pirates play the New York Yankees. I have a feeling Alex Rodriquez is going to be asked a few questions about Cameron Diaz. It would be so cool to have A-Rod come off the field and into the stands to try shutting me up!

As I moved between the practice fields I met an older man (whose name I can't remember) from Pennsylvania who wanted to know about Tony Sanchez during his injury-shortened 2010 season. Talking with this gentleman was a real rush because he is into minor league baseball just as deeply as I am. His team is the Class AA Altoona Curve. The Curve is the next stop for many of the Bradenton Marauders as they work their way up in the system. As we talked this man said that he likes minor league baseball because "the kids are still approachable in the minors. They haven't been diluted by million dollar salaries and they are all there playing their hearts out every day hoping for that one break that sends them to the Show."

After becoming addicted to minor league baseball in 2009 and having that addiction intensified by the great performance of the 2010 Bradenton Marauders I can't agree more with what that man said.

I plan to be at Pirate City again today to watch the second day of the spring ritual. Practice begins at 10:00 a.m. this morning and will be at that time every morning until the first game. It's funny how despite yesterday being the first day of spring training I was already thinking to the first day in 2012 and wondering if incomparable Marauder players like Quincy Latimore, Starling Marte, Jeremy Ferrell, Brock Holt and Noah Kroll will be in spring training with Eric and Tony. But I need to stop getting ahead of myself. We need to get all of them up to Class AA or Class AAA this year and then worry about 2012.

I think the best part of being there is despite being 59 years old, watching the Pirates on the field makes me feel like I'm back on a vacant lot in my native Wisconsin fifty years ago when I was playing baseball with Keith Popko and Chuck Olson and the rest of our gang. Every one of us back then talked about our dream of being a major league baseball player one day. None of us ever did, of course, but watching spring training and being close to the field and talking with major leaguers makes me feel like we did just the same.