It's such a therapeutic week for me every year, a week of dry heat and awayness and baseball. Before the first day is up, I can feel the stress points burning off, and even the crustier everyday issues crisping up and chipping away.
OK, that was gross.
But it's true. The restorative powers of spring training border on indispensable for me. It certainly doesn't hurt that I have some sensational teammates back home at the office, allowing me not to worry about things slipping through the cracks while I've been gone or about coming back to a work crisis. No chance of that.
There were admittedly a few concerns for me this year as we planned this trip, mostly centered around how much baseball my wife and kids would be able to tolerate, since few people I know can tolerate as much baseball (especially the kind on the back fields, with no concession stands and only sporadic patches of shade) as I can. But the place we stayed was great (bathtub sponge letters for the kids, spelling out their names: very nice touch), and they all made some new friends on the trip, both at the yard and at dinners, and so the success of the vacation for them (Erica: "This is the best trip I've ever been on, Daddy") naturally made it a complete success in my eyes as well.
I should also mention that daytime temperatures that resemble major league fastball readings rather than posted city speed limits help a lot, too. Last year it was sweatshirts, this year sunblock.
Of course, while my week here was work in a sense but felt completely like play, the hundred-plus ballplayers we were watching play were doing so in a setting that was unquestionably work. A casual fan watching the Low A and High A games with me yesterday wondered aloud about the fraction of those squads that would eventually escape the couple-thousand-dollar-a-month salaries and reach the big leagues. The answer, of course, would startle most people.
I'd guess that for a lot of the ballplayers who wear the nameless jerseys on the back fields, March is just about the most stressful month of the year. A percentage won't be pro athletes by time the month ends, despite being All-Everything growing up and at every level until the time they signed with the Rangers. It's a peculiar environment, guys competing with guys with whom they've bonded as they embarked together as Texas Rangers farmhands, as teammates, and yet fighting for jobs that necessarily could come at the expense of one another. It's a strange gauntlet.
And if you think it's a pure meritocracy based on objective numbers, on game productivity, it's not always. There's a reason that a kid like Johnny Washington is in camp fighting to get a fifth season in as a Rangers player, despite being a former 27th round pick and despite hitting .183 in his four pro seasons. We may not know the reason some players make it and others don't, and maybe the players themselves don't, either. They're all out there trying to learn, trying to make an impression, trying to show the organization that they're improving and maturing and fending off the "expendable" tag. Very few lack the fire it takes to play ball professionally; those who do aren't long for the game.
One of the cool things about doing what I do and seeing most of these guys just once a year is that change often stands out. Seeing Cristian Santana and Michael Schlact physically sturdier than they were 12 months ago. Seeing Omar Poveda slimmed down. Seeing Eric Hurley carrying himself in a way that you want a pitching prospect on the doorstep carrying himself.
Watch Out for Steve Murphy.
Then there were the players I was eager to get a look at since I hadn't seen them before at all. Kasey Kiker and Danny Ray Herrera look about a foot shorter than John Mayberry Jr. but have that same look and aura that they belong as the big outfielder has. Marcus Lemon's tangibles are every bit as exciting as his intangibles. Wilmer Font, Carlos Pimentel, and Geuris Grullon: Pretty soon you won't need me to tell you to remember those names. I'd seen Manuel Pina and Jose Jaimes before but not like this.
And of course, this was Camp Fabio Castillo, as far as I'm concerned. He's special.
Another spring training has now ended for me, and for the next six months Schlact and Mayberry and Grullon and Castillo will be names confined to box scores and to Scott Lucas's reports. But there will be more context when I check to see how Taylor Teagarden's bat is coming along or how Chris Davis's work at third base is progressing, because I have no concerns about the other half of their games. Speaking of those two, I'm eager to see whether "third base" (Travis Metcalf, Davis, Johnny Whittleman, Johan Yan, Emmanuel Solis) can become the new "catcher" for the Rangers this year, that is, a position that went developmentally from barren to loaded, overnight.
Some players who I will see during the 2007 season made new impressions on me. Kameron Loe has changed off the field, and it's all good. C.J. Wilson isn't yet the star that he's wired to be, but I'll never bet against him. (Read http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/spring2007/columns/story?columnist=crasnick_jerry&id=2800751 - it's worth your time.) There's a never-ending series of hurdles placed in front of Jason Botts, but he's never going to feel sorry for himself. Eric Gagne has a chance to make as much of an impact on his teammates as he does on the club's win-loss record.
Straying for a moment to a different club: If it was possible to motivate John Danks any more, I think the trade did it.
I saw a lot of father/son pairs at the back fields this week. Some of the Daddy and seven-year-old variety. Others who looked to be about 60 and 30. A good handful of men watching their sons compete in Rangers blue, experiencing in one way the pinnacle of 15 years of their boys playing the Great Game on sandlots and in Little League and for the schools where their identities were forged, and in another way the surely inescapable anxiety of watching their all-world athlete offspring fighting for their professional lives while making a wage they can barely support themselves on.
And with me every minute was Max, who at two-and-a-half is going through a bit of that fussy phase that his sister once went through and most two-year-olds go through, and soon outgrow, but those moments on this trip were mostly confined to time in restaurants or the hotel room. He enjoyed his time in the midst of baseball the way his dad always has, shifting from beaming smiles to frozen awe to moments of eureka-level recognition (though those were just as often due to low-flying fighter jets as to diving catches), and though I certainly hold out a small hope that he gets to play this game at a higher level than I did, and know that if that happens I'll probably develop an ulcer watching him try to get to the one after that, what truly gives me peace, a kind even greater that the one that baseball in March has always given me, is the idea that he and I will have so many more spring training experiences to share together, one way or another, beginning in March of 2008.
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