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Saturday, March 20, 2004

Spring Training Report

Well, I'm back from three beautiful days in the Valley of the Sun with my father-in-law Ed, co-worker Ron, his son Joe, and his brother Harry, only to find snow in Omaha as I teach a three day patterns and architecture course. Spring training trip notes follow:

Sunday, March 13
Boarded "cattle car airlines" at 8:30AM with my father-in-law Ed headed for Phoenix on a direct flight. Crowded flight but spent the time reading an article published in Science in 1995 on how outfielders track flyballs. The authors of the article propose a new model for how outfielders track flyballs, one in which the outfielder "selects a running path that maintains a linear optical trajectory (LOT) for the ball relative to home plate and the background scenery." Although the math is beyond me it seems like their model explains why outfielders run into walls (their selected running path assures them they will catch the ball but they don't know when) and why they choose to catch the ball on the run rather than accelerating to the point where the ball would hit the ground and wait.

Upon arriving at Sky Harbor we proceeded to the Dollar counter and then to the shuttle to pick up the car. After leaving the directions to Scottsdale Stadium in the trunk (a recurrent theme on this trip) we finally found the stadium. 90 degrees and sunny (really sunny, the earth is much closer to the sun down there apparently) - no sun screen (left it in the trunk). The Cubs started well and jumped on top in the first inning off of Jason Schmidt. Matt Clement started for the Cubs and looked pretty good at first. He was getting his slider over and recorded several swining strikeouts in the first two innings. He gave up a couple of runs however and was relieved in the third by Reyel Pinto who spent last season in A ball. Pinto proceeded to give up a grand slam to Schmidt along with a bevy of other runs to make the route complete as the Cubs lost 11-3. Pinto was sent back to the minor league camp the next day. The only other encouraging aspects of the game were the 3 or 4 good innings pitched by Todd Wellmeyer in relief of Pinto and a couple hard hit balls by Moises Alou. Sammy Sosa did not play. I didn't get any photos of the game (left the camera in the trunk) but was generally unimpressed by Scottsdale stadium, which was older, confining with poor sight lines, and literally crawling with vendors barking every two seconds. As is traditional the starters were taken out around the fourth inning and proceeded to sign autographs and "get their work in" in the outfield. I'm not sure how much work is involved or how much use a player gets out of running at half speed for 50 yards, stopping, walking back, and then doing it over again... but then again I'm not a major leaguer. Around 10,000 were in attendance.

After heading to the hotel to check in, rest for an hour or so, sooth our sunburned necks, and review the NCAA brackets we drove down to the Arizona State University Campus for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We reminisced about ballparks we had visited and I recounted my tale of visiting Tiger Stadium in 1983 amidst a riot in centerfield that precipitated White Sox centerfielder Rudy Law going back to the dugout to get a helmet for protection from the bottles and food raining from the stands. Finally, back to the room and a good night's sleep despite Ed's intermittant snoring and the thunderously loud air conditioner that came to life every couple of hours.

Monday, March 14
Woke up bright and early and after a nice run through the technology park where we were staying in Tempe and the continental breakfast, we headed for Fitch Park, the practice fields of the Cubs. We arrived around 10:15AM, practices having started at 9:30 or so. We parked at the public park east of Fitch Park and watched the minor league pitchers going through their drills covering first base and fielding one hoppers back to the mound. Several of the rubber balls used to hit the one hoppers hopped over the fence and Ron's son Joe received a couple of baseballs for his efforts at running them down. I was somewhat surprised by the amount of standing around the young pitchers did waiting for their turn in the drills. - 10 to 12 pitchers in a line with one coach hitting fungos. None of coaches noticed that I was ready and able to take the youngsters through their drills.

We then proceeded to walk around the outside of the practice fields and enter the complex from the south side (which we should have done at the start). From inside the complex we wandered between the various fields watching the pitching drills and both infield and outfield practice. I noticed Scott Servais working with the young catchers on one of the fields and 2003 1st round draft pick Ryan Harvey getting ready for batting practice. Just as they were getting ready to hit we decided to make our way to HoHoKam park where the game between the Cubs and Royals would be played at 1:05PM. We decided to walk and discovered that although the light standards were in view the park was still a good 15 minute walk to the north.

Finally, we arrived at the park just in time to catch the end of batting practice. HoHoKam is a bigger park than Scottsdale stadium and was quite comfortable with plenty of walking room as I had remembered from a visit in 1998 during Spring Training. Before the game we saw Negro League legend Buck O'Niel making his way up from the field. Joe got his autograph while Buck asked him about his school and "pitched" the ball to him before signing.

Our seats were shaded luckily and we settled down to watch Kerry Wood and Jeremy Affeldt work. Wood pitched 4 nice innings and appeared to be working on his cuveball, using it to strike out several hitters. He didn't walk anyone, gave up two hits and struck out four as the Cubs led 1-0 through 4. Affeldt too looked pretty good in his 5 innings although I didn't notice him throwing as many of his devastating curveballs as is usual. He gave up a double to Corey Patterson in the 4th who later scored on a sacrifice fly. I noticed that Rudy Seanez pitched the 8th for the Royals so it'll be interesting to see if he has anything left.

The game was decided in the 7th on a Nic Jackson solo homerun off Greg Swindell that made the score 3-2 just as I was reading the Baseball Prospectus analysis that he wouldn't see any major league time this year. Of course, his homerun immediately raised the hopes of the Cubs faithful around us who now saw him as a legitimate outfielder no doubt based soley on the strength of that homerun. Mitre, Farnsworth, Hawkins, and Borowski finished up. It was the largest crowd of the spring at over 12,700.

After the game we drove outside Mesa to the northeast to a public park and took a walk on "Wind Cave Trail". It was a nice walk through the desert and although the snakes were awake (as the guide at the entrance told us) we didn't encounter any. After walking almost half way up the trail we decided to head back as it was getting late (at least that was our excuse although several walkers easily passed us and made it all the way to the alcove at the base of the cliff wall).

That evening we had a nice meal at a restaurant in south Mesa before heading back to the hotel.

Tuesday, March 15
We were up early and after another short run we were on our way to the Royals and Rangers shared facility in Surprise, some 40 miles northwest of Mesa. The gates to the practice fields were opened at 10AM and we made our way in. Although the major leaguers were not yet out practicing the minor leaguers were hard at work. I watched with interest as the infielders were put through a series of drills turning various double plays with two coaches hitting fungos and the pitchers worked on pick off moves and bunting. I was impressed with the amount of work the infielders got in a short period of time but once again noticed all the standing around the pitchers do.

We then headed over to the major league practice fields where the players were getting limbered up. Garth Brooks, who was in camp raising money for his foundation, was playing catch with Matt Stairs.

Around 11AM they started batting practice and we watched as Juan Gonzales hit several homeruns, the farthest of which cleared the 375ft sign in left center as well as the outfield wall of the field behind the practice field. Ron and his son Joe stood behind the fence waiting for a ball to no avail. Around 12:30 I headed over to the main field for the game against the Rangers. The facility in Surprise is first class all the way. The practice fields are accessible, the staff is very friendly, the concourses are wide with batting cages adjacent (I noticed Mike Sweeney signing autographs in one of the cages), the food great (Oktoberfest Sausage), and the seating very comfortable.

The Royals hit well off Rangers starter Kenny Rogers in route to a 12-7 victory. Chris George came on in relief and although he gave up a towering homerun to Hank Blalock and hung a couple curveballs he pitched respectably in 2 innings of work. There were only around 4,500 fans in attendance in a stadium that holds around 10,000 so it seems Surprise may be a bit of a well kept secret in the Phoenix area.

After the game we headed right for the aiport and had several hours to kill before boarding our plane for the flight back to KC where it was 36 degrees when we landed after midnight.

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