By Jim Caple
Page 2

TUCSON -- You never know what you're going to see in spring training. The other day, Kansas City's Calvin Pickering hit a grand slam against the Rangers. Or, it would have been a grand slam had Pickering not passed base runner Justin Huber, who thought the ball might get caught at the warning track and returned to first base to tag up.

The umpires called Pickering out, which is definitely the correct call. They also let everyone else score for a three-run single, which I can only assume is the right call. (Umpires know the book backward and forward.)

But the decision still leaves everyone confused. I scoured the rule book and couldn't find this situation specifically addressed, while everyone I ask about it has a different opinion on whether zero, one, two or all three runs should score.

There is only one thing everyone can determine for certain from this play: It's going to be another long season for the Royals.

I find the Pickering play compelling for two reasons. First, I've always enjoyed puzzlers of the sort that run in Baseball Digest under the headline, "So You Think You Know Baseball?'', especially if they involve a runner with a prosthetic limb or a ball bouncing off an outfielder's head. And second, it's just so refreshing to finally have a lively discussion this spring about something other than steroids.

Not to say that steroids are the biggest story of spring training, but I think it's a fairly safe bet that this year will be remembered for a couple of things: 1) Jose Canseco made the New York Times bestseller list; and 2) Reporters referred to the size of players' testicles in their lead paragraphs.

The latter happened last weekend when Barry Bonds informed ESPN and the Oakland Tribune that his head hasn't grown and his testicles haven't shrunk.

Bonds, of course, is nearing Babe Ruth's career mark for home runs and has a slight chance to break Hank Aaron's record this season. ESPN has therefore assigned Pedro Gomez to cover Bonds more or less full time. I was discussing this at Sunday's game with Steve Fainaru, a former baseball beat writer. Steve's opinion is that his current assignment is much more pleasant than following Bonds around on a daily basis.

And what, you ask, is his current assignment?

Covering the war in Iraq.

While the world breathlessly awaits Bonds' first spring at-bat, spring training goes on as usual in the Non-Barry World. Pitchers are ahead of hitters, except for those hitters who are ahead of pitchers. Guys are getting their work in. And all general managers are insisting that if things work out, they're going to be in the World Series this fall.

In other words, spring training never changes. Well, some things do. Ichiro is sporting the newest must-have in baseball accessories – Oakley Thump sunglasses with earphones and an MP3 player inside the frames. They can play six hours of tunes, which is the equivalent of an entire doubleheader or a single Nomar Garciaparra at-bat. (They're also much more comfortable than the old Spalding flip-ups that made Mickey Rivers tip over occasionally due to the weight of the eight-track tape deck.)

The other thing that has changed is the ticket prices. The Red Sox are charging $44 for box seats to their spring games. Seriously – $44, which is more than most teams charge for regular season games. And that doesn't even include a Ticketmaster charge.

And to think, there once was a time when you could go to spring-training games without taking out a second mortgage.

Fortunately, there is one such place still around. Tucson's wonderful Hi Corbett Field is one of the oldest stadiums in the Cactus League, and box seats for Rockies' games still go for $13 there. After a very wet and cool first couple of weeks, Tuesday was a gorgeous spring day with temperatures in the mid-70s and a sky as blue as the Dodgers' caps. It was a far cry from the training camp rigors that Colorado first baseman Todd Helton underwent when he played quarterback at Tennessee.

"This is easy. You can't even compare the two,'' Helton said after launching a home run toward Yuma. "Two-a-days in August are just terrible. Maybe you get to go home and set the alarm for 15 minutes of rest before you have to go back to work. I hated football practice. I like practicing baseball.''

And why not? Spring training is the best time of the year that doesn't involve a big, fat man in a red suit (or at least, not since John Kruk left the Phillies). Everyone was in such a happy mood Tuesday that even the White Sox fans were optimistic about the coming season – and they haven't won the World Series since 1917.

"I think the timing is good for us this year,'' longtime Sox fan Steve Fisher said. "I don't think any of our guys are on steroids. None of them is in that good of shape.''

Fisher's Sox lost 6-1 to the Rockies and starter Jeff Francis. One of the game's best pitching prospects, Francis majored in physics at the University of British Columbia and is such a science buff that when he pitched in last year's Futures Game in Houston during the All-Star break, he stopped at the Johnson Space Center before he checked into the hotel.

This makes Francis one of the few major leaguers who not only can throw a curveball, but also explain why it curves.

"It's just the airflow past the ball. But it's pretty complicated,'' he said. "I would say it's harder to throw a curveball than to explain why it curves. Albert Einstein could explain why it curves very well, but I don't think he could throw one.''

Although Einstein was said to have a nice two-seam fastball.

And his general manager no doubt told reporters that Einstein was going to win 15 games and lift the team into the postseason.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is being published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.




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