A spring to remember

Some highlights, awards and observations from spring '06, a spring unlike any other thanks to the WBC, among other things.

Originally Published: April 1, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Frank Robinson says it has been the oddest spring training he can remember. Agreed. It has been great, troublesome, fun and sad, but mostly, it has been different, thanks to the World Baseball Classic. Here are some highlights, awards and observations from spring 2006.

First Base
Houston Astros

Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OPS AVG
2,150 449 1,529 1,517 .948 .297

• If Jeff Bagwell's career is indeed over, it will be a big loss for baseball. There is no better guy in the game than Bagwell, who always has played it right, and always has played hard. When Richard Hidalgo was a young Astro, he was told by coaches to play the game properly, and he would be a star. "Hey," Hidalgo said, "I watch Baggy." Bagwell was a very good defensive first baseman, a great base runner and a team leader. He is the best player in the history of the Astros, and, without question, a Hall of Famer. Bagwell is one of only nine players in baseball history with 1,500 RBI, 1,500 runs scored, a .500 slugging percentage and a .400 on-base percentage in his career. The other eight are first-ballot Hall of Famers. So is Bagwell. Sadly, the five-year wait might begin soon.

Marquis Grissom's career is over after 2,251 hits, 227 home runs and 429 steals. He's not a Hall of Famer, but as popular teammates go, it's hard to imagine anyone in the game with more friends than Grissom. Bobby Cox called him his favorite player he ever managed.

• Best offseason job by a manager: Reds manager Jerry Narron spent his winter coaching his daughter's high school basketball team. He was named the coach of the year in his team's conference. Narron laughed and said that when he argued one call with a referee, the ref told him, "I don't care what you do in the summer, you're not getting that call."

• Veteran player most primed for a big comeback: Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez, 38. He is the final year of his contract, he wants another one, and he wants to play 20 years in the big leagues, which means four more seasons. For the first time in three years, he can throw, and swing a bat, without pain in his shoulders or elbow. To strengthen his shoulders this winter, he took up boxing. "It's very good for cardio," he said. "People who haven't done it really have no idea how tiring it is to box for three minutes."

• The World Baseball Classic worked. "It was a blast," said Matt Galante, the manager of the Italian team. "Everything was done first class." The proof of success was the look of ecstasy on the faces of the winning players from Japan, as well as those from Cuba, Mexico and just about every country, as well as the tremendous fan interest from most countries.

• Best young player to watch: Royals third baseman Alex Gordon. "Wow," says Rangers manager Buck Showalter. Gordon, the second player taken in the 2005 draft, won't make the team this spring, and eventually might be moved to first base or the outfield, but he won't be in the minor leagues very long. He was the strongest player in Royals' camp. He keeps to himself, and does what he's told -- a perfect attitude for a young player.

Alfonso Soriano
Soriano
Alfonso Soriano wisely reconsidered and took one for the team by moving to left field. It's not going to be easy out there for him, and he'd better start taking a few more fly balls. Remember, as a second baseman, one rap was he had trouble going back on pop-ups.

• Biggest loss: Kirby Puckett, of course. "The best part of every day for us was the 30 minutes before the game, in the clubhouse after we had taken infield, after the media was gone, and it was just us," said Randy Bush, one of Puckett's former teammates. "It was the Kirby Puckett Comedy Show. He would have us rolling. Then we'd go out and play."

• Best position move: The Reds decided this spring that Adam Dunn wasn't going to be comfortable at first base, where he really hadn't played since high school, so they moved him back to the outfield with the trade of outfielder Wily Mo Pena to the Red Sox for pitcher Bronson Arroyo. Dunn wasn't overly interested in playing first, so now he can concentrate on what he does best: hit. Last year, he hit 40 home runs and, one teammate said, "I think he played most of the season with a broken hand and didn't tell anyone about it."

• Best batting practice session of the spring: Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks. "The way he hits the ball is a joke," said Brewers catcher Damian Miller. Brewers third baseman Jeff Cirillo laughed and said "I took BP in a group with Rickie, J.J. (Hardy), Prince (Fielder) and Bill Hall and I felt like Steve Fisher with the Fab Five at Michigan."

• Rangers rookie second baseman Ian Kinsler is a tough kid with good power. The toughness comes in part from his father, who recently retired as a prison warden. "He came home with some interesting stories, but he usually kept them to himself," Kinsler said. "I think the toughness comes from hitting against him. He didn't throw many strikes."

• Best Comeback Story: Tim Salmon. He is Mr. Angel, the face of the franchise. After missing nearly a year and a half with multiple injuries, he is going to make that team thanks to a terrific spring. He might DH three times a week. It was Salmon who, in 2002, drove in the winning run in the first World Series victory in the history of the Angels. Another standing ovation will come when he's introduced at the home opener April 7.

Mike Piazza
Piazza
• Sometimes you have to play with a guy to understand how good he really is. The Padres knew how great a hitter Mike Piazza was, but their new catcher dazzled them this spring. "He is so strong, we have this hand-squeeze strength test, and most guys struggle with it," said Pads manager Bruce Bochy. "But Mike does it easily. It's like Herman Munster."

• The anti-William Hung award goes to pitcher Takashi Saito of the Dodgers. He didn't make the club, but he made an impression in camp. "He can't speak a word of English," says Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly, laughing, "but he can sing 'Hey Jude'. He's really, really good. He could do the Beatles Trilogy."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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