Commentary

Top sights and sounds from spring 2010

Nelson Cruz and Jason Heyward were two players who put a hurting on the baseball

Originally Published: March 24, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Spring training is essentially over once it gets to two weeks away from the start of the regular season. Teams start playing games with thoughts of winning and losing, players start thinking in terms of results instead of "just getting my work in.''

So, in the spirit of that, here are some highlights, stories and observations -- some more serious than others -- from spring training 2010.

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziNelson Cruz has hit the ball with authority this spring in Arizona.

• The Rangers' Nelson Cruz hit a line drive this spring that Rockies manager Jim Tracy called "the hardest hit ball I've seen in 35 years in a major league uniform.'' The ball sailed over the head of Rockies left fielder Ryan Spilborghs. Rockies roving pitching coach Marcel Lachemann saw it. "If Ryan had caught it,'' said Lachemann, "it would have pinned him to the left-field fence.'' Added Spilborghs: "It hit my glove and still hit the fence on the fly. If I had caught it, the force would have taken me through the fence.''

• New Giants left fielder Mark DeRosa received a phone call midway through the spring from a former teammate, Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis. "Remember I'm the guy who told you that Albert Pujols was going to be the greatest hitter ever, right?''' Marquis said. "And remember, I'm a guy from Staten Island; I'm not easily impressed. But I have never seen the ball explode out of a pitcher's hand like I have with our guy. Never. It's unbelievable.'' He was referring to Stephen Strasburg. Nats center fielder Nyjer Morgan calls Strasburg "Jesus." To that, Nationals pitcher John Lannan said, "One day, he just appeared.''

• Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman, 22, has a chance to make the big club if owner Bob Castellini, who wants to sell tickets, has anything to say about it. Chapman will likely start the year in the minor leagues, but he has been very impressive this spring with a fastball in the upper 90s and, even more encouraging, two changeups he threw on 3-2 counts in one game. Chapman has that perfect build for a pitcher: 6-foot-4, long, lean and loose, with exceptionally long arms. Teammate Jonny Gomes said Chapman, stuff-wise, "is borderline Randy Johnson.'' Chapman has had to adjust to life in America, which has been aided by his interpreter, Tony Fossas, a Reds instructor, and a former major league pitcher. Asked how he was doing in that role, Fossas smiled and said, "I am Sgt. Schultz: 'I know nothing, I see nothing.' "

• White Sox closer Bobby Jenks came to camp in great shape, having lost a lot of weight in the offseason. He said he doesn't know exactly how much weight he lost, and doesn't know how much it will affect his pitching, but he said with a laugh, "All I know is I look better naked.''

• Every morning of spring training, the Angels have a team meeting that features a special presentation by a player or coach. Years ago, pitcher Jarrod Washburn did a report on a local ostrich festival, and brought an ostrich into the clubhouse, to which pitcher Ramon Ortiz jumped into his locker and screamed, in Spanish, "Get that big chicken out of here!'' This year, Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu was depressed because the basketball team he owns in Venezuela had lost a few games in a row. So, manager Mike Scioscia had center fielder Torii Hunter arrange for the Globetrotters to come to the clubhouse. "Now here's a basketball team that knows something about winning,'' Scioscia said. Added Hunter: "It's the Mike Scioscia Comedy Hour every morning. Mike is the judge, and Mike is the lead comedian.''

• At Rays camp, manager Joe Maddon said that James Shields, age 28, was "the graybeard of the staff.'' The next day, Shields threw batting practice wearing a gray beard.

• The Giants are giving catcher Buster Posey a look at first base this spring because he is such a good hitter, such a good kid and isn't ready to catch every day in the big leagues right now. He might be ready next year, but one Giants player said he thinks the best thing to do with Posey would be to move him to first base on a full-time basis, save his legs, and just watch him hit.

• Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch is a great communicator, and he's developed a trust with his team. He spent the winter meeting individually with his players. Every day this spring, Hinch has a message for the players. One day, it involved players doing what they were told, so the phrase of the day was: We follow orders, or people die. Two Diamondbacks coaches acted out a scene from the movie "A Few Good Men" when Jack Nicholson said, "We follow orders, or people die.''

• We told you this spring how Joe Mauer was such a normal guy at the club's annual bowling tournament and golf event, mixing with everyday folks as though he was one of them instead of who he is: The best player in the league, the face of the franchise and now, it appears, a Twin for life. Here is another story that explains who Mauer is. He was an all-state basketball player in high school. When asked what type of player he was, he said he was a defensive specialist his senior season. Asked how many points a game he averaged, he said, "22.''

Twenty-two a night and he calls himself a defensive specialist. Only Joe Mauer would say that.

• Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker hit all winter with Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire. One day, after the two and shortstop Brendan Ryan hit in the cage, Schumaker cajoled McGwire into taking some swings on the field. By Schumaker's count, McGwire took 15 swings, and hit 11 balls over the fence. Three days later, he took 20 swings, and hit 12 homers. "And they weren't just wall-scrapers,'' Shumaker said. "He made us look bad. He hadn't swung a bat in nine years.''

• It was a scene that screamed of symbolism. Braves phenom right fielder Jason Heyward, the next great Brave, hit a home run so far in batting practice, it broke the sun roof of the car of Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno. When Heyward went upstairs to the Braves front offices to apologize to Manno, Heyward met Hank Aaron, the greatest Brave ever. Aaron shook his hand and noted that Heyward "has really big hands.''

• New Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson has had a good spring, which, at least for now, has eased concern whether he'll hit in the big leagues. Jackson is a great athlete, he was a great high school basketball player. "If I had dedicated myself totally to basketball,'' he said, "I really believe I could have played in the NBA.''

• Angels center fielder Torii Hunter on the trials of young players, especially those trying to hit: "My first spring training [while with the Twins], I didn't even know what a slider was,'' he said. "I asked Gardy [Ron Gardenhire, then a Twins coach], 'What's that red dot I see?' Gardy said, 'Torii, that's a slider.' I didn't know. I'm from Arkansas. I was a football player. I didn't know.''

• Manny Ramirez can be a knucklehead, but not when it comes to hitting. Mike Toomey, a Royals scout and special assistant to GM Dayton Moore, was in the Dominican Republic this winter running clinics and tryout camps. Toomey was in the lobby of a hotel at 8 a.m. looking at hitter's swings on his computer when he was tapped on the shoulder by Ramirez, who asked, "Have you got me in there?'' The two looked at video of Ramirez for an hour. "He said, 'Look, I'm out in front here,' " Toomey said. Ramirez came back every day the rest of the week to talk hitting, and to look at tapes; one day, he got down on his knees in the lobby of a hotel and showed Toomey a hitting drill he does. "I don't think people realize how diligent he is about his craft,'' Toomey said. "He said he got away from his mechanics last year, and went back to the blueprints.''

• Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson, a lockdown reliever the past few years, is on his way to winning a job in the starting rotation. He can throw four pitches, and if he throws them for strikes, he could help fortify the Rangers' rotation. Starter or reliever, he remains the club's movie critic. Asked about the film "District 9", he said he loved it, and spoke eloquently about it, using the words "metaphor'' and "apartheid'' and "genre'' in complete sentences.

• And finally, Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, 39, was asked how his spring was going. "Good, except the other day I got asked for my credentials at the gate,'' he said with a smile. "I came into the park with Tom Haudricourt [a writer], and the security guy thought I was a member of the media. When I first came up, they thought I was a bat boy. Now that I'm 39, they think I'm a writer.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.