Commentary

First week in Sunshine State a real blast

Four camps in four days. Detailing Week 3 of the spring training bus tour in Florida

Originally Published: March 4, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Week 3 on the "Baseball Tonight Goodyear Bus Tour" with John Kruk ended in laughter, as it started.

Here are some of the highlights:

Feb. 28 at Tigers camp in Lakeland, Fla.

The Tigers pitchers were all over ace Justin Verlander about being a career .000 hitter: 0-for-16 with 10 strikeouts. "Every year, he says, 'This is the year I'm going to get a hit,'" pitcher Max Scherzer said. "This won't be the year. It won't be any year."

Verlander laughed about that, saying: "I have no comeback for that. I used to have some power to right center, but no more. It's to the point where if I do get a hit, I'm not even going to ask for the ball." Then he paused and said, "This is the year. My first hit is going to be a homer."

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are trying to sort out their second-base situation. They want Carlos Guillen to be their Opening Day starter, but he had knee surgery last September and isn't moving very well, making Opening Day for Guillen questionable at best. If it won't be Guillen at second base, the Tigers have several options, including Will Rhymes, who was impressive last year as a pest at the top of the batting order.

The Tigers have power arms throughout their bullpen, including Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya, Ryan Perry, Joaquin Benoit and Daniel Schlereth.

"I'm the soft thrower of the group, and I'm not a soft thrower," Schlereth said. "I throw 95 [mph]. Everyone else is 97 and above." Al Avila, who will do most of the catching this year, with an assist here and there from Victor Martinez, said, "With these guys, by mid-April, my hand is going to hurt."

Phil Coke is going from the bullpen to the rotation, a move that he says will be no problem. "I started all through the minor leagues," he said. "I have three pitches [fastball, slider, changeup], and I'm working on a fourth. Pitchers pitch. I can pitch in any situation."

Tigers manager Jim Leyland said that his one-two punch at the top of the rotation, Verlander and Scherzer, "are as good as any 1-2 out there. I mean any." When Scherzer went to the minor leagues last year, he fixed the grip and the follow through on his slider. His slider, changeup and 95-mph fastball made him one of the game's best pitchers in the second half.

One of the keys for the Tigers will be a bounce-back season from left fielder Brennan Boesch.

"I've never managed a player, not even Barry Bonds, that came flying out of the gates like [Brennan] did last year, swinging the bat, getting big hits," Leyland said. But Boesch floundered the last two months of the season. This spring is about getting him back.

Daily Kruk Revelation: When he checked into his hotel in Port Charlotte on Monday night, Kruk got a call from the front desk of his hotel at 9:30 p.m. He was in bed, nearly asleep. The desk clerk asked, "We have some young baseball players staying at the hotel, they know you're here, would it be all right if 40 of them came to your room so you could talk to them for maybe 30 minutes?" Kruk politely declined.

March 1 at Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla.

David Price visited the bus. He said the only thing missing from the bus is an Xbox. Price said his two favorite games are "FIFA" (a soccer game) and "Call Of Duty," which he once played on a hookup with Tigers ace Justin Verlander from 500 miles away. Price said when he's done with baseball every day, he often relaxes at home with his Xbox and his French bulldog, Astro. You mean Astro from "The Jetsons"? "Yes," Price said. "I love the Jetsons."

Johnny Damon visited the bus. "What model is this, a Prevost?" Damon asked. As it turns out, it is. "I've been on a lot of these buses with rock stars," he said. "I know buses."

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are only the second team in history -- joining the 2005 Marlins -- to lose, via free agency or trade, a 15-game winner (Matt Garza), a 25-homer man (Carlos Pena), a 40-stolen base man (Carl Crawford) and a 40-save man (Rafael Soriano) in the same offseason.

The Rays opened the exhibition season with no idea how their bullpen was going to work, especially at closer. There are no solid options given that rookie Jake McGee isn't ready, J.P. Howell won't be healthy until May and Kyle Farnsworth is much better as a setup man. The dark horse is Joel Peralta, who reminds some of the Rays of Al Reyes, who emerged to save 26 games in 2007.

"Most of my time is spent thinking about bullpen matchups," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That's what I think about while riding my bike."

Pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, the author of the best-selling book, "The Bullpen Chronicles," is a non-roster player in Rays camp. He threw two scoreless innings in his spring debut, tossing 20 pitches, 18 for strikes. He is working on a second book, which is due to the publisher by April 15. "Every day is the same, I get to the ballpark at 6:45 a.m., do all my work, then go home and write until 10:45 [p.m.]," he said. "I have no social life. Johnny Damon invited me, and bunch of players, on his boat this spring. What an opportunity it would have been, but I couldn't go. I had to tell him, 'I'd love to, but I'm on deadline.'"

The Rays have several plans at first base. They have Dan Johnson, who can hit home runs, but is below-average defensively. They have Casey Kotchman, who is terrific defensively, but might start the year at Triple-A until he gets his swing figured out. Ben Zobrist likely will play first base against left-handers. Zobrist also will play second base and right field, and might play them all in the same week. "He might play them all in the same game," Maddon said.

Daily Kruk Revelation: "Did I ever tell you about the commercial I did with Mike Tyson?" he said. "My wife [in the commercial] and I just had a baby, and we're going out one night, and I tell my wife, 'We have a babysitter.' And in comes Mike Tyson, holding our baby. It was funnier than hell." Kruk said that Tyson would not put the child, a real child, down, saying, "I hate adults, but I love kids. I could spend all day in a nursery."

March 2 at Twins camp in Fort Myers, Fla.

Right fielder Michael Cuddyer visited the bus. He is a magician, and has been doing magic tricks since he was 12 years old. He did two card tricks that were so good, they defied description. "When [second baseman] Luis Castillo was with us, I did a trick for him," Cuddyer said. "He's from right on the line between the Dominican [Republic] and Haiti. He has some … I don't know, black gods thing going. He saw me do this trick and said, 'Whoo.' The next day, he moved his locker across the room. He didn't want to locker next to me anymore."

The Twins are hoping that first baseman Justin Morneau will be 100 percent healthy and ready to go on Opening Day, but there's no guarantee that he will be ready. As of Wednesday, he was waiting for a doctor's clearance to play in an exhibition game. "The first concussion has to be healed first," Morneau said, "or if there's a second one, it could be even worse."

Minnesota Twins

Twins closer Joe Nathan, who missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery, said he was encouraged after this first outing, a scoreless inning Tuesday. He was clocked at 90-91 mph.

"Usually," he said, "I'm at 86-90 this time of year." He had great extension over his front leg, and had the same great angle coming at the hitter. He said that barring a setback, he will be ready to close a game on Opening Day. Nathan said it helps that he has been through this before. He had shoulder surgery while he was with the Giants in 2000. "Because of that," he said, "I know what to expect. I can cut loose easier because I know what it's like."

It has been confirmed: Joe Mauer is a rap artist. He laughed at being turned in by his teammates. "I know Michael Cuddyer is behind this," Mauer said with a smile. Mauer said he has written a couple of rap songs on his computer, and performed them at a couple of parties for the Twins. "He wasn't bad," Morneau said. Mauer laughed again and said, "I just did it for the laughs. Believe me, I'm not a rap artist. I am going to keep my day job."

Cuddyer is the team leader in every way, including being the leader in pranks. This spring, he convinced Twins center fielder Denard Span that second baseman Ray Chang was the Twins' newest player from Japan, which actually happens to be Tsuyoshi Nishioka. "Go introduce yourself," Cuddyer told Span. Span approached Chang, did a respectful bow and said, "Hello, do you speak English?" Chang said, "Sure, I'm from Kansas City." The whole clubhouse howled.

The Twins have a decision to make in the middle infield, and it appears that Alexi Casilla is going to be the shortstop and Nishioka is going to be the second baseman. Casilla said he is comfortable at either spot, "I am comfortable being in the lineup." Nishioka glides all over the field. "He has some pizzazz in his game," Morneau said. "He hit a one-hop rocket to the shortstop and nearly beat it to first. We looked at each other on the bench and said, 'Well, he can really run.'"

Daily Kruk Revelation: "I used to be 5-foot-11," he said. "But I got in a car accident when I was with the Padres, I went through the windshield of the car. The next spring, I got measured, and I was 5-10. Compression, I guess."

March 3 at Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla.

Manager Terry Francona and second baseman Dustin Pedroia visited the bus. They were hilarious.

Francona on his first look at Pedroia in 2006: "He stunk. I was told by our people, 'Don't let first impressions fool you.' I thought he was one of the owner's kids who was coming to camp for a couple of weeks. I was told, 'Here's your No. 1 pick.'" Pedroia on what he would be doing if he wasn't a baseball player: "I want to be a body builder. I'll be Pocket Hercules."

Boston Red Sox

Pedroia has a new haircut this spring, bald on the top, longer in the back. "I call it the convertible cut," Pedroia said. "The top is always down." Francona said, "I think you look like a moron." Francona took off his cap, pointed to his bald head and said, "This is curveballs. I would get in the box, and when they'd throw curveballs, my hair would fall out in the batter's box."

Pedroia and Francona play Cribbage (a card game) every day. Late last season, they invited closer Jonathan Papelbon to join the game. Pedroia called him "the worst Cribbage player ever." Francona said with a laugh, "Pap helped me build half of my basement. We get Pap for one more week, and I can finish off the basement. Not all decisions are baseball decisions."

The Red Sox will catch Jarrod Saltalamacchia four or five days a week. Jason Varitek will catch the rest of the time, usually against left-handers. Saltalamacchia is over his throwing issues "having spent all winter at Camp Tuck," Francona said, referring to the work Saltalamacchia did with bullpen coach Gary Tuck.

Josh Beckett is the most important Red Sox player heading into 2011. Last year, he had a 5.78 ERA and allowed 20 home runs in 127 2/3 innings. Beckett wasn't healthy at times, but mostly he threw too many cutters instead of blowing hitters away with his 95 mph fastball. Plus, a club source said, Beckett was trying too hard to justify his huge contract extension.

Daily Kruk Revelation: When Kruk was with the Phillies, reliever Bruce Ruffin, throwing in the bullpen at Shea Stadium, hit a horse right in the butt. The horse went crazy, as did the other horses around it. It shook up Ruffin. Bullpen coach Mike Ryan called the dugout and told manager Jim Fregosi, "You better get someone else up. Ruffin just hit a horse in the ass."

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.