Commentary

Yet another fun-filled week in the sun

Four camps in four days. Detailing the fourth week of the spring training bus tour

Originally Published: March 13, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Finally, after four weeks on the "Baseball Tonight Goodyear Bus Tour," a breakthough was achieved with John Kruk. We have something in common. We can't skate or ski, and we cannot do scary rides at amusement parks. This was determined after he threw an orange at me as we neared Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Here are some of the highlights from Week 4:

March 6 at Yankees camp in Tampa, Fla.

The Yankees don't seem nearly as worried about their rotation as everyone else. Ivan Nova is the likely fourth starter, his stuff is good, and he isn't intimidated by where he is. Freddy Garcia is in line to be the fifth starter. He is a strike-thrower and fearless. Asked if he has thrown well this spring, Garcia said, "I have to,'' meaning he has to make a team for the first time in a long time. Bartolo Colon is the third guy in the mix. He pitched in winter ball, his stuff is still pretty good and he has been at 93 mph at times with command.

New York Yankees

Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher, a West Virginia native like Kruk, visited the bus. "Krukie and I grew up the same way, shooting guns and tipping cows,'' Swisher said, smiling. "With tipping cows, it's all in the legs.'' Swisher is also an expert in tweeting, but he says, "it is all monitored by my team. No tweet goes out that I didn't write. You have to be careful these days.'' Swisher gave Kruk a lesson in tweeting. "Are you sure you're from West Virginia?'' Kruk asked him. When Swisher left, he drove his car out of Yankees camp. And the car wasn't his usual big truck, but his black sports car. "I call it the Batmobile,'' he said.

The Yankees have young pitching all through their system, led by left-hander Manny Banuelos. He was so dazzling in his first appearance this spring against the Tigers, one scout said after the game, "he could pitch in the big leagues right now.'' He is only 19, so he's not going to make the big club, but one Yankee said, "If this was 30 years ago, he would make this club out of spring training.'' Banuelos throws 94-95 with command, has a good curveball and a changeup he isn't afraid to throw on 2-0, which is extremely rare for someone so young.

Mark Prior is in camp. Chances are, he will be start the season at Triple-A as a reliever. Prior said that after two surgeries, and so many disappointments, he has stopped worrying about things, something he learned last summer while playing Independent League ball. "That was a blast,'' he said. "One week, we played a doubleheader on Wednesday, a game on Thursday, doubleheader on Friday, a game on Saturday. We played a game at 11 a.m. in Yuma [Ariz.] on a back field of the old complex. There were no dugouts, just a bench, no fans, the only person there was a groundskeeper. It was just baseball. It was great. You do your work before a game, walk across the street, go to Subway for lunch, then go back to the ballpark.''

Daily Kruk Revelation: Kruk said his 1993 Phillies team, led by third baseman Dave Hollins, could beat up any team in a fight. "[Catcher] Darren Daulton was just messing around, not fighting, but I saw him hold Lance Parrish over his head,'' Kruk said. "Lance was a big boy.''

March 7 at Marlins camp in Jupiter, Fla.

Shortstop Hanley Ramirez wore a cut-off T-shirt. He weighs 240 pounds and can still dunk a basketball "whatever way you like.'' He has to have the biggest biceps and shoulders of any shortstop in baseball history. "I spent the winter working on my lower half, my agility, I want to get quicker and faster, and steal more bases this year,'' he said. "I want to steal 50.''

Florida Marlins

Ramirez acknowledged that he wasn't as "mature'' as he needed to be last season and has vowed "to be more of a leader this year.'' One teammate said that this spring "is the first time I have ever seen Hanley stand up in front of us and talk about what we have to do as a team.''

Ramirez and the rest of the Marlins have made a concerted effort to upgrade their defense; they made 126 errors last year, one short of worst in the National League. Perry Hill, one of the best infield instructors in the game, was hired back by the Marlins as a coach. He had T-shirts made for all his infielders this spring. They read DEFENSE on the front and 27 OUTS, NO MORE on the back. Ramirez is moving better on defense, Omar Infante is an upgrade at second base over Dan Uggla and rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez is already at an elite level defensively. "He is unbelievable,'' said left fielder Logan Morrison. Catcher John Baker said that Dominguez doesn't where a cup when playing third base, and when asked why he doesn't, Dominguez told him, "That's what my hands are for.''

The Marlins have greatly improved a bullpen that last year blew 25 saves, most in the NL. Leo Nunez remains the closer, but this year, he has a lot more help with the acquisitions of Ryan Webb, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate and Mike Dunn, to go with Clay Hensley, Brian Sanches and Burke Badenhop. Suddenly, a weakness might become a strength.

Strength? We're not sure we've ever seen a bigger and better looking body on a baseball player than right fielder Mike Stanton. He is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. "He has a 34-inch waist and he weighs 250 pounds,'' said Baker. Said Morrison: "He hit a ball over the offices in left-center field, out of the stadium, the other day during batting practice. It was unbelievable.'' Added infielder Greg Dobbs: "He hit the genetic jackpot. I would like to look like him for one day.''

New center fielder Chris Coghlan is being brought along slowly after coming back from knee surgery in the offseason. The Marlins seem to think that he will be able to play the position, but he just slid into a base on Sunday for the first time since the injury. He was a little sore afterward. Coghlan has changed positions and spots in the batting order several times since his debut in 2009. "In my ninth year,'' he said, "I'll be pitching out of the bullpen.''

Daily Kruk Revelation: Kruk played with Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez in the minor leagues in 1985. "I picked up his teeth one day,'' Kruk said. "The last week of the season, he turned the wrong way and got hit in the mouth with a pitch. His teeth came flying out. I picked up his teeth and gave them to him.'' Rodriguez laughed about it 26 years later, saying, "Jose DeLeon was our first base coach that day. He came to home plate to see how I was doing. He saw all the blood pouring out of my mouth and he fainted. They put him on a stretcher and took him away in an ambulance. They didn't take me.''

March 8 at Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Fla.

Former catcher Mike Matheny is a coach for the Cardinals. He had to retire in 2006 due to complications from concussions. This past Friday, he spoke in Phoenix to a group of doctors and kids about the dangers of concussions. "For me, it was really scary,'' he said of his concussion. "For me, it was not a broken finger or bruised ribs, it was my brain. Once my heart rate went up, I couldn't think. My mind was foggy. I would forget what finger I put down one second after I put it down. I crossed myself up one time, and I took a fastball right in the chest. In my last game, I swung at a pitch after it was already in the catcher's mitt. I couldn't even see it. If it had been thrown at me, I would have never been able to get out of the way. I was involved in so many collisions at the plate, and took so many balls off the mask, I can't even remember how many times the trainer had to ask me, 'How many fingers am I holding up? What year is it?'''

St. Louis Cardinals

Matheny said it took him 18 months of essentially no activity before he was over the symptoms. "That was just me, but every case is individual,'' he said. "After I retired, there were days when I would be driving in my car and I would forget where I was going. I would have to call home and ask my wife, 'Where am I supposed to go?' I tell kids to just be aware. I tell them and their parents that missing a Little League game isn't that important.''

Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire on Albert Pujols: "He is unbelievable. He struck out three times in a game the other day and couldn't sleep that night. It is a great lesson for all of our young hitters: Even the best of the best is going to struggle at one point or another.''

Lance Berkman visited the bus. On Matt Holliday wearing sleeveless T-shirts in the clubhouse, Berkman said with a smile, "I'm not wearing sleeveless. Matt is an animal. He really takes care of himself. He stands over our shoulders checking out what we're eating to make sure we're eating right. No more burgers and fries for me. I'm back in the outfield. I need to be as lean as possible.'' Berkman jokingly said that he is "running like a gazelle'' this spring and laughed when told that teammates nearly fainted when he beat out an infield grounder in a spring training game. Seriously, he said, his knees are feeling better than at any point last season. His play in right field could be crucial to the Cardinals.

The Cardinals do not have a replacement for Adam Wainwright in the rotation, but they have several candidates, led by Kyle McClellan. They also have Miguel Batista, Ian Snell and two young pitchers, Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson. McClellan is going to win that job.

Daily Kruk Revelation: Kruk sweats a lot because, he says with a laugh, "I am fat.'' He said, "I never saw Tom Glavine sweat. It would be 100 degrees in Atlanta and he wouldn't sweat.''

March 9 at Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Mets manager Terry Collins organized a bowling league this spring. "We have 40 professional athletes, and 38 of them stink at bowling,'' Collins said, laughing. David Wright is the best bowler in the league; he rolled a 259 his first game. "I was unconscious,'' he said. Wright's team is in first place. The team is called "Three And A Half Men," but they refused to divulge the teammate who is a bad enough bowler to be a half a man. "We have bowling shirts with our names on the front and our slogan on the back,'' Wright said. "It's very classy. Our shirts are very classy. Way better than Izzy's shirts.''

New York Mets

Izzy is reliever Jason Isringhausen, who is the second-best bowler in the league and has rolled several scores around 220. "He is good at any sport that involves beer,'' Wright said. Mets catcher Josh Thole is on Isringhausen's team. "[Thole] bowled an 88 the other day,'' Isringhausen said with smile. Thole is the primary catcher for the Mets, and they give him unlimited grief about being somewhat cross-eyed, which he not only doesn't dispute, he has fun with it. "He's the only guy I know that you can poke in both eyes with one finger,'' Wright said playfully. "When he bowls, he's not sure what lane he's going to bowl in because one eye is going in one direction and the other is going in the other direction.''

Ace Johan Santana likely won't pitch until June at the earliest. He hasn't thrown off a mound. When he arrived at the ballpark Wednesday, he was facetiously asked if he was throwing a bullpen. "Yes,'' he said, "right-handed. I only throw changeups right-handed.''

Isringhausen, 38, who has pitched in nine games since 2008, has a real chance to make the team as someone to help get the ball to closer Frankie Rodriguez. Isringhausen's fastball has been clocked at 91 mph. "I'm grunting and snorting it up there,'' he said. Rodriguez's stuff is better this spring than it was at most times last year. The two-seam fastball that he developed at the end of last year became an important pitch. But the Mets are in a real bind with him. If Rodriguez finishes 55 games this year, his contract for 2012 is guaranteed for $17.5 million. There's no way that the Mets want to pay him, but all eyes -- including those from the Major League Players Association -- will be fixed on how they use him.

It's only a matter of time before the Mets release pitcher Oliver Perez and second baseman Luis Castillo, who together will be paid $18 million in 2011. They have no replacement for Castillo, but Daniel Murphy is the leading candidate despite struggling on defense.

Daily Kruk Revelation: Collins was Kruk's manager in winter ball in 1983 in Mexico. "He picked me up at the airport in a station wagon,'' Kruk said. "I had never met him before. The first stop we made was a liquor store so I could buy beer.''

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.

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