Randy Johnson retires, Cooperstown awaits

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Randy Johnson Dbacks.jpgAfter a stellar 22-year career Randy Johnson, The Big Unit, announced his retirement this evening.  He finishes with a record of 303-166. He racked up 4,785 strikeouts.  He won five Cy Young Awards, four of which came back-to-back-to-back-to-back, in the first four years of what has to be just about the best free agent signing ever.  While Roger Clemens may have a few family members who would plead his case, most would agree that Johnson was the most dominating and intimidating pitcher of his era.

But to me, it’s much more than the numbers that will define Randy Johnson’s legend. It’s the transformation.  I first saw Randy Johnson on TV as he pitched against the Braves on May 7, 1989.
I remember his performance distinctly, mostly because he was so damn
tall. Still, there was nothing about him that made me think the
guy would be in baseball in a year, let alone winning his 300th 20
years later. He was gangly and ineffective, going four innings, giving up six runs and walking six guys on the second worst offense in
the National League. When he was traded to the Mariners the following month I
thought “they gave up Mark Langston for that guy?” Mark Langston was an
All-Star who could strike guys out. Why on Earth would Seattle trade him for this wild beanpole?

Johnson slowly began to improve after the trade to Seattle, to the point where he was a genuinely average to slightly above average pitcher by 1992, though one who walked way, way too many guys.  He was 28 by then. I figured that he would peter out soon enough and would be remembered as a slightly better, left handed Bobby Witt.

Then something clicked, and after it clicked no one had a chance off of the guy for the next dozen years.

Johnson was always a difficult interview. Sometimes surly, but mostly just introspective and private. He wasn’t the sort that would go on and on about his craft.  If he was, however, he’d probably have an awful lot to say on the subjects of determination and concentration and above all else hard work.  What’s the knock on tall pitchers? That their mechanics are impossible because of their size? Tell me: was there anyone who had simpler, more fluid mechanics than Randy Johnson in his prime? Mastering those mechanics was the only way he’d ever go from an erratic gas thrower to a perennial Cy Young Award winner, and to do that had to take hours and hours of work.

Many people will be writing about Randy Johnson in the next couple of days, and when they do they will likely use the terms “gifted” and “overpowering” and “physical specimen.”  And they’ll be apt words because he was a gifted, overpowering physical specimen.

But most of us would have forgotten about the guy sometime in the mid-90s if he didn’t work, likely harder than any pitcher has ever worked before or since, to transform himself from that gifted but erratic thrower I saw in 1989 to the inner-circle Hall of Famer he is today, on the day of his retirement.

Congratulations on a spectacular career, Mr. Johnson.  See you in Cooperstown in 2015.

The Chicago Cubs: Spring training games, regular season prices

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Craig Calcaterra
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MESA, AZ — I’ve been covering spring training for eight years, and in just those eight years a lot has changed in the Cactus and Grapefruit League experiences. The parks are bigger and fancier and the vibe is far more akin to a regular season major league one than the intimate and laid back atmosphere most people think of when they picture February and March baseball.

Just imagine, however, how much has changed if you’ve been coming to Florida or Arizona for a really long time.

“When we first started coming, you could bring your own beer in,” says Don Harper, a lifelong Cubs fan from Kennewick, Washington who spends his winters in Arizona. “You couldn’t bring a cooler, but you could bring a case of beer and a bag of ice and you just set it down in between you and you just put the ice on it and keep it cold.”

I asked Don if the beer vendors complained.

“They didn’t sell beer,” he said.

That was three decades and two ballparks ago. They certainly sell beer at the Cubs’ gleaming new facility, Sloan Park. Cups of the stuff cost more than a couple of cases did back when Don first started coming to spring training.

The price of beer is not the only thing that has changed, of course. The price of tickets is not what it used to be either. Don told me that when he started coming to Cubs spring training games tickets ran about seven dollars. If that. It’s a bit pricer now. Face value for a single lawn ticket, where you’ll be sitting on a blanker on the outfield berm — can be as high as $47 depending on the day of the week and the opponent. Infield box seats run as high as $85.

The thing is, though, you’re not getting face value seats for Cubs spring training games. Half of the home games sold out within a week of tickets going on sale in January. Since then just about every other game has sold out or soon will. That will force you to get tickets on the secondary market. According to TickPick, the average — average! — Cubs spring training ticket on the secondary market is $106.30. For a single ticket. It’s easily the highest price for spring training tickets in all of baseball, and is $26 higher than secondary market tickets for the next highest team, the Red Sox:

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That may be shocking or even appalling to some, but as the automatic sellouts at Sloan Park and those high secondary market prices suggest, there are at least 15,000 people or so for each Cubs home game who don’t seem to mind. Supply meet demand meet the defending World Series champions.

I spoke with two younger Cubs fans, Corey Hayden and Eleanor Meloul, who traveled here from Salt Lake City. On Sunday they lucked out and got a couple of lawn seats for $28. On Saturday, however, they paid $100 a piece on StubHub to get some seats just beyond third base. I asked them if there is some price point that would keep them from coming.

“There isn’t one,” Hayden said. “I paid $4,500 for a World Series ticket, so . . .”

Don Harper wouldn’t do that, but he doesn’t really mind the higher prices he’s paying for his spring tickets. Of course, he’s a longtime season ticket holder so he gets access to the face value seats. I asked him whether his spring training habit would end if those prices got jacked up higher, as the market would seem to bear, or if he had to resort to the secondary market.

Don paused and sighed, suggesting it was a tough question. As he considered it, I put a hard number on it, asking him if he’d still go if he had to pay $50 per ticket. “Yeah, probably,” he said. “$75?” I asked. He paused again.

“As long as I got enough money.”

Don is a diehard who, one senses, will always find a way to make it work. Corey spent a wad of cash on that once-in-a-lifetime World Series ticket, but he and Eleanor seem content to bargain hunt for the most part and splurge strategically. If you’re a Cubs fan — and if you’re not rich — that’s what you’ll have to do. The ticket it just too hot.

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.