Scenes from Spring Training: Meet The Mets Part 1

Leave a comment

Niesen PFP.jpgSunday was spent at Tradition Field for the Mets-Nationals game. There’s so much more going on than just a game, however, so why don’t we run it down.  Lots of bite-sized observations, so this will be in multiple parts throughout the day.

I arrived at the ballpark early, hoping to get my bearings before it got too crowded. As I pulled into the parking lot and approached a woman in a Mets jacket to ask her where I could park she started yelling at me: “MOVE TO THE SIDE! MOVE TO THE SIDE!  THERE’S A PLAYER COMING!”  Sure enough, a player in a Chrysler 300 was behind me — no idea who it was, to be honest — and apparently players aren’t expected to have to deal with traffic.  Once the player passed the lady was nice enough to tell me where to.  Again.

I got my media credentials and started wandering. First stop: indoor batting cages. After seeing Bay and Francoeur hit, first base prospect Ike Davis stepped in. He’s quite tall and hits the ball really, really hard.  He stepped out of the cage and onto the walkway near where I was standing. As Nick Evans started taking his hacks, Davis took a couple of swings. He was nowhere close to hitting me, but because I’m a nervous newbie not used to gigantic people swinging bats in my vicinity, I flinched noticeably. Davis stifled a laugh and said “Don’t worry. I’m a professional.”

Past the batting cages are the back fields where players drill and a big grassy common area where fans can watch the action.  There weren’t too many people there yet. I asked a security guard if this was a typical crowd for a Sunday morning. He said “yeah, it’s uush-ally smawler on Sunday until around noon. You know. Choich.”  Probably worth noting that just about every employee at Tradition Field is a New Yorker.

I watched pitcher’s fielding practice for about ten minutes.  It’s kind of hypnotic. One after the other, faking a pitch, turning and running towards first, fielding the coach’s throw and then jogging to the back of the line again. After a while I started making a game of it in my mind, trying to see who was the fastest to first and who was the slowest. Bobby Parnell was pretty quick. Eric Neisen, as you can see in the pic above, was catching the throw farther from the bag than you usually see pitchers do, so I’m going to call him the slow poke.

From PFP it was over to the bullpen, where Nelson Figueroa was throwing his scheduled session.  Figueroa seems like a fun guy.  A coach was standing behind the catcher calling each pitch a ball, a strike, a hit, or whatever, and each time it was anything but a strike Figueroa would jaw things back at him like “you’re blind,” or “like you’d know what a strike is,” or “that wasn’t a hit, Carlos dove for it in the gap and caught it. I got a no-hitter going.”  The catcher and the coach were dying laughing. When Figueroa was done he signed autographs for approximately 117 hours, smiling and saying something nice and personalized to every kid that was hanging around.

After watching Figueroa, I noticed David Wright was walking from a back field towards the clubhouse. As he did, a mother prodded her David Wright jersey-wearing son — who was no more than seven years old — to say hello to him.  The boy hesitated and looked back at his mom, unsure of himself. She nodded encouragement. He turned around and said “Mr. Wright!”  Wright slowed down, gave the boy a little finger pistol, a wink, and a “hey kiddo!” and continued jogging toward the clubhouse.  The boy broke out into the biggest smile you’ve ever seen, turned to his mom and said “Did you see that! Did you see that!” That boy will remember that moment until the day he dies.

It and the Figueroa thing were moments I needed. Why? Because I was about to hit the media room and press box, and as you’ll see in our next couple of installments, there aren’t many aw-gosh, aw-gee warm and fuzzy baseball moments when you’re on the turf of the professional sporting press.

Mets sign outfielder Roger Bernadina

Cincinnati Reds v Arizona Diamondbacks
Leave a comment

Veteran outfielder Roger Bernadina has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mets that includes an invitation to spring training.

Bernadina was a semi-regular for the Nationals from 2010-2012, but never developed as much as hoped offensively and didn’t play in the majors at all last season.

At age 32 he’s a career .236 hitter with a .661 OPS in 548 games as a big leaguer and given the Mets’ outfield depth–they already have Alejandro De Aza and Juan Lagares in bench/part-time roles–Bernadina seems likely to begin the season in the minors.

J.R. Graham is in The Best Shape of his Life

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher J.R. Graham celebrates after the final out as the Twins beat the Chicago White Sox 12-2 in  a baseball game, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 12-2. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
2 Comments

Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that Twins reliever J.R. Graham has lost “roughly 30-40 pounds this offseason.” It’s not a result of workouts, though. Just a change in diet. Bollinger says that Graham cut out sugar, alcohol and foods heavy in carbs and focused on a high-protein diet with lots of salads, meats and vegetables.

That’s an awful lot of weight to lose in four months, but the dude is only 26 and guys in their 20s lose weight just by thinking about it. Which is so very annoying to those of us who aren’t guys in their 20s.

The real test, of course, will come when he is working out far more strenuously once spring training starts and gets into the season. Normal schmos like me can keep up that kind of diet without much of a hitch as long as we have the willpower. An athlete’s energy requirements are far greater and far more specialized, so he’ll need more fuel than he’s probably been getting this offseason. Word is, however, that professional sports teams have people on staff that, you know, have made monitoring that kind of thing their life’s work.

In the meantime:

“I can just feel the change,” Graham said. “The energy. Everything. I feel great. I’m excited to see how it’ll translate into spring. I know I shouldn’t have any problems because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m faster. All that. So it’s really exciting.”

It’s very exciting indeed. Because, with that, Graham becomes the latest baseball player to be . . . In The Best Shape of His Life.

The time my family invited itself to Gaylord Perry’s house for lunch

Gaylord Perry
6 Comments

I mentioned my Gaylord Perry story in the last post. I feel like I’ve written this up before, but I couldn’t find it in our archives. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I’ve just told it to friends and radio hosts and people so many times that it feels like I’ve written it before. Oh well, I’ll tell it again because I like telling this story.

In 1984 I was on vacation with my family in the big RV, driving through North Carolina. As we always did on those long family road trips, my brother and I spent all of our highway time sorting through boxes of baseball cards we brought along with us. As we passed through a little podunk town, my dad suddenly pulled over and stopped to make a call at a pay phone. He got back into the RV and said “we’re stopping for lunch.” As we pulled away from the phone booth, I saw a sign that said “Welcome to Williamston, North Carolina, Home of Gaylord and Jim Perry.” Maybe Jim got first billing since he’s older. I don’t remember. But that was the upshot.

Five minutes later we are pulling up to a house next to a large farm. A woman came out of the house and said, “You’re the fella who just called? Come on in!” She welcomed us inside. “Gaylord will be here in a minute,” she said. My brother and I freaked out as we looked around the living room. There were photos of Gaylord Perry in action. Trophies and awards. Jerseys in frames. All kinds of other stuff. The thing I remember most was a giant leather chair shaped like a baseball glove that, to this day, I wish I had (maybe the 1984 version of this?). Five minutes later Gaylord freaking Perry walked in. He was wearing dirty jeans, work boots, a dirty white t-shirt and a Kansas City Royals cap. It was his first summer not playing baseball since he was a kid and he was spending it farming. Still had the cap on, though.

Gaylord and his wife, Blanche, were warm and welcoming. They said that not too many baseball fans just up and stopped by, but that they were happy someone did. Blanche made us sandwiches. Gaylord signed autographs (we had a few Perry cards in the RV stash). Even at that age I knew Perry’s reputation as a ball-doctorer. He told us a bunch of spitball jokes and stories which he had no doubt honed on the banquet circuit over the years, but they were mostly new to me. My parents, who were not baseball fans and didn’t know much about Perry apart from the fact that he was a famous baseball player, were delighted when Perry asked me to explain to them what I thought a spitball was. You could tell Perry thought that it was absolutely adorable that I thought the best way to doctor a ball was to, you know, spit on it. He talked about Vaseline and all sorts of other stuff, adding “or so I’m told” or “some people say” every now and again with a wink.

After lunch, Gaylord took us back to his office, in a separate building. He opened a file cabinet containing autographed baseballs from his former teammates and his friends in the game. I got a George Brett ball, which Perry said he gave me because Brett was the best player whose autograph he had sitting around handy. My brother said he was a Tigers fan so Perry gave him a Lance Parrish ball Perry had gotten somewhere along the way. He had a bunch of others too, but we weren’t greedy. He gave my mom a T-shirt he had which commemorated the Pine Tar Incident, in which he played no small part. He autographed the shirt for her, apologized for it being so big and said that maybe she could use it as a night shirt. My dad took Polaroids of my brother and me with Perry which I still have around here someplace. Then off we went, with Gaylord and Blanche Perry waving from the porch.

I was saddened to hear a couple years later that Perry’s life took an unfortunate turn not long after we met him. Two years later he lost his farm to bankruptcy. A year later Blanche died in an automobile accident. Perry went on to coach college baseball for a while. I remember seeing an interview with him around that time and he seemed like a much sadder guy than the smiling fellow we met that day in 1984. It makes sense given all that had happened.

In 2012, while in Scottsdale to cover spring training, I walked into the Giants clubhouse one morning and sitting at a table were Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Gaylord Perry. They were there for some sort of pregame ceremony and were just shooting the breeze and telling old baseball stories. Perry was laughing and animated and at times was practically breathless due to all of the cackling. He had Mays in stitches too. It was fantastic to see him smiling.

When the conversation ended Perry got up and walked from the table. I thought about saying something to him about the time in 1984 when my dad impulsively took his kids to Gaylord Perry’s house and to thank him for the kindness he and his wife showed my family that day. I didn’t, though. He was soon in another conversation and, on some level, it seemed awkward for me to have brought that up there, in the clubhouse, wearing a press credential when people were working and preparing and things. In hindsight I wish I had.

I’m going back to Scottsdale to cover spring training again in March. I hope he’s there again. If so, this time I will.

Giants player who cheated in order to achieve milestones to be honored with statue

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 1973 file photo, home plate umpire John Flaherty checks Cleveland Indians' pitcher Gaylord Perry's cap, at the request of Milwaukee Brewers manager Del Crandall,  during the first game of a doubleheader against the Brewers,  in Milwaukee. Well after the end of his Hall of Fame career, Perry could still joke about his infamous spitball, but in 1982, the Seattle star was ejected for allegedly throwing the pitch against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/File)
Associated Press
6 Comments

Hey, I didn’t say “records,” I just said milestones. Milestones which I recognize as totally valid, by the way.

We’re talking about Gaylord Perry here, of course. As Hank Shulman reports, he’ll be getting a statue at AT&T Park. It will be unveiled on August 13, and it will go alongside statues of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.

Perry was a fantastic pitcher, of course. A man who won over 300 games and struck out more than 3,500 dudes and, without question, belongs in the Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted eons ago. He belongs even if he cheated because, Jesus, a lot of dudes did or at least tried to do what he did and they didn’t become amazing pitchers as a result, so maybe the cheating didn’t make or break the man’s career? And because how on Earth can you have a baseball Hall of Fame without Gaylord Perry in it? That’d be preposterous.

Moreover, he’s a player for whom I have a great deal of personal admiration for personal reasons no matter what he did on the field (have I told you my Gaylord Perry story? If I haven’t told my Gaylord Perry story before remind me and I’ll do a post on it; he was a prince of a man to my family one time). UPDATE: Here’s that Gaylord Perry story.

See, you can separate the rule breaking from the rest of it if you try even a little bit.

Bonds next, please.