Scenes from Spring Training: Meet The Mets Part 3

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Press Box View.jpgOver the weekend, the Los Angeles Times’ Dylan Hernandez said that he overheard another reporter in the press box of the Dodgers’ game say “I hate this job. I want to go work in a factory.”  I suppose it’s possible to get tired of anything, but I’m not sure how you can get tired of watching a game from up in the press box.

They’re not the best seats in the house — a little higher than I’d like — but they’re still excellent.  You can’t get a beer, but there’s free soda and no one is patting you down and finding your hip flask if you’re that desperate for booze. You can’t cheer, but you can snark and complain “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-style, and that’s almost as fun, especially given that the people sitting next to you are likely to get the most obscure and inside baseball references you throw out there.  Really, it’s a sweet, sweet deal, and that’s before you even take into account that the reason you’re up there is because you have a job writing about baseball.  After practicing law for 11 years I’m going to say it would take, oh, 59 years of going to the press box every day before I’d get tired of it.

I got up there early, wanting to make sure I got a good seat.  There were name plates on the tables for the Daily News, New York Times, the Post and most of the other outlets that cover the Mets. One guy was already sitting in the only “visiting press” seat I could see, so I sat in the one marked “visiting PR,” figuring that the Nationals wouldn’t send a public relations guy to a road spring training game.

As it got closer and closer to the game starting, something funny happened: the press box didn’t really fill up. There were five or six Nats’ beat writers there and a couple of New York guys, but the majority of the New York guys I’d been watching all morning didn’t even bother.  Most of them were columnist types and not the ones who would have to write the game story, but I still assumed that they’d actually watch the game.

The last guy to come in was Knox Bardeen of AOL FanHouse.  He sat next to me and we talked all game, bonding over the fact that we’re both Internet guys doing something that print-guys still dominate and the fact that we’re both new to press boxes.  Knox has covered a few Braves games and some NFL, but we’re both green as hell when it comes to the beat and are both taking our first working swings through spring training. I was glad to have Knox next to me all game.  Random observations from the box during the game:

  • Reporters do rise for the National Anthem, but they also heckle the singer. It wasn’t the best rendition you’ve ever heard, but man, tough crowd.

  • The official scorer sat in the same box — not sure if they sit separately at major league parks — and helpfully shouts out pitch counts, scoring decisions and player substitutions to the reporters. The informality of spring training was apparent, however, as some of the writers would tell him when they saw a substitution happening before he saw it or would check his pitch counts against theirs and stuff.  Neat dynamic.

  • It was Oliver Perez’s first outing of the spring.  If it’s any indication of how his summer will go, you may want to sell your “Oliver Perez is going to bounce back in 2010” stock right now.  Nothing on his pitches. He threw strikes, but most of them were hammered.

  • Jeff Francoeuer took five straight pitches from Jason Marquis in the second inning to work the walk. Knox and I speculated that we each would have bet something on the order of $750 that we’d never see such a thing.

  • A couple of batters later Omir Santos hit what would be scored as an inside-the-park grand slam. Regardless, what were Mets thinking not signing Molina? this guy can play.  After that play the Mets had five runs on three hits, which I take as a sign that their 2010 offense will be built around lots of walks and inside the park grand slams. It might not work, but hey, at least it’s a philosophy. If you’re curious, here’s video of the Santos slam. It obviously had more to do with the ball getting caught in the corner and Willie Tavares having a bit of a brain lock, but hey, the scorer’s ruling stands.
  • Francoeur gunned down two runners at the plate during the game.  As you all know I’m not much of a Jeff Francoeur fan, but I’ll always love good baseball 100 times more than I’ll dislike anything about it or anyone in it, and there aren’t many more exciting plays in baseball than someone getting nailed at the plate. On the first one I let out a choked cheer, doing everything I could to not break the “no cheering in the press box” rule.  The second time was hopeless — I whooped. No one seemed to care.
  • Hisanori Takahashi is a non-roster invitee of the Mets, and given the presence of Ryota Igarashi, he isn’t even the most celebrated Japanese newcomer on the team.  But he was simply fantastic yesterday, striking out six in three very efficient innings.  I know very little about the guy and you obviously can’t base much on just one outing, but I was pretty impressed.
  • The press box started to clear out around the fifth inning as the clubhouses open up in the middle of the game during spring training so that the veterans can give their quotes to the beat writers and then take off for the golf course or wherever they’re going.  Why anyone wanted to get quotes from Oliver Perez and his ilk is beyond me, because from my perspective that was about the time of the game things got interesting. Why? Because it was when some young prospects who may actually help the Nats and Mets win a lot of ballgames one day got their chances.
  • First up was the Nats’ other first round pick from last year — Drew Storen — who pitched the sixth inning and got three ground ball outs. He may be closing games for the Nats before the year is done. Then came the Mets’ Ike Davis, who entered the game in the seventh and hit a double off Ron Villone. My granny could probably hit a double off Villone these days, but Davis’ was hit to the opposite field, so technically that makes him a “professional hitter,” just like he said earlier in the day. Not a professional base runner, however. After making it to third, he thought about tagging up on a shallow fly ball, changed his mind about 15 feet towards home and then got nailed at the bag while trying to retreat to third.  But did I mention that he’s tall and hits the ball really, really hard?

The game ended with the Mets winning 6-5. The reporters quickly packed up and made a beeline for the elevator. I followed them, a little nervously to be honest. Why? We were on our way to my first ever gang bang.  Curious? Come back in about an hour and I’ll explain.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.