Scenes from Spring Training: Meet The Mets Part 4

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empty dugout.jpgEver been to a gang bang? I hadn’t until yesterday.  What is it? It’s what beat writers call it when five or six of them gather around a single interview subject, usually in the locker room and just fire the questions.  My first gang bang was with Jim Riggleman after the game.  A most peculiar beast.  But I should back up.

Once the game ended, my buddy Knox and I looked at each other and almost simultaneously said “well, what are we supposed to do now?”  I’d been in and out of the Mets clubhouse earlier that day, but there weren’t a lot of people hanging around and there was far more interesting stuff happening elsewhere. What’s the etiquette for the postgame?  Realizing we were total newbies, Knox and I decided to simply follow the other dudes leaving the press box and do what they did.

Our little procession took the elevator down to the main level, and then walked around to the other side of the stadium, past security through a nondescript gate and into the Nats’ clubhouse. Which probably shouldn’t have been surprising given that the group included the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore (nice guy!) and MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Bill Ladson (didn’t say much, but he tweets about liking Otis Redding, and that makes him OK in my book).  I was actually happy we were going to the Nats side of the place because I hadn’t been in there earlier.

Our group — led by the Nats media guy, who apparently did make the trip after all, and never once said anything about me sitting in a press box seat reserved for him — went back to manager Jim Riggleman’s office. Riggleman talked about the Santos grand slam, explaining that Taveras didn’t simply throw his hands up and say the ball was stuck in the fence because he thought the umpire had already seen the ball and ruled it was in play, mooting any appeal. Turns out that the moment Taveras tried to pick up the ball is when the ump truly ruled, figuring that since Taveras didn’t throw his hands up, the ball was playable.  Hard call. Taveras’ instincts understandably took over, and you’d think the ump would be a bit more vocal about where things stood.  Baseball, she is tough game.

Beyond that there was nothing enlightening. Riggleman thought Marquis was just fine despite walking everyone, essentially saying it was spring training and all he cared about was the guy getting work.  No argument there.  He was asked if Ian Desmond — who once again looked great — has a chance to break camp with the club. Riggleman said “we have to wait and see.”  Other than the Santos inside-the-parker there wasn’t a question asked that everyone didn’t already know the answer too, and not a question that seemed all that interesting to ask sprung to mind.

This continued as the Riggleman gang bang broke up and the reporters filtered out to the clubhouse, where we were met with a dozen or so Nats players in their underwear (at most) eating pizza and looking tired after a long game.  It struck me at that moment that the last thing any of these guys wanted to do was to answer media questions. They just wanted to eat their pizza, shower up, get on the bus and head back to Viera.  I felt like I was imposing, even if I had a right to be there.

It also struck me at that moment that, no matter what I’ve ever said about beat writers in the past, they have the hardest jobs in sports. Unlike opinion writers like me, they’re all expected to extract something — anything — interesting from the underwear and pizza crowd. And like me, they know 99% of the answers to the questions that are going to get asked before they ask them (and really, the mood of a postgame clubhouse just isn’t right for off-the-wall questions; too businesslike).

Yet they have to ask them because they have to write a game story. And unlike me, who has the luxury of chewing on some answers for 12 hours to see if I can’t gain some odd insight to them, the beat guys are all on a hard deadline. They need to bang out the copy, make it good, and start all over again tomorrow.  I said earlier this morning that writing about baseball is the best job going. And it probably is. But I could see, in that clubhouse, how it could quickly become a grind.  We love our baseball. We love to watch our players. But the time and manner in which the media is expected to talk to them and learn from them is limiting in the extreme.  All of it gave me a new found respect and sympathy for the beat writer. They have a much, much harder job than you can imagine.

After a quick walk through the clubhouse Knox and I left, our work basically done for the day.  I went back to my hotel to write a bit, then grabbed a sandwich and a beer at a big silly sports bar near the ballpark.  David Wright was in there, as well as a few of his teammates whose names I couldn’t put with their faces (it’s a lot harder to tell who’s who when they’re not in uniform). The people at the surrounding tables kept gawking at the group, and many stopped by to say a word or two or to get an autograph. Wright was friendly and pleasant with all of them, despite the fact that he was simply trying to eat some dinner.

After my sandwich I walked next door to a movie theater and watched “Shutter Island.”  It was a good, weird movie. But not as weird as the fact that Oliver Stone has apparently made a sequel to “Wall Street,” the trailer for which I saw.

And not as good — not by damn sight — as a day at the ballpark.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Sunday’s action

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Starting pitcher Taijuan Walker #44 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning at Safeco Field on September 19, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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The last time the Mariners qualified for a postseason berth, I was eleven years old. My lone memory of the Mariners’ historic 116-win season has been reduced to a brief conversation with my father over nachos at our local Mexican restaurant. The details of our conversation are lost to me now; with an upbringing specifically tailored to Seattle Seahawks football, even the best and brightest of the Mariners’ glory days appeared as little more than a blip on my radar.

The Mariners enter Sunday with a 14% chance of securing a ticket to the playoffs. They’ll kick off the series finale at 2:10 PM EDT, during which Seattle’s Taijuan Walker will take on Minnesota lefty Hector Santiago. Neither pitcher looked dominant on the mound last week, with both Walker and Santiago lasting just 5  innings in their previous starts and giving up three runs and six runs in their respective outings.

What should have been an easy sweep for Seattle turned ugly on Saturday night as the Mariners battled their way to a 3-2 loss in Minnesota. Nelson Cruz‘s mammoth two-run homer was the only saving grace for an offense that has produced at a .263/.334/.437 clip in September. With a three-game set against the Astros on Monday and a final homestand against the A’s next weekend, it’ll take a significant push to propel the Mariners into October baseball.

Should they beat the odds and snap a 15-year playoff drought, however, I’ll be following every step of the way this time — whether the postseason goes the way of the Double or a Geronimo Berroa home run. (Just don’t make me give up my nachos.)

You can find more from Sunday’s action below.

New York Yankees (Michael Pineda) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marco Estrada), 1:07 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Jake Odorizzi), 1:10 PM EDT

Chicago White Sox (Carlos Rodon) @ Cleveland Indians (Josh Tomlin), 1:10 PM EDT

Kansas City Royals (Edinson Volquez) @ Detroit Tigers (Matt Boyd), 1:10 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jake Thompson) @ New York Mets (Robert Gsellman), 1:10 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Braden Shipley) @ Baltimore Orioles (Dylan Bundy), 1:35 PM EDT

Washington Nationals (A.J. Cole) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Tyler Glasnow), 1:35 PM EDT

Cincinnati Reds (Brandon Finnegan) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Wily Peralta), 2:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Angels (Daniel Wright) @ Houston Astros (Joe Musgrove), 2:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Taijuan Walker) @ Minnesota Twins (Hector Santiago), 2:10 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Oakland Athletics (Jharel Cotton), 4:05 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Tyler Anderson) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (Brandon McCarthy), 4:10 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants (Ty Blach) @ San Diego Padres (Clayton Richard), 4:40 PM EDT

St. Louis Cardinals (Carlos Martinez) @ Chicago Cubs (Jon Lester), 8:08 PM EDT

Atlanta Braves vs. Miami Marlins: POSTPONED