Scenes from Spring Training: Red Sox Nation South Part 1

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City of Palms Park.jpgI haven’t been to Steinbrenner Field yet so this may be a bit
premature, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a Red Sox
spring training game is about as close to a major league experience as
you’re going to get in the Grapefruit League. For better and for worse.

City
of Palms Park is really just a ballpark and not part of a larger spring
training facility. The Sox actually do their training at a player
development complex a couple of miles away, thus depriving the visitor
of that campus-like setting most places have.  If you’re parking at the
ballpark you’re there for a game, not to gawk at a lot of pitcher
fielding practice and shuttle runs and stuff.

The park is also
more squarely in the city than either the Mets or Twins parks are, so
you’re basically just parking your car, walking up a sidewalk and
heading on in to the stadium. No Mike Greenwell Drive or Troy O’Leary
Street. Just a meat and potatoes ballpark. Oh, and if you’re visiting
media you have to pay to park just like the fans do.  I love the smell
of democracy in the morning.

I’ve not been inside a real big
league press box, but I’m guessing City of Palms’ press box is a lot
closer to what one looks like than either Hammond Stadium’s or
Tradition Field’s. It’s huge, and rather than being set apart in some
narrow booth, it’s part of a giant suite of offices, kitchens and
conference rooms.  There are two really, really long rows of seats for
the reporters, but rather than a wall and a hallway behind the seats,
the room opens up to a large area of tables and counters where the
pregame lunch was going to be laid out and where reporters and
photographers sit, drank coffee and futz with their equipment.

Something
else was set up in there too: a press conference table.  No one knew
what it was for when I arrived there early yesterday morning, but word
soon spread that it was about Nomar’s retirement.  I’ll admit my first
thought upon learning that wasn’t about Garciaparra’s career. It was
about how interesting it was that, when big news hits the Red Sox, they
bring the news up to where the reporters are rather than make the
reporters go down to where the news is.

But it makes sense given
the sheer number of reporters covering this particular beat.  The Sox’
press corps. dwarfs that of the Mets. There are multiple newspapers and
multiple radio stations with credentials, and each has multiple writers
on assignment. Add in the smattering of Japanese media, the visiting
contingent of Rays’ reporters and a handful of interlopers like me and
you’ve got quite a party.

I don’t like being in the middle of a
room, so I made my way down to the far end of the box and set up shop
at one of the handful of spaces marked “visiting media.”  As I set up
my laptop, an older gentleman came over and started setting up in the
only seat closer to the wall. Turns out it was Jonny Miller of WBZ
radio, who I ended up talking with all game long.

As I sat down he asked me where I was from. When I told him Columbus,
Ohio he rattled off a half dozen sportswriters he knew from Columbus at
one time or the other, most of which had moved on to that great press
box in the sky. Then he asked me if I knew who Dorothy Kilgallen was.
When I said I didn’t know, he explained to me her role in the JFK assassination coverup
When I asked him who he thought shot Kennedy he said he didn’t know who
pulled the trigger, but that he was pretty sure LBJ was behind it all. 
“Who became president?” Miller asked me rhetorically.  I’m 97% certain
he was messing with me to see if I’d tell him he was full of it. Not
that I cared. He’s a fun guy and I enjoyed sitting next to him during
the game.

Not sure he’d say the same about me given something that happened
during the game, however, but I’ll save that for a bit later.  In the
meantime, I had to get down to the field and walk around a bit.

Yordano Ventura and Jose Fernandez were two of the most promising arms in MLB

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 3: Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals throws a pitch in the first inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 3, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
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Baseball lost two incredible pitchers in the last four months, both to horrible and unforeseen tragedies. Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura were among the most talented and promising pitchers in MLB, two young arms that drew both accolades and criticism for their performance on the mound.

Ventura signed with the Royals in 2008, blazing through several tiers of their farm system before he was called up to replace an injured Danny Duffy in late 2013. He secured his rotation spot the following spring and finished a solid 2014 campaign with a 14-10 record, 3.20 ERA and 2.4 fWAR in 32 starts for the club. During the Royals’ World Series run later that year, Ventura dedicated his performance in Game 6 to Cardinals’ prospect Oscar Taveras, who was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic just two days earlier.

In four years with the Royals, Ventura pitched to a 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA and 6.5 fWAR. While his command and overall production rate waned, bottoming out in 2016 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.85 SO/BB rate, his dynamic pitch repertoire still kept him front and center in the Royals’ pitching staff. He brandished an electric fastball that, at its lowest point, hovered around 96.6 m.p.h. and, at its best, topped out around 102.6 m.p.h.

Like Ventura, Fernandez made an instant impression in the major league circuit. He earned Rookie of the Year distinctions in 2013 after delivering a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA and 4.1 fWAR with the Marlins. Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in his sophomore year, he recovered to take on a full workload in 2016 and stunned the league with a 16-8 record, 2.89 ERA, career-high 253 strikeouts and 6.1 fWAR.

Ventura developed a reputation for brushing back hitters, which escalated in some cases to volatile bench-clearing brawls. In 2015, he was ejected for three altercations in three consecutive games and served a seven-game suspension. Halfway through the 2016 season, he earned another eight-game suspension after plunking the Orioles’ Manny Machado in the back with a 99 m.p.h. heater. Some speculated that his aggressive behavior on the mound was excused — or, at least, made more palatable — by his talent and track record, while others called for a more heavy-handed approach from the league.

Fernandez, too, found himself at the center of speculation after reports emerged that painted the 24-year-old as a “clubhouse difficulty,” citing attitude problems that damaged relationships between the pitcher and Marlins players and staff. On the field, he was occasionally chastised for failing to adhere to some of baseball’s unwritten rules, most notably when he showed his elation after hitting his first career home run off of the Braves’ Mike Minor in 2013.

It’s impossible to predict where Fernandez and Ventura’s careers would have taken them. We mourn them not for their actions on the mound or their potential as star pitchers, however, but for their inherent value as people who were loved and respected by their families and teams. Major League Baseball will be worse off for their loss.

Yordano Ventura killed in an auto accident

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 2:  Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals jokes with teammates as he walks off the field after the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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UPDATE, 12:07 p.m. EDT: The Royals have confirmed reports of Yordano Ventura’s death with an official statement. No further details pertaining to the accident have been divulged.

Terrible, terrible news: Christian Moreno of ESPN reports that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura has been killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. His death has been confirmed by police. He was only 25 years-old. There are as of yet no details about the accident.

Ventura was a four-year veteran, having debuted in 2013 but truly bursting onto the scene for the Royals in 2014. That year he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings, ascending to the national stage along with the entire Royals team with some key performances in that year’s ALDS and World Series. The following year Ventura won 13 games for the World Champion Royals and again appeared in the playoffs and World Series.

Ventura was often in the middle of controversy — he found himself in several controversies arising out of his habit of hitting and brushing back hitters — but he was an undeniably electric young talent who was poised to anchor the Royals rotation for years to come. His loss, like that of Jose Fernandez just this past September, is incalculable to both his team, his fans and to Major League Baseball as a whole.

Our thoughts go out to his family, his friends, his teammates and his fans.