Greetings from Tempe Diablo Stadium

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There’s a reason for that Harley Race pic. Just read.

Day three of my Cactus League tour takes me to Tempe Diablo Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Angels, the team with perhaps the most star power in all of baseball. Just check out the banner:

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Of course, bringing in an MVP-caliber hitter and the big free agent pitcher last year didn’t mean the playoffs. Baseball is a funny game that way.

I went down to the clubhouse, where things seemed pretty relaxed compared to my last couple of years here. It’s hard to put your finger on why — I suppose reporters who are with this team every day have way better insight — but there seemed to be more joking and cross-talk and guys facing out of their lockers instead of in towards their lockers than there used to be.

One change, obviously, is where Mike Trout sits, both literally and figuratively. When you walk in the clubhouse there’s an area off to the left (it was off to the right in previous years; they changed where the media enters) where the NRIs and minor leaguers who have yet to be sent down huddle in pretty tight quarters.  On the other side of the doorway is a stretch of larger lockers where the superstars like Albert Pujols reside. For the past two years Trout was over in the crowded area. Now he’s on Veteran’s Row.

And he’s clearly comfortable. Rookies and minor leaguers tend to clutch bats while they sit in their folding chairs or stare intently at their smart phones. Trout did this the past couple of years. He now takes on the veteran posture: leaning back, smiling, and joking with his teammates. What a difference a gigantic breakout year makes.

Still, he’s not the center of attention here. Despite five or six reporters in the clubhouse, no one was bothering him. When Albert Pujols walked in, however, he was swarmed by reporters, all asking about his health and when he’s going to run on the field — he’s already running on a treadmill and says he feels good — and whether he’s going to DH more and that sort of thing. Mike Trout may be the best young player in the game, but he’s still young and, it would seem, not yet as interesting to everyone as others.

The most interesting thing in the clubhouse: Scott Cousins Downs (oops) who sat at his locker with a WWE championship belt draped over his shoulder like it wasn’t a thing. I walked over to him and said “really?”  He just smiled. He let me hold the belt. It’s heavy and I want one. Another reporter came over and asked where he got it. “Internet,” he said, clearly enjoying this. Eventually he explained that he collects wrestling belts. I asked him if he had the old-school, Harley-Race era NWA belt — my favorite, by far — and he said he didn’t. He does have that big one they created for Ric Flair, though.

I asked him if anyone ever throws down, wrestling-style in the clubhouse. He said no. I prodded him, observing that there were, like, 50 folding chairs in the room. It could be awesome. He said “yeaaahhh …” either strongly considering the idea or else trying to humor me while thinking I was an escaped mental patient. But hey, he’s the one with the belt so it’s not like he can get all high-and-mighty with me about it.

Outside where today’s lineup was posted:

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The visitors, for the second time in three days, are the Dodgers. And I’m going to see them at Camelback Ranch on Sunday. I think I’m gonna be pretty sick of the Dodgers soon.

Why Ryan Zimmerman skipped spring training

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All spring training there was at least some mild confusion about Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He played in almost no regular big league spring training games, instead, staying on the back fields, playing in simulated and minor league contests. When that usually happens, it’s because a player is rehabbing or even hiding an injury, but the Nats insisted that was not the case with Zimmerman. Not everyone believed it. I, for one, was skeptical.

The skepticism was unwarranted, as Zimmerman answered the bell for Opening Day and has played all season. As Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal writes today, it was all by design. He skipped spring training because he doesn’t like it and because he thinks it’ll help him avoid late-season injuries and slowdowns, the likes of which he has suffered over the years.

It’s hard to really judge this now, of course. On the one hand Zimmerman has started really slow this season. What’s more, he has started to show signs of warming up only in the past week, after getting almost as many big league, full-speed plate appearances under his belt as a normal spring training would’ve given him. On the other hand, April is his worst month across his entire 14-year career, so one slow April doesn’t really prove anything and, again, Zimmerman and the Nats will consider this a success if he’s healthy and productive in August and September.

It is sort of a missed opportunity, though. Players hate spring training. They really do. if Zimmerman had made a big deal out of skipping it and came out raking this month, I bet a lot more teams would be amenable to letting a veteran or three take it much more easy next spring. Good ideas can be good ideas even if they don’t produce immediately obvious results, but baseball tends to encourage a copycat culture only when someone can point to a stat line or to standings as justification.

Way to ruin it for everyone, Ryan. 😉