Liquor, cockroaches, grand hotels, old ballparks, national anthems and more spring training fun

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LAKELAND, FL — As this post goes live on Monday morning I am somewhere on I-4. Or I-75. Or I-275. I don’t know, I’m heading to Sarasota to check out the Twins-Orioles game and as I’m typing this I don’t know which way I’m going. Just that I’m going early. Because this is the Grapefruit League and to get from one place to another takes time and miles and after three years of spending spring training in Arizona I’m quite frankly spoiled.

The weekend contained a lot of driving too, but a lot of fun as well. After I checked out of the Tigers game on Friday afternoon I found some local culture in Lakeland:

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Fun fact: in Florida, if less than 10% of an establishment’s income is derived from food, smoking is allowed. This place sells no food. It does sell strong drinks for low prices, however, and as long as you can transport yourself back to the early 1990s and deal with the smoke, you’re all good.

On Saturday I took a trip to Tampa and watched Masahiro Tanaka’s debut. In case you missed it, here is a summary of that day. It was a day of big things. Steinbrenner Field is a big park by spring training standards. I spoke with baseball’s biggest star of the past two decades, though only for a brief moment. The media horde which descended on Tanaka was as big as it gets. Then, when I got back to Lakeland, I found something small:

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In my hotel room bathroom. Which meant that my hotel room immediately became my former hotel room because, no, no way. I won’t say which hotel it was because perhaps it was a freakish, isolated incident and I don’t wish to cast aspersions, but dude. So I packed up my stuff and went where I should’ve gone in the first place: The Lakeland Terrace Hotel. Much more civilized. At least as long as you can deal with the trains that go by pretty frequently, but I can deal with such things. Bygone age stuff, you know. Really, all of Lakeland is civilized and noble.

With accommodations sorted it was back to baseball on Sunday. The Blue Jays home in Dunedin, which I liked very much:

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Like the Lakeland Terrace it is old, at least by spring training standards. It’s unassuming. Small, sitting comfortably in a neighborhood, not drawing too much attention to itself. Easy to get from one side of the park to the other quickly. A nice beer selection. Good sight lines. In this day and age it is a dinosaur and I’m sure for the players it’s shabby and cramped compared to all of the latest fancy facilities, but it’s a ballpark in every sense of the word and I kinda loved it.

One of the things I loved about it was that there wasn’t constant music blaring. Not having a jumbotron or video board of any kind to speak of probably goes into that, but it was welcome. Although there was one instance in which having some audio would have been helpful: when the U.S. and Canadian national anthems were sung. A children’s choir was on hand to do the honors, but there was no microphone or musical accompaniment. So this happened:

A nice effort by most involved. And yes, that’s a Dunedin Blue Jays cap I’m wearing. When you’re bald and you show up to a sun-drenched ballpark without a cap, you have to do — and buy — certain things to protect yourself.

As for the game, I got the Yankees for the third day in a row. Just dumb happenstance, I suppose. The only two starters they brought with them were Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and they still cleaned the clock of an almost-all-Opening-Day Blue Jays lineup in a pretty sloppy game. Heck, it was March 2. That sort of thing happens.

And spring training baseball happens the rest of this week. I’ll be updating later this morning from Sarasota. And a different park every day this week. If you find yourself in or around Sarasota, Orlando, Clearwater, Bradenton or Fort Myers, by all means, say hello. Otherwise, keep checking in here to HBT.

Astros vs. Dodgers is a match made in heaven

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A lot of people who work at the league office or who take paychecks from the Fox network probably wanted to see the Yankees and the Cubs in the World Series. They won’t admit it, of course, but I suspect that many did, as the ratings for a Cubs-Yankees Series might’ve broken modern records. If they are at all disappointed by the Astros and Dodgers winning the pennant, however, they should let that go because they’ve been gifted by a wonderful matchup from a purely baseball perspective. Indeed, it’s one of the best on-paper matchups we’ve had in the Fall Classic in many years.

Before the Dodgers went on their late-August, early-September swoon, this was the potential World Series pairing most folks who know a thing or two wanted to see. At least I did, and I don’t think I was alone. It was certainly the matchup which represented the teams with the two best regular season records and storylines at the time. While Cleveland ended up winning more games than Houston did, for the first time since 1970 we have a World Series pitting two 100-win teams against each other.

Like that Orioles-Reds series in 1970, which featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and a host of other All-Stars, the Dodgers-Astros provide us with an embarrassment of big names and future Hall of Famers. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and Astros DH/OF Carlos Beltran are destined for induction already. Astros ace Justin Verlander may very well join them, especially if his late 2017 surge is evidence of a second career peak. Houston second baseman Jose Altuve‘s first seven years and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen‘s first eight are the stuff upon which Cooperstown resumes are made as well. People will be arguing Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley‘s Hall of Fame case for years once he retires.

Youth is served as well in this matchup, with each club featuring a handful of the game’s best young players to accompany their big name veteran stars.

The Dodgers will bat their no-doubt N.L. Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger second or third in the lineup every game. 2016 Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who sat out the NLCS with a bad back, is expected to be activated for the Series where he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop. The Astros are actually an old team on paper — Verlander, catcher Brian McCann, starter Charlie Morton, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, outfielder Josh Reddick and DH Evan Gattis are all over 30 while Beltran is 40 — but young players are essential to their attack as well. Shortstop Carlos Correa just turned 23 and he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Third baseman Alex Bregman, also 23, made the play that may very well have broken the Yankees’ back during Saturday night’s pennant clincher. Age aside, the Astros are the product of a major, multi-year rebuild and many of their players are making their first national splash this postseason.

Beyond just the names and resumes, though, the Dodgers and Astros represent a fantastic strategic matchup. The Dodgers attack this postseason has featured admirable plate discipline, with third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and center fielder Chris Taylor all letting balls out of the zone pass them by while abusing pitches left out over the plate. Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander, however, have lived by getting the opposition to chase bad balls. Game one starter Dallas Keuchel did this by relying on his very fast sinker. Lance McCullers pitched well starting Game 4 of the ALCS and pitched spectacularly closing out the final four innings of Game 7 mostly by virtue of his curveball, which Yankees pitchers could simply not lay off. Indeed, his final 24 pitches of Game 7 were all curves, many of them low and away. Who will give in first in this series?

On the side of things, Dodgers relievers have made a living by pumping in strikes. Particularly strikes high in the zone from Jansen and Brandon Morrow. There may be no better fastball hitter in all of baseball than Jose Altuve, however, and the team as a whole was one of the best in the bigs in dealing with gas in the zone. This was a big reason why the Astros struck out less than any team in baseball this year while simultaneously boasting the best offense in the game. The Dodgers throw strikes. The Astros make you pay when you throw them strikes. Again, something’s gotta give.

Maybe the suits in New York wanted the Yankees and Cubs. But everyone else is getting exactly what we want: a matchup of the two best teams in the game. A matchup of strength against strength. What is, from a purely baseball perspective, the best World Series we could’ve possibly hoped for.