Craig Calcaterra

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The sights and sounds of the Cubs new spring training facility

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MESA, Ariz. — It’s not brand new. They played here last year. But I was in Florida last year and didn’t see it. And does anything truly exist in any way outside of our sensory perception of it? That’s deep, man.

Either way, this place is a friggin’ palace:

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Based purely on architecture and aesthetics (as I write this the game hasn’t started so I can’t give it a full grade) it has got to be up there at the top of any sane list of best spring training parks. Also on that short list is Jet Blue Park in Florida. Which is so much fun. There was a time when the Cubs and the Red Sox were thought of as two of the saddest organizations going, playing in old facilities and all of that. Now Fenway has been wonderfully renovated, Wrigley is on its way there and they play in the top two spring training joints in baseball. If the Cubs win a ring in the next couple of years the world will have officially been turned upside down.

 

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Bears throughout the years. The sixth one from the right, which corresponds to the 1940s looks more like a badger. THe one to the left of that looks more like a chimpanzee. The Cubs have had a weird history.

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Most teams put banners of their players on the side of their stadiums. The Cubs do so in the style of throwback Topps cards. Advantage: Cubs.

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The park is now called Sloan Park, named after the “Proud Water Efficiency Partner of the Chicago Cubs.” Sloan takes this seriously. This ad is from the wall of the men’s room in the press box.

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This photo is taken looking out from the press and team entrance to the ballpark, looking west. The building in the distance there is where the clubhouse and team offices are. Most new facilities have these parts of their spring facilities separated, but I believe the Cubs’ is the only one that has such a defined walkway between the two, allowing fans to watch players come on over and get close. Usually there are any number of ways to the main park, some out of sight. The Cubs might have this too — I didn’t see all of the players actually come over — but this is a nice touch.

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There are a lot of callbacks to Wrigley Field here, obviously.

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More Wrigley callbacks.

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Even more Wrigley callbacks, though just barely with that scoreboard. I will say, though, that the new frontier in spring training joints is outfield seating. The Cubs’ old place — Hohokam Park — didn’t have any seating in the outfield when they were there. Just a fence and nothin’. The next generation of parks brought in outfield berms and most places have those now. Bright House Field in Clearwater, Jet Blue and now Sloan Park have some pretty substantial outfield seats and/or concession areas. These places are feeling less and less like minor league parks and more like something in between minor and major league places.

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The press box. Today I’m sitting in the second window from the right. Not bad seats.

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Let’s play two?

Gio Gonzalez feels good “right meow”

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Spring training is the best. Take this interview of Nats starter Gio Gonzalez in which he uses the word “meow” instead of now multiple times, clearly egged on to do so by Max Scherzer, who was counting each time Gonzalez said “meow.”

Pranks and things can be fun, but absurdist humor is something I can really get behind.

A-Rod hit a home run, you guys

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For a guy who has been described as a near-invalid, barely able to walk and engaged in an epic game of chicken with the Yankees to see if he’ll retire before the Yankees release him, he’s hitting pretty well.

Rodriguez just hit a 3-1 Brandon Workman pitch over the left field wall at Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa. It’s his first homer of spring training and his first homer in any competitive setting since September 2013. Folks on the scene are saying that the crowd roared its approval at A-Rod’s solo shot. Which puts lie to another favorite A-Rod narrative about how everyone hates him and wishes he’d just go away. Really, it’s just a handful of media types and the people who actually sign his checks who feel that way.

With the caveat of “it’s still early in spring training” always applied, let the record reflect that Rodriguez is now 5-for-11 (.455) with that homer and two RBI thus far. That’s a line of .455/.538/.818.

Cubs fans: Wait ’til next year? “Screw it, it’s our year.”

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MESA, Ariz. — “Wait ’til next year.” That’s been the Cubs’ motto for more than a century. It’s gone from a sincerely held belief to a ironic philosophy to meta commentary on the existential dilemma of what it is to be a a Cubs fan. At its very bottom it’s a verbal identifier for members of the same sad tribe. So much losing for so long has caused Cubs fans to build up all manner of psychological defenses, a motto which tells them their reward will come not now but later chief among them.

Walking around the Cubs’ gorgeous new spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona this morning, however, and I found some people who are committing what’s tantamount to a thought crime among Cubs fans: present optimism.

There’s good reason for it. The Cubs have undergone nothing short of a transformation in the past few years. The organization is rotten with top hitting prospects like Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are superstars, each only entering their age-25 seasons and each around whom a serious contender can be built. The acquisition of Jon Lester this past winter was a free agent coup no one would’ve dreamed the Cubs could pull off even a year ago. The same could be said of the hiring of Joe Maddon away from the Rays. The amount of positivity surrounding this organization right now is pretty staggering, especially considering that they’re coming off a 73-89 season.

source:  I asked Don Myers of Cary, Illinois — here with his wife Joyce (a White Sox fan) and daughter Nicole (non-committal, but wearing a Cubs shirt) — if they’re excited about the 2015 Cubs. Or if, after a lifetime of disappointment as a Cubs fan, maybe it’s a good idea to temper one’s enthusiasm. He rejected the notion.

“Screw it. It’s our year,” Myers said with a chuckle. He’s not deluded of course. He knows the NL Central is tough and ballclubs can take a while to gel. But Myers said that it’s baseball and what’s the point of being a baseball fan if you don’t think positively? “I’m quite optimistic,” Myers said. When I told him about Soler, Baez and Bryant going back-to-back-to-back yesterday he smiled and said offered a low, happy “wooo!”

More tempered in her optimism is Diana Jaworski of Joliet. Jaworski — visiting Mesa with her husband Jeff, also a White Sox fan — said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the new-look Cubs. Jaworski is more what you expect from a Cubs fan. She has had her heart broken pretty consistently since the 1969 collapse. “When the ball went between Leon Durham’s legs [in the 1984 NLCS] I sobbed,” she said. She remembers being crushed when Steve Bartman happened in 2003. “We were six outs from the World Series. It just wasn’t our turn,” she says. Though she sounds like, even more than a decade later, she’s trying to convince herself of that.

Jaworski’s hesitance to fully buy-in is not merely a product of those heartbreaking moments, however. When talking about Joe Maddon and his positive attitude she said, “we were supposed to get excited about Don Zimmer. Don Baylor. Dusty Baker. Lou Piniella.” She noted that, under those regimes, it was more typical for the Cubs to “put together a bunch of old players who were famous but whose careers were almost over” while the new Cubs are all about young up and coming players. She is aware that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer transformed another one time sad sack organization into a champion and thinks it can happen with the Cubs too.

But she’s not in the bag just yet. Jaworski has four children, three of whom are Cubs fans. “I’ve told them all, ‘honey, I’m sorry I ever did this to you.'”

If Don Myers is right, however, she won’t be sorry soon.

The Rays sign three-time Tommy John surgery veteran Johnny Venters

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Johnny Venters was a truly great relief pitcher there for a while. But last year he was hit with his third torn ulnar collateral ligament and required his third Tommy John surgery. One assumed, when one read that, that his career was over. And it may, for all practical purposes be over. But he’s not giving up just yet, and baseball teams are not yet giving up on him:

Venters, a lefty, hasn’t pitched in a game since October of 2012. He had his first Tommy John surgery in 2005 when he was a 20-year-old at low Single-A. His second came in May of 2013 after a spring training filled with elbow soreness (and a couple of years of major overuse by Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez). Before that second surgery, however, he had a 2.22 ERA and 258 strikeouts in 230 innings for the Braves from 2010-2012 while averaging 94.5 miles per hour with his fastball.

Have left arm will travel. And best of luck to one of the unluckiest guys in the game.