Scenes from Spring Training: Leave Maryvale Baseball Park alone!

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Until today I had been to every single Cactus League Park except for Maryvale Baseball Park, spring training home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Everyone who had been here before told me I wasn’t missing much. That it was a dump and in a crappy neighborhood and that my time would be spent better elsewhere.

Well, screw them. I like this place. A lot. Indeed, it’s up there with another hated-on Arizona place — The A’s Phoenix Municipal, where I’ll be tomorrow — on my favorites list.

It’s not as fancy or as architecturally interesting as some of the new places. And sure, the surrounding neighborhood is a bit on the rough side. But there is something unsettling about the Glendales, Surprises, Goodyears and Peorias of the world. They sit out in these wide open spaces in suburbs that seem to have no organic reason for existing. Really: it’s a mega sports complex, some strip malls and some chain restaurants and miles of wide open desert.  It’s enough to throw my gravity off.

Maryvale, in contrast, just fits into the area in an unassuming manner. The trees are bigger, as the place is about a decade older than the others. The team office and the minor league facilities blend in nicely, rather than stand out with huge team logos on them. It reminds me of an oldish professional park. The kind you went to see your pediatrician in back in, oh, 1978 or something. I can’t really explain it, but complexes like this comfort me in a weird way. It’s warmly institutional. I’m not joking. I dig it.

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The park itself is cozy and utilitarian. It kind of reminds me of New Comiskey in some ways, in that it was built just before people started building palaces. But it’s clean and has good sight lines and as long as you’re here for the baseball and not a ten-point entertainment immersion, it’s spiffy.  I’m here for the baseball, so this will do just fine.

After I set up in the press box — a nice one, by the way, in that the windows totally fold up and back and open to the field without walls and partitions and stuff — I wandered.  I get to the park early and usually there aren’t any players out on fields yet when I arrive, but this morning I came across Norichika Aoki working on his bunting:

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Some Japanese reporters and photographers were there too. Like the institutional buildings, I have come to love the presence of the Japanese media everywhere I’ve gone the last two springs. It’s gotta be the roughest beat around. They’re far from home and they’re in pitched competition to get something — anything — new every single day from maybe one player. I really admire them and I feel strange if I go someplace and they’re not around.

After watching Aoki for a while I went into the Brewers’ clubhouse. Not much happening there. Ryan Braun seems to have the day off and both of his lockers were unoccupied. Corey Hart came in on crutches — he had surgery the other day — and gingerly put on a pair of workout shorts and shoes. Dude has a tattoo on top of his foot, by the way. That probably hurt worse than the surgery. Saw Zack Greinke too. He had two cinnamon raisin bagels on a plate and was wearing a polo shirt with baseball pants as if everyone wore that combo all the time. I like Zack Greinke a lot.

I saw Brooks Conrad sitting alone, so I went over there. As a Braves fan I obviously have some mixed feelings about Conrad — he hit some big homers but also made some big errors while in Atlanta — so I wanted to talk to him just to see what he was like. I didn’t tell him I was a Braves fan because I thought that would be strange in that setting, but I did say I follow the Braves closely. He lit up a little bit, as he knew that I was going to ask him about the differences between the Braves and Brewers organizations.

I was told by someone later that he had some not-so-nice things to say about the Braves the other day. On this day, however, he skewed diplomatic, talking about how positive the environment is in Brewers camp. I asked him a bit about the approach to hitting in Milwaukee, hoping he’d say something like “the Braves think walks are for communists.” He didn’t say it in so many words, but he suggested that, yeah, Johnny Narron is a bit more interested in Brewers hitters working the count than Larry Parrish was in Atlanta. Which, honestly, wouldn’t be that hard.

When I got done in the clubhouse Ron Roenicke was getting ready to make himself available to the media. As I waited outside of his office in the lobby, I couldn’t help but notice this gigantic mural behind the receptionist’s desk:

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Doug Melvin had me lol’ing for ten minutes.  Did I mention that I really like it here in Maryvale?

Mariners hope offseason additions have closed gap in AL West

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Jerry Dipoto saw up close last year during the regular season and again in October where the differences lie if the Seattle Mariners expect to close the gap on Houston in the AL West.

While this winter lacked any significant splashes in free agency, Dipoto said the Mariners are confident they’re an improved team from the one that last season ended the longest playoff drought in baseball.

“The goal every year is to win the division, get into the postseason and try to do some damage. We’ve never been more convinced of this team’s ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season,” said Dipoto, Seattle’s president of baseball operations. “I think that goes for all the players in the clubhouse because for us in the front office, our staff, we do feel like we got meaningfully better this offseason and we are a deeper, more complete team than we were at the end of last season.”

There is a buzz and excitement about the Mariners in the Pacific Northwest that’s been missing for the better part of two decades. Last season’s run to a wild-card berth and playoff series win over Toronto – and all the dramatics that surrounded it – reinvigorated the slumbering baseball region.

But capitalizing on that – in a season that also includes Seattle hosting the All-Star Game – means closing ground on the World Series champion Astros both when it comes to the regular season but also in the playoffs. It was Houston that won the AL West by 16 games and then swept second-place Seattle out of the Division Series on the strength of a few big swings.

So the question remains whether the Mariners did enough this offseason to be a threat to the Astros. Seattle’s foundation will continue to be its starting pitching and the everyday players back from last year like AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez, Ty France, J.P. Crawford and others.

The Mariners added second baseman Kolten Wong, outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and AJ Pollock, and infielder Tommy La Stella. And while those additions should give Seattle a deeper and more versatile roster, they were not viewed from the outside as being impactful enough to make up the difference.

“It was a struggle for us offensively last year, certainly early in the season, getting consistent offense up and down the lineup,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “So with more experience, guys going through things late in the season, in the playoffs, hopefully will really help us getting off to a little bit better start. And we’ve added some pieces.”

WBC IMPACT

Seattle is expected to lose several players to the World Baseball Classic during spring training. Rodriguez, Hernandez and reliever Diego Castillo are all expected to play for the Dominican Republic; third baseman Eugenio Suarez with Venezuela; reliever Matt Festa with Italy; reliever Matt Brash with Canada and top prospect Harry Ford with Great Britain.

One name notably missing from the list is starting pitcher Luis Castillo, who was expected to be part of the formidable Dominican staff. Dipoto said Castillo has opted not to pitch in the event.

“It’s something that we are pleased with that he’ll be (at spring training),” Dipoto said. “It’s a choice that we made together and I’m excited to see him from beginning to end.”

Seattle is notably antsy about the WBC after losing pitcher Drew Smyly to Tommy John surgery after pitching in the tournament in 2017. Felix Hernandez also pitched in the WBC that year and ended up with two lengthy stints on the injured list due to shoulder troubles.

“It’s early in the season and these guys are playing at such a high intensity level when they haven’t been doing that for a number of months, so you’re always worried about injury,” Servais said. “You want those guys to be healthy. These are certainly key contributors for us going into the season.”

INJURY UPDATES

The Mariners expect to be mostly healthy when spring training begins. Seattle catcher Cal Raleigh is fully recovered from offseason thumb surgery. Sam Haggerty had surgery to repair a groin injury sustained late last season, but has started full baseball activity. Relief pitcher Andres Munoz had foot surgery but should pitch during spring training, and Dipoto said former first-round draft pick Evan White is fully healthy after two-plus seasons of dealing with injuries.