My real job takes me to different parts of the country from time to time. This past Friday through yesterday, I was lucky enough to be in beautiful Scottsdale, Arizona for a conference. My in-laws live out there so my wife and kids came along with me and we made a long weekend out of it. Sunday morning, my father in law, my son, and I decided to make the 45 minute drive west out to Goodyear to watch the Indians first full squad workout day.
We arrived around 9:45 and the Indians, after stretching, hit the fields around ten for a couple of hours. I have been to Spring Training many times before as a kid, but it was always for games. My grandparents used to spend their winters in Florida and every Spring break growing up, my parents took my brother and I to visit them. The Montreal Expos and Atlanta Braves used to share a spring training home in West Palm Beach, Florida in the 70’s and 80’s and my father, the biggest baseball fan I knew, would take my brother and I to at least four games every spring. We’d wait after the games for autographs from players who had come out of the locker room, holding our baseball cards in anticipation. I can’t tell you how many autographed Floyd Youmans, Claudell Washington, Dion James, and Charlie Lea cards I have in books in my mother’s house. I can vividly remember my father getting us their early because he loved watching infield practice. “Watch their hands” he’d say.
With no games going on in Goodyear yet, the crowd was sparse and we had extremely up close action. We were literally standing up against the fence, watching Terry Francona do work. Now again, I have never really watched a day of Spring Training drills and practice before, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga were around, taking part as guest instructors and talking to the fans. It was a good time to be there.
When the team first emerged and broke into groups on the four fields, I stayed and watched Francona hitting fungos to the infielders to warm them up. You couldn’t tell who was having more fun – Tito or the players. It was a loose group, with Nick Swisher, Jason Giambi, and Mark Reynolds at first, Jason Kipnis and Cord Phelps at second, Lonnie Chisenhall and Mike Aviles at third, and Asdrubal Cabrera alone at short. Francona was joking with the guys, but there was a fine line. It was business time for sure.
I’ll say this – Asdrubal looks fantastic. Watching him field ground balls and turn double plays was a thing of beauty. His hands were unbelievably quick. Aviles was very impressive at third. He made great plays, turned the ball over quickly and made throws from third look easy. On the flip side defensively was Chisenhall who I watched make several high throws across the diamond. Lonnie will be fine and I think he will break out with the stick in 2013. Aviles is going to be uber-valuable now that the DH situation has been resolved and he can just be who he is.
Swisher’s personality of course shined and he looked and sounded like a guy ready to lead. And this was the day he returned from his mother’s funeral. You could tell he was happy to be back on the field, his distraction from the sadness that he had just gone through. Giambi was more nimble at first than I thought. He looked to me to be in great shape and was right in the middle of the action.
On two other fields, we watched two groups of pitchers field grounders, simulate covering home plate from the mound, and covering first base on ground balls to the right side. Cody Allen made one great play on a grounder and yelled “shortstop baby” as the others laughed with him. On his next turn, he booted a ball and caught all kinds of hell from his group. My son really enjoyed watching pitchers like Justin Masterson, Scott Kazmir, Allen, and Carlos Carrasco running hard to make the play at home. We were literally standing right on the fence behind the plate, which was a big thrill for my son.
When fielding practice ended, the players broke out into groups and began to take batting practice. On one field we watched Reynolds, Michael Brantley, prospect Jesus Aguilar – who is a monster by the way – and Matt Carson. Lofton was shagging flies for them. Brantley was stinging the ball all over the diamond. On another field were Asdrubal, Michael Bourn, Swisher, Giambi, and Kipnis. Again, Asdrubal impressed – crushing pitches all over the field from both sides of the plate.
If I took anything away from the two plus hours I witnessed, it was that Terry Francona is the real deal. He commands an audience. This guy is the genuine article. What you saw on ESPN last year and what you have seen in his press conferences since he has come aboard as the Tribe manager is authentic. I watched and listened closely as he brought the pitchers and infielders together to discuss the fine art of getting the out. I gazed at the players faces to see how engaged they were. They were zeroed in. It was a focused group. He was back teaching again and it was easy to see why he had the itch to get back in.
I know I was only in camp for one two-hour session, but it wasn’t hard to see the changes in structure. The vibe around the team was different. There is an air of professionalism and focus unlike we’ve seen in years past.
I cannot wait for the games to begin to see how this is all going to translate.