Sure Footer, Fallas, McTaggart and Levine provide plenty of Spring Training coverage from Kissimmee, but if you want to hear about the real happenings – SnS style – the buck stops with Chuck. Chuck is a long-time SnS’er and has been an Astros Spring Training season ticket holder for the past four years. This year we’ve conned and cajoled him into periodically writing about his Spring Training observations for us here at TRWD. Enjoy!
Chuck, Live from Kissimmee (pt. 1, 3/3/10)
As a spring training season ticket holder I was invited to what the ticket office calls a ‘Players Day.’ I imagined it would be a sort of meet and greet with a breakfast and a protracted autograph session. It was scheduled for 7:30 AM, which is not an hour of the day I am typically possessed by thoughts of baseball, or bagels, or autographs, but there I was, pulling into Osceola County Stadium at 7:35 or so. The players’ lot was already full, by the way. The assembled crowd unsurprisingly tilted heavily towards retirees. There were also several socially maladjusted individuals who seemed intent on securing as many signatures as possible when not hectoring the staff or mumbling to themselves. After a while a few of the players cowered out of the locker room in the 40-degree weather to sign memorabilia and pose for pictures with the collected crowd – Wandy, Pedro Feliz, Bud Norris (a very animated young man) and, finally, Jeff Bagwell. Quite a bit of the crowd had dispersed once Bags emerged but those remaining quickly gathered round and I heard several people wishing him a successful season as they toddled off with their signed baseball or pennant or hat or whatever.
From there I walked back to the practice fields in order to watch an intrasquad game that was scheduled to begin after a few hours. The practice complex is a collection of five normal size fields plus a sixth field that is simply an infield as well as a covered and mostly enclosed set of ten or so batting cages. There’s also a building that serves as a sort of minor league headquarters with several locker rooms, offices, trainers’ rooms and a weight room. By the time I got back there at 9 or so there was already plenty of activity – minor leaguers emerging from the bating cages or the weight room, players scheduled to play in the upcoming game stretching. Before long the major league position players filed out of the locker room inside the stadium and made their way to field 4 for their practice session.
Mills running the show
The practice began with infield work, Feliz on third, Manzella and Keppinger rotating at short, Matsui at second and Berkman and Blum rotating at first. Mills and Pedrique ran the practice although there were six or eight other Astros coaches and staff in uniform working the practice as well. The tempo of the workout was impressive. There were four coaches, Mills included, fungoing grounders to the various infield positions at once. Just as, say, the shortstop was releasing his throw to first a ball was being hit to Matsui. Very crisp, very fast. After about twenty minutes of this the practice shifted to what was clearly its main focus – working on cutoffs. Mills gathered the infield and outfield players together (the outfielders hadn’t been doing too much during the infield work, playing lazy catch and stretching) and went over some of the key things that he wanted to accomplish. They had obviously worked on many of the concepts he was teaching before because he continually referred to previous practices.
Mills stood in the infield beyond the pitchers mound and called out the number of outs and on which base the runner stood. He’d hit to one side or another of the outfielder and guide the infield on where he wanted them to be as the throw was coming in. He directed each infield player to be in a specific spot in each situation. Each player has a responsibility on each play. This may seem obvious, but Mills was plainly teaching new concepts because there were plenty of questions (particularly from the first base tandem) and plenty of re-instruction and plenty of repetition. Mills is clearly a hands-on sort of teacher. I observed him to be very encouraging but very exacting. I watched them work on cutoffs for well over an hour. Many of the players on the field are veterans and make 4, 6, 8, even 15 million dollars a year and here’s a first year manager out there working with all of them, enthusiastically, on something that every player begins to learn the basics of in Little League. It was an inspiring thing to see.
Three catchers worked the practice, by the way, Castro, Towles and Q. I was standing within earshot of a couple of the coaches when Bourn was fielding balls and sending them home through Manzella. Manzella is a big kid, very rangey, much taller than I’d remembered. He’s very smooth with a very strong arm. ‘Man, that shit gets in there quick,’ said one coach, smiling, after an 8-6-2 relay. Another time after a Blum bobble on a relay Lance announced, ‘The guy fell down rounding third.’
For a while I wandered back and forth between field 4 where the major leaguers were now on to BP and field 1 where the minor league intrasquad game was happening. By this time Mills and his coaches were all watching the game. You will have read about the game already so I’ll say only that out of all the players who played unless I missed a pitcher or two only Moehler and Norris are likely to make the big league team at the outset. The game was watched by Tal, Wade, Mills and all of the coaches. There were a couple of bleachers the same as you’d find at any Little League field. At one point I was sitting on a picnic table and suddenly Mills and a coach were standing three feet away. They were speaking quietly but with a bit of effort I could hear Mills. He was talking about the cutoff drills, discussing what went well and what still needed work.
Castro, Bogusevic and Mier take BP
I watched some of the presumable major league players take BP and some notable minor league players as well. I’ll mention a couple of them. Many of the major league players are still getting tuned up. You can see it in their swings and you can hear them say as much as they come out of the cage and speak as the other two players in their rotating threesome get in and hit. Jason Castro’s swing looks like it’s in midseason form. He is a big kid, as tall as Manzella, maybe a bit broader. But he has a very sweet left handed swing. It looks fluid and natural and not at all rushed. Bogusevic has a pretty swing, too, but it often looks over-eager, rushed, forced. Castro just casually drops the head of the bat onto the ball and hits it hard. He looked great in BP, very relaxed, very fluid. I also watched Jiovanni Mier take BP. He is a big kid too, maybe not quite as tall as Manzella but he has plenty of size. I know he hit .750 or something stupid in high school but his swing seems raw to me; it doesn’t seem effortlessly athletic. He didn’t make a great deal of solid contact. I realize that he may have been working on something specific and in any event he’s only 19 years old. I was excited to see him, though, and I’ll enjoy watching his progress.
Miscellaneous sights from Spring Training (click to enlarge)