Yesterday the RoughRiders’ 2014 Opening Day roster was announced and there was a little confusion around the inclusion of Nick Martinez. The right-hander was listed on Frisco’s roster, but was also announced as the Rangers’ #5 starter to begin the season. The schedule of Texas’ rotation plans haven’t been completely finalized at the moment, but I’m guessing there’s at least a chance that the Rangers could do the same thing with Martinez as they did with Nick Tepesch a year ago. In 2013, because the Rangers didn’t need a fifth starter until the second time through the rotation, Tepesch made a start with Round Rock before joining the big league club.
With the early season off-days the Rangers have, they could wait until April 9 in Boston (game #9 of the season) before needing a fifth starter. That could allow Martinez to make a start for Frisco and then join Texas for as long as the Rangers need him. I haven’t heard that formally announced, but it would make some sense.
As for Martinez himself, he’s a bit off the radar compared to the other pitching prospects you’ve probably heard about (i.e., Luke Jackson, Chi Chi Gonzalez). The former Fordham second baseman has become a polished pitching prospect who throws a 91-94 mph fastball, an excellent curveball, a changeup and a slider. He works quickly and is very athletic (as you would expect from a former middle infielder). He was stellar in his month with the RoughRiders last season, going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA (4 ER/32 IP).
Nathan Barnett, my broadcast partner from last season and the new Voice of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, interviewed Martinez last season and they talked a lot about his development as a pitcher. It’s definitely worth a listen:
This article originally appeared in the March 21 edition of SportsPage Weekly, which is a free publication available throughout the Metroplex. To view the article in the online edition, click here.
There are very few “sure things” in life, but when it comes to local sports and entertainment options, the Frisco RoughRiders are just about as close to a sure thing as you can get. Year after year, Dr Pepper Ballpark hosts exciting baseball action, premium prospects and fun for the whole family. Ask anyone who has ever been to a RoughRiders game and they’ll tell you how memorable the experience is.
It’s almost hard to believe, but the RoughRiders will soon begin their 12th season on April 3 at home against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Kansas City Royals affiliate). In honor of a dozen years of Frisco baseball, we present the top 12 reasons to catch the RoughRiders in action this season at Dr Pepper Ballpark.
#12 – A winning tradition
Everybody loves a winner. And over the past decade the RoughRiders have been one of the most consistent winners in Minor League Baseball. In 2013, Frisco finished with a 70-70 record, its eighth consecutive season with a .500 or better mark on the ledger. The last time Frisco finished with a losing record was the only time in team history: back in 2005, when the team finished 58-82. The streak of non-losing seasons is by far the longest in the Texas League; every other team in the circuit has had at least one losing season in the last three years. The streak is the longest in Double-A and the third-longest among all 120 full-season minor league clubs, exceeded only by the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats (11 straight non-losing seasons) and the Advanced-A San Jose Giants (ten). Including teams that play in short-season leagues, Frisco’s streak is the sixth longest; the Elizabethton Twins (25), Brooklyn Cyclones (13) and AZL Giants (13) have the longest such streaks in stateside Minor League Baseball.
#11 – History in the making
Baseball fans appreciate the sport’s history and tradition, and the Texas League plays an important role in the lineage of the game. The RoughRiders and their fans belong to a storied Texas League pedigree that dates back to 1888 (the American League was founded in 1901). A game at Dr Pepper Ballpark is more than just a chance to contribute to baseball’s history; it affords fans the opportunity to witness history as it happens. Notable Texas League alumni span the generations and include Major League Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Dizzy Dean, Joe Morgan and Whitey Herzog. It is a legacy furthered by many stars in the game today who also enjoyed success in the Texas League. Current Rangers Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus had All-Star seasons in the Texas League in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Outside the organization, an impressive crop of recent alumni continue to cultivate the Texas League brand as their big league careers flourish. The Texas League footprint extends across the Major League map and features young stars Mike Trout, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Jean Segura and numerous others.
#10 – Rehabbing Rangers
Players, coaches and fans dislike injuries, but they remain an inevitable component of any professional game. For a major league club, the inconvenience of an in-season malady is lessened—somewhat—when an affiliate team plays in the neighborhood. No one in Frisco hopes for a rehab assignment, but when a Rangers’ regular tweaks a calf or strains a wrist, Dr Pepper Ballpark provides a two-fold benefit for both the player and the fan. Players can stay in the Metroplex to nurse an injury and play in an atmosphere that approximates a big league ballgame. On the other hand, fans receive a unique opportunity to view their favorite Rangers in a more intimate setting and at an affordable cost. A total of 13 Rangers players donned a RoughRiders’ cap for a rehab assignment in 2013, including pitcher Matt Harrison, who unfortunately started as many games for Frisco (two) as he did for Texas. Rehab assignments rarely occur with much forewarning, but thanks to Derek Holland’s dog, Wrigley, the southpaw has likely already booked a stint with the RoughRiders in 2014. Make sure you’re in the stands when the Rangers’ rehabbers visit Dr Pepper Ballpark.
#9 – A new skipper
For the first time in five years, someone other than Steve Buechele will write out Frisco’s lineup card. With Buechele managing the Rangers’ Triple-A club this season, Jason Wood steps into the role for the RoughRiders in 2014. Wood, a five-year major leaguer and veteran of 18 professional seasons as a player, will begin his fourth season as a manager in the Texas farm system. The 44-year-old spent the previous three years as the skipper for Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. He led the Pelicans to the playoffs in all three campaigns and looks to get the ’Riders back to the postseason this year. While Wood is a fresh face in the dugout, the rest of his coaching staff will remain in place from the last two seasons. Jeff Andrews returns as the team’s pitching coach following a season in which Frisco’s hurlers collectively set numerous team records. This past offseason, Andrews was honored the co-recipient of the Rangers’ annual Bobby Jones Player Development Man of the Year award. Jason Hart will begin his third season as Frisco’s hitting coach and his instruction has been lauded for helping former RoughRiders Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, Leury Garcia, Chris McGuiness and Engel Beltre all reach the major leagues over the past two seasons.
#8 – Affordability
One of the charms of Minor League Baseball is getting a big league experience without paying a premium price. RoughRiders games are no different because the team strives to make sure everyone can afford to watch games at Dr Pepper Ballpark. It can be a major strain on the wallet to attend other professional sporting events. The average cost for a family of four to attend a Major League Baseball game is approximately $208; for an NFL game that number is $444, with the NBA checking in at $442 and the NHL at $355. That figure for a Minor League Baseball game? Just $61. With RoughRiders tickets starting at just $7 (less than the cost of a movie theater ticket), attending a game at Dr Pepper Ballpark is very much accessible. But say you’re interested in getting even more value at the ballpark. The RoughRiders offer affordable ticket plans that include all-you-can-eat food and drink, and even packages that include alcohol. These value-based ticket plans make attending games in Frisco possible without denting your bank account.
#7 – The other guys aren’t too shabby either
Tomorrow’s stars play today in the Texas League and 2014 is no exception. The RoughRiders will welcome a host of talent from around the circuit to Dr Pepper Ballpark this season, many of whom are ranked on the MLB.com Top 100 Prospects list. The Tulsa Drillers figure to field a strong pitching rotation bolstered by top 50 prospects Jon Gray (#14) and Eddie Butler (#41). Both pitchers bring high-octane velocity to the Drillers’ staff and can touch the upper 90s on the radar gun. Catcher Austin Hedges (#24) of the San Antonio Missions is rated as the second-highest prospect at his position by MLB.com. His strong arm and good footwork behind the plate will give would-be base stealers second thoughts. Kyle Zimmer (#25), the number five overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, is expected to start the season with the Northwest Arkansas. The Royals promoted Zimmer to Double-A late last season where he held a 1.93 ERA through four starts with the Naturals. Position players to watch for elsewhere in the Texas League include speedy leadoff hitter Delino DeShields (#66) of the Corpus Christi Hooks, Jorge Bonifacio (#91) of the Naturals and gifted batter Stephen Piscotty (#98) of the Springfield Cardinals. Every mentioned player has big league potential.
#6 – You won’t be the only one cheering
The vocal and expressive fan will find a home at Dr Pepper Ballpark. For nine consecutive seasons, the RoughRiders have led all 30 Double-A teams in total and average attendance. More than half-a-million fans routinely fill Dr Pepper Ballpark every season and the team averages better than 7,000 fans per game. Not only is that the best in Double-A, but it’s also higher than 17 Triple-A teams! On 21 occasions in 2013, the ’Riders drew crowds of more than 10,000. Frisco’s fan base is second to none and players say the crowds enhance the in-game environment more than anywhere else in the Texas League. Bring a sign, be loud and shout until your voice goes out. You won’t be cheering alone.
#5 – More than just peanuts and Cracker Jack
RoughRiders cuisine far outstrips traditional ballpark fare. Sure, fans can still fill up to the gills on foot-long hot dogs and brats from Smokie’s Sausage Shack, but Dr Pepper Ballpark serves something for any palate. The new Beer & Barbeque stand will cook in-house, smoked Texas barbeque favorites while Lone Star Pizza offers a wide range of personal style pies. Deep-fried Oreos grace the à la carte lineup for the first time this season, and for those in search of a healthy option, Greek yogurt is also available. Of course, many Frisco fan favorites will be back on the menu as well, from fresh-spun cotton candy and funnel cakes to snow cones and freshly squeezed lemonade. Of course, few things taste better on a hot Texas night than a cold serving of Dippin’ Dots. It’s never summer without great food, great drinks and RoughRiders baseball.
#4 – An arsenal of arms
For the best pitching this side of Yu Darvish and Arlington, Dr Pepper Ballpark is the place to be. The RoughRiders will rely on their mound men to bolster the franchise’s quest for an eighth playoff berth. Right-hander Luke Jackson is expected to lead the group in 2014. The fireballer started the previous season with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and made his RoughRiders’ debut on August 4, 2013. He didn’t miss a beat in Double-A and finished the season with 134 combined strikeouts at both Myrtle Beach and Frisco and held the eighth-lowest ERA among all full season minor league pitchers (2.04). Those numbers were a big reason why the Rangers named Jackson the club’s 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Alex Claudio figures to take the reins from Jackson and the starters as a key piece in the RoughRiders’ bullpen in 2014. The deceptive Claudio fools batters with his changeup and was named the Rangers’ Minor League Reliever of the Year last season. Another burgeoning prospect, Alex Gonzalez, hopes to excite the Frisco faithful this year. Don’t call him Alex, though. Gonzalez prefers the nickname “Chi Chi,” given by a family member. Baseball America rates the 2013 first round draft pick as the number six prospect in the Rangers’ organization. Fans on the wild side will anticipate the return of eight-year veteran Kevin Pucetas as he unleashes his newly developed knuckleball pitch on the diamond this season. Other highly-ranked pitchers that are expected to see time in Frisco this season include Alec Asher, Nick Martinez and Jerad Eickhoff.
#3 – Rougned Odor
Because the makeup of minor league teams are up to the discretion of the parent club, you never know who will be on the Opening Day roster until very late in spring training. That is typically the case with the RoughRiders, but one player who looks very likely to be with the team on April 3 is second baseman Rougned Odor. The Venezuelan with the memorable name is the Rangers’ top-ranked prospect according to Baseball America and he showed why during a 30-game stint with Frisco at the end of the 2013 season. Odor was promoted to Double-A in early August and hit .306/.354/.530 with six home runs, eight doubles, two triples and 19 RBI. And he did all of that as just a 19-year-old, the youngest player in Double-A. (Projecting those numbers out over a 140-game season, he would have hit 28 homers with 37 doubles, nine triples and 89 RBI.) Now 20, Odor spent the first half of spring training in big league camp and hopes to use that experience to further propel his ascension to the major leagues. For the time being, however, the spunky infielder with the big bat is expected to ply his trade at Dr Pepper Ballpark.
#2 – Family-friendly entertainment
The RoughRiders are well-known for making trips to Dr Pepper Ballpark about more than just the game on the field. The atmosphere on game nights is a blast, even for folks who aren’t big baseball fans. The RoughRiders employ a full-time entertainment director whose sole job is to make sure that families have fun when visiting the ballpark. From spectacular fireworks shows following every Friday night home game to a collection of more than 180 hilarious on-field skits and promotions that rotate throughout the season, there is something fun for everyone who comes to a game. Dr Pepper Ballpark even features a pool in right field and two playgrounds (including one specifically designed for two-to-five-year-olds). And for a lot of fans, their favorite RoughRiders aren’t ones you might see in Arlington someday – they are Deuce and Daisy, the team’s loveable mascots.
#1 – The home of future Rangers
With Odor and a tremendous pitching staff leading the way, there should be another impressive assortment of talent on display at Dr Pepper Ballpark this season. This has been the norm in each of the RoughRiders’ first 11 seasons in Frisco, and with the Rangers’ relentless pursuit of building a winning organization from top-to-bottom, don’t look for that trend to change anytime soon. Since 2003, 107 former RoughRiders have reached the major leagues, almost one-third of all Frisco players. In 2013, ten former ’Riders made the big leagues, including Nick Tepesch, Beltre, Garcia and McGuiness. One look at the Rangers’ 40-man roster shows that half of its members played in Frisco. Elvis Andrus, Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Holland, Leonys Martin, Profar, Neftali Feliz, Mitch Moreland, Tanner Scheppers and Martin Perez are just a few of the Texas stalwarts who once wore a RoughRiders uniform. Outside of the Rangers organization, All-Stars such as Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis, Adrian Gonzalez and C.J. Wilson all spent time in Frisco as well.
With the RoughRiders, fans get winning baseball, exciting prospects, delicious food, affordable family fun and the future of the Texas Rangers on display. It all shows that the Frisco RoughRiders continue to be a sure thing for families and sports fans across the Metroplex.
If you follow the Rangers’ farm system, then it’s very likely you’ve heard of Lewis Brinson. An athletic outfielder from Coral Springs, Florida, Texas drafted Brinson in the first round (29th overall) in 2012. He played his first full season with low-A Hickory last year and was part of a Crawdads team that broke the South Atlantic League record for home runs in a single season (178). Brinson’s individual season was a bit of mixed bag: he hit .237/.322/.749 with 21 homers, 52 RBI, 24 steals and 191 strikeouts.
On Saturday, Brinson got his first taste of big league action, pinch hitting for Michael Choice in the Rangers’ wild, 16-15 spring training win over the Athletics. He doubled to center field on the first pitch he saw from 2013 Midland RockHound Ryan Dull in the seventh inning before flying out to right in the eighth.
Entering the 2014 season, ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranks Brinson as the Rangers’ fourth-best minor league prospect. The right-handed outfielder won’t turn 20 until May 8 and figures to begin the year with either Hickory or Myrtle Beach. While it’s unlikely he could reach Frisco this year, a great campaign could lead to a late season cameo with the RoughRiders. While I was out in Surprise last week, I caught up with Brinson and we talked about spring training, last season in Hickory and his goals before breaking camp.
If you’d like to listen to the audio of the interview, click here.
Alex Vispoli: Lewis, this is your second spring training; what’s been the difference from what you came in to see last year and what you’ve been going through this year?
Lewis Brinson: Last spring training I was kind of in awe a little bit. The whole spring training aspect of it with big leaguers around everywhere; guys that you grew up loving and now you’re training with them, stretching with them, hitting with them, getting to talk to them everyday. But now I’ve gotten kind of used to it and I’m just trying to win a job here. You’ve got a better idea of what you need to do to get ready for the season, so I’m just looking at it like that.
AV: Instead of being in awe of the big leaguers, are you trying this year to learn from them, watching what they do and how they go about their business?
LB: Yeah, definitely. Anytime a big leaguer stops and talks to you, you listen. I’m just watching them walk around, hitting, throwing, stretching, working out, talking. Just getting used to knowing how they go about their business. You want to be at that level one day so who cares if you copy them? They’re big leaguers, they’re there for a reason, so why not be like them?
AV: A lot of folks looked at that Hickory team that you were on last year – you had Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Ronald Guzman, Jorge Alfaro –a lot of really young guys that have had a ton of success early in their pro careers. Was it fun to be a part of that group? You guys are all about the same age, in the same boat, with the same experience level, playing together.
LB: Oh yeah, that was very fun. Everybody looked at our home runs last year [with us being] a really young group and was asking “How did they hit that many home runs? These guys must be freakishly talented or on something.” But we have a great time together. We’re all, like you said, the same age, so we love being around each other. We all have the same goals; we all have the same work ethic and want to get to the big leagues around the same time and start our big league careers together, hopefully with the Texas Rangers. We’re just out there having a good time. I love those guys.
AV: Finally Lewis, what are your goals here for the next couple of weeks before you break camp?
LB: Just to get ready. [Minor league spring] games start Thursday [March 13]. So just getting ready for the season. It’s grind time, trying to make a team and trying to get your last bit of work in. Just come here everyday with a plan, and plan to get better everyday.
AV: Well Lewis, best of luck here over the next couple of weeks. Stay healthy and hopefully at some point down the line we’ll see you in Frisco.
LB: All right, see you there.
Thanks for reading.
This week I’m taking in my first visit to Surprise, Arizona for Rangers Spring Training, and I’m bringing you with me. If you missed the recap of Day One of my trip, check it out right here.
From what I can gather, you go through a few different phases during Spring Training as a player,coach and executive.
1. There’s the initial burst of excitement over getting back to a baseball field and rediscovering your passion for the game you love. This period is great – until you grow weary of the numerous of meetings, practices, simulated situations and other minutia that, while important, is not why anyone signed up to be a part of this game. All during this time, you’re chomping at the bit to start playing something that at least resembles a game.
2. You eventually do move into this phase, but they’re not real games (granted, Spring Training games are not really like real games, but at least it’s somewhat close); they’re more like scrimmages that you play against the same people you’ve been practicing against for the last week or two.
3. Just when you get to the point where you’re mentally over the idea of facing the same opponent day after day, you start games against other organizations, which is a major refresher for the mind.
4. Then, you just get sick and tired of being in Arizona for up to two months and playing the role of “human sunny-side up egg” in the roasting desert sun. You want to get the season underway and start playing games that count (with real stats too).
The big leaguers are in the midst of Phase 3, while the minor leaguers have just gotten to Phase 2, which I watched begin in earnest on Monday morning at the Rangers’ Spring Training complex in Surprise. Along the way, I witnessed the start of a comeback, a rebirth, the long-term future and the bizarre before finishing the day with a Hall of Famer.
7:45 a.m. – As I alluded to at the end of yesterday’s post, I was not going to play the role of fool two days in a row (at least in this specific respect) and get microwaved by the southwest sun once again. Upon the recommendation of the helpful hotel lobby person, I headed over the nearby “99 ¢ Only Store” (because dollar stores are considered too bourgeoisie here) to purchase some sunscreen. Now, I was just as suspicious as you probably are reading this about buying 99-cent sunscreen. “Wouldn’t splashing a layer of water on your skin be at least equally effective?” Yeah, that ran through my head, but my faith in “Hypoderm Sunscreen” (Note to anyone who thought, “Why didn’t I think of an amazing name like that?”: it’s not a registered trademark, apparently) was rewarded. My burns from Sunday were reasonably contained and my skin did not start falling off at any point. And I feel like a true bargain hunter after spotting this attempt on eBay to charge some poor sap $12.99+shipping for three of these babies. The whole episode felt a little like hitting a three-point bank shot that you didn’t call.
8:15 a.m. – Things are still fairly quiet by the time I reach the complex, probably due to the fact that fans won’t be let into the facility until 10 a.m. There are a few hitters getting some early work in and some of the big leaguers are trickling in for the day. The Rangers clubhouse is divided into two sides: one for the major leaguers and one for the minor leaguers. The minor league clubhouse is a lot bigger, but more crowded because there are so many more players in that camp. I am a bit surprised at how nice the minor league clubhouse is, however. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Bull Durham or some high school level accommodations, but I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly equal in many respects to the big league side. The lockers are made of wood (like the major leaguers) and are certainly an acceptable size, the flood is nicely carpeted and it has a welcoming tone to it. It’s much better than many road stadium clubhouses (and some home ones too) I’ve seen in my baseball travels.
On this particular morning, I meet Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez in the clubhouse and we talk about his outing in the big league “A” game the day before. He allowed three of the four men he faced to reach base before being removed after hitting his 20-pitch limit. A pair of meekly-hit grounders were able to sneak through for hits, so he isn’t overly negative about his performance even though all three men came home to score later in the inning. As for his nickname (which he prefers to go by, by the way), Chi-Chi says it was given to him by his grandfather’s brother; he nicknamed Gonzalez’ two older sisters Nina and Nene, so Chi-Chi seemed to fit the bill for Alex.
9 a.m. – Pockets of minor league hitters are taking batting practice out on the back fields (the big leaguers practice on the two fields closest to the stadium/clubhouse). I stumble upon the BP group that folks who love prospects dream about: Joey Gallo, Nick Williams, Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara. Like many, I’ve heard a lot about these players but have never seen them in person (Ronald Guzman and Jorge Alfaro are also among the super-prospects who are super-young and populated Hickory’s Avengers-like squad last season). Like many, I am impressed at first glance. I didn’t realize how big they all were. At 6’3″, Brinson is the shrimp of the group. The others are either 6’4″ or 6’5″ and aren’t just tall rods with pine tar on their batting gloves. They’re built like stallions and we may see one or two gallop to Frisco by the end of 2014 if things go well.
I have a nice conversation about Cody Buckel with rehab pitching coordinator Keith Comstock, who says that Buckel is throwing the ball as well as he ever has. Buckel, the Rangers’ 2012 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year, suffered a bad case of the yips last season and spent most of the campaign rewiring himself mentally and mechanically. I hadn’t heard much about Cody since the end of the season and am excited to see him pitch later in the day.
9:30 a.m. – The pitchers meet as a group with new farm director Mike Daly right next to the tall observation structure pictured at the start of the blog entry and it’s not long before Daly is about to give another talk to the hitters. It’s recommended that I join the group if I want a cool history lesson. Daly proceeds to educate the players about notable players from the 1966 MLB draft. The first overall pick was Steve Chilcott by the Mets – a seven-year minor leaguer who never reached the show. The second pick did slightly better. His name is Reggie Jackson. Daly tells the group about Reggie’s career and his epic performances in the World Series before finishing up by talking about the sixth overall pick from that draft: none other than Tom Grieve. I later speak with Daly and we talk about his history lesson. He’s concerned about the relative lack of knowledge many young players have about players who came before them, so he makes it a point to relay some history during camp through his own lessons and visits from legends like Pudge Rodriguez and others. Hopefully Texas’ minor leaguers can avoid the fate of Josh Hart.
10 a.m. – After the meetings wrap up, it’s more practice time on the back fields. The four fields are filled with defensive drills, bunt plays and batting practice. I’ll see infield work before games throughout the season, but never 20-30 minutes’ worth with every pitcher also taking part in these simulated situations. These are the minor leagues, and the minors are all about development. We see that over the course of the season, but the foundation is laid right here.
11:30 a.m. – Most of the big leaguers have left the practice fields to get ready for that afternoon’s game against the Reds, but not everyone has headed back to the clubhouse. On the infield-only field, Greg Maddux is hitting ground balls back to Matt Harrison, Nick Tepesch and Tommy Hanson. So not only the minor league guys work on fielding, and what better mound defender to learn from than Maddux, who only racked up a record 18 Gold Gloves during his Hall of Fame career. With not a whole lot else going on, a crush of fans flock to get in prime autograph position for when the session is over (for Tepesch, obviously).
On my way back to the big league side, I have a short chat with Rangers manager Ron Washington who is about to drive his golf back to the clubhouse. I wish him luck this season at the end of our conversation, to which he responds, “Well thank you baby!” and drives off.
12 noon – I meet Brandon Boyd, who is one of the Rangers’ clubhouse managers and also a former RoughRiders employee. Brandon oversaw the ‘Riders clubhouse from 2005-09 before moving on to Arlington. He takes me into the big league clubhouse, where I catch up with several familiar faces: Mitch Moreland, a RoughRider in 2009 and a rehabber in 2012 & ’13; Ryan Feierbend, a 2013 ‘Rider who would throw a scoreless inning in relief of Yu Darvish later in the day; and Brett Nicholas, Frisco’s best offensive player in 2013. Nicholas has been with the big club for the spring, mostly as a catcher after spending nearly all of last year at first base. Most of the clubhouse is vacant, but that is probably because it is when media is allowed in for interviews (nobody likes the media, especially radio guys).
On my way back to the minor leaguers, I stop to talk to Harrison, who I met during his rehab stint with Frisco last summer. Harrison will pitch for the first time in Tuesday’s game and says he feels completely healthy for the first time in a very long time. He says 2013 was agonizing, but feels like he is in great shape and is ready to get back to what made him an All-Star in 2012.
12:15 p.m. – I return to the back fields to watch the three intersquad games being played (the start of Phase 2 of Spring Training). Basically, all of the players in camp are mixed into random teams and pitted against one another for games that would last approximately five innings. This is once of the coolest parts of the day. On Field 5 I see Jorge Alfaro lace a Kevin Pucetas knuckleball to right-center for a triple. Pucetas is reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher after toying with the pitch in Frisco last season. Despite the Alfaro three-bagger, the knucklers dance enough that Pucetas does not allow another baserunner.
When I turn to Field 4, I watch Alex Claudio end an inning with a pickoff at second base with Juremi Profar batting and later Jon Edwards hits 98 on the radar gun. It is tough to keep up with all three games at once, so I miss some action but thoroughly enjoy what I did see. And the players seem to enjoy playing in games for the first time since last season. The minor league guys will play intersquad games on Tuesday and Wednesday before squaring off against other organizations beginning Thursday.
Soon enough, it’s Buckel’s turn to pitch and I am not disappointed. Cody looks a lot like the 2012 Cody; the one who struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings and displayed impeccable control. Buckel gets a strikeout and ultimately retires three of the four men he faces. Afterwards, he tells me that it felt good to finally pitch in his first game action since a pair of early-August AZL contests. He says he didn’t attack the strike zone the way he has in recent bullpens, but chalks that up to the long delay in facing live batters.
As an aside, I don’t want to make Buckel’s outing out to be more than it was. It was a good step in the right direction after a nightmare 2013, not a guarantee that he will never struggle again on the mound in the minors. I hope that he can string outings like this together and get his career back to where it was, and then beyond. Monday was not a definitive answer to anything, but it certainly was encouraging to see.
2 p.m. – Following the intersquad games, I head back to Surprise Stadium, where the Rangers and Reds are well underway. But before I can enter the stadium through the team offices, I encounter an obstacle I just am not expecting: bees. Lots of them. A stone column that sits between the office and the stadium concourse apparently gathered an enormous mass of bees over the span of an hour. There was no hive there previously; they just all swarmed to that spot and just stayed. I’m told it’s probably not safe to walk past them and that pest control is on its way. I agree that missing an inning or so of a Spring Training game in exchange for avoiding hundreds of simultaneous bee stings is probably a fair trade. It isn’t long before a group of close to a dozen people (including Rangers special assistant and former pitcher Darren Oliver) join me to watch the extermination.
A photo essay of the kill:
2:15 p.m. – The Rangers and Reds are in the fifth inning by the time I get past the bees and into the stadium. Yu Darvish is finishing up his outing and both teams get ready to send in position players that 95% of the stadium has never heard of. Now 11 years old, Billy Parker Field at Surprise Stadium holds up very well and seems to be an enjoyable place to watch a game. There’s a big Monday crowd on hand; hopefully most of them do not leave with bee stings.
3:15 p.m. – Because I did not get the chance to see him on Sunday, I make a stop by the Rangers’ broadcast booth to see Eric
Nadel. I’ve met Eric a few times at Rangers games and he has always been kind to me. Rangers fans are lucky to have had him for so long and I wasn’t the only one who was very happy for his Hall of Fame election this past off-season. I don’t want to take too much of his and Matt Hicks’ time during the game, but I congratulate Eric on the honor during an inning break and then scoot out of the booth. In the radio booth right next door, fellow Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman is broadcasting for the Reds’ radio network. Eric calls Marty one of his career mentors.
3:40 p.m. – The Rangers wrap up an 8-2 win over Cincinnati as former RoughRiders Neftali Feliz and Nicholas form the game-ending battery. It’s Texas’ first win since Thursday against San Diego and the last game I’ll see at Surprise Stadium during my stay in Arizona. The team heads to Camelback Ranch in Glendale to play the White Sox on Tuesday and I’ll be there for at least some of it as I hit the home stretch of my stay in the desert.
As always thanks for reading,
I think I remember my first visit to an MLB Spring Training. I’m a little hazy on the year (sometime in the early-90s), but I remember it was in West Palm Beach, Florida and the teams that trained there were the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos. My family used to spend a week down in Florida during February vacation* and it usually coincided with the first week of Spring Training. So while the games hadn’t yet started, my dad and I took advantage of the opportunity to watch players work out and just be around baseball whenever we made it down to the Sunshine State.
* – Yes, I realize that most folks reading this are scratching their heads about this. In a few northeast states – I grew up in Massachusetts – the schools would not be in session for a week in February, partially to help save on heating costs during one of the coldest months of the year.
Growing up, the Braves were my second-favorite team and one year my dad bought me a new Braves cap to wear to Spring Training. I loved the hat and was pretty sure I was going to wear it for the next six months straight. He also bought me a baseball so I could get as many autographs as I could during our visit. I filled that sucker up and still have it. I’m pretty sure John Smoltz is on there, I just have no idea where because I’m not sure a hieroglyphics expert could decipher all of those signatures. After a successful day of signings, we headed to the parking lot to drive off when someone walking toward the stadium caught our eye. He was wearing a dark leather jacket, sunglasses, earrings and gaudy gold necklaces. It didn’t take much deduction to figure out who was headed our way.
It was Prime Time himself, Deion Sanders. With no one around him but dad and me.
I quickly ran up to Deion and asked him to sign my ball. He didn’t stop, but did slow his pace as we walked stride-for-stride through the lot. He pushed his sunglasses down toward the end of his nose so he could inspect the baseball with no filter blocking his view and raised an eyebrow. I know what he was thinking, or at least I think I do: “I’m Deion Sanders. You want me to share a tiny amount of space on this baseball with a bunch of nobodies (minus John Smoltz, I think)? I don’t think so; I’m Prime Time.”
Deion eyed my Braves hat, which featured no writing other than a white, stitched “A” on top of a blue background, and said, “Flip me your cap.”
At this point I froze. The 6- or 7-year-old in me knew that if Deion Sanders signed my hat, it would immediately become a piece of sports memorabilia that would need to go up on the mantle and could never be worn again. I stammered, “I don’t know,” while my dad pleaded for me to let Deion put his mark on my headgear. As I stalled, not knowing what to do, other fans realized who it was walking to Municipal Stadium and began to swarm Prime.
By the time I was ready to hand over my Braves cap, it was too late. Too many people had gotten in between Deion and me and the opportunity was lost forever. Yes, as a boy I turned down an autograph from Deion Sanders because I didn’t want it to spoil my new, $12 Atlanta Braves cap. While I regretted that foolish decision for years, it at least led to a pretty decent story and my defining Spring Training memory as a child.
We went to a few more Spring Trainings in the years after “Deion Day.” (Including the 1995 Spring Training, which featured replacement players during the MLB strike. The West Palm Beach Expos gave away bumper stickers that featured the slogan “Where the only strikes are on the field!”) Eventually both the Braves and Expos moved to other sites in Florida and it became more difficult for my family to make the trip down south together. My last visit to Spring Training was in 1999 when I saw the Cardinals and Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.
For the first time in 15 years I am back at Spring Training, but in a place I’ve never been before. I write to you from Surprise, Arizona, where I will be for the next few days at Rangers Spring Training. The east coaster in me visualizes February and March baseball in the presence of the palm trees and orange groves of Florida, not the cacti and desert scrub of Arizona. I am excited for the new experience and to bring you a taste of life out here in Cactus League. Before I begin, a big thank you to the RoughRiders and Rangers organizations for allowing me to make it out here. I would certainly not be here without their support.
Here’s a recap of Day One under the hot, hot sun.
Sunday, 4:45 a.m. – An early wake up call to catch a morning flight feels even earlier thanks to the commencement of Daylight Saving Time. I only start to see the sun come up after I’ve boarded my plane. When I get to DFW Airport, I am instructed to use a self-serve kiosk to print my boarding pass. After the machine fails to find my pass, it sends me back to the humans who eventually locate my reservation. The security line is pretty long, but an employee directs me to another security screening area further down in the terminal which, she ensures, has no line. Following a five-minute walk, I reach the other screening area, which features an even longer line. Airport efficiency is batting .000 so far this season.
7:55 a.m. – My flight from DFW to Phoenix took 20 minutes, my phone says. We took off at 7:35 a.m. Central Daylight Time and landed at 7:55 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. The reason for this little oddity? Arizona does not recognize Daylight Saving Time, so we’re essentially operating on Pacific Time out here.
I’ve never been to New Mexico or Arizona, so the flight was my first opportunity to see the desert landscape of the southwest United States. Disclosure about me: I am a geography nut. I love maps, vistas, and human, social and physical geography. Seeing the parched earth from high above on a clear day was fascinating. We are a nation of well over 300 million people but there are vast expanses of our country that are not populated at all. I flew over land that might as well have been Martian soil: mountains of rock, dry riverbeds, no vegetation and a stillness that was borderline eery. From above, you wonder what makes the land that Phoenix sits on any different and the inhospitable territory that seems to line all sides. It really is amazing that a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people are able to live and thrive here.
9:00 a.m. – After a visit to the rental car area (the RoughRiders will be happy to know I graciously declined an offer to rent a much more expensive Ford Mustang in favor of a much more practical, if less sexy, Nissan Versa), it’s time to hit the road for the 40-minute drive to Surprise. I had a nice conversation with the rental agent about Minor League Baseball, as he and his wife are season ticket holders for the Oklahoma City Redhawks (Did I mention that I was conversing with him over a video connection at the rental kiosk? Efficiency makes a comeback.). Once in the car, I find a local sports station on the radio, but they’re discussing Carmelo Anthony’s future in New York if Phil Jackson takes over the Knicks. Not gonna cut it for me today. Today’s hits and Taylor Swift: 1, ESPN Radio: 0.
9:45 a.m. – As the line of fans outside the practice fields swells to its longest point, I pull into the Rangers’ & Royals’ shared spring training complex in Surprise. Thanks to the Rangers’ minor league equipment manager, I’m able to park among the coaches and players. Unfortunately every spot is filled, so I park the Versa in a nearby auxiliary lot, which I discover is also being used by Colorado Rockies players and coaches who are commuting for that afternoon’s game against Kansas City. I am very, very, very careful to make sure I don’t put any dents into the brand new Jaguar S-Type that’s next to me.
After finding my way to the clubhouse, I cross paths with old friends Teodoro Martinez, Zach Zaneski and Kevin Pucetas. Seeing these players (all RoughRiders in 2013) again is a little like coming back from summer vacation as a kid and reuniting with friends you haven’t seen for months. Lots of smiles and catching up It really is so great to be here.
10:30 a.m. – After picking up my Rangers media credential in the team offices, I find Frisco trainer Carlos Olivas who takes me aboard his golf cart and we speed away to Fields 3, 4, 5 and 6, where the minor leaguers are practicing. Most of the fans are watching the big league guys finish up batting practice, so it’s not too crowded. I meet the RoughRiders’ new manager, Jason Wood; he seems like a great guy and I’m looking forward to working with him this season. I find the rest of our coaching staff, spread out among the fields as the different position groups work out together.
Eventually the players will divide into four groups categorized by the Rangers’ top four minor league affiliates. But the final roster decisions haven’t been made yet, nor will they be for several more weeks. Because there are so many players in big league camp (59), a lot of those players will end up on the Opening Day rosters for Round Rock, Frisco and Myrtle Beach. Most of the Triple-A team will be made of up of players who will be cut from the big league team (guys like Jim Adduci, Kensuke Tanaka, Robinson Chirinos, etc.). The current “Round Rock” team on the minor league fields consists mostly of players who will actually open the season in Frisco. The guys currently on the “Frisco” team will more than likely be in Myrtle Beach, and so on down the line of affiliates. Right now Wood is working with the Round Rock group, which will likely look pretty similar to his team once it gets back to Dr Pepper Ballpark.
12 noon – 1 p.m. – As the minor leaguers wrap up their work for the day, I decide to head over to Peoria to catch the Cactus League game between the Rangers and Mariners. It’s only 11 miles from one stadium to the other, but it takes me an hour to drive there thanks to the hell that is Bell Road. Traffic lights every 100 yards and practically everyone in town heading to the Peoria Sports Complex lead to a miserable ride. By the time I get into the lot, I am directed to what I am told is the second-to-last open spot the entire facility has to offer. As you can see from the photo on the right, I’m not exactly in a tight orbit around the ballpark.
1:05 p.m. – The lines to get into the ballpark are crazy. This is obviously going to be a massive crowd (more than 10,000 in the reported attendance) to see this game and it makes sense. It’s a beautiful day (a Sunday) and the Rangers have a very interesting team to both a casual hardcore fan. I walk in through the media entrance alongside Tim Cowlishaw and make my way up to the press box as Felix Hernandez gets settled on the mound for Seattle.
1:30 p.m. – As I chat with some Rangers beat writers, I turn to my right and all of a sudden, Peter Gammons is standing next to me. I awkwardly introduce myself, but he seems more concerned with the on-field events than hearing about how I read his
baseball columns in The Boston Globe growing up. I can’t really blame him. I mean, it’s King Felix on the mound and the intriguing Colby Lewis hurling for Texas.
2 p.m. – I take a lap around the ballpark concourse to get a better feel for the place and find MLB Network with a temporary set tucked away down the first base line. Dan Plesac is there for what I imagine is an in-game report. When he leaves the set for a moment he signs an autograph on the sweet spot of a fan’s baseball and thanks the fan for watching his show.
2:15 p.m. – Because I’m wearing a media badge, a fan mistakes me for an usher and requests that I ask some fans who are standing in front of him and blocking his view to move to the side. I tell him that I do not work at the ballpark, but understand why he thought I did at first glance. Still, assuming that the fans impeding his view will believe the same thing about me, I pretend to be an usher and kindly ask them to step aside. They apologize and oblige as I give a fist bump to the original fan and continue my walk.
3 p.m. – Having not eaten in about ten hours, I down a mediocre cheeseburger and fries. The concession stand selection in Peoria leaves much to be desired.
3:50 p.m. – Rangers 2013 first rounder Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez makes his first appearance in an “A” game this spring and allows three of four batters to reach base. All eventually come around to score as part of a six-run Mariners eighth inning. What was once an 8-3 Texas lead devolves into a 9-8 loss to Seattle.
4:45 p.m. – The current and previous voices of the Frisco RoughRiders likely create some disturbance in the space-time continuum, as I run into Mariners broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith once he wraps up his postgame show. It was great to finally meet Aaron after corresponding with him several times over the past couple of seasons. After sharing Frisco war stories, it becomes a veritable Texas League reunion as Rangers broadcaster Matt Hicks joins the conversation.
5:15 p.m. – Not even needing a sherpa for the journey, I make it back to my car in a now empty parking lot. It’s been a long day with two more sure to come. I just need to make sure I pick something up from the store before hitting the back fields…
As always, thanks for reading.
This story appears in the March 7 edition of Sports Page Weekly, which is a free publication available in the Metroplex.
During the early portion of spring training for the Texas Rangers, much of the focus has been on a young second baseman who burst onto the pro sports scene in August 2012. He impressed observers with his skill and a cool sense of confidence which was uncanny for someone so young. His notability and importance have only grown because of recent events. Come late February, the Rangers, as well as fans, were wondering when they’d finally see him take to the field out in Surprise.
No, this discussion does not concern Jurickson Profar and his balky right shoulder. The above also applies to newly minted Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson.
Last December, the Rangers plucked Wilson, better known for his stellar work on the gridiron and whose pro baseball career had been on hiatus since 2011, from the Colorado Rockies in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. The cost to formally acquire the baseball rights of the undersized signal caller? A mere $12,000, roughly the same amount of signing bonus money a team might allot toward a late round draft pick in June.
Throughout the off-season, we’ve read numerous stories about how the Rangers drafting Russell Wilson was not a gimmick. Let’s be clear: this whole episode has been a complete gimmick.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “gimmick” with the following description: a method or trick that is used to get people’s attention or to sell something.
Enter the Rangers and Wilson. On March 3rd, the team held a “Russell Wilson Day” of sorts. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback traveled to Surprise, worked out with the team, fielded ground balls, took in the spring game against Cleveland (a 6-4 Rangers loss) and gave a speech to players within the organization. And, yes, Texas has begun selling Rangers jerseys with “3” and “Wilson” on the back, as well as other Wilson-themed merchandise. (I’m sure Frisco RoughRiders shortstop Luis Sardinas, whose jersey number is 3 on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, gave Wilson his blessing to temporarily use the number. Maybe Wilson even persuaded him with financial incentives.)
Now, no one inside or outside the Rangers organization expects Wilson to trade in his facemask and shoulder pads for a glove and some pine tar on a full-time or even part time basis. This was a singular opportunity to stage a cool photo-op, grab some friendly headlines and sell some Rangers gear. In other words, it was a gimmick. For his part, Wilson seems to sincerely enjoy baseball and his respect for those within the game is evident. But other than throwing out the first pitch sometime this summer, he’s not suiting up on a diamond again anytime soon (unless he somehow transforms into some sort of Anthony Wright clone). The Rangers knew this when they took him off the Rockies’ hands a few months ago.
But the fact that drafting Russell Wilson and having him spend a day at spring training was a gimmick does not necessarily make it a bad thing. I realize there’s a negative connotation with the word, but gimmicks can have positive value, as this one does.
First of all, the Rangers should be commended for recognizing and seizing a terrific promotional opportunity and making the most of it in a pseudo-organic way (at least compared with, for example, the Red Sox’ explicit marketing deal with Johnny Manziel, which brought the former Aggie to Fort Myers for a day, wearing a #2 Boston jersey to boot). Additionally, it has brought a bevy of positive attention to a club coming off a mildly disappointing season, fans are buzzing over their team’s connection with the best young quarterback in the NFL (go ahead, compare his numbers with Andrew Luck and tell me who comes out on top) and it allowed the players in the clubhouse to bask in the glow of a bona fide champion.
And therein lies a big reason why the Rangers want to be so closely associated with a second baseman who owns a career .229 batting average in 93 professional baseball games (all below the Advanced-A level). As this organization strives to maintain a team that consistently competes for championships, the hope is that through osmosis this group can absorb as many positive attributes as it can from winners like Wilson. Especially ones who are young enough for current professional athletes to relate to. That sort of thing can potentially go a long way toward developing a team’s culture and identity.
If Adrian Beltre is lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy high above his head come October, I’m not sure he’ll be pointing back to March 3rd and Wilson’s spring training visit as a big reason why, but it could be an intangible piece of the foundation that makes up this team’s season. Intangibles are immeasurable by definition. But in this case for the Rangers, it cost $12,000.
Yes, drafting Russell Wilson and bringing him to spring training was a gimmick. A gimmick that may already be worth the gambit.