Deion Sanders and Day One in Surprise

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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.

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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.

Downtown Phoenix from the descent. Chase Field sits right downtown with mountains lining the background.

Downtown Phoenix from the descent. Chase Field sits right downtown with mountains lining the background.

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.

Driving past the home of the Arizona Cardinals and next year's Super Bowl in Glendale. Yeah I know, not very safe.

Driving past the home of the Arizona Cardinals and next year’s Super Bowl in Glendale. Yeah I know, taking this was not very safe.

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.

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One of the practice fields in Surprise. It’s only used for infield drills, thus the strangely petite “outfield.”

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.

You can kind of see the Peoria Sports Complex somewhere in the distance from my parking spot.

You can kind of see the Peoria Sports Complex somewhere in the distance from my parking spot.

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.

The view from the Peoria press box is fit for royalty as King Felix faces Prince Fielder.

The view from the Peoria press box is fit for royalty as King Felix faces Prince Fielder.

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

Dan Plesac leaving the MLB Network set as the game continues behind him.

Dan Plesac leaving the MLB Network set as the game continues behind him.

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.

Former RoughRiders pitcher Nick Tepesch warms up in the bullpen. Not seen the picture, but fellow Missouri Tiger Brett Nicholas catches.

Former RoughRiders pitcher Nick Tepesch warms up in the bullpen. Not seen the picture, but fellow Missouri Tiger Brett Nicholas catches.

The lawn section was absolutely packed for the M's and Rangers.

The lawn section was absolutely packed for the M’s and Rangers.

A look in from where Michael Choice's homer landed.

A look in from where Michael Choice’s homer landed.

The Padres' office in Peoria. Apparently their cacti need a stringent support system.

The Padres’ office in Peoria, across the street from the ballpark. Apparently their cacti need a stringent support system.

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…

Today's lesson: next time, try sunscreen.

Today’s lesson: next time, try sunscreen.

As always, thanks for reading.

- Alex

1 Comment

Love it Alex! Please write one of these every day and mention as many players as humanly possible! Feels like I am there with you!!!

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