Day Three in Surprise: Chi-Chi, Cacti and Camelback Ranch
As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I had never been to Arizona prior to this trip (29 states down, 21 to go). I had an expectation as to what it would be like out here, but I was a little bit jarred seeing cacti and palm trees almost equally share this suburban landscape. Sure, I was expecting the saguaro, prickly pear and barrel cacti; but I didn’t know about the palm tree prevalence here. The sight of such disparate plants juxtaposed with each other makes for a strange sight, but I guess there were some people who also thought it bizarre to combine soft serve vanilla and chocolate ice cream into a magnificent swirl of tasty goodness.
I might argue that baseball in the state of Arizona presents a bit of a dichotomy. Here you have a place that is mostly desert with its capital city receiving just eight inches of rain per year. When you fly over the area, the predominant color is some combination of beige/brown. A baseball field’s most striking color is green. When people walk into a stadium for the first time, they don’t often remark about the infield dirt; it’s the lush green grass that catches the eye. And the grass gets that green because groundskeepers need to regularly douse it with tremendous amounts of water.
I’m not trying to make some sort of environmental case against baseball in Arizona. I’m just saying it’s always interesting when you see two things put together that don’t naturally seem to belong. That was the theme I kept coming back to as I took in my final full day in the Valley of the Sun.
9:15 a.m. – I get to the complex a little later this morning, which is no worry because the back fields are still empty by the time I arrive. Fields 1 & 2, however, are a different story. The big league club is active with batting practice and Ron Washington is holding court in an otherwise empty dugout at Nolan Ryan Field with a larger media contingent than we’ve seen the last few days. The reason is two-fold: the Round Rock Express front office has just gotten into town and arrive with several members of their local media, hungry for information on the 2014 squad. Also, Matt Harrison is making his spring debut in the “B” game this morning against the Royals. There’s a definite buzz in the air that I hadn’t felt the previous two days here in Surprise.
As I attempt to poke my head into the media scrum, my attention is drawn away by Rangers PR man John Blake, who asks if I can help him with a media request involving minor leaguer and longtime RoughRider Guilder Rodriguez. One of the DFW TV stations wants to do a story on a veteran player in the minors who helps teach the younger guys how to play the game and Guilder (pronounced “WHEEL-dair”) is the perfect candidate. I’m happy to help, but I’m also struck by the unusual request. With all of the great players in camp, some of them brand new to the Rangers (Fielder, Choo), this station wants to report on a 30-year-old Venezuelan utility man with two home runs in 13 professional seasons. It’s not an easy story to sell the average fan back home, who will likely never see G-Rod play in a game. Impressed by the request (I’ve never known TV sports guys to be the most enterprising of reporters…), I head to the back fields to tell Guilder that he will be interviewed later in the day.
10 a.m. – They let the fans in a little early today so they could catch the “B” game and Harrison’s start. The “B” game is played on one of the Rangers practice fields and not in the main stadium. It looks very much like a minor league spring game, given the spartan surroundings. But this is no quaint exercise in pitchers simply getting their work in. It can’t be when the Royals bring over prized big leaguers Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Danny Valencia and Mike Moustakas to play in the contest. Over on Field 2, batting practice with some of the big leaguers is still going on while Harrison unleashes a fastball for strike one to get the contest started. He retires the first batter thanks to a superb sliding catch down the right field line by second baseman Rougned Odor, gives up a hit, but retires the next two batters to complete his work for the day. Harrison says after his outing that he felt good and the recovery into Wednesday will be key to determining the next step for him as he comes back from three 2013 surgeries.
Harrison is the only “regular” playing for the Rangers in this game; most of the others will be suiting up later in the day against the White Sox. Odor ends up providing all of the offense in the “B” game, stroking an RBI triple and a two-run home run off lefty Everett Teaford. I wasn’t there to see it, but Odor allegedly flipped his bat after going yard. In an unrelated note, the RoughRiders open the season against the Royals-affiliated Northwest Arkansas Naturals on April 3.
10:30 a.m. – I spy Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez nearby and chat with him for a bit about his first Spring Training. Because I want you to learn a little more about the Rangers’ 2013 first round draft pick, I recorded the interview so I could post it here. I’ll transcribe it when I’m back in Frisco, but here’s a link to the audio for now.
11 a.m. – I head to the back fields for the start of more intersquad games between the Rangers minor leaguers. Just like yesterday, the teams are mixed up pretty significantly, with Triple-A guys playing alongside short-season guys in some cases. After the final out of each half inning is recorded, the team on offense sends up a player to bunt so that both sides can work on bunt execution. The players seem to forget that they’re doing this every inning, so most of them begin running off the field after the third out is recorded, only to have about eight people yell “BUNT PLAY!” at them so they stay in their positions.
Many of the players found themselves away from their natural positions. Travis Demeritte, a shortstop by trade, played at second base. Ryan Rua, an infielder, was in left field. Catcher Jorge Alfaro was at first base, as was outfielder Jared Hoying (who also saw time at second base in a “B” game earlier in Spring Training; he reportedly impressed Ron Washington with his performance). The reasons for moving players around like this include building up a player’s versatility, experimenting to determine if a new position might be a better fit or protecting a player from injury.
11:45 a.m. – I get permission to watch some of the games from up in the tower that sits between all four of the minor league fields. Many of the coaches will shuttle between the observation tower and field level to watch the action. It’s a great way to keep an eye on as much of the games as possible. Some of the coaches who are up there with me include Field Coordinator Jayce Tingler, Infield Coordinator Casey Candaele, Special Assignment Hitting Instructor Harry Spillman and some guy named Ivan Rodriguez. Yeah, I’ve never heard of him either.
Once the intersquad games are complete, I make one last lap around the facility and say my goodbyes to folks. I fly back to Texas on Wednesday morning and won’t be back at Rangers camp on this trip.
2:30 p.m. – Following a quick lunch, I make my way to Camelback Ranch, the Spring Training complex in Glendale that is home to the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Rangers are playing the Pale Hose in another Cactus League matchup and by the time I arrive, it’s 5-0 Sox in the sixth inning. I saunter over to the scout seats behind home plate and find my friend Jason Cole. Known to many Rangers fans as the publisher of “Lone Star Dugout” and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, Jason was also the color commentator for our RoughRiders TV broadcasts the last few years. During the off-season, the Tampa Bay Rays recognized his talents as an evaluator and hired him to be a professional scout (read more about it here). Sadly, Jason will no longer be able to join me on the air, but I’m very excited for him and his new path in baseball. He’ll still make it to Frisco every now and then to scout the Rangers (maybe picking out the pieces in a future David Price trade?), so there will still be future opportunities to make him laugh at my awful jokes when he’s up in the press box, as he’s dutifully done in recent seasons.
2:45 p.m. – I take a lap around the ballpark to see the sights of one of the newer facilities in the Cactus League. It is located just south of University of Phoenix Stadium (the home of the Arizona Cardinals) and the land around the ballpark is mostly desert scrub. If you look at the surrounding area on Google Maps, you see what appears to be a large river flowing near the complex. Sadly, the Agua Fria River is completely dry. Check out the same map through the satellite view and you’ll see what I mean. It is not a picturesque area near the park, however inside the complex it looks and feels like a resort. Man-made ponds, winding pathways and an elaborate collection of trees make Camelback Ranch feel quite different from the land around it. I will say, it is a very nice facility and it has the most unique design of the three complexes I have visited on this trip.
One of the reasons I especially wanted to come to this game was the fact that the White Sox were the Rangers’ opponent. Prior to
joining the RoughRiders, I spent two seasons as the broadcaster for the Winston-Salem Dash, the High-A affiliate of Chicago. In addition to seeing many familiar players suit up for the White Sox, I recognized a few coaches. The Dash’s manager in 2010, Joe McEwing, is now the third base coach for Robin Ventura’s squad, while the bullpen coach is former Winston pitching coach Bobby Thigpen.
During my walk around the park, I spy “Thiggy” in the home bullpen and call down to him during a lull in the action. He’s happy to see me and we have a short chat that is interrupted by an usher. He tells me to not stand next to the bullpen railing or converse with the coaches during the game. I sheepishly say goodbye to Thiggy and then make my way back to the concourse, feeling like an embarrassed third grader who was caught talking during class.
3:45 p.m. – After the Rangers rally to take the lead in the top of the eighth, Chicago ties it in the bottom of the inning and then wins it in the ninth to send Texas to a 7-6 loss. Afterwards I grab dinner with the Rays’ newest pro scout and bid adieu to Arizona baseball. In the natural scheme of things, it might not make a lot of sense, but watching so much baseball in the desert this week was a blast and I’m already looking forward to another trip next year (not to mention Opening Day in about three weeks).
I’ll have more from my trip to Arizona over the next few days, but it’s back to DFW for now. As always, thanks for reading.