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Thursday, April 1, 2010

A day in Tampa

The smell of freshly cut Bermudagrass was in the air. The sound of wood bats hitting the ball rang all over. Baseball is officially back. After attending countless Major League Baseball games throughout the country, I had never attended a Spring Training game. Yesterday, my family and I traveled to Tampa, Florida, spring home of the World Champion New York Yankees. The Yankees welcomed the Minnesota Twins to Tampa on an absolutely perfect day for baseball. Unfortunately, due to record rain fall the previous two days, I was unable to attend any other games throughout the Grapefruit League circuit.

As we approached the complex, we noticed the Yankees preparing for the game on a practice field adjacent from their home stadium, George M. Steinbrenner Field, otherwise known as, “The Boss.” Only a mere 10 feet away stood the champions; Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera and the list goes on. Even all-time greats such as Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson were in full uniform, never looking better. Earlier this week, Jackson was asked, “How many home runs do you think you could hit at the new Yankee Stadium?” Jackson answered, “I’d hit 18-20.” The commentator was taken aback by Jackson’s surprising response. He responded, “Are you serious?” As sharp as ever, Mr. October smirked and said, “What do you expect? I’m 62 years old.”

As defending champions, players can become complacent, taking for granted what they had achieved the year before by not preparing at the highest level necessary to be successful. Complacency is not in this team’s vocabulary. This mindset starts from the top, led by the Steinbrenner family and General Manager, Brian Cashman. On the field, the team is led by its general, Manager Joe Girardi. This mindset for greatness was evident from the players as well. The veterans were hustling harder than ever, proving that no matter your age or prior success, you always hustle on the baseball field. The new comers, such as Curtis Granderson, were being as involved as possible to become acclimated with their new team. Everybody was communicating on and off the field, establishing a strong relationship with one another.

Players are familiar to fans calling their names, requesting pictures, autographs or just a look over in their direction. As players mature, they develop a mechanism to block out distraction, having the ability to focus on their craft. I noticed one woman was screaming for Jeter and Rodriguez to look over, so she could take their picture. To the novice fan, they may not realize that this is their job. The common argument is that because these men are paid such an exuberant amount of money to play baseball that they in some way owe everyone something. Regardless if they make a lot of money playing baseball, this is their job and they are preparing for a 162 game season and beyond.

I mentioned this to the woman and was quickly refuted with a remark that the players owe her, a woman from New Jersey, a picture and their undivided attention. Realizing that I was wasting my time, she continued to scream. As the next group of players came in to hit, the screaming intensified as well as autograph seekers literally banging bats and other merchandise on the fence. Cool as ever, Jeter walks by and says, “I’m working now.” Jeter was not rude or disrespectful in any way. He is appreciative of all the support he has received throughout the years, but he is simply doing his job. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, “Would you like me to come to your place of work and harass you?”

At this point of Spring Training, the veterans are ready to break camp and begin the marathon of 162 games. For most of the players, they have spent the last two months in Florida working tirelessly on all of the small things from covering first to bunting. In the meantime, players battle for the final spots on the opening day roster. Journeyman veterans compete to save their job, while minor leaguers fight for a chance to fulfill their dreams of becoming a major leaguer.

As a baseball fan, I want to see the best players play, exhibiting the highest level of play, but it’s exciting to see who will step up and claim a spot on the 25 man roster. I was hoping to see superstar catcher Joe Mauer of the Twins, but unfortunately due to opening day next week, the Twins chose to rest their star. This is understandable considering the Twins just invested $186 million over the next eight years in Mauer. It is also common for veterans to not travel with the team during spring training, allowing other players to see playing time, allowing the coaching staff to evaluate them as well.

The game was great and the weather couldn’t have been better. The Twins were victorious, defeating the Yankees 4-2. In Spring Training, wins and losses are not as significant as the regular season. The bottom-tier teams typically have the best records throughout the spring, as they play their regulars much more often; the better teams rest their players for the games that count.

Rodriguez did not disappoint, blasting a home run into the right field bleachers. Pitcher Phil Hughes was shakey at best. Hughes lost his control throughout the outing, forcing Girardi to go to his bullpen earlier than expected. As the season approaches, Hughes remains a question mark, as Girardi took a big gamble last week, announcing that Hughes would replace embattled pitcher Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation.

One of the highlights of the day was seeing pitcher C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia didn’t pitch, nor was he even in the dugout. Between innings, I spotted the big lefty on a practice field, playing with his children. Starting Sunday night, as the Yankees head to Boston to open their season; Sabathia won’t be able to see and spend as much time with his family. That time he is able to spend with his kids is so valuable. I am so thankful that I was able to spend the day with my family. Days like yesterday will be treasured forever and I hope to do this with my children in the future.

I highly suggest to all baseball fans to attend a Spring Training game. It was a really cool experience that all fans would thoroughly enjoy. It’s also not as expensive as it may be to attend a game during the regular season. The price for 12 tickets for my family was the equivalent of two tickets to a Yankees game.

On Sunday, look for my predictions and outlook going into the 2010 season. I hope everyone contributes their thoughts and opinions as well. This season is sure to be great!

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