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March 10, 2001

Derek in the Desert

The Cactus League, and Other Thorny Issues

by Derek Zumsteg

Tucson is a sprawling city with wide streets built on a grid, featuring the University of Arizona. It has a crime problem and a ton of those annoying street kids who panhandle all day to buy high-end hiking shoes, skateboards, and nice second-hand clothes they can wear in hip bars as they nurse premium beers like strip-club customers, staring warily around to see if someone who gave them money is going to notice them and pick a fight. Tucson has packed frat bars and cool Swingers-style places to drink, like Plush, a beautifully decorated lounge bar complete with good low-key groove bands, cushioned stools with backs on them, and a bar surface of polished copper squares.

I last went to the Cactus League almost ten years ago, when developers in Phoenix were putting up strip malls as fast as they could, counting on the constant southwest migration of the nation's population to eventually fill them with franchises, Mexican restaurants, chiropractic offices, and palm readers. As I drove out of Phoenix, listening to Sleater-Kinney (the best rock band you've never heard of), I saw that the developers had bet correctly.

Arizona has always grown ahead of itself, because there's no reason to build on any particular lot as the next one down is just as flat and a little cheaper. Here in Tucson, which doesn't seem to have a defined downtown, that makes navigation hard for visitors. Even in Atlanta, where I had a lot of trouble getting around downtown, I could tell when I was in the industrial section, or the liquor-and-short-term-stay-hotel section, and so forth. Here a warehouse is next to a paint store, which is next to an empty lot with a mobile-and-difficult-to-prosecute taco stand parked on it, and then there's a movie theater.

Tucson Electric Park is a nice ballpark located in a bad section of the city, one where you can sense the chop shops behind the quiet and razor-wire-protected warehouse spaces. It's only a couple of years old, a smaller version of the modern, well-designed parks, with nice lines, good seats, and a lot of ads along the outfield walls and the scoreboards. One ad for a local gambling establishment is set so that it seems to be the motto of the park: Tucson Electric Park, "Casino of the Sun."

One of the interesting side effects of concourse shading, which consists of metal roofs under which the concessions stands/credit-card urchins/local charity types ply their wares, is that foul balls ricochet wildly, so a ball hit back hard could end up anywhere in the park, including the hard-liquor stands or the infield. And throughout the game, A-10 attack planes fly past the outfield, flaps down, seemingly slower than the visible street traffic, beautiful, intimidating, and deadly, like the women in this town.

A lot of people make fun of minor-league baseball, because they have a lot of giveaways, organists, and so on, but the major leagues are just as guilty of that kind of nonsense. You'll hear "YMCA" at least 60 times if you're a season-ticket holder in Seattle, for instance, and you get those little musical cues for all the players, the zany sound effects on foul balls, the annoying announcer.... If anything, my experience has been that minor-league games allow you to better enjoy a couple of hours, with cheaper beer prices.

No, what really sets the minors apart is Zorro.

There's some old movie studio in Tucson where they used to film Westerns, and they've tried to turn it into a Universal Studios-type tourist attraction. So at the ballpark today I got to see Zorro get into a dialogue-overdubbed sword fight with a Spanish captain, who was threatening to close down the place for...no explained reason (and what's he doing in Arizona anyway? Spanish authorities haven't had any kind of jurisdiction in the southwest since James K. Polk annexed it). Zorro then drew a pistol and picked a Spanish soldier off the left-field scoreboard. (At about 400 feet. You just don't see that kind of marksmanship anymore.) And through the whole spectacle, the look on all the White Sox players at the dugout fence, the players who'd paused in their stretches, and all the fans in the stadium read "What the hell?"

People couldn't figure out if they should applaud, or laugh, or call the police. It was that weird.

The first thing I noticed after I'd settled in was how amazingly ugly the Cubs uniforms are. They're even worse than they are on TV, which is the extent of my Cubs-viewing experience. That color scheme is just awful, and it's made worse by the White Sox uniforms, which are restrained and cool. I was surprised by how many Cubs fans turned up in Arizona. I'd heard there was a massive contingent of them, both in the local population of retired people and many others who took the trip down here, and indeed there were people of all ages in Cubs stuff at the stadium.

Despite the largely old-and-boring lineup (I'm sorry, I just can't get excited by seeing Eric Young take the field), I was really happy to get to see a bunch of players I'd never gotten to see in person. Corey Patterson went 0-for-4 and displayed great range in center field. He really does have the arm and the speed for the position, but he has to learn to use them more effectively to be as good as he can be. On one hard-hit line drive he got a great jump, ran an impressive sprint, then dove for the ball, his glove up and over the ball. Unfortunately, Patterson is taking game-delay tactics from Sammy Sosa, something that started to grate immediately.

I was excited to see some of the White Sox's fine young pitchers in Jon Rauch and Mark Buehrle. Rauch is a massive presence on the mound. He has a great-looking windup, and practically steps off the mound (like Randy Johnson) with his huge stride. I can't imagine having to face him; he must seem to release the ball halfway to the plate. Rauch seemed to have great control with his slower stuff, and when he cranked it up it was impressive to watch; he racked up an impressive strikeout of Patterson. Still, while he seemed to be making good pitches, he gave up a couple of hits.

Buehrle, besides confounding the guys in the stands, threw some great-looking pitches and impressed me. He seemed really smooth, his stuff moved well, and he located his pitches consistently. Both pitchers were hit harder than they should have been given the way they looked, but I wonder, perhaps, if this isn't somehow a field verification of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: that if you have enough scouts measuring the velocity of the ball, it becomes possible to figure the exact speed of a pitch, which then makes its location uncertain, and thus Jon Rauch becomes hittable.

Hee Seop Choi subbed in for Matt Stairs (who had cranked a towering home run in the first), and while he looks like an impressive first baseman, all I got to see of him was a weak one-handed swing as he was sat down. I was surprised at how big he is--6'5" and 235 pounds, and it looks like it's all muscle. And for that matter, Frank Thomas looked a lot better than when I'd seen him last (the fan next to me remarked that perhaps he'd gone on a hunger strike as part of his struggle to get more money).

And there was also a couple of cool things not related to prospects about whom I'm excited:

  • Situational hitting gives, and situational hitting takes away. Paul Konerko did a great job making contact on a hit-and-run and in a subsequent at-bat totally missed the same sign, which meant Magglio Ordonez was left out to dry, and thrown out easily.

  • Ricky Gustier tried to stretch a cheap single (a ground ball that hit third base and bounced up) into a double and was thrown out by six steps. I have no idea what he was thinking.

  • Robert Machado, who's not a favorite of mine, turned on a fastball and powered it probably 400 feet into the left-field concourse, maybe a meter off from putting it out of the park entirely. He also demonstrated his defensive prowess by gunning a ball way into center field on an attempted stolen base. Machado's opposite on the White Sox was Josh Paul, who is cited in Machado's comment in Baseball Prospectus 2001 as what can happen to players who can contribute about as much to a major-league team but don't whine about their role.

  • There was a whole pack of scouts present, camped out in the small section just behind home plate, mostly in Panama hats, trying to figure out if Cal Eldred is over his injury, or hiding one, or if Kevin Tapani is over his injury, or hiding one.... When a new pitcher comes in, they all clock him for a while, guns up for each pitch and back down for the notes like a Utah firing squad putting in a long day's work, until they get bored and fewer clock the pitches until only one scout, who must have been the most diligent of all and who never stopped taking notes, was left. And what's strange is in about the seventh inning, they started to get up and leave in small packs, though this meant they missed Buehrle, as well as the Cubs' Scott Chiasson doing his weird little hoppy delivery.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rock Of Ages,  The Call-up,  Jon Rauch

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