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March 20, 2001

Bouncing Around Florida

BP Visits the Grapefruit League

by Jeff Hildebrand

(Ed. note: On the heels of Derek Zumsteg's jaunt through Arizona, Jeff Hildebrand is making his way around Florida. He'll be filing periodic reports during his trip.)

The Tampa/St. Petersburg area is home to four Grapefruit League sites. The Yankees play in Tampa proper. On the other side of the bay, the Rays play their spring games a few blocks away from their regular home park in St. Pete, while the Phillies play in Clearwater, and, a few miles to the north of that, the Blue Jays make Dunedin their spring home. Five more teams train in cities along the coast south of the bay area and another five set up camp along I-4 to the northeast between Tampa and Orlando. So all told, if you're looking for spring baseball, Tampa is a great place to be.

For the past decade my family has been making trips to Florida to follow the hometown team, the Phillies, and this spring is no different. This year's trip begins on St. Patrick's Day, with the Phillies hosting the Cleveland Indians. The Phils' Jack Russell Stadium is the oldest of the Tampa area stadiums, and is scheduled to be replaced in 2003.

For anyone used to traveling to major-league ballparks, the first startling fact about the stadium is its location. It's not directly on any of the major roads through town, and instead requires traveling a few blocks on minor roads past residences and small warehouses. Parking at the stadium is an empty field with a fee charged to benefit the local high-school band boosters club, another change from the standard major-league sea of concrete.

The stands are a single deck of about 20 rows, wrapping around home plate and extending halfway down the outfield foul lines. With the exception of the center-field batting eye, the outfield fence is covered with ads, mostly for local businesses, although the "Tastykakes" ad is clearly aimed at the Philadelphia expatriates. Beyond the fence is the row of palm trees that seems to be required at every spring-training park.

One thing you get used to at spring-training games is the road team not bringing along the full complement of position-player starters, and today is no exception. While the Indians' lineup starts with Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel, the rest of it includes players such as Danny Peoples at first base and Jolbert Cabrera at second base.

The Indians do get style points for not having succumbed to the temptation to do something foolish for St. Patrick's Day. The Phillies, on the other hand, have once again trotted out their green caps. By themselves the caps are fine, but they are also wearing their usual bright red spring-training jerseys. The combination would drive Mr. Blackwell to drink.

As Rob Neyer is fond of pointing out, the key thing to look for in spring training is whether pitchers are healthy. On that front, the news is far better for the Indians than the Phillies. Robert Person was scratched from his start with a tender shoulder. Charles Nagy started for the Indians and looked remarkably effective for a man with no cartilage in his elbow, pitching five innings and giving up only a few singles and a monstrous solo home run to Pat Burrell. He also managed to reach first base on a truly wretched bunt attempt that fell among several Phillies fielders and then was double-clutched by Mike Lieberthal. The fact that it was scored a hit did nothing to quiet the very loud grinding of teeth that was coming from Larry Bowa's direction.

Later in the game, Steve Reed came in to pitch an inning for the Indians. While I knew about his funky sidearm delivery, it wasn't until I saw it in person from the ninth row that I realized just how strange it is. The Phillies appeared to be baffled by it, as Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, and Burrell, all solid hitters, all took two called strikes apiece and grounded out weakly.

Late-game substitutions frequently go unannounced, so it's often a challenge to figure out who is now playing and who isn't. The players coming in are usually either prospects who are at least a year away from making the majors (in this game, Jason Michaels of the Phillies fit that description) or vets who are in camp on minor-league contracts in an attempt to hang on for another year (Marty Cordova made an appearance for the Indians). This time around, none of them showed a whole lot as the offense in the last three innings consisted of a single and two walks, and the Indians walked off with a 7-1 victory.

Despite having four teams in the immediate area, there's no guarantee of having a game nearby every single day, and Sunday proved that point. All four teams were playing elsewhere, with some as far away as Mexico City as a part of one of MLB's publicity stunts. However, all is not lost, since the minor-league camps are still around, with a Triple-A game and a Double-A game being played at the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin between Phillies farm teams and Blue Jays farm teams.

Minor-league spring games are decidedly informal affairs with the primary concern being that everyone who needs to get work, gets it. Normally the primary concern there is for the pitchers, although you will see a lineup with 11 or 12 hitters from time to time. These games prove the point rather nicely. Despite being scheduled for 1:05, they actually started before noon because there was a threat of afternoon rain. The game itself was 12 innings long and the Blue Jays batted in the bottom of the 12th despite leading the game.

You see an odd mix of players in the minor-league games. There are some legitimate prospects, and often a major-league pitcher shows up to face some batters. But an awful lot of the players are either ones whose names might be familiar as never having quite made it, such as the two third baseman, Kevin Orie and Cole Liniak, or names familiar only to die-hard minor-league fans, guys such as Brian Harris or Gary Burnham.

If you like your creature comforts at the ballpark--or just like being able to get a hot dog and drink--the minor-league spring games will likely not appeal to you. The sole seating at the games is usually rickety metal bleachers, and there is no food for sale anywhere. On the other hand, admission is free, you can wander between multiple games if the mood suits you, and hear far more of what's being said among the players and coaches. Plus it's live professional baseball, and after a cold and snowy winter, it's hard to argue with that.

Jeff Hildebrand is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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