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March 25, 2001

Bouncing Around Florida

Let's Play Two!

by Jeff Hildebrand

Part One
Part Two

The five teams who train on the Gulf Coast of Florida south of Tampa Bay are, from north to south, the Pirates in Bradenton, the Reds in Sarasota, the Rangers in Port Charlotte, and the Red Sox and Twins, both in Fort Myers (with different stadiums). Wednesday, I headed all the way down the line to Fort Myers and the Red Sox camp.

For the most part, it's a trip that's not particularly nice for one reason or another. Urban sprawl has run riot in the Tampa area, so you have to fight your way through a lot of local traffic. Once you clear that, a lot of the territory is flat and covered with scrub trees, which gets very boring, very quickly.

In Fort Myers, City of Palms Park is tucked back a couple blocks from one of the main business routes through the city. Like most of the spring parks, parking is in an open field next to the stadium. True to the name, there are palm trees all over the place, including right in the middle of the parking lot.

The stadium itself is very similar to other spring-training parks, with a covered concourse outside, steps leading up to a wide central walkway, box seats below the walkway and reserved seats above. There is standing room around along the entire walkway and a large press box at the top of the stadium and logos of all the teams on the facing of the box.

I found the stadium disappointing in a lot of small ways. The program contained rosters for all the teams playing the Red Sox this spring, but the rosters only had names and positions, not numbers. The board in the concourse likewise listed only names and positions. That's not a good omission at any time, but in spring training it's especially annoying given the number of players you aren't likely to have encountered. The PA announcer made a couple of minor mistakes (announcing after one scoreless half-inning that a run had scored) and never bothered to make a correction, leaving people wondering whether they had missed something. These aren't hideous problems, but they're things that, taken care of, would make the outing at the ballpark a little better.

For once, both teams were using all of their available starting lineup. The Red Sox were still without Nomar Garciaparra, sidelined with a bad wrist tendon, and Manny Ramirez, who's nursing a hamstring pull. Garciaparra's absence led to the somewhat unlikely sight of Mike Lansing at shortstop. He did nothing to embarrass himself out there, but he didn't have any particularly difficult chances.

The pitching matchup featured Randy Wolf against Frank Castillo. We have said somewhat disparaging things about both pitchers; in Wolf's case having to do with how he's been handled, and in Castillo's case not putting much faith in his improvement last year. Nothing that happened on Wednesday would prove us wrong. Wolf's location was terrible, as he walked two of the first three batters and ran deep counts on some others before being hit hard. He eventually left after 2 2/3 innings, having given up seven runs on seven hits and five walks (including two walks to Dante Bichette, who is not exactly known for his patience). Castillo was just giving up hits all over the place, resulting in six runs over three innings.

Picking up a recurring theme for the week, the Phillies' bullpen then demonstrated that they're much closer to being arsonists than firemen. Ricky Bottalico surrendered a three-run home run to Jason Varitek, and Ed Vosberg gave up a two run bomb to Brian Daubach. The Red Sox ran through five relievers who gave up a single here and a walk there, but only a single run the rest of the way. After the early fireworks, it had a somewhat anticlimactic feel.

Thursday produced a rare occurance--a spring-training doubleheader. Normally there are B games at the minor-league complex or split-squad games, but this was an honest-to-goodness Ernie Banks "Let's play two" doubleheader. The one oddity for major-league fans would be quite familiar to minor-league watchers: both games were seven innings long, just as they are in minor-league doubleheaders.

The games were in Port Charlotte, which required another lengthy drive. On the way, I was disappointed to see that there are no longer any signs on the interstate pointing to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Just a few blocks from Tropicana Field, Al Lang (renamed a couple years ago to a corporate sponsor name) is one of the gems of spring training. The park is in downtown St. Pete, right on the waterfront near the marina. If you get seats down the right-field line you have the game right in front of you and a good view of the bay beyond the wall. It's well worth the trip.

Down in Port Charlotte, the Rangers play at Charlotte County Stadium, part of a large complex that includes additional fields for the minor-league teams. The entire complex is at the edge of a swamp, which explains the odd signs outside the stadium: "Warning: Do not enter the lakes or feed the alligators." The stadium has a slightly different design from the others I've seen this week, with more rows of seats but seating that does not extend much past the infield. The tickets are the cheapest of any of the stadiums as well, at $10 for a box seat or $8 for a reserved seat.

The first game of the doubleheader started at 11 a.m. amid very empty stands. As a result, some of the usual pre-game activities, such as the national anthem, were delayed until between games. From the lineups, it was clear that the teams were not going to be playing their regulars for both games, which meant that there would likely be very few in-game substitutions, resulting in another spring-training rarity: a clean scorebook page.

The starting pitchers were two guys trying to hang on to jobs. Pat Mahomes is trying to make the Rangers as a non-roster invitee, while Amaury Telemaco is fighting for the fifth spot in the Phillies rotation. Mahomes did not do himself any favors by giving up back-to-back home runs to Travis Lee and Jason Michaels as well as another run two innings later. Telemaco showed both the skills that cause people to think that any day now he's going to develop into a really good pitcher, and the occasional wildness that has kept him from reaching that level. Until he started to tire in the fifth, however, he was able to hold the Rangers to a single run.

Unlike Tuesday's game, the bullpens were only half-wretched. Eddie Oropesa and Vincente Padilla provided the Phillies with the non-hideous side, giving up only a single and a walk in two-plus innings. Padilla has been a project of pitching coach Vern Ruhle's this spring, and the results of late have been solid. Unfortunately, if Bottalico and Jose Mesa continue their pyrotechnic ways, Padilla could be forced into throwing far more innings than is healthy and all the work this spring will be for naught.

The lousy bullpen in this game belonged to the Rangers. Jeff Brantley gave up three runs almost before you could blink, and Mark Petkovsek allowed two more in his one inning of work. Watching Brantley this spring is somewhat like watching Orel Hershiser last year. He was once a good pitcher, but he's struggling badly now and this is probably the end of the line. I would be perfectly happy to be proven wrong, but at this point I just don't see it.

By the time Game One ended (around one o'clock), most of the crowd had filled in, many surprised to find a game already in progress since the doubleheader was a late change to the schedule. One of the late arrivals had apparently been someone working the sound system, because in the middle of the first game we suddenly started getting an organ and some sound effects in addition to the recorded music. In some ways, I was happier without them. The breaking-glass sound effect on the foul ball was very mildly amusing the first time I heard it. After hearing it in every park I've been in for the past dozen years, it's more than a little old.

The second game featured most of the regulars for both teams--in fact all except the few who had played in the opener. Watching the reaction to Alex Rodriguez was fairly interesting. Most of the fans seemed to be thrilled to have him on their team, but it's also clear that at least for the next few years he is not going to escape the number 252. Some fans were heckling him by making a cash register sound effect after every pitch he faced. That's another idea that got old very quickly.

The Rangers for once got some strong pitching. Rick Helling provided his usual steady, unspectacular performance. which with the Rangers' offense will be more than enough to win a lot of games. His opposite number was Cliff Politte, the other main candidate for the Phillies' fifth-starter spot. Both lefties and righties were very consistently taking Politte to right field, and many of the balls were hit very hard. He managed to avoid complete disaster through the first two innings, but then fell apart in the third, giving up a home run to Andres Galarraga, throwing 10 of the next 11 pitches out of the strike zone, then throwing a fat, no-motion fastball to Bo Porter, who promptly slugged his second home run of the game. So just like the previous day, the game reached the point of being a blowout fairly early and the rest was just playing out the string.

One more day left on my trip, and I think I'll try and get another doubleheader, but this time with four teams in two parks. The Twins and Blue Jays play Friday afternoon in Dunedin, and then the Pirates and Phillies play at night in Clearwater.

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

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