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March 28, 2001

Bouncing Around Florida

Wrapping it Up

by Jeff Hildebrand

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Most spring training games are in the afternoon, but every so often there is an evening game, and with a lot of the parks being relatively close together, it's possible to catch a day/night doubleheader, which is what I did on Friday.

The first game was the Twins and Blue Jays in Dunedin. Dunedin has managed to use the fact that they're the winter home of the Blue Jays to their advantage. For the most part, it's a quiet, mostly residential town along the Gulf Coast, and they consciously cater to Canadian retirees and snowbirds. A radio station in the town broadcasts a half-hour of Canadian news every morning, some stores carry Canadian newspapers and so on. As a result, games in Dunedin have a very distinct feel to them. On this day, I discovered that the Jays were celebrating "Canada Day" (which seems to mean "Let's appreciate the resident Canadians," since it isn't actually the Canadian holiday) by, among other things, reduced ticket prices. Thus I was able to get a reserved seat for $8 as opposed to the usual $13. The seat I was in was one of the highest up I had been in all week and it was still only about 20 rows away from the field.

Dunedin Stadium is about to get a complete renovation, and some of the changes clearly are needed. The scoreboard in the outfield is in fairly bad shape, but the team had turned the situation into a gimmick by making it a manually-operated scoreboard, sponsored by Hooters. I'm not sure the crowd--heavily skewed towards retirees--was exactly the desired target audience they wanted, but hey, it's their money.

The Twins, as the visiting team, were using something of a makeshift lineup for the game. They even changed it between when the lineups were sent to the press box and when they were announced, which turned into a nightmare for those of us keeping score. As near as I can figure, their lineup included Brian Buchanan in left field, Jason Maxwell at second base, and Jay Canizaro in right field. That is hardly a lineup to inspire fear in opposing pitchers, but they were facing Roy Halladay, who hasn't inspired much fear himself recently. He continued to struggle, giving up six runs in five innings and frequently falling behind batters along the way. The Twins started Mark Redman, who was his usual steady, good-but-not-great self. Carlos Delgado smoked a lengthy homer and Jose Cruz Jr. scored a run after three singles. A few other hits were scattered around, but it never felt like Redman was in serious trouble.

Midway through, the game suddenly seemed to devolve into an episode of ER. First someone stumbled and fell in an aisle, bringing a crew of EMTs over, although it didn't seem to be much of a crisis. Then from the other side of the stadium there were loud cries of "Medic! Over here!" which caused the game to stop as the umpire joined in the effort to get attention to someone who had collapsed near an exit to the concourse. Fortunately, the initial concern that it was a heart-attack victim was unwarranted. After a few minutes, the person who had collapsed was helped out of the ballpark.

It was at that point that the players decided to get into the act. Homer Bush led off the bottom of the fifth with a triple and then tried to tag and score on a fly ball to right field. Canizaro made a great throw, Tom Prince blocked the plate, and Bush slid in hard while being tagged out and then started rolling around in pain. He was eventually helped to his feet and hobbled off down the left-field line towards the clubhouse.

At the end of the same inning, Carlos Delgado hit a sharp line drive off of Redman's shoulder. The Twins' infielders were able to retrieve the ball and get the final out of the inning, at which point several trainers and coaches came sprinting off the bench and Tom Kelly immediately started waving to the bullpen. Redman walked off pretty quickly, but he was done for the day. Then in the next inning, Maxwell and Canizaro nearly collided while chasing a pop-up. Canizaro tried to veer out of the way at the last second and then stayed down. Unlike the other two he was not so lucky, and wound up with a torn ACL as a result of the play.

The rest of the game passed uneventfully, although Denny Hocking ended the top of the ninth on a slightly comical note. After he got sawed off, sending a weak grounder down the first-base line, his very loud "Ow!" echoed around the stadium.

Between games I had some time to kill and wandered around Clearwater some. Several buildings in the downtown area have been taken over by the "Church" of Scientology, which adds a slightly surreal feel to the area. Then it was back to the ballpark, this time Jack Russell, for the Phillies and the Pirates.

The game was advertised as a "family fun night" sponsored by Time Warner Cable and the Odyssey network, which meant that there were some somewhat unusual things around the park. Outside on the third-base side, Time Warner was advertising their cable modem service with a very large Road Runner balloon. Inside along the concourse, Odyssey had a table set up with Kermit the Frog sitting and watching over things. Meanwhile, down the line a little bit a local sports call-in station was broadcasting live from the ballpark. The "family fun" side seems to have been a success since there was a fairly large crowd including a lot of small kids.

The lineups were pretty typical for a spring game. The home team had their regulars while the visitors had a mix of regulars and scrubs. Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, and Derek Bell (both a regular and a scrub) were out there for the Pirates, but John Wehner was at third base and Abraham Nunez was at shortstop. In a sign of how desperate the Pirates are for starting pitchers, they ran Joe Beimel out to start the game. Beimel has only pitched in 10 games above A ball. It's not too unusual to see a pitcher that inexperienced start an early-spring game, but usually by the time you get to the next to last weekend of the spring the starts are reserved for candidates for the rotation.

Opposing Beimel was 19-game loser-turned-Opening Day starter Omar Daal. After one inning, neither choice was looking particularly inspired since each team had scored three times, but the pitchers were looking very different. Daal started extremely rough, with a walk and a couple of hard-hit singles, but after that he clearly seemed to settle down, getting out of the inning allowing only one more single, one that just barely scooted under Marlon Anderson's glove. Beimel, on the other hand, started strong getting the first two outs before his control betrayed him and he walked two straight. Pat Burrell and Travis Lee followed with a double and single respectively and the game was tied.

From there on out the differences increased. Daal pitched 5 2/3 additional innings and looked like the pitcher who was so effective in 1998 and 1999, allowing only two more baserunners and constantly pitching ahead in the count. Beimel went just three more frames and, while he only gave up one more run, was frequently pitching into deep counts and had two innings with multiple baserunners. He looked like a pitcher who was slightly overmatched. I hope for his sake the Pirates find someone else to stick in the fifth-starter spot so he can go back to the minors and get the extra experience that he clearly needs.

The game ended on a fitting note for the week. The Phillies brought in Rheal Cormier to try and hold a 6-3 lead. He promptly gave up four hits to the first five batters he faced. Clint Sodowsky, another non-roster invitee hoping to get a chance to return to the majors, was brought in and struck out two batters to end the game. As I headed out, I passed Ed Wade who looked like he had been chewing on a lemon. As tempting as it was to make a comment about "great free agent signings," I figured that the guy would be getting enough of that from the sports radio jackals in Philly, so I resisted.

While I try and make it to spring training every year, next year is very much an open question for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the possibility that spring training may be delayed or altered by the impending labor negotiations. Then, the year after that the city of Clearwater opens a new ballpark, so this may have been my last trip to Jack Russell Stadium. I can understand the reasons for the new ballpark, especially since it will be right next to the minor-league complex, allowing for easier coordination between the two. Still, I will miss the old place when it's gone, and I would recommend that if you get a chance to see it before it goes, do so. On a warm March afternoon, it's a great reminder of how wonderful it is that baseball is back and spring is here.

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

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