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March 19, 2013

Western Front

Pieces of Peoria

by Geoff Young

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The box score indicates 83 degrees at game time, but I was there and it was hotter. Perched on tall metal stools along the right-field line with headsets on and studio lights shining in our eyes, we call the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings on television.

It is more aimless babbling and less delivery of facts, but it is fun in our minds, which is the best place for fun. Six of us sit sweltering under the unforgiving Arizona sun as the Padres mount a late comeback and beat the Angels in a meaningless March contest. If you listen closely, you can hear me offer such astounding insights as “wow!” and “oh!” on a Gregorio Petit two-run single during said comeback.

We miss huge chunks of the action while trying to keep dead time to a minimum. Talk at all costs, hope some of it is relevant. Musing that number 3 on the Angels is Babe Ruth? Check. Wondering when Ruth was traded to Anaheim despite having died 64 years earlier? Check.

Before we go on camera, Jaff Decker defies the scouting reports and makes a beautiful diving catch on the warning track in center field. In a similarly defiant act, Peter Bourjos homers. Decker isn't supposed to make diving catches in center field; Bourjos isn't supposed to homer.

Padres farmhand Daniel Robertson singles, triples, and makes a couple of nice plays in right field. Generously listed at 5-foot-8, Robertson is not supposed to do these things.

Baseball should be orderly, logical. We should not be calling three innings of this game on other people's televisions. I should not be dropping gratuitous Juan Eichelberger references, nor should I be yelling to Mark Loretta between innings, although it is difficult to refrain when he starts it.

“What's up?”

“You are!”

My cohorts remark at the cleverness of my remark. Something about junior high. I can't stop laughing at myself but must find a way because we are almost back from commercial and I don't want to make an ass of myself. Well, I do want to make an ass of myself, just not in that way. It's hard to explain.

We survive the heat (no way it was only 83) and the fact that we are clueless. We don't swear on live television and I mention Eichelberger, even if there is no context for doing so. These are victories.

Besides, Juan Tyrone Eichelberger needs no context. He simply is.

* * *

Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore played each other on field number 3. The number may be wrong, but that is not important. It's the one whose batter's eye borders the Salty Señorita's patio area.

Joe Ross and Max Fried start. It isn't really Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore; those are just artificial constructs for the purposes of playing a game. There is some confusion about which team's hitters Ross will be pitching to this morning. Is it his teammates over here? Or his other teammates over there?

There are no umpires. Pitching coach Dave Rajsich calls balls and strikes from behind the mound.

Ross works up in the zone; guys get late swings on the fastball. I don't have a radar gun but the swings tell the tale. His command is spotty, especially the breaking pitches. It's one brief outing, not enough to form a meaningful opinion, but the arm impresses.

So does Fried. Several members of the Padres’ front office stand behind home plate. The young southpaw is a scout magnet. Is that drool? It might be drool.

The notes read: “Great body. Easy gas, nice secondaries. Wild in 1st, pounded bottom of zone in 2nd.” The notes on most of these kids start with “Great body.” It becomes a throwaway phrase that serves little use but to remind me that they are young athletes and I am not, although there is value in this. Sometimes I forget, which you may find difficult to fathom, but nobody believes they are old.

Walker Weickel pitches. Great body. I'm happy for him, really I am.

I don't love Weickel's breaking ball, but Jason Parks says it will be a plus pitch. He knows more about these things than I ever will, so I defer to his judgment. He also calls Weickel “tall” and “lanky.”

Great body.

On a different field, Travis Jankowski does ridiculous things. After beating out a slow roller to short, he gets a great jump toward second. The batter, a righty, punches a grounder past the vacated shortstop position. Jankowski holds at second.

Next, with a lefty up, he breaks for third. The batter hits a routine grounder to first base, a few steps back of the bag. The first baseman picks up the ball and takes it himself for the out. He then fires home as Jankowski, who never stopped running, comes in standing and beats the throw with ease.

Ross, Fried, and Jankowski make the biggest impressions on me in minor-league camp. Nick Hundley, who looks great in batting practice and launches a homer to left-center in a game against the Royals at Surprise a day or two later, does the same on the big-league side.

* * *

Eric Stults has nothing in his start against the Netherlands. Stults is being counted on to be a part of the Padres rotation in 2013, which is a problem, although arguably less of a problem than the rest of the projected rotation.

The mental gymnastics required to determine whether one part of a whole is more (or less) of a problem than the remainder of that whole cause a different problem. The chief benefit of studying philosophy in college is that you never have to study it again once you've graduated.

This thought offers no comfort as Stults leaves a 2-0 pitch out over the plate to Andruw Jones, who swats it onto the lawn beyond the left-field fence. It's the first homer Jones has hit against a Padres pitcher since July 6, 2007, against Justin Germano. With Jones now playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, it might be the last he hits in North America.

Jedd Gyorko makes a few routine plays at second base, Robbie Erlin gets whacked around in relief of Stults, Alexi Amarista looks confused in center field. Decker homers, doubles, and looks good in left.

On the bright side, nobody will accuse Jones, Gyorko, and Decker of having great bodies. It's the little things in life.

* * *

Tyson Ross works into the sixth, allowing just one hit. He doesn't throw as many strikes as anyone would like to see, but it works for now. The biggest point in Ross' favor is a paucity of quality arms with big-league experience in camp. Whether he can pitch is a different story.

Donn Roach, who came to San Diego with Amarista in the Ernesto Frieri trade, surrenders a leadoff homer to Gerardo Parra before settling down. He strikes out Martin Prado on a breaking ball down the middle that Prado ducks away from. He gets Kila Ka'aihue to chase another down and in.

Yonder Alonso knocks a wind-aided homer to left-center and a double to right-center. Both are solid line drives that cement his status as the new Lyle Overbay. PECOTA has Alonso at .265/.335/.405 with 12 homers, which is a little below Overbay's average season of .270/.353/.438 with 16 homers but close enough for the purpose of sloppy comparisons invoked to perpetuate a narrative. If Alonso could lose at least one of the pianos on his back, he'd hit .300. He should be fined whenever he hits a grounder.

Kyle Gaedele, a grandnephew of Eddie Gaedel, launches a grand slam to right-center that clears the 410-foot sign with ease. The swing is effortless, the wind minimal, the result impressive.

* * *

Peoria is filled with other stories, some of which are repeatable. The same is true of the many Phoenix suburbs that host spring training. The backfields. The games. The forging of new friendships, the renewal of old ones.

It is a curious place. If not for baseball, I would never think to come here. But the pull is irresistible. Like scouts to Max Fried, I am drawn in for reasons that are difficult to articulate.

My friends and I agree that this spring ritual is a necessary and welcome part of life. At the same time, we are grateful that it only happens once a year. You can operate on bad food, too much drink, and not enough sleep for a while. Eventually, though, it catches up to you.

There are exceptions, of course. Some people can live like that without consequence. They probably have good bodies, too. I hate them.

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