The end of the short trip to Arizona found me in Mesa, at HoHoKam Park, watching the Cubs and the A's. HoHoKam could pass for a Double-A park, at least from the outside, and is a stark contrast to Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Oddly, the condition of each field was reversed, with HoHoKam's diamond resembling a municipal softball playground, while Phoenix Muni had very well-kept grass.
With camps beginning to break up–this was the A's final spring game in the state–there was a definite sense that the game wasn't entirely of importance. Much of the assembled media, front-office personnel and even some players have started their moves to points north, east, and west, and those who haven't have their bags packed and their minds elsewhere.
All this led to a pretty ugly game. On the surface, it doesn't look that bad–just one error and four walks–but the teams looked listless, and the pace–3:45 for nine innings–was brutal for a non-TV game. The teams batted around in three separate half-innings, used 42 players, ran a million deep counts, and made even the most die-hard baseball fans, including yours truly, look at their watch far too often.
The A's won 13-11, which sounds exciting until you realize that no one cared. Both teams pretty much had their bench in by the seventh inning, so the A's seven spot in the eighth that put them ahead to stay was more like Sacramento taking a piece out of Iowa.
It was just a very strange experience, watching a baseball game in which the prime directives were "don't get hurt" and "make the flight to Midland." The tail end of spring training really does seem like a dead zone, a place where unless you're fighting for a roster spot, you're just trying to fight a case of the boreds and get to Opening Day, when things matter.
With that as the backdrop, here's a trip through my notebook:
The Cubs look like a team worth arriving early for. There's Sammy Sosa, of course, but Julio Zuleta (still apparently bound for Japan) and Moises Alou put on a nice batting-practice show today as well.
It looks like Don Baylor is going to split the baby, going with the youngster in center field (Corey Patterson) and the veteran at second base (Delino DeShields). Bobby Hill, who has had a great March, will start the season at Iowa.
Patterson isn't going to be a high-impact guy, but if he can provide above-average defense in center field and a league-average bat, he'll help the Cubs, who have Alou and Sosa on the outfield corners. Just on merit, Roosevelt Brown probably deserves the job, but having Brown in center field between the two expensive guys might put the Cubs' defense over the edge.
By the way, that moan of ecstasy you heard was Don Baylor. Patterson bunted for a hit (lousy bunt, but his speed took over) in the fifth inning.
I'm less thrilled with the decision to start DeShields instead of Hill. While I like DeShields as a utility player, his diminished range at second base is a problem, and he's as likely to collapse offensively as he is to be a capable leadoff man. Were the Cubs to start Hill, a bench of DeShields, Brown, Chris Stynes, Mark Bellhorn, and Angel Echevarria, along with whoever doesn't catch between Todd Hundley and Joe Girardi, would be very strong. Instead, the Cubs will demote Hill and carry Robert Machado or Augie Ojeda or someone else who won't help them as much.
I talked about this yesterday, but it's worth mentioning again: Carlos Pena can play some defense. Assuming he can hold the job–he snapped an 0-for-19 against the Cubs, and his position is at least in some danger–it will be interesting to see how he performs around the bag this year.
There were five homers in this game, two of which were absolute bombs to left field. One, as you might expect, was by Sammy Sosa, a towering drive that cleared the lawn seating behind the left-field wall. The other big blast actually looked like it outdistanced Sosa's, and was more of a line drive roped by Eric Byrnes.
The only good thing that might come out of Jermaine Dye being unable to start the season is playing time for Byrnes, who is ready to be a good fourth outfielder or a decent starter right now. Given the A's pressing need for outfielders who can chase down baseballs, Byrnes could end up as an important part of this team going forward.
Monday, I learned that scoring a spring-training game is hard. Tuesday, I learned that scoring a spring-training game played under National League rules is simply a joke.
- This whole trip came together on very short notice. I'd like to thank the media-relations staffs of the A's and Cubs, particularly Oakland's Jim Young and the Cubs' Sharon Pannozzo and Chuck Wasserstrom.