“Here’s a theory of mine that may or may not be true: you can get almost anywhere in a ballpark as long as you’re wearing a lanyard. If you want journalistic access to a team, you could work hard for years, turning in clean copy on time and impressing your superiors until somebody sponsors you for season credentials or the BBWAA. Or you could skip all that, put on a good-looking lanyard, and try to look like you know where you’re going. Most people assume that anyone wearing one inside a stadium is supposed to be there.” —Ben Lindbergh
So theoretically someone from Mets player development knows I am supposed to be here, but after parking in an empty lot and hanging a right down a path by some scattered landscaping equipment, I am not entirely sure where here is. Best I can tell it's the middle of the CSI: Miami Act 2 establishing shot that very firmly establishes David Caruso is no longer in Miami. It's a very quiet morning in a very quiet baseball complex, and a half-hour ago I was on the damn beach.
Okay, I shouldn't have been on the beach, but I screwed up the dates on day nine of a 10-day swing through the Appalachian, South Atlantic, Florida State, and Gulf Coast Leagues. I thought the Mets were an hour up the road at the Cardinals complex today. Luckily (?) I double-checked this while at the beach, but not before going to the beach. I'm not even a big beach guy, but my wife loves the beach and this is, uh, day nine of a 10-day swing through the Appalachian, South Atlantic, Florida State, and Gulf Coast Leagues. She is less annoyed than when I screwed up the date of the Montreal Impact soccer game I convinced her to go to on our honeymoon.
Now I don't know if you know much about the geography of St. Lucie, Florida. I am kind of hoping you don't, because it means you have made better life choices than I have. Regardless, for the purposes of this now rather tortured introduction you should know that there is no good way to get to the beach. It's a lot of back roads and small bridges after heading up a few exits on I-95. So I am going to be late unless I want to show up in my bathing suit and a New Pornographers T-shirt. That seemed more likely to get me stopped by what I think is maybe a kindly old security guard wandering around the main field than if I am in a dri-fit polo and khakis. Also I packed 10 sets of polos and slacks so I might as well wear them all.
I wrote earlier this fall about the Appalachian League, which like the Gulf Coast League is nominally a rookie-ball affiliate. There are some noticeable differences. Kingsport, for example, has all the trappings that one associates with minor-league baseball as an entertainment enterprise. It might not draw huge crowds, but it is essentially the same viewing experience you would find in Fresno or Toledo or Birmingham. There's between-inning entertainment involving tweens dressed up in hamburger buns, player walk-up music, national anthems played by junior high bands (if we're lucky, since they are always good for a brisk 1:10), and at least one spin of both “Centerfield” and “The Cheap Seats” over the PA during batting practice.
The Gulf Coast League is something else entirely. It's played on fields that bear a striking resemblance to the American Legion fields in whatever town you grew up in. The dugouts are above ground, and 'dugout' would be a shockingly inaccurate term here anyway. It's a metal bench wrapped in a chain link fence. And it's the kind of chain link fence where you expect the player development staff has, in more than one February, returned to the field to discover that “oh shit, the wasps have nested in the fence again.” The games are more organized than what you might find in instructs or extended, which is to say they play every inning to the end. They may move the actual start time up early if there is rain in the forecast, which in central Florida there usually is. And the start time is noon. In central Florida. Starting at the end of June.
I saw someone mention on Twitter that the GCL Mets and GCL Marlins got into a proper bench-clearing brawl toward the end of this season. That seems silly, right? A bunch of teenagers, many of whom are in their first professional or stateside experience, you would think they'd be on their best behavior. It seemed odd. Then I realized that the Mets and Marlins GCL teams played each other 23 times in 2015, and that doesn't count however many meet-ups in extended Spring Training. This all happens in the brutal, 100-degree midday sun that very quickly turned my gas station Aquafina into pleasantly warm bath water. It's actually surprising they aren't more full-on Pascual-Perez-wielding-a-Louisville-slugger brawls down here.
Other than the “we have maybe three days like this in New England all summer” weather, the GCL would seem to be my ideal scouting experience. No bullshit, just baseball. But it becomes weird quickly. There are a few bleachers set up on each side, mostly populated by rehabbing dudes eating sunflower seeds, and the odd local family member or well-wisher. The only people really watching the game are a handful of scouts that are clearly smarter than me given their wide-brimmed, floppy straw hats. We all sit on picnic benches behind home plate, crowded in behind the charters. Even down here, if you're startin', you're chartin'. I become hyper-aware that I am no longer in my usual baseball panopticon. This is unsettling, but at least there are no distractions. You notice things you might not otherwise, like how the home plate umpire insists on throwing every new ball back to the pitcher himself, a perfect chest-high strike, indicating (reminding you) he played and probably recently. The other umpire apparently spent most of the game flirting with my wife, and at this point in “our vacation” this was, if nothing else, a reasonable Sliding Doors scenario for her.
The scouting at this level isn't all that different from the Appalachian League at least. You do see fewer late-round college picks from a couple weeks ago, and more teenagers from an IFA class three years ago (and 27-year-old Jeff Walters on rehab or alternatively right out of that Steve Buscemi meme), but the process is more or less the same. Show me something that wouldn't look out of place in Fresno or Toledo or Birmingham. Ricardo Cespedes just pulled major-league velo foul. Ali Sanchez tracked a slider out of the zone and lined it into the outfield for a basehit. Max Wotell made his pro debut. He has a sort-of Chris Sale thing going on with his mechanics and struck out the side on 10 pitches. The fastball showed good late life. Then he did some exercise band work using the chain link bullpen fence nearby. The entire thing took a brisk two hours and nine minutes (and I did end up missing the first inning).
I appreciate the respite from the endless excerpts from “Cha Cha Slide (Part 2)” (look, I am not thrilled that I know it is (Part 2), either), the cowbell giveaways, and sprinting to the parking lot to beat fireworks night. But I find evaluating professional baseball outside of the environment where 95 percent of it is actually played to be weirdly sterile. Scouts will often talk about whether or not a prospect can handle “the third deck,” in reference to the larger crowds and higher pressure environments in the majors. We're a long way away from that on Field 8 in Port St. Lucie.
It still beats the beach, though.
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