Welcome back inside BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD. Today I get a bit nostalgic as we enter a new calendar year. Bear with me, please.
Many of you live in climates that are experiencing cold, wind and heavy snow as we head into the New Year. I don’t mean to rub it in, but the weather in Phoenix may set a record for warmth as I write this today. The mid- to high 70’s is in the forecast. That warm weather starts my motor running as we await one of the best times of the year-the first sounds of baseballs hitting the bats and baseballs popping into catcher’s gloves at Spring Training.
I always capitalize Spring Training. I have always felt the arrival of baseball every February to be Capital Letter Worthy. It’s just a special time of year. In Florida, the beautiful scent of citrus carries through the air. In Phoenix, we have basically lost all our orange orchards, but many of the cactus plants are in bloom. It’s a total rebirth, regardless of where one lives.
As a kid growing up in Cleveland (oh, here he goes with his “when I was a kid” stories) I listened every evening to Peter J. Franklin, the greatest sports talk show host that ever lived. Pete would pretend he was at the winter meetings and spin stories of trades he felt my (and his) beloved Cleveland Indians would make. They never materialized, but I hung on every word Pete would speak.
Pete went to Spring Training every year in Tucson, Arizona. The Indians trained in the town that was known at the time as the “Old Pueblo.” I promise you, Pete made it seem like I was sitting at his restaurant table with him eating his favorite spring dish-chimichangas from the best Mexican restaurants outside of Mexico.
On snowy nights in December and January I would tell my parents I was doing my homework and instead, listen to Pete. There were nights so clear I could pull in my second favorite sports talk show host-Pat Sheridan-all the way from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pat wasn’t as caustic as Pete. Pat had a beautiful voice. He always had me convinced that this trade or that trade was only moments from taking place. Trade talk was big in those times. Very big. Trade talk-hot stove talk-created the ratings on sports talk shows. While football was always huge in Cleveland, Pete just loved talking about baseball more than football.
Pete knew everything. And he would let his audience know he knew everything. No, Pete was not humble. No, Pete was not kind. And Pete would win every argument with devoted callers to his show. No-I never called. Remember, I was supposed to be doing my homework. The only phone we had was on the kitchen wall. I would get caught.
Listening to Pete motivated me as a young adult. When my wife and I were first married we made a pilgrimage to Spring Training in Tucson from our apartment in Ohio. My first impressions were incredible. It was exactly as Pete had painted. Tall saguaros were everywhere. Smaller cactus plants covered the sides of the roads as soon as we left the airport in our rental car. We learned that in fact, tumbling tumbleweed does indeed exist. And the real prize on the trip? I got to see my Indians play Spring Training games at Hi Corbett Field. Hi Corbett is nestled in a city park where visitors picnic and visit a fine local zoo. It really was (at that time) a fantastic place to watch a game.
In 1992 The Indians departed Tucson for Florida after learning necessary improvements weren’t going to be made to Hi Corbett. They were set to train in Homestead, Florida when a hurricane hit the community just before they were to arrive. Instead, they moved to Winter Haven, Florida which had seen the Boston Red Sox depart for better training facilities elsewhere.
I never missed attending Spring Training in Winter Haven from 1992 to the year they moved to Goodyear, Arizona in 2009. Granted, the facilities at Winter Haven were—how shall I say this—a bit worn out and dated. A large lake, one of many in the community, sat at the perimeter of the stadium. Alligators populated the lake. Huge alligators. And bugs. The biggest, ugliest bugs I had ever seen. By the time the Indians left Winter Haven for Goodyear in 2009 I was working in baseball and sitting in the Winter Haven press box. Inevitably I would leave each Winter Haven game with one of those bugs clinging to my shoe.
I will never forget the worst day I have ever spent at Spring Training. In fact, it was one of the worst days of my existence. I was getting ready to leave for the ballpark when my wife called my room. There had been a boating accident on Little Lake Nellie in Clermont, Florida. Clermont is not far from Winter Haven.
Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews, Steve Olin and Bobby Ojeda had been boating on the lake during the evening hours. Upon their return on the water to Crews’ ranch, the boat hit a wooden dock that was buried somewhat beneath the water. Crews and Olin were killed immediately. Ojeda survived. The world of baseball was in total shock. I will never forget the warmth, the caring and the total sensitivity with which the team, their spokespeople, the players and their families handled the horrific experience. One moment the three teammates are alive, laughing and joking on the lake. In an instant two of their lives had been taken. It was an accident so horrible it could not be described in words. Carlos Baerga, second baseman and a true leader on the team, was articulate and comforting virtually every day as he described the feelings of his teammates.
That was the bad time. The only negative day I have experienced in more than 50 years of attending Spring Training games and workouts. The good times and memories of Spring Training are plentiful.
There are three times a year I look forward to today as if I were a little kid waiting for Santa. First and foremost is Spring Training. Next is Opening Day of the baseball season. Third is Opening Day of the Arizona Fall League. All are holidays to me. All must be celebrated. They are more important in my baseball world than the playoffs or the World Series. Each is worthy of a Capital Letter, special in its own way.
Now I prepare for Spring Training to begin in both Arizona and Florida. Each state is unique in their offerings to players and fans from mid-February to the end of March.
There is so much I want to share with you about Spring Training in both states. There is so much for you and your family and friends to embrace if you make a pilgrimage to either location. A Spring Training trip is one of those items to save for and plan in advance. A Spring Training trip has so much to offer in terms of fellowship and joy.
Spring Training in both states can be enjoyed by everyone-even those that don’t like baseball will find so much to offer in Spring Training environments. So next week-what you will find when you arrive at Spring Training and my favorite parks to watch a game.
Money. Length of contracts. That’s what’s taking so long for free agents to sign new contracts. Teams are posturing now. Agents feel their player is worth X. Maybe XXX. Teams feel the player is worth Y. But not X. And certainly not XXX. So we wait. And we wait. Who blinks first? Player? Agent? Team?
Numbers seem to drive many new era general managers. They look at metrics and dollars. They study trends. They study circumstances. They study medical histories and they study the market around them. They look at the age of a player. Some players are “old” at 30. Some players are “young” at 40. Not everyone is the same. Today’s front office personnel have data on players that go beyond batting average and fastball velocity.
The data is so sophisticated and the algorithms are so precise that data most likely drives decisions. Emotion may enter the equation upon occasion, but data is generally winning the moment, the day and the future. That’s why we wait. Who blinks first? Will the money demands come down? Will the years of the contract become fewer? Will the contract be front-loaded? Back-loaded? Is there a no-trade clause? Opt-outs? Options at the end? Team option? Player option? Mutual option?
You get my drift. We wait. By the time you read this maybe some player here or there will sign. But the logjam will require someone stepping out of character and having a change of heart.
Is Jake Arrieta a $160MM pitcher? Will Yu Darvish (age 31) and Arrieta (age 31) sign four-year deals? As I write this Arrieta, Darvish, Lance Lynn (age 30) and Alex Cobb (age 30) remain on the open market to be signed by any team willing to pay their price.
Haven’t we heard how valuable pitching is and how much many teams need starting pitching? Isn’t starting pitching hard to find? Yes and yes and yes. But at what price? And for how long. Money and baseball. Baseball and money.
Money and baseball. Baseball and money. I don’t like the marriage of the two. But it really is inevitable. The deal between the Dodgers and the Braves recently was all about money. It wasn’t about Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez. It was all about the money and length of their contracts. Alex Anthopoulos worked for the Dodgers before taking the general manager position with the Braves. He knew the status of both the Kemp and Gonzalez contracts.
The Braves received Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers for Matt Kemp. The money essentially is a wash between the two teams. However, the deal allows the Dodgers to get under the Major League $197MM luxury tax threshold for 2018. It was a brilliant move by both the Dodgers and Braves. And Gonzalez has since been released by Atlanta. The question now centers on Kemp. Will he and the $43MM he is owed remain in Los Angeles or is there a team wishing to take on some of his salary if the Dodgers pay the rest?
I wish each and every one of you a safe, healthy, happy and prosperous New Year. Even though the real New Year begins when Spring Training begins and then when the Major League Baseball season begins, I look forward to the joy and challenges to be faced as the calendar changes. My best to you and yours.
Next week: Up close at Spring Training through my eyes
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