My second full day at Blue Jays Spring Training would also be my last. I flew down on a late Thursday, missing Friday for my first day in Florida. I needed to thus fly out early Sunday in order to return for work on Monday morning.
How to spend this last day? At the Bobby Mattick Training Center.
The Blue Jays' Minor League complex contains three clubhouses, an enormous workout room, a cafeteria/dining hall, a training room, a front office, and probably a lot of other rooms, too. It was built to serve some 160 players or so, if not more, in addition to dozens of coaches, instructors, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning folks.
When I arrived at 9:30 a.m., what looked to be just about the entire Blue Jays minor league organization was gathered for morning stretch on a rectangular artificial grass field, which looked very much like a smaller gridiron.
This, it turned out, was not the entire minor league organization; it was just a normal group of pitchers. Another herd of pitchers came jogging along the path behind me, working their way from one field to another. The position players were spread about farther, ranging from taking their cuts in the cage to speaking with performance coach/scout Steve Springer on the mental side of the game to working on their baserunning (with Tim Raines watching carefully to see with which foot they touched first base).
And then all of the groups changed locations, with position players heading this way to work on their sliding, and pitchers heading that way to work on a conditioning and agility drill involving cones. If you've ever been to a conference involving different workshop sessions, you get the picture.
I walked away from the gridiron and the conditioning drills, down a long path beside the complex building, and discovered a clustering of four baseball fields (with a fifth not too far off), surrounded by chain-link backstop/fence, where pitchers were working on their pickoff moves.
A brief moment of hilarity: A sea gull swooped in and snatched up a pitcher's towel, which it carried up a nest atop a stadium light. Said Dane Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays roving pitching instructor, "Towel drill." (Inside joke alert!)
In any case, this was exactly where I wanted to be, surrounded by baseball fields. This was also where all sorts of other fans had congregated, including Andy Burns's parents and grandparents and Matt Dermody's mother.
I joined the knothole gang (chain-link gang?) and watched happily in the warm sun.
With the arrival of position players, infield practice began in earnest on the near fields, displacing the pitchers to the far fields.
I went down the third base line, stood in the open dugout, and watched -- with a careful eye toward future Lugnuts third baseman Mitch Nay.
Through pickoff drills, infield drills, rundown drills, and more, the players were put through their paces. When this concluded, live batting practice began, with a series of pitchers facing batters on each field -- the pitchers carefully watched by a pitching coach, the batters carefully watched by a hitting coach (or two).
To the left, the young field of D.J. Davis, Matt Dean, and Mitch Nay, all of them likely headed to Lansing, lined up against Drew Permison. To my right, the experienced Brad Glenn, Kevin Nolan, and Brett Carroll, all of them likely headed to Triple-A, tried their luck against knuckleballing Tomo Ohka. (No one made solid contact.) On the other two fields,Lugnuts alumni like Nick Baligod, Emilio Guerrero, and Chris Hawkins took their cuts against their fellow Jays.
When it was all done, approaching 1 p.m., all of the players headed in for some well-deserved lunch before the afternoon's activities. I was invited in with them, so I waited in line next to Seth Conner and L.B. Dantzler, picked up a plate, grabbed island rice, rolls, and salad, and sat down to eat between 2009-10 Lugnuts pitching coach Antonio Caceres and 2011 Lugnuts outfielder Marcus Knecht.
That was when Byron Buxton, on the tv screen in the corner of the dining hall, did this against Drew Hutchison. (I dare say it's the only mistake that Hutch has made in Spring Training so far this year.)
Reminded of the Blue Jays game, I bid farewell to my Mattick Center hosts and headed back to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in time to watch the rest of the game with Blue Jays broadcasters Buck Martinez and Jerry Howarth, calling the game in a TV/radio simulcast.
A word about the Martinez/Howarth combination: I most admired their ease and comfort in handling the game. This is Grapefruit League baseball, not high drama, and so they peppered wonderful stories throughout each half-inning. You can value whatever you choose in a broadcast. I prioritize listenability: Do the broadcasters sound like they're enjoying themselves? Are they providing entertainment at the benefit of the game (rather than at the game's detriment)? Check and check.
Back to the game: The Blue Jays walked off with a victory, thanks to former Lugnut Kenny Wilson. It was a fine way to punctuate my visit.
(I suppose the true final way that my visit ended was with a lovely sunburn, but what can one do?)
I write this from back in Lansing, Michigan, where the temps are back up to the 20s... and we might very well be pulling tarp for the first time in 2014 today. My thanks to Tyler Murray, Michael Nielsen, Charlie Wilson, Mike Wilner, Tom Young, Jerry Howarth, Buck Martinez, Neil Solondz, Al Hernandez, and Shelby Nelson.
I am officially ready for this 2014 season to start.
If only the weather would agree...