It was a return to Spring Training in March when the weather was supposed to be nicer. Minor leaguers were vying for promotions and most importantly, a celebration of our friend Michele Vassalotti’s performance in the World Baseball Classic was in the making. By taking a flight at oh-dark-thirty and thanks to gaining three hours on a time change, we were at the Brewers complex by mid-morning. Skies were very overcast and according to my weather app, rain was in the forecast. We peeked into the batting cages, then watched players at the practice fields stretching. We finally spotted a familiar frame briskly walking towards us. It was Vassalotti. “I’m pitching in the big field this morning! Come see me!” and off he sauntered. I looked at my watch. We were good for an hour and a half before we needed to head to Goodyear Park for the afternoon game. Within minutes, we were seated with scouts and some family members watching a closed scrimmage of the Brewers. After Michele’s successful inning, we left.
Our next stop was at the general offices of the Cleveland Guardians which was located on the road to the practice fields. We were to meet up with Fletcher who was a friend of our boss at the Mudcats. While waiting on “Fletch,” Rick, who was raised west of Cleveland, stood in awe as he viewed a historical wall mural of Indians baseball. For him, as well as the other die-hards, it is still the Indians and the “G” word is not allowed! We then headed across to Goodyear Stadium to watch the visiting Dodgers vs. Cleveland. Sprinkles began and normally I would have said, “Not today.” However, when I saw the LA line-up, I quickly got to my seat which was on the fourth row adjacent to the Dodgers dugout and donned my Red Sox poncho.
Clayton Kershaw was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers. The North Texas native still had his “stuff” throwing in the persistent drizzle. After witnessing his work, I no longer looked at him as an adversary; I appreciated even more what a master he was at his craft. Midway through the game, the rain picked up and the fans in front of us got their umbrellas out which are allowed at Goodyear Park. For the most part, I could position myself and view the game between two of their umbrellas. I couldn’t complain as their umbrellas kept my legs and feet dry. However, when the rain let up, one of the guys positioned his umbrella back to fold it and you can guess where all the rainwater went! All over me!! It was a good time to leave, but not before meeting Bruce Kessman, GM of the Goodyear Ballpark and Player Development Complex. The former flight attendant manager came out in me and I complimented him on the personnel of all levels at the ballpark. What a great springtime gig that would be I thought to myself.
After a brief nap, it was time to finalize plans for dinner. Since we would be celebrating Vassalotti’s World Baseball Classic appearance, we chose an Italian restaurant north of Glendale. Michele brought his Team Italia jersey. The jersey had a soft feel to the material and it was so exciting knowing that I was holding a jersey that had been worn in the World Baseball Classic! During dinner, Vass discussed his experience playing in Taiwan and Japan for Team Italy. He agreed with me that the hardest game was Game 2 when they played against Chinese Taipei. It was definitely a home game for the Chinese Taipei with 37,000 spectators, cheerleaders on the dugouts and a guy banging a drum. All the noise happened while Team Italy batted and of course, quieted when the “home” team was at bat.
We then talked about Game 3 – Italy and Panama. I remembered that one so well. I had gotten a text from Michele that he had been named the starter for Team Italy. He had not pitched in the starting role since 2021 for the Carolina Mudcats. Last season, he was very successful in long-relief and as a closer. Ironically, his number with Team Italy was “37” which was also his number as a starter in 2021. Against Panama, I witnessed an improved starter with great command over his pitches. His velocity had also improved from the 80s to the mid-90s. He pitched four Innings allowing only one hit – a homerun to Jose Ramos, two walks and three strikeouts. His confidence did not waiver after the longball and he struck out Ramos the second time he faced him. Unfortunately, the bats for Team Italy were quiet and bullpen gave up another run making it 2 – 0 loss. It was because of allowing only the two runs in that game and a 7 – 1 upset over favored Team Netherlands in Game 4, that Team Italy emerged a victor in a 4-way tie of the pool and moved on to the quarterfinal in Japan! Sadly, the team was no match for Shohei Ohtani and Team Japan who eventually also won the tournament. According to Michele, a positive they took away was scoring runs against both Ohtani and Yu Darvish.
Rick motioned towards the people dining at the table adjacent to us and the reminiscing ended when I burst into laughter. It was the group who were in the row in front of us at the rainy game earlier in the day. Seated right behind Michele was the umbrella culprit! We took it as a sign to end our evening!
Check out Vassalotti in action against Panama!! https://www.mlb.com/video/michele-vassalotti-s-solid-outing