Archive for category Spring Training

The Boys of Summer – Return to Spring Training – Part 2

Arizona continued to battle providing us with good weather as the second day started with overcast skies and below normal temperatures.  My decision was either look cute and be cold or to layer and look twenty pounds more than I was!  I chose the latter.  Our first stop was Camelback Ranch-Glendale, home to the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  We had tickets to the White Sox-Royals early afternoon game.

We arrived a few hours before game time and proceeded to the practice fields.  As we were greeted by Stephanie at the practice field gate, we could see the practice field behind her was under water.  “We had quite a storm last night, but the main ballpark should be OK for playing,” she revealed.  We visited a few minutes with her and found out that she and her husband were both retired and living in the Chicago area, but every February and March, Arizona became their home.  They both loved baseball and were White Sox diehards so working at spring training was a fun way to earn extra income. 

As we proceeded down the muddy pathway, we saw another practice field with workers trying to remove the water.   We were just about to retreat back to the car when I spotted two White Sox players coming out of a building and proceeding down a walkway below us, to more practice fields.  They looked up and waved.  Rick was busy talking to another worker as I zipped by him and proceeded down to a fence by the walkway where several men were lined up with huge notebooks of baseball cards!  I could tell this was the place to be!  And what did I have for the players to autograph – — my Lotta Sports T-Shirt which only had Michele Vassalotti’s autograph and some Cleveland players. 

The men were a pain as they attempted to monopolize the players with numerous cards to sign in each book and I was elbowed into the corner.  Polite patience turned out to be my benefit as several players came over to me first instead of the shouting men.  I was a kid in a candy store and my T-Shirt quickly loaded up with signatures.  One of the last players to come out was no stranger — Joe Kelly, former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher.  I almost didn’t recognize him as he wasn’t wearing the dorky glasses he wore when pitching for Boston. 

Joe looked towards the line of us.  As he signed, more fans infiltrated the area.  By now I had people standing against me so there wasn’t room to even move.  I left my cramped corner and moved to the other end of the fence.  Much to my dismay, he appeared to be ready to leave.  I shouted, “Hey Joe Kelly!” and waved.  He came over to me.  “Oh, there you are!”  I laughed and responded, “You are one popular guy!” as he signed the cuff of my shirt.  Joe turned out to be the nicest of all the White Sox players or maybe I was just partial to him being a former Red Sox.! 

Near the entrance to Camelback Park, there was a pretty lake which separated the White Sox and Dodgers practice fields.  Once inside the gates, there was a tree-lined pavilion which served as home to a giant statue of Frank Thomas AKA The Big Hurt, former first baseman for the White Sox in the 90s and early 2000s.  Since I had already met several of the White Sox players at the practice field, I headed over to the left field side where some of the Royals were already stretching.  The playing surface in the outfield was set down about 12 feet from the stands.  It was fun yelling down to the players as they came out of the clubhouse alley.  What can I say — baseball brings out the child in me! 

By the time the game started at 1:05, the sun was attempting to override the cloud cover.  The grassy areas in the outfield were sprinkled with fans on blankets taking in the ballgame.  Our seats overlooked the on-deck circle for the White Sox.  I was thrilled to see one of my former Red Sox favorites, Andrew Benintendi, batting for Chicago.  It was a nice surprise because last year he was with the Yankees so I couldn’t allow myself to like him.  Royals Bobby Witt Jr. wasn’t at the game since he was still in Miami at the World Baseball Classic for Team USA.  Throughout the game, there were a lot of pitching and player changes as this was the week of determining who would play where.  Kansas City edged the White Sox 4 – 3. 

It was a doubleheader day for us since there was an evening game at Goodyear Park with the Cincinnati Reds hosting San Diego Padres.  We would be seeing the Reds the next night also so I opted for the Padres side while the players stretched.  The Padres bused in during peak traffic so they arrived a little later than normal.  Because of this, they only had time to warmup instead of mingling with the fans.  I spotted two familiar faces doing their pre-game ritual.  The first was my hero of several years of fantasy baseball, Nelson Cruz.  The other was former Texas Rangers Rougned Odor.  I almost didn’t recognize him.  He had gone from scraggly hair and beard to clean-shaven with a short haircut.  Our seats were on the second row behind home plate.  Behind us were several scouts.  Vassalotti’s teammate at Team Italy, Brett Sullivan, was catching for the Padres.  The game was going quickly with San Diego having several three up, three down innings and the Reds spitting out a run in the first inning and another in the second inning when the Reds did a double steal including Homeplate by Spencer Steer.   

We only stayed half the game as we were going on ten hours of baseball and I was running on a tray of French fries at the first game.   We swung by the hotel and picked up Michele.  We voted for something close so Michele suggested Burros & Fries in the Glendale Entertainment Complex across from the hotels.  I had a huge stuffed burrito and I believe it’s the best Mexican fast food I’ve ever had!   As we gathered our empty plates up to leave, Rick grabbed his drink cup and slammed it down into my drink cup.  There was just one small problem.  Mine was still half full of water and it went all over the table and me!!  It was time to call it a night!

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The Boys of Summer – Return to Spring Training – Part 1

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!!

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 3

Our final day was the Royals at the Guardians so we were going to see Bobby Witt, Jr again.  Rick was decked out in his Indians attire as were many Cleveland fans.  We headed over to the practice fields but it was harder to get to see the players since the closest that fans could get was at chain-linked fence at left field.  I had to squint to see who was batting.   According to Andy and Rick, two older guys that we met, they used to have the practice fields very open to fans but it changed after COVID.  We saw Josh Naylor bat and then go over to the right field fence to take pictures with fans.   Figures.  We were on the wrong side!  A little boy next to me belted out, “Stephen Kwan!”  The leadoff player headed our way!  After the boys got his autograph, I timidly asked for a picture with him and he obliged. 

The Goodyear Park was our favorite of the three ballparks.   The parking was free and they permitted purses in as well as sealed bottled water.  When I was leaving the restroom, our usher was in there and she said, “It will be very sunny in the seats you are in and you’re going to need sunscreen.”   I was glad she said something but unfortunately, I didn’t have sunscreen with me.   She pointed to a dispenser adjacent to the restroom door.   Complimentary sunscreen!   I coated my nose with it and headed out.  The guys from the practice field, Andy and Rick, were on the concourse on the lookout for us.  “We’re going to show you where you can get player pictures and autographs.”   The area was the rail between first base and right field.  I got my picture made and my Lotta Sports T-shirt autographed by several players including Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor, his brother Bo and a few pitchers.   I was a kid in a candy store!    When Josh Bell came out to warm up, the fans went crazy yelling for his autograph – me included!   A guy next to me said, “Forget it.  He doesn’t sign.”  Well, guess who came over and signed!?!  Josh Bell!  He was bigger than life!  During the game, Cleveland’s David Fry was brought in to pitch hit.  A voice boomed from a few rows behind us, “Hit it to Colleyville!”  That’s where Fry was from and also home of Bobby Witt, Jr. as well as a town away from where we lived in Grapevine, Texas.  Unfortunately, the former Indians players were scalped in their game getting beat 12 – 6 by the Royals. 

We headed back to Tempe to meet up with Michele for dinner.   We had asked him what kind of foods he liked and he responded anything but Thai.  He loved sushi so Rick found a seafood restaurant in Tempe that had several sushi dishes.  Michele was amazing with the chopsticks!   We had a real nice dinner and we discovered our waiter had played baseball.  I think he told us it was in high school but he got injured pitching so he didn’t get to play after that.   After dinner, I asked Michele to sign my T-shirt.  “It’s all Cleveland players!”  “Well, I just started it!  They’ll be more!”  We both laughed and he signed it. 

We dropped Michele off his hotel and wished him the very best.  The next day he was leaving for Taiwan to play in the World Baseball Classic!  Little did he realize, that Taiwan would not be his only destination in the WBC journey or did he….

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 2

The following morning Michele posted that his “Nonna” (grandmother on his mother’s side) had passed away.  Sadness filled my heart for him since he was thousands of miles away from home and unable to grieve with his family in Venezuela.  Rick and I headed out to Surprise where the Kansas City Royals were hosting the Milwaukee Brewers.  We had a little time to kill before the game started so we headed over to the practice fields where I was hoping to see Bobby Witt Jr. in batting practice.  We were very lucky that we met a guy named Gerald and his dad who were regulars at all the Royals spring training games. They showed us exactly where the KC practice fields were.  When we got over there, I still wasn’t seeing any of the players that I wanted to see namely Bobby Witt Jr. so went up to a guy who looked like he knew what was going on.  It turned out he really did know – he was J.J. Picollo, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Royals!  I introduced myself and did a capsule version of how I knew Witt, Jr’s dad from when I worked the Texas Ranger charters when I was with Delta.  JJ didn’t think Bobby Sr. was at spring training yet.  About that time, Gerald ran up and said, “Bobby Witt Jr. is taking BP (batting practice) over there!” 

As we watched BP, a group of fans congregated at the fence rail near the gate leading out.  At one point, I saw JJ talking to
Witt, Jr.  After Bobby’s group finished, they proceeded along the fence line.  The fans only wanted autographs and pictures of one player – Bobby Witt, Jr.!  We patiently waited while he progressed towards the gate out where we were.  Finally, he got to us and I quickly explained my connection to his dad.  “No, my dad won’t be here until next month.”  He kind of chuckled because I guess this was new for him having somebody not want his autograph or picture!   “Oh well …” I responded with disappointment in my voice.  “Could I please get a picture with you anyway?” so then he really laughed. 

By now it was almost game time so we headed over to the ballpark.   The starters for both teams were to play almost half the game and then be replaced by minor leaguers.  We saw some of our former Mudcats in the Brewers dugout.   A young lady in sunglasses sat down next to us.   I looked over at the very attractive gal.  She smiled and said, “Do you remember me?”   I laughed and said,  “I know you…  don’t I?”   She laughed and removed the shades.  It was Hedbert Perez’s girlfriend who had attended many Mudcats games both home and away.   Hedbert batted in the fifth inning.  “BAM!!” as the bat connected with the ball.   The rocket was launched!!!  Homerun!!!   As we were standing up cheering and yelling, I turned around to congratulate her and she wasn’t there!!   Hedbert crossed the plate all smiles.   The Brewers won big over Kansas City 10 to 4! 

The Team Italy special fundraiser dinner was at Tomaso’s restaurant in Scottsdale.   We had looked into supporting the fundraiser and were going to surprise Michele.   Well, the surprise was on us with the price tag to attend – five hundred dollars a plate!!   Instead, I reserved a table in the main dining room.  We got all dressed up in our nice clothes.   It was a beautiful small restaurant and it had been years since I saw tablecloths and linen napkins at an eating establishment!   We were sitting there looking over the menu and all of the sudden the whole team Italy started streaming through the main restaurant in a line of blue suits all going to the private dining room.   Every once in a while, a person that was eating in the main dining room would get up and take pictures.  I had my camera ready and knew the minute Michele came in because he was so tall he towered over most of the team.  I slowly positioned to get a picture and he stopped!!  “Don’t stop!  I don’t want to get you in trouble!”  He laughed and proceeded to the back.  It was one of the best, if not the best, meals I’ve ever had!   I had the five-layer lasagna and a very good salad.  For dessert I could not turn down the temptation of the caramel cheesecake.   It was amazing!  Meanwhile Team Italy players had started to trickle out with some coming out for a breather or to use the restroom.  When Michele came out, we were already finished with dessert and they still hadn’t gotten to their main course!!   Their dinner was being done by numerous courses and I was thankful I wouldn’t be digesting dinner at 11PM which was 2AM my time!!

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The Boys of Summer – Adventures at Spring Training – Arizona Fun in February – Part 1

For true baseball fans, there is no better experience than attending spring training.  The atmosphere is somewhat more relaxed than the regular season.  Players are reunited with last season’s teammates while others meet new faces on a different team.  Spring training is for fans of all ages with some multi-generations making the event an annual affair.  This year, the Phoenix area was home not only to Major League Baseball’s Cactus League, but also some of the teams preparing to play in the World Baseball Classic, baseball’s biggest global tournament.  It was a no-brainer where this baseball enthusiast wanted to be in February!

As luck would have it, over half the country was having weather issues from snow to tornados and we were trying to fly on standby!  The parking situation at the airport should have been another indicator that the trip out there might have issues.  After circling seven levels of the parking garage, we found the last parking spot on the rooftop.  We just missed getting seats on the Atlanta flight, but were able to get on a flight to Salt Lake City and would be at least at the right end of the country for our final destination, Phoenix.  The passenger next me was at the emergency exit and there was no seat in front of him. He ordered two Bloody Marys when the flight attendants came through with the beverage cart. He had just mixed his first one, when he decided to cross his legs. His tray table tilted dumping the Bloody Mary on his pants. His gold jeans had turned into a reddish-gold color and were soaked! The flight attendant quickly offered napkins to stop the mix from going on me and then retrieved galley towels and soda for the cleanup. Thanks to her quick response, I was spared my clothes getting soiled. Our area smelled of Bloody Mary mix for the next four hours!

After four hours of sleep — but who’s counting — we caught a flight down to Phoenix from Salt Lake City the next morning.  We left the snow-covered Utah mountains hoping to have sunshine and nice warm temperatures like Arizona is known for.  However, when we landed, we discovered that Arizona was having their coldest weather in years!  Like a good girl scout, I came prepared with a jacket, thermal vest, wool socks and long johns!   

The first part of the day was spent at American Family Fields, home of the Milwaukee Brewers.  There was a Split Squad game with half of the Brewers hosting the Oakland A’s and the other half of the team over at the Colorado Rockies.   Unfortunately for poor Milwaukee, it was a very one-sided game.  Oakland got off to a fast start scoring four runs in the top of the first inning; the Brewers starting pitcher was pulled without making an out.   The Milwaukee bats were very silent until the third inning when Luis Urias hit a homerun.   By the sixth inning, it was six to one Oakland over Milwaukee with little hope in sight.   We decided to head over to the other side of Phoenix to Scottsdale where we knew former Carolina Mudcats Sal Frelick and Michele Vassalotti were working out with Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic.

When we arrived at Notre Dame Prep Academy, we saw a handful of fans watching several players taking batting practice.   As we walked towards the practice field, we came upon a security guard near first base.   I explained we were there to see a particular player who was a pitcher and he asked if we were family.   I laughed and I answered, “Kind of…  Michele refers to us as his U.S. family.”   He escorted us to a building across the parking lot.  Inside were several players in a weight room while trainers monitored their workout.  A weight trainer named Simone came over so I explained why we were there.   Michele smiled and waved when he saw us quietly observing from the corner of the room.  Christian Scafidi, one of the most accomplished pitchers at Penn and a grad transfer to Notre Dame, introduced himself to us.   When he told me he was a free agent pitcher, I suggested he contact the Boston Red Sox.  “We need all the help we can get!”  He laughed and wiped his forehead, then went back to a machine.   I was exhausted just watching the different drills and wished my pounds would be affected by just viewing. 

When it was time for the team to head back to the hotel, we walked over to the team bus while Michele ran to the field to grab his gear.   Outside the bus stood Mike Piazza, manager of Team Italy.  Still sporting his infamous mustache, I could picture him in catcher’s gear.  I was in awe of being there right next to the Hall of Famer and I think I mumbled something like, “I used to love to watch you catch” and “Congratulations on managing team Italy.”  Also with him was Gianmarco Faraone, GM for the Italian Federation.  Thankfully before any more exchanges were made, Michele ran up and bound up the bus stairs followed by the two men. 

A few hours later, we took Michele and his roommate Ricardo Paolini, also from Venezuela, to dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse.   As we got ready to order, Michele helped Ricardo by explaining some of the menu since Ricardo’s English was a little limited.   When I ordered the garlic shrimp, Michele looked at me in disbelief and said, “Shrimp in a steakhouse!?!  You’re supposed to order steak in a steakhouse!”  We all got a good laugh out of that statement.  He was right; it was not the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted! After dinner the boys wanted to stop by Target to pick up a few things they needed for a dinner honoring Team Italy the next evening.   After three turns in the parking lot, we arrived at Target and headed back to the men’s department where Michele started on a search for a belt.  He stopped at the shoes and picked up a pair of black shoes.  “Well, I do have white shoes at the hotel.”  He set the shoes back down and we went to an end display of belts where he immediately found one which he liked.  Meanwhile, Ricardo had wandered off.    We called out his name.  There was no response.  We went up and down the aisles in the men’s section.  I thought I saw him so I headed down another aisle.   Now I’m following a guy through the store and calling out, “Ricardo… Ricardo” and he’s not turning around.   I finally caught up with him and I said, “Ricardo!” and the guy turned around.   It wasn’t him and it was then I realized I had lost the rest of the group!!  Nothing like getting lost in Target just minutes before closing!

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