Read my Spring Training Diaries Prologue HERE
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
I know you’ve all be on the edge of your seats to find out what happened with my Bed & Breakfast situation. Never fear. After spending a sleepless evening in a terrible place with a list of terrifying “safety tips” taped to the door (fucking Florida), I managed to connect with the very concerned and very embarrassed owners of the clean, adorable, walking-distance-from-the-ballpark B&B I’d actually picked. I’m settled into my nice little cottage now and working on abandoning my Canadian passivity to hopefully get some perks (and definitely some reimbursement) for what was an understandable mixup but a not-gonna-lie pretty scary situation.
But you came to hear about baseball, so let’s get to some baseball! Or at least some baseball-adjacent stuff.
The walk from my B&B (where I checked in around 11:30am because struggles) is about 20 minutes to the Dunedin Stadium. I stopped on the way at a cute little breakfast place with acceptable-if-unremarkable food and giant iced coffees. I’m a prep-heavy traveller so I’d read a bunch of “Essential Guide to Blue Jays Spring Training” articles before getting here but so far have heeded basically none of the advice. It was all stuff like “stay in Clearwater, there’s nothing in Dunedin” and “make sure to eat at Gregg Zaun’s favourite breakfast spot, Lenny’s” but I don’t drive so I wanted to stay right in town (correct decision- Dunedin is delightful, safe, walkable, and decently stacked with restaurants) and there’s no way I’m taking a recommendation of any kind from Gregg Zaun (also, correct choice, especially considering my unfortunate celiac situation and the total lack of gluten-free options on Lenny’s online menu).
It was while sitting in the Sandpiper Cafe that I started to notice the encroaching wave of blue. A middle-aged couple and an older woman I can only assume was one of their mothers came in, each of them (including the woman who had to be at least 80) decked fully out in Blue Jays garb. As I got closer to the stadium, passing businesses in full-blown “cater to the Canadians” mode and locals out peddling scalped tickets and discounted parking, eventually everyone was in Blue Jays gear. And not the passive one-blue-item kind of outfitting you often see at the Toronto games, the whole shooting match with Jays jerseys and Jays jackets layered over Jays tees with Jays bags and Jays earrings and so many Jays hats everyone started to blend together. I was hearing my own accent, I was hearing lots of pleases and sorrys, I overheard a Crave TV subscriber patiently explaining Margaret Atwood’s legacy to her southern friend who had just discovered Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. It was like this weird little pocket of Canada on the coast of Florida. I’ve never been to an event where everyone was so completely on the same page. The demographics were varied (more young people than I expected, way more women than I expected) but pretty much everyone was Canadian and, with just a handful of exceptions in a crowd of 5500, everyone was a far-from-casual Blue Jays fans.
The Jays jerseys on display ran the gamut with lots of oldschool players like Bell and, of course, Alomar taking up a lot of the shoulder real estate. A few people had off-the-board choices like my own Janssen shirt (yeah, you read that right) but predictably Donaldson, Stroman, and Martin were the most ubiquitous. (Serious question- what did everyone do with their Lawrie and Arencibia jerseys? Those used to be Everywhere. What, you got embarrassed so you decided to never wear your $200 jersey ever again?). I took this sneaky stalker photo of the enemy because I’m endlessly fascinated by Yankee fans, the diversity of that franchise’s legacy of stars, and what each fan’s chosen player says about them- illustrated perfectly by this older gentleman acceptably rocking the jersey of a legend (and there are so many to choose from for a Yankee fan) and a young punk who I’m willing to bet just thought it was baller when A-rod dated Cameron Diaz.
The actual stadium itself is old and unglamorous but perfect and my new favourite place. The stands are more comfortable than at the Rogers Centre (a fact I find truly ridiculous) and, unlike when theatres make this claim, there really is no bad seat in the house. For this first game, I was a little bit higher up than I will be for the Phillies (the Yankees sell really well, shocker) but I was still so close to the action that it felt like watching beer league at a local park. The players were all of a sudden human-sized in a way they’ve never really been before (seriously, what is this sport where so many of the athletes are shorter than me?!) and for the first time ever I could tell a fastball from a curveball just by listening to it hit the catcher’s glove (the clarity of the sounds is the strangest thing to get used to, it’s like the game is being edited by the mixing team from Phantom Thread . #artsperson).
“I just have a thing about the Yankees” said the man seated next to me when the score got demoralizing (New York ran through their entire batting order in the 8th before we got that last fly out). “Who doesn’t?” was my initial reply, but I followed it up with “but these aren’t the Yankee yankees, they’re the baby Yankees”. At that point in the game, we were well into the farm system. The Yankees hadn’t played any of their major stars to begin with (except Ellsbury, a fading star but a star nonetheless) and 100% of the batting order had been swapped out by the end of the fifth inning. Only one member of the predicted opening day starting lineup made an appearance all game (platoon second baseman Ronald Torreyes) but I get tired of the big Yankee names with their outrageous salaries and institutionalized air of superiority. The team’s strength in the last season or so is the new guys coming up in the shadow of players taking their time shuffling off, so it’s exciting to see a lineup wholly focused on second stringers. If that outrageous 8th inning is any indication, they clearly have the bench depth this season to survive a plague of injuries and then some.
On the Jays side, we actually saw most of the predicted opening day lineup. Devon Travis, Justin Smoak, Steve Pearce, Kevin Pillar and even bigger names Martin and Donaldson (whom I definitely did not expect to see, even just as a DH) all started and Morales took over at DH in the 5th (predictably missing were big ticket veteran Curtis Granderson, and Troy Tulowitzki whom I understand is made of glass and therefore will never be of any use to anyone beyond moral support and a swell attitude) . New acquisitions Solarte, Diaz and Grichuk were also in the lineup so it was really fun to get a sense of what we can expect from them. Diaz did pretty well, going 1 for 2 with a single in the 4th that scored Kevin Pillar from first, but Solarte did a whole lotta nothing (a pop up and a fly out, to be exact). Grichuk wasn’t very productive at the plate (two fly outs then he came back for the 5th only to strike out looking) but he hits hard, fouling off a few beauties that were just to the right of awesome, and he made a superman catch in right field that suggests he may give Kevin Pillar an existential crisis if he sticks around. On superficial first impressions alone, I’m into Grichuk, but the footprints in right field at the Rogers Centre aren’t exactly small.
After the mass starter exodus in the fourth inning, the fun really started. Non-roster invitee JD Davis looked great at the plate with two singles in two at-bats and hot prospect Anthony Alford looked even better, a double and a triple in two at-bats. Alford also won me over with admirable hustle in right field and what could be hot dog bravado but I’m choosing to believe is schmoozy charm (he was the only player I noticed signing autographs for fans after the game). Another non-roster invitee, Jason Leblebijian made a splash in the bottom of the 9th with a theatrical homer after striking out in his two previous at-bats; he did an impressive job working the count against Yankees LHP Josh Rogers with one out and ended up driving in two runs. We got the shortest of looks at top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when he came in to run for Donaldson after a walk in the third but he missed his sign from Rivera when Smoak hit a single, hesitated rounding third base, and ended the inning by getting thrown out at home. It felt like the kind of mistake you only make once so, as long as it’s not indicative of a larger issue with discipline or focus, I’d say the only real takeaway for Vlad Jr. was “boy is he fast!”. Tim Lopes also made an impression but not for anything he did in the actual game (he went 0 for 2 and played acceptable second base); a pigeon landed on the first base line during his at-bat and the crowd (at such close proximity in the awesomely intimate Dunedin Stadium) laughed with him as he awkwardly tried to coax it out of the way.
Pitching was another story, the prospects (like Sean Reid-Foley who looked particularly rough) reminding us how lucky we are to have our established starters (it’s Marco Estrada appreciation hour, raise your glass). Non-roster invitees Chad Girodo and Andrew Case were also solid, delivering a three-up-three-down 5th and 9th, but strikeouts were a rarity across the board. But there weren’t too many walks either (just one outside of the 8th) so hopefully that suggests decent strike zone command from this young group. Either way, I would like whatever “should inflammation” is to please sort itself out as soon as possible.
I keep score at about half the games I attend during the regular season. My mom taught me when I was like ten years old, her scheme to keep me focused on the game rather than jabbering in her ear. It’s a good strategy, especially for a sport that can really test your attention span. I still keep score the way my mom taught me, which I think is mostly correct but not technically the way the rulebooks say to do it. My scoresheets are always full of errors- I’m constantly missing plays because I’m distracted, mixing up a grounder to short with a grounder to second (at Spring Training they don’t have names on their shirts, which is infuriating even when they play the familiar faces), and plain old mislabelling things because I was taught to score little league and there are lot of things that just don’t come up on that scoresheet (it’s mostly just base on balls after base on balls); I’m not sure I’ve ever correctly scored a balk (there was one today, there is absolutely no way to tell from looking at my scoresheet). I spent the half hour before the game frantically trying to get the radio broadcast on my headphones, partly because I felt weird about sitting there by myself (it was fine) but mostly so that I’d have a voice in my ear telling me to score something as an error instead of as a fielder’s choice. I gave up on the broadcast eventually and just embraced the messy unreadable inaccuracy that quickly became my scoresheet (I’m including it below, don’t make fun of it).
With players being subbed out at ridiculous rates, a new pitcher every inning, and no jumbotron to lean on, it’s impossible for an out-of-practice amateur to actually keep up. Both those things also make Spring Training games ridiculously fun. They make them feel fast and unexpected and unpredictable in ways that regular season games just aren’t most of the time. They don’t mean anything but they tell you so much, and they keep you on your toes. I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun at the ballpark.
Stay tuned for Part II of my Spring Training Diaries