Snow was falling from the
still-dark sky early, early Monday morning when I boarded my flight for
In this report, I will share the happenings of the morning as they unfolded before my eyes, as I hope it offers you a slice of Cardinals Spring Training activity.
My first sight
Upon entering the player's gate, the first familiar faces I saw were that of Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, with bats on shoulder and gloves in hand, as they headed out to what is called "PFP", or pitcher's fielding practice. Suppan recognized me and called out a greeting – what a nice start!
In the cages
I took a left turn for the batting cages, where a number of low minors players were taking their hacks and receiving instruction. However, in one of the middle cages, one player looked a bit too large. Sure enough, Sir Sidney Ponson was receiving special bunting tutelage from living legend, coach George Kissell. There were ball boys sitting on five-gallon pails on both the first and third base sides of the cage as Ponson rotated bunts of Kissell's pitches time and time again to one youth, then the other. You never know when a Ponson bunt could make a difference in a 2006 regular season game.
On the field
It was a tremendous sight to come to the first practice field as First Base Coach Dave McKay was pitching batting practice to two camp newcomers, or should I say WBC returnees – Albert Pujols and Juan Encarnacion, along with John Rodriguez. True to form, even as the next group of players was approaching, Pujols coaxed another round of hitting out of McKay. His sharp line drives cleared the fences more times than not, delivered with efficient effort from the Cardinals' star. I am sure I am not the only one glad to see the return of the great Pujols.
I walked over to the golf cart where Bench Coach Joe Pettini was resting after having thrown BP to the previous group of hitters. As he stepped out to talk, Hitting Coach Hal McRae swooped in and took off in Pettini's cart for another field. As he pulled away, McRae could be heard saying, "I hope you don't mind, Joe…"
I strolled over to another field where PFP was underway. A pack of four middle infielders including Deivi Cruz, Aaron Miles and Hector Luna rotated catching the ball as the pitchers moved through at least five different exercises put on by Bullpen Coach Marty Mason. The pitchers took comebackers and threw to first. They then practiced covering the bag, then throwing to second and third before fielding bunts and coming home.
Time and time again, Mason called out Brad Thompson as the poster child for good behavior. "That's how you do it," Mason boomed out. He good-naturedly needled Sidney Ponson for fielding like an "American Leaguer".
Other observations. I didn't realize Jeff Nelson was so tall – 6-feet-8. He was most graceful, as was fellow big man Adam Wainwright (6-7). Jason Marquis looks as if he may have added a few pounds over the winter, but fielded just fine.
Marquis on hitting
After PFP, the starters stayed
behind for batting practice. As expected, Marquis laced the ball with authority,
especially into the right field corner. I asked him what happened to his hitting
when he moved from
Marquis said nothing was different – other than repetition. He estimated that in all his years as a Braves minor leaguer, he amassed only about 20 game at-bats in total. Marquis believes that his hitting improvement is a reflection of additional live action seen as a Cardinal. Makes complete sense.
On the day off
As I chatted with the pitchers between their turns in the cage, I asked them what they planned to do on their only day off in Spring Training on Tuesday. Chris Carpenter is taking his family to a nearby African jungle theme park. Jeff Suppan's plans aren't firm, but he thought he might sleep in "until 7am or so – you get in a routine here", or maybe go fishing. Soup said he picked up the hobby this off-season since there is a pond behind his house.
Wainwright keeping sights set high
Adam Wainwright and Marquis are part of a Tuesday golfing foursome that includes fellow starter Mark Mulder. Wainwright wasn't sure of their fourth. He told me that Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are not saying anything about his status with the team. He complimented Sidney Ponson, but was polite but firm when I suggested his making the team as a reliever wasn't all bad. "I'd like to not think of myself as #3 (in the race for the third starter's job)," Wainwright said. Good for him. Great attitude!
Lefty hitting group
When the starting pitchers were done, McRae, Pettini and J-Rod showed back up with Larry Bigbie and Brian Daubach. As Bigbie received direct hitting instruction from McRae, they were working on his footwork and balance. Bigbie struck the ball with authority, though seemed to be focused on line drives. He did not show any signs of his recent tendinitis injury as he hit for an extended period. However, in this exercise, I did not see him run. McRae was a bit concerned about me taking notes and "giving away secrets". I assured him that I am certainly not a threat, but did not say nothing much was happening as far as I could tell.
Daubach taking nothing for granted
Instead of just standing there waiting for his turn, Daubach, the nine-year veteran, fielded dozens of fungoes hit by Pettini. I was impressed with his work ethic, obviously assuming that even though he has appeared in almost 400 major league games at first base, it means little now. He's simply trying to make the team. Though Daubach is hitting .346, unfortunately, the numbers are still against him. The stocky first baseman does deserve to play somewhere.
Behind us, a number of early-arriving fans were lined up along the fences, watching practice and hoping for an autograph. Among those who obliged were Pettini, and both Wainwright and especially Suppan signed for a long time. Soup really enjoys the banter.
As I walked back to the clubhouse area, I spied Albert Pujols patiently signing items for a group of about 20 fans who had privileged access to that area. Pujols may be curt with the press, but even in this case on what was his first day in camp in several weeks, as always, he remained accommodating to the fans. That is surely what matters most.
Back at the cages
His official work done, one of the heartwarming scenes of Spring Training was repeated by Chris Carpenter as he "pitched" batting practice to his son, Sam. The youngster, all of about four years old, was proud of his new red bat. His grandfather (Carpenter's father-in-law) happily assisted.
The other one
In the next cage over, a young, slim man almost silently hit off a tee. Number 33 would have been totally lost in the shuffle of the day except for one thing - the name on his jersey gave him away – "Pujols". In a short conversation, Wil Pujols impressed me as extremely polite. He told me that he was playing that day in Quad Cities' game. I wonder if he considers his surname a blessing or a curse. I chose not to ask.
Willie and BJ
As I sat on the bench watching the
younger Pujols, Willie McGee plopped down next to me. I will post our discussion
separately. That conversation continued until his former teammate and current
Atlanta Brave Brian Jordan strode up. McGee excused himself and gave
Back at the clubhouse, Scott Rolen lunched with a group of youngsters that included Skip Schumaker at an outside picnic table. At the next table, Encarnacion joined a group of Latino players including Deivi Cruz.
I will be wandering around the minor league camp on Tuesday.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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