Welcome to the Bigs -- Sort Of

It was an unusually large crowd for the first formal day of spring training at Dodgertown. Only the pitchers, catchers and rehabs were to report, most made it, and that plus the weather which turned from chilly to rather pleasant meant that a goodly contingent was there to greet them. Not that they got to see a lot; they never do. <br><br>

Some stretching, some sprinting, some work off the practice mounds located near the year-old major league clubhouse, that's about it. But it seemed to be enough, particularly for the kids who should have been in school someplace but, rather, were here, pens in hand, beseeching autographs. They were often successful; players aren't jaded about such requests at this time of year.

But if the fans were content, there was a group that was absolutely overjoyed, even overwhelmed by being here. That would be the rookies who are part of the big league scene, many for the first time. They dress in the airport-sized dressing room and get the same deferential treatment that the veterans have come to expect.

"It's awesome," said Russell Martin, of the whole experience, a thought echoed by all his compatriots. Even his new Dodger-blue shoes, which were too tight, didn't spoil his enthusiasm for the experience. The weather certainly didn't give him reason to complain; after all, he'd spent the winter at home in the frosty environs of Montreal. "Worked out indoors, played a little catch; that's about it."

Martin is one of the extra catchers always brought in to handle the outsized mound staff that exists now. That he's one of those chosen is a tribute to his progress as a receiver for he was an infielder as a college player before his conversion started in the 2002 Instructional League. He split last season between South Georgia and Ogden where he hit .286 and .271 respectively. His overall improvement was such that he moved past a number of other catchers on the depth chart. He figures to stay in Vero Beach to open the regular season in the Florida State League. And he loves his new position. "You're in on every play. It's really great."

Since catchers were the only position players on hand this day, they were the only ones taking batting practice in which still another non-roster invitee, Edwin Bellorin sent several balls into orbit. Last summer was spent at Vero for the most part before moving up to Jacksonville for the final two weeks. This year, he expects to open in the Southern League where his hitting could well be the key to how quickly and how far he advances as his catching and throwing skills are regarded highly.

David Ross, who made that last giant step from the minors to The Show this past season, was another displaying good pop. That's something he certainly did after moving up with 10 home runs in 124 at-bats, best ratio on a Dodgerteam starved for power. The secret? "Shortening my stroke and working a lot with my instructors. I didn't really change anything drastically" With Todd Hundley sidelined indefinitely after more surgery, Ross could factor in prominently this season.

Still another catcher, Koyie Hill, got his chance to play in three big league games last fall, doubling in his first at-bat. As good as hitting a home run off Roger Clemens (which he'd dome in spring training last year) ? "Almost." he answered with a laugh. Koyie had suffered a rather strange season, hitting-wise, in 2003 for he averaged only .226 at Jacksonville but, when promoted to Las Vegas, pushed that up to .314 minus the power that he had previously displayed. "I was hitting line drives at Jacksonville but they were getting caught. At Vegas I wasn't hitting home runs but I was hitting over .300 so they didn't want me to change anything. Hitting over .300 with gap doubles is something I can take."

Hill's chances of making the big team probably rest on whether Jim Tracy decides to go with three catchers, a decision he could favor if Paul LoDuca is used fairly often in the outfield or at first base. That's one of those decisions that spring training helps to make.

Of the pitchers, none are certainly discussed more than righthander Edwin Jackson and left-hander Greg Miller, both on the short list of prospects that Dan Evans refused to trade when he was general manager. Jackson, so impressive in his big league debut last fall, reports himself in fine physical condition as he attempts to claim the fifth slot in the starting rotation that Tracy says is his to lose. Miller, on the other hand, had some shoulder twinges and is being told to throw only lightly for the time being.

"I'm almost there," he declares. "but they want to be careful and that's the way it should be." He participated in the winter workouts at Dodger Stadium but "I had some soreness so they shut me down. I'll be brought along slowly but should be fine."

Of course, now that Evans is gone, maybe the "hands off " policy concerning his tradeability may be rescinded. "I haven't talked to the new general manager (Paul DePodesta ) but I certainly don't want to be traded." Assuming he's still around, Greg figures he'll start the year in Jacksonville where he wound up last season while winning organization Pitcher of the Year honors.

Righthander Joel Hanrahan, who won a similar honor for the Southern League last year (and another whose name often comes up in trade rumors) has also suffered some shoulder aches so has been put on the slow track this spring. An organization spokesman says the problem is minor but the inordinate number of pitching injuries suffered last season, means that caution is the buzz word.

Two of those who went down report themselves back on the road to Wellville. Andrew Brown, who got in only one inning before going out to what was his second elbow surgery, is fully participating in all drills. "Actually, I was ready to go in November," he relates, " but that was too late for winter ball so I worked out around home (Deltona, Florida). I feel good."

And that's what Hong-Chi Kuo says, too, which is a reversal of form for he never felt that he could utter those words during the three-year turmoil he's undergone since his elbow blew out in his pro debut back in 2000. He's been able to get in only 33.2 innings in the three years since then, undergoing another major operation last spring, missing the entire year. But now he says the pain is gone and he looked strong while throwing from a mound this first day. It's only fast balls and change-ups at this stage, the crucial curve test will come later. May is his target date to return to action. Over the winter, he, more than incidentally, got psychological counseling from Darren Dreifort, himself a twice-cut re-habber. " A good guy who helps me a lot," says Kuo.

By the way since they are born-again pitchers, it's perhaps fitting that both Brown and Kuo have new looks -- in Brown's case, a beard while Kuo features an orange 'do.

Reggie Abercrombie is also on hand as a re-hab. The outfielder ripped the ACL in his right knee while playing in the Arizona Fall League and still wears a large wrap around the affected area. "They tell me May," he says of his target date to return. Few, if any, players in all the minors possess more athletic talent than he does but the 164 strikeouts he piled up at Jacksonville are an indication of the fact that he's still groping for proper pitch recognition.

Jason Frasor, on the other hand, doesn't have any aches and pains to complain about. Having been acquired from Detroit in a trade over a year ago, he was an unknown then but established himself as the closer at Vero Beach and did the same at Jacksonville after moving up, winding up with 23 saves between the two. "I felt strange last year because this organization is so different from Detroit but now I feel like I belong." And on the 40-man roster, too. "Yeah, I wasn't sure to believe that when it happened."

Frasor is a mere 5-10, 170, but he possesses a fiery fast ball and is a commanding mound presence despite his lack of size. Becoming the closer at Las Vegas is his goal for this season. But in the meantime, he joins the chorus of those experiencing the big -league thrill, which he says, " I hope lasts awhile."

Oh, they'll be heading back down too soon for most but for the time being they have to feel like Little Orphan Annie after Oliver Warbucks took her into his mansion for Christmas. "Makes you want to get up there even more," said one.

Ah, spring, when hearts are at their lightest and hopes at their zenith. And the nice part is most of these wanna-be's have the talent to make it a reality.