Spring In Dodgertown, The Other Story

For many, spring training means only the major league games, albeit sprinkled with the best and brightest of the minor league system. But there is much that does not catch the eye of the spring season ticket holder.

On a typical morning the players on the 40-man roster stretch and warmup before breaking into two or more groups for batting practice. If the team is on the road, they load into their charter bus so they will arrive well before game time.

Pitchers who do not make the trip may throw a bullpen in the strings area under the watchful eyes of an array of pitching coaches and then usually retire to Maury Wills bunting cage for some work.

But this is all pretty routine and many are on hand to watch, some hoping for an autograph or two.

But on the "backside" of the camp, fields five and six east of the players quarters. On these fields the minor league players practice. Only a few aficionados appear on his side of the camp, plus a few proud parents who delight in watching their sons in their bright Dodger Blue uniforms.

Their numbers are not in the thick spring training yearbook sold in Holman Stadium and fans have to stop by the minor league offices to get a simple list of the players names and numbers.

After a week to 10 days, intrasquad games are held, usually on field No. 1. "Games" may not be the correct name for them, with pitchers often working against four players per inning and rosters flexing and changing as the coaches switch players from squad to squad.

Later in the spring, the players are split into four teams: Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Inland Empire and Great Lakes but those rosters change as players are cut from a spring training roster that numbers in excess of 60.

These squads have actual games against other clubs who train in the area, including the Mets, Washington, Florida, Cardinals and Atlanta. Normally the AAA and AA teams (Las Vegas and Jacksonville) are home while the A squads (Inland Empire and Great Lakes) play on the road, then the following day the A squads are home and the two higher classifications bus somewhere to play.

There are no scoreboards for the dozen or so fans who wind up watching the games and there are no programs so you have to use the rosters we spoke of before.

Thursday found two Dodger squads playing on field No. 1, surrounded by minor league officials, including De Jon Watson, VP, Player Development, coordinators, managers and players plus a sprinkling of major league personnel.

Dodger Veep Tommy Lasorda watched the game for a time Thursday, then taxied his golf cart over to the strings where Esteban Loaiza and Hong-Chih Kuo had just finishing throwing.

Kuo's elbow tenderness improved enough to allow him to play catch the day before. And his bullpen session, with Gary Bennett catching him, went off without a hitch. He'd been shut down for three days.

Kuo, who had bone chips removed last year for his fourth elbow operation, said he considered this week's tenderness "normal rehab that you just go through. It's not a big deal."

Hiroki Kuroda finished his work on the mound and was surrounded by a flock of Japanese media with notebooks at the ready and both video and still cameras having recorded his very move.

Minor league standouts Justin Orenduff and Greg Miller moved into the strings.

Orenduff, the Dodgers' first round selection in 2004, was shut down by tendinitis after 10 starts in 2006 but bounced back nicely last year, winning eight games at Jacksonville and striking out 113 in 109 innings.

He saw his first exhibition action of the spring against Washington at Viera and struggled, allowing a pair of walks and two hits before leaving the game.

When a writer asked if the adrenaline was running too strong, he smiled and said, "Well, I was overthrowing a bit."

He reported his arm felt fine and that he was scheduled to pitching again with the big club some time soon.

Greg Miller was on the mound next to him and his fastball and curve and powerful to watch up close.

The Dodgers' No. 1 pick in 2002, he was beset by arm problems after winning 12 games between Vero Beach and Jacksonville in only his second season.

Healthy again, he is battling a control problem that saw him walk 89 in 76.2 innings at Las Vegas and Jacksonville last year. However, he fanned 97 to demonstrate his arm problems are a thing of the past.

In his first outing of the spring he walked two and allowed three hits, leaving the game without retiring a man. Against Washington in Vero Beach he gave up a base on balls, threw a double play ball and got a soft fly to left field.

Lasorda stopped his cart by the mound where Miller was working and was lavish in his praise of the young lefthander's stuff.

"That's the way I used to throw," he said loudly, "except I could throw it over the plate" and Miller grinned at the jab.

"I'm trying, man," he said.

Dismounting from his cart, Lasorda walked out on the mound and looking up at him (Lasorda is 5-7 and Miller is 6-6) said, "If you throw like that in a game, you should be pitching in the big leagues."

Tommy stood beside him as he continued to throw, offering hints that included, "When you throw a ball, just adjust a little to get it over the plate." He said that the way to gain control is to get a 'feel' for the ball, which you can do just playing catch.

He worked with him for a number of minutes, watching his fastball slam into the catcher's glove and his curve ball break across the plate, then he returned to his cart and moved on.

These are some of the camps within the camp and most people don't get to see, but it's all in a day's work and an everyday endeavor for the coaching staff.

When, in the near future, you see Orenduff, Miller, wonderkind Clayton Kershaw or others make a successful major league debut, you can be it didn't come about overnight and that the seeds of the Dodgers, or any major league club's success, are planted in the Outback, on the far side of the training complex, away from the bright lights.

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