Every Pitcher Tells a Story

Reyes anointed, Schilling bloated, and the Keyser Soze of baseball: Notes from spring training

Port St. Lucie, FLA.—

I imagine that at the very first spring training, early in the mists of baseball history, a sun-dazed writer saw an unknown young man get a couple of solid hits and declared him "the next Wahoo Sam Crawford." This year, the media's emerging favorite was the Mets' Mike Carp, a left-handed first baseman with power and patience, who drove in five runs on two resounding doubles while filling in for Carlos Delgado (sore neck) against the Astros. Carp has been compared to Jim Thome, but I caught myself starting to think Giambi—I got about as far as Giam—before realizing I'd be basing the comparison on exactly two at-bats. Also, he's 20.

It's easy to get carried away down here. On the flip side, there are also the poor performances, with their tried-and-true explanations:

"The pitchers are ahead of the hitters." (Used since time immemorial whenever the offense struggles.)

"I was only working on [pitch x] today—normally I'm a [pitch y] pitcher."

"My arm strength is ahead of my location." Or: "My location is ahead of my arm strength."

"I was overpitching/overstriding/ overthrowing/overswinging/overthinking." (A relative of the Joe Torre perennial, "He was pressing a little bit.")

These excuses are often true. Still, there's always some reason why a dis- appointing spring-training game is meaningless. Good performances, on the other hand, are of course totally representative. With all this in mind, some random observations after four days of strong sun, sleepy ballgames, long drives, and fast food:

Jose Reyes is not being overhyped. He looks to be in even better shape than last year—not that he was ever what you'd call a couch potato—and has everyone within a 30-mile radius talking Gold Glove and MVP. Asked what he'd done with himself in the off-season, Reyes replied, "Nothing." It seems to have worked for him. And what is he planning to work on this season? "Everything!"

The Mets play at Tradition Field (not to be confused with the Yanks' Legends Field), a charming, open park I fell in love with the second I realized there was a thatched tiki bar in the left-field stands.

It's been hard not to feel for Shawn Green, a polite and thoughtful guy who's struggled this spring, with young outfield prospect Lastings Milledge hovering in the wings. Green has received hitting advice from Delgado, Julio Franco, and Carlos Beltran in the past few days, but still became the last Met regular without a hit, going 0 for 15. He altered his swing in the off-season, trying to correct a flaw, but he says he's done that throughout his career and it's just "part of the process . . . . It's always been a lot of work for me." (As I wrote that sentence, Green got a hit against the Orioles to make it 1 for 16; curses went up around the press room from writers working on stories about his slump.)

There are well over 100 Japanese reporters at Red Sox camp this year, chronicling expensive import Daisuke Matsuzaka's every breath, and the media circus has itself become the story. "Last year was probably the most intensively scrutinized and most hectic, busiest clubhouse I've ever been in," says Sox pitcher Craig Breslow, "and this year blows it away." Matsuzaka seemed to be taking it all in stride, I thought, as he chatted easily with reporters before a game with the visiting Mets—though of course I couldn't understand a word he was saying. "He seems like a pretty polite, approachable guy," Breslow says. "We've exchanged gestures."

In addition to a plus curveball, Breslow has a Yale degree in biophysics and has read up on the infamous, shadowy gyroball pitch, which is rapidly becoming the Keyser Soze of baseball. But even he has no idea if Matsuzaka throws it—or, for that matter, if the pitch really exists: "I think I've yet to see it—so as far as I'm concerned right now it's sort of mythical." Earlier in the week two Marlins batters claimed to have spotted it, only to have both Matsuzaka and the Red Sox pitching coach deny he'd thrown one. Psychologically, at least, the gyroball—real or not—is already a colossal success.

If you want to know how much importance teams place on the outcome of these spring-training games, here's a verbatim exchange from the Red Sox dugout before the Mets game, after several reporters talking with Red Sox manager Terry Francona brought up Mets starter Chan Ho Park's recently resolved visa problems:

francona: (suddenly puzzled) "Wait. Who's pitching today?"

reporter: "Chan Ho."

francona: (more puzzled) "Really? . . . Who does Ohka pitch for?"

reporter: "Toronto."

francona: "Oh—that's tomorrow then."

When I asked if he had a minute for a few questions, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said, "No, I don't," then proceeded to sit at his locker reading the paper and fiddling with his PDA for 25 minutes. I understand that he must get sick of talking to the media, and he's certainly justified in taking a break from it. But given that I got up at 4:30 in the morning and drove from Port St. Lucie across dark, foggy, possibly alligator-infested roads to Fort Myers in order to arrive when the Sox clubhouse opened at 8, I was less forgiving than I should have been. Of course, I would never let something petty like that affect my unbiased coverage of Schilling, one of the greatest pitchers of his generation . . . Say, did I mention how overweight he is this year?

The new additions to the Mets locker room seem to be fitting right in. Moises Alou chats easily with Billy Wagner in English, Carlos Beltran in Spanish, and to the press with a knowing, detached amusement that should serve him well in New York. Alou said that when deciding which team to sign with during the off-season, he looked at the Mets' roster on mlb.com and thought "right away, this was the team I wanted to be with"—because of the talent, but also because of "the human beings." For affable former Oriole David Newhan, "It's been an easy transition . . . . Carlos [Delgado] and Julio [Franco] set a good tone, and Tommy [Glavine] with the pitchers. Everyone just sort of falls in line from there."

As is often the case with these Mets, what's good for the team is tough on reporters—unlike Yankees camp in Tampa, there's a distinct absence of drama in Port St. Lucie. The closest the Mets have come to dysfunctional excitement, at least publicly, was when Willie Randolph sent rehabbing reliever Duaner Sanchez home for the day after he was repeatedly late. Not to downplay the issue, but, well, it's hardly the stuff of screaming back-page headlines. What else is there—"Wright and Reyes: Still Getting Along Well!"?

For the benefit of the sportswriters, and you, the readers, I'd like to second David Wright's comment that A-Rod would be welcome on the Mets if he opts out of his Yankees contract at the end of the season. In the meantime, the Mets drama will apparently have to wait until the games begin at Shea.

I'm off to Tampa—in search of wild rumors, intrigue, and a decent classic rock station.

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