February 27, 2012

One door closes; another opens

Every time we head out to Tempe in the spring, we (Cheryl and me) go with huge expectations. We are always hopeful that we can have some fun interactions with players; be it with an autograph, a photo opportunity, a conversation or by simply seeing them interact with one another. There’s nothing like spring training – the players are more accessible, generally relaxed and in a good mood.

It doesn’t always work out that way and there are times when things don’t like we hope. This trip had its moments, but almost turned out to be nothing close to what we expected.

First – not as many position players were in camp early as we had hoped for and those that were weren’t very accessible. The spring training facility is less fan friendly than it has been in the past. Let’s just say that Albert Pujols’ impact was evident.

If you’ve been to Tempe you are probably familiar with the path the Angels take from the practice fields to the stadium. The barricades that line the path are now doubled – meaning that if you want to have your picture taken with a player – there’s a bigger gap between you and them. It’s nothing horrible, but it’s a lot less intimate.

As Albert Pujols, Kendrys Morales, Vernon Wells and others took batting practice on the back fields near the minor league clubhouse, we were only allowed watch from beyond the outfield area. In the past fans were allowed to walk between and behind the fields. That’s not true any longer. One rumor floating around was that someone walked into the minor league club house and stole some bats – so security is now taking extra precautions. Bummer.

Those things made the experience a little less enjoyable, but our trip still had some bright spots; however, our last day – Sunday was almost a disaster.

We arrived at the stadium around 10 a.m. – a little later than usual, but normally a good time to accomplish the things we want to do. As I was heading towards the practice fields – I saw Morales and Mark Trumbo on a cart heading back to the clubhouse. I looked out and the practice fields were empty…

“What is going on?” I thought to myself.

I met up with Cheryl and we walked into the stadium to find that the catchers and minor leaguers were taking batting practice. Everyone else was done. We asked around and found out the players were pretty much done for the day. Turns out the rest of the position players would be arriving, checking in, taking their physicals, etc. (I would learn today that Mike Scioscia also happened to be sick and didn’t even come to the stadium).

What to do?

The day was looking like a total disappointment.

And then I had an idea – I asked Cheryl if she wanted to head out to the Diamondbacks facility? She was up for it and off we wet (the great thing about the Cactus League is that you're just minutes away from most of the stadiums)...

The day prior – Saturday, we took a trip out to the Fields at Salt River to have a look see. We had heard that it was a beautiful complex and it was. That trip turned out to be good recon. We knew exactly how to get there, where to go to see the Diamondbacks (they share the facility with the Rockies), etc.

Turns out our little journey to Salt River Fields would be the highlight of our trip.

As we walked from the parking lot to the practice areas, I caught sight of the pitchers working out. Cheryl was wondering why I was walking so fast… as she would soon learn, I was on a mission. As I got closer to the area, the pitchers were leaving the field (panic started to set in) and then I realized what was happening… they were walking to an area where fans were waiting to interact. It was at this point that I spotted… you guessed it, Joe Saunders (regular readers of this blog know about our history with Joe).

I pointed and turned back to Cheryl and said, “There’s Joe!” We made our way over, and much to our delight, got to spend a few minutes with Joe.

I asked Joe if he had gone golfing yet with Tom Glavine? He said that was “still in the works.” Turns out – he’s actually going to be golfing with John Smoltz sometime in the future. I read this article in 2010 about his wife Shanel setting up a golf date for Joe to play with Smoltz. Joe was too nice to correct me about the names - which is just like Joe.

Joe signed a few things for us, posed for pictures and basically “made our trip” as Cheryl would tell him. The day looked a little bleak at first, but it’s amazing what a little prayer can do. If we had been ten minutes later, we probably would have missed our small window of opportunity.

We hung around for a while, got a few autographs, pictures, etc. before heading to Hillside Spot Café (where we had breakfast earlier) to pick up an order of blondies (cookies) we had ordered and then headed home.

Photo opps (above) with Ian Kennedy, Kirk Gibson, and Ryan Roberts x 2. By the way - Ian Kennedy shares our affinity for one of our favorite restaurants - Jongewaard's Bake 'N broil in Long Beach. Bake 'n Broil made his wedding cake and he told us he always has his mom pick up some red velvet cake whenever she comes out to see him.

We had a blast with the Diamondbacks and Cheryl and I agreed, we could easily adopt the Diamondbacks as our National League team.

By the way… check out our breakfast: “Hit the Spot” pancakes (Two Flapjacks served w/ sliced Bananas, Caramel, Whipped Crème Fraiche & Peanuts) and an Egg Torta.

On our drive home, Cheryl proved once again how wise she is. She asked me "Where's Bartolo Colon?" I couldn't remember (it's hard keeping up with all the ex-Angels around the league these days) and I told her as much. Her response? "He should go to Oakland?" Why Oakland, I asked? She said, "That's where all the players seem to end up when they're on their way out."

Well, as you probably already know and I learned today - Colon is indeed in Oakland. When I told Cheryl this today - she laughed and then said, "John Lackey needs to go there next." Hey, the girl speaks the truth. Just saying.

Be sure to check out the posts about the rest of our trip (below)...

The night Bengie Molina stole his last base....

Bengie Molina, one of my all-time favorites announced his retirement today. I will miss him for his engaging personality (he was always tremendous with fans), his clutch hitting (I always felt good when Bengie came to the plate with runners in scoring position), and his awesome defense (he won gold gloves in 2002 and 2003).

The one thing he wasn’t known for is his speed or lack of it, so to speak and yet – my fondest memories of Bengie involve a couple events on the base paths.

It started on May 16, 2006 when he was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays and his team was in Anaheim to play the Angels. His brother – Jose Molina was the starting catcher for the Angels that evening. In the bottom of the 6th with Angels leading 3-0, Jose stole second base off his brother Bengie. Jose would score that inning and the Angels would go on to win 8-3, but the fun was just getting started.

The next night (May 17, 2006), in the top of the 2nd in a scoreless game Bengie would try to get a little revenge and attempt to steal a base against his brother. He was gunned down and the Angels would go down 3-0 that night.

But this is not where the story or the memory ends…

Four month later, on September 9, 2006 Bengie would exact his revenge. In the top of the 4th with his team trailing 1-0, Bengie would go lumbering down the base path to steal second (the third and last stolen base of his entire career). He wouldgo on to score as his team would win 2-1.

The smile on his face must have been priceless (hard to tell from my seats). I know I had to smile as I recalled the events of the year leading up to this moment. It was almost predictable. Two brothers were living our their sibling rivalry on major league playing field. It was priceless to watch and something I will always remember.

Bengie was the ultimate competitor, but he knew how to have fun too. This is the kind of player I have always loved to root for. He was tough as nails and made the most out of his abilities.

Cheryl and I have a ton of Bengie memories and we will miss him. We missed not seeing him in a uniform at all last year (and really hated it when he wore Texas colors) and we have missed him ever since he left the Angels following the 2005 season. The Angels catching core has never been the same. Just saying.

Note: I will post Day 3 in Tempe (which was yesterday) later tonight....

February 25, 2012

Day 2 in Tempe

Tonight's post is going to be brief... it's late and I need some sleep!

We started the day with breakfast from Matt's Big Breakfast, one of our favorites that we visit every time we're in the area. Then we were off to the stadium to watch Albert Pujols, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales, Maicer Izturis, Mark Trumbo, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo and others taking batting practice.

The day in pictures...

Above... Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo, Hisanori Takahasi, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Albert with Alberto Callaspo.

We ended the evening at Rustler's Rooste - another restaurant Mike Butcher's family is associated with. We had a good time... and that's no bull... just ask "Horney" (see the bull below) who greets visitors to the restaurant...

February 24, 2012

Life in the fast lane

The last two days have involved two of Cheryl and my favorite things... music and baseball. It all started Thursday night with a concert with the Newsboys, who had Anthem Lights, Abandon, and the City Harmonic warming up for them.

We had a fabulous time and even though we knew we would pay for it today (after only getting a few hours of sleep), it was worth the time. Okay, maybe going to a concert and then coming home to finish packing for an early (4:30 a.m.) trip to Tempe for a little baseball isn't the smartest thing in the world - but that's just how we roll.

We rolled into Tempe sometime after 10:30 a.m. (Tempe time) and headed out to the practice fields where the pitchers were doing their drills in preparation for what we hope will be a championship season. That's right... I said "championship" season... after all, it's spring.

We caught up with Bob, who is one of the wonderful and extremely nice folks who work at the stadium, snapped some photos, chatted a bit with fans, players and coaches and then headed off for a late lunch.

One of the things we love about coming to Tempe/Phoenix is that we get to head out to some of our favorite eating establishments. We're always on the look-out for something new and local and today we were very pleased with a recommendation that came from Keith Law of ESPN. Law recently tweeted that "if you're covering the Angels and you're not spending at least half of your meals at Hillside Spot Cafe - you should just go back to Los Angeles."

Cheryl and I had a pulled pork sandwich that was absolutely mouth watering. We followed it up with cookie (blondies) that was equally delectable. We're adding this restaurant to our "must visit" list for every trip to the area going forward.

We then headed to our hotel to crash for a few hours.

Spring training is all about watching baseball, eating and sleeping. Hey, it's all about doing things that help us have the best possible experience. We need our rest and food to fuel our days. Just saying.

Which brings me to dinner... Mike Butcher's sister-in-law has a restaurant (I don't know the extent of her actual involvement) called Aunt Chilada's and we had been dying to try it. We learned about it last year from our friend Joe. We had actually forgotten the name of the restaurant, but when we saw Mike Butcher he was kind enough to tell us the name.

The food here was very good and the chips (specifically the flour chips) were the best "chips" I've ever had. Cheryl had a quesadilla sampler and I had the chicken and spinach enchilada.

How was the food? Let's just say that we were 2 for 2 today and batting a thousand. This is how you do spring training right, folks.

The day in photographs... Included below are Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson X 2, Latroy Hawkins/Jered Weaver/Mike Scioscia/Dan Haren, Jorge Cantu, Jerome Williams, and Chris Ianetta.

February 22, 2012

Can C.J. Wilson dance?

I saw C.J. Wilson interviewed by KTLA Channel 5 last night and he said, he's "having the best off season of his life." Clearly, being back in his native So. Cal and knowing that he's going to be playing in the O.C. has made Wilson happy.

Normally, you'd like to hear things like "I've had the best off season of my life getting ready for baseball..." Hey, I'm sure he's working hard to get ready for 2012, right? I mean, right?

It's going to be interesting (to say the least) having C.J. Wilson on our team. Let's just hope that he give us more reasons to smile for what he does on the field than he does off it. Just saying.

This is a man with a wide range of interests. He's not your ordinary guy at all. On the surface of it all, I like him - but he makes me a little nervous. I'm warming up to the idea that he's now on the Angels... I mean I hated him when he was a Ranger.

Again... it's going to be interesting.

Late addition: Apparently, C.J. Wilson is not a stranger to dancing...

February 20, 2012

The feel good story of the year is going to be...

I have wanted to get something off my chest for a while now and that “something” is that I feel good about the kind of season Vernon Wells is going to have this year. Yeah, I said it and I’m feeling good about it too. I know; some of you; heck, a lot of you have your doubts. I have eyes and ears and I’ve read and heard what you’ve had to say.

Angel fans, writers, bloggers, “experts” and the like have had a field day with Vernon Wells since last season. I know a lot of it was justified. Wells did not have the kind of season any of us- including Wells himself, wanted. Some of you even predicted as much and you’re at it again.

If you’re a die-hard Angels fan and you follow the off season news like a tiger tracks its prey, then you’ve read or heard about all the effort Wells has put into the off season. You know that renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramiillo worked with him all off season. You’ve no doubt heard about Wells’ work-out routine and all the effort he’s putting into making 2011 a distant memory.

And yet… some of you still don’t believe or even worse – don’t want to believe. You'd rather cling to your projections or what the experts are saying.

Well, count me among the believers.

So while some of you are buried away in your rooms working on player projections, I have to ask you – how do you factor in a new swing and approach at the plate in your projections? Can you even do that? Let’s just say that I have my doubts and I’m betting there are things you just can’t project despite your best efforts.

Right or wrong – I’m saying – it’s okay to give Wells a fresh start. He was pretty horrible last year and the most telling stat line for me what the fact that he only hit 15 doubles. He can’t possibly be any worse and I’m willing to bet he’ll be more than solid in 2012.

How can I say that? I have a gut feeling about this and I know that some of you hate “gut feelings.” If you can’t quantify it, you don’t want to think about it, right? Well, life doesn’t always work out the way we think it will or even the way it’s supposed to. I’m counting on that human element in Wells - his desire to be better. He’s clearly on a mission and quite frankly, I want to go along for the ride.

So here’s the bottom line. Vernon Wells has been mocked, ridiculed and put down by everyone from ESPN’s Keith Law to Tim Dierkes of mlbtraderumors.com. He’s an under-dog and I love a good old fashioned under-dog – especially when he works his tail off to get better.

Well is known for his phrase “too blessed to be stressed” and some of you have even taken to mocking that. Shame on you.

I am going on record right now and put myself in Vernon’s corner. When he first signed, I told you I was “all in.” It felt good then and it feels good now. That’s right. There’s no telling how 2012 is going to play out, but this fan wants Wells to succeed in a big way. This is who I am and this is what I do.

Deep down inside, you want to be on Wells’ wagon too, don’t you? You see the same guy I do - a guy who stays positive no matter what; a guy who is putting in the maximum amount of effort to make us all forget 2011.

Albert Pujols is going to grab a lot of headlines this spring and I’m sure he’ll do the same throughout the season. There are a lot of interesting story lines to follow – everything from Kendrys Morales comeback to whether or not Mike Trout will have a chance to make an impact. It’s all interesting and worth noting, but I’m focused on “the feel-good story of the year” – and that’s going to be Vernon Wells.

It’s spring baby. Optimism reigns supreme and I’m giving a huge dosage of my own kind of rose-colored optimism directly to Vernon Wells.

Who’s with me? This is going to be fun.