The Eck at the plate
Lou Brock (just because)
T.J. Mathews (on the base paths)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — I didn’t recognize him at first. Back behind a hangar-sized storage building at the Busch Complex, not far from the parking lot, some Cards were taking batting practice. Just a few people looked on, and as I wandered over half of them left. There is a strange quality walking up to the fence during BP.
The players inside seem oblivious. They horse around, do their work and complete what look like but aren’t unprogrammed agendas without regard to the fact that they’re inside a fishbowl. And outside, bug-eyed and distorted in the weird refraction that happens between a ball field and the seats, are the fans. Fans who may chat and chatter, but whose heart and eyes stay resolutely on the field. All their energy and attention is focused there. The only time that changes, really, is when a ball comes crashing out on the sidewalk, like a guppy recklessly jumping to the floor from its bowl.
All of which interests me (why do we so much enjoy watching others do things?) and maybe explains why I didn’t recognize him at first. He stood in the cage, right-handed, taking some nice cuts at some pretty fat (and slow) BP meatballs.
The coach who was tossing these cream puffs was shouting out situations, like “two out, man on second,” and such. Now he shouted, “Man on first, hit and run” and the batter called back, “Hit and run?” It was then I recognized him, as the Eck dribbled a ball through the pretend vacated hole at second base. The perfect hit-and-run. Well, probably.
Pitch Him Inside
Just two observations after watching Dennis Eckersley take batting practice: He swings like a pitcher, which is something of an endorsement: He’s spent all but four of his major league seasons pitching in the American League. And he doesn’t like the ball high and tight. A couple of those BP pitches rode up and in a little, chin music at a dirge’s tempo, and the Eck seemed upset.
Watching the pitchers practice hitting is fun. They aren’t very good, for the most part, and spend most of the time working on bunting and going the opposite way (as if, in a key situation against Ramon Martinez or Rod Beck, these lessons would actually be practical), but they also can surprise, and they get genuinely, boyishly excited when they give the ball a ride. What can I say but, that’s nice.
What isn’t nice, and which I suspect will eventually end up being the reason for the adoption of the DH in the NL, is the risk of injury the pitchers face. I don’t know who was batting when it happened, I was mostly watching Todd Stottlemyre shag flies in center. The coach was calling out scenarios and a few Cardinal pitchers, including Eck, were running the bases, rather undramatically pretending to advance on each batted ball. But this ball, the ball in question, was hit hard, on the ground, foul not far from third base and caught T.J. Mathews on the heel or ankle. He tumbled to the ground, rolling forward while the ball skittered away toward the fence. In a brief moment, the world inhaled sharply.
T.J. Mathews is supposedly, by mid-year, going to be the Cardinals closer. Although he has just three career saves, I’m not going to be the one to pooh-pooh the idea. He strikes out nearly one per inning, and has never had an ERA above 3.15 in four professional seasons. Eck is meant to be his mentor. Anyway, T.J. jumped right up after his spill, which wasn’t that bad, really. He smiled, though I detected the strain of worry there. The others laughed. The moment passed and BP resumed. But if I were Tony La Russa, who isn’t used to pitchers running the bases, I’d have blanched.
But La Russa wasn’t there. He was over on field 2, having a chat with a collection of marginal Cards, like Rod Correia, Trip Croomer and Aaron Holbert.
Actually, these guys are young enough and have been around enough, that maybe they have some sort of future in the bigs. But it’s a marginal future. For instance, Holbert stole 62 bases in 1992 in Savannah, and 45 the next year in St. Pete. But last year, in Louisville, he swiped just 14 and was caught six times, so he isn’t a base stealer. Also last year, his on-base average was .297 while his batting average was .257, so he isn’t much of a hitter either. But he’s just 23, it was his first year in Class AAA, and you never know. He’ll get more chances; he’s getting one now.
The Wizard in Action
On field 1, Ozzie Smith was working out at shortstop, taking throws from Geronimo Pena, who was fielding fungoes hit by Red Schoendienst. Enough has been written about Ozzie and his contract and his quest. I wanted to know about his shoulder, which he says is fine and which the doctors say is fine, but it wasn’t until the intrasquad game that we got to see it work. Suffice it to say that Ozzie is proud of what he’s accomplished and doesn’t yet think it’s time to hang it up. I hope he’s right. Heck, just about everyone in the world but Royce Clayton hopes he’s right, but it would seem that time isn’t in Ozzie’s favor.
One of the great things about watching the morning practices is listening to the players talk about their skills with their coaches. At one point I overheard Mark Sweeney describing his weaknesses at the plate to hitting instructor George Hendrick, and explaining what he was doing to overcome them. Actually, Sweeney’s minor league averages have been consistently good, so not many opponents have caught on yet; still, I’m not going to spill the beans here. I’ll wait until later, when maybe it will matter more. But by then he’ll have figured out how to hit with more power, or he won’t be in the majors.
Or he might be. John Mabry is supposedly the Cards first baseman this year. He looks good standing in the batter’s box, though I couldn’t decide if his stance was more Hal Morris or Paul O’Neill. In either case, you get the picture. He’s a modern hitter. His swing is O’Neill’s, but thus far his numbers have been so-so. Mabry strikes out a fair amount and doesn’t walk much. Sweeney’s numbers are better. Neither seems to be a whiz in the field. Neither has thus far shown much power. Sweeney, 26, is a year older. I’d keep an eye on this one.
A father walked over to his teenaged boy, who was leaning against the backstop, and said, “Lou Brock’s out there, hitting flies.” Which he was, behind a net screen. The boy asked if Brock was “a player,” and his father said he was, then gazed away into the outfield.
The intrasquad game was completely different than the one staged at Ed Smith by the White Sox. This game seemed totally ad hoc, La Russa standing amid a crowd of players shouting out rules. Each team bats two innings in a row, then switches to the field. If you don’t run the ball out it’s a run for the other team. He said losers were to buy the cold-cut spread for the next day, though a more potent wager seemed to be the winners getting out of the second trip to Fort Meyers to face the Twins. Tom Pagnozzi said, “Sheesh, we better win,” when he heard that.
The game was pitched by coaches, batting practice style. The balls were fat, and though an ump called balls and strikes, rarely did a hitter see more than two pitches. Danny Shaeffer hit a homer in the first inning. And Clayton, appropriately, hit a sharp grounder to Ozzie, who threw the ball on the line to first. It was the one strong throw I saw Ozzie try to make all day, and it was strong. But then, he is coming off surgery.
Struggling with the Bat
The most colorful at-bat belonged to Dmitri Young, a 22-year-old with a big old round butt and quick, defensive smile that you’ve got to believe is genuine, but have to surmise comes with a story attached. In his second at bat he couldn’t get the weighted donut off the head of his bat. He slammed the handle down into the soft ground, getting more and more frustrated the less it moved. Which was nil. The veterans smiled openly at the ludicrous sight of this strong, large man jabbing the bat into the ground helplessly. When he finally took another bat and struck the donut, dislodging it from the barrel, they laughed openly, if not ungenerously.
Young strode to the plate and swung through the first pitch. The vets were still smiling at this rambunctious man. He took the second pitch at the knees. “Strike!” the ump shouted and Young’s head whipped around. “What?” Now the guys on the bench were rolling, this guy was so tightly wound as to challenge one of his coaches calling balls and strikes. Young stepped back into the box and pulled the next ball high into the blue noon sky and ultimately well past the 325-foot sign in left field.
Needless, perhaps, to say, the crowd went wild, his teammates went wild, and Dmitri Young’s smile seemed nothing if not genuine and big-hearted. He’s a hero. I’m a fan.
Finally, the other story of this day was Jose Oliva, a man who over the past few years seemed to have taken his big stick and long homers in the minors and played himself out of a true shot at the big leagues. I saw him in a game in Richmond two summers ago against the Mets farm team. The opposing third basemen, supposedly hot prospects, were Butch “Who was too” Husky and Jose “I’m shaped like an olive” Oliva. They seemed arrogant, were fat and didn’t make much of an impression short of round and no thanks.
Last year, too, in Atlanta, Oliva did not impress. So I had more or less written him off as a head case, a waste of talent. But during this intrasquad game at the Busch Complex he was the star, Dmitri Young notwithstanding. Diving stops on sharp grounders, strong throws to second and first, a tough running over-the-shoulder catch while heading out into left field.
Perhaps more impressively, he was animated, and seemed to attract his teammates’s good graces. It’s too early to say for sure he’s matured and improved and is ready to displace Gary Gaetti (who, by the way, looked more than ready to play and battle, if necessary, for his job), but Oliva is a trim young man who always had a fearsome stick. Keep an eye on him.