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March 17: Fencing (Yanks at Blue Jays)

jays-homeAfter seeing the Braves in Disney, we drove to a little Cuban restaurant we knew of in Kissimmee, stuffed ourselves with black beans, rice, shredded beef, and the like, and then drove to the Tampa area. We were staying in my parents’ retirement house in Crystal Beach, like we did last year. They still aren’t retired, so it’s really more of a vacation home. Julian, my brother, arrived late during the night–I remember stumbling out of my bedroom to give him the tickets and a map to the field before falling back into a deep sleep. In the morning, he’d pick up the parents at the airport and bring them to the game and corwin opted to take the “late bus” as well.

Early Morning Hunting

I got up early the next morning, with the plan that I’d arrive at Grant Field in Dunedin before the Yankees did. I didn’t even try to get autographs at Wide World of Sports — there were too many Yankees fans there and I didn’t want to spend the whole day leaning on a rail. But one reason I was so complacent was I figured that Dunedin would be a much better location for autograph hunting. Last year it was at Dunedin where we garnered the most signatures, Tim Raines, Jim Leyritz, Tony Cloninger, Joe Torre, George Steinbrenner… The Blue Jays field would be ideal for autographs for three reasons. One, lackadaisical security, two, the way the field is currently set up, the players walk from the bus along a tall chain link fence to get to the clubhouse door, and three, that day the Yankees were playing a regular game at the same time at Legends Field, meaning the hordes would mostly be there.

That meant, of course, that most of the Yankees would be there, too. Based on who was absent the day before, I thought the regulars we were most likely to see would be Scott Brosius, David Justice, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams. I was half right: Justice and Brosius were both there. And Scott signed autographs right along that fence from the parking lot!

The only problem was, my plan to get there before the Yankees didn’t quite work out, as it took a bit longer to get out of the house than I had intended. When I walked up to the fence, a very small number of fans were standing there (maybe six or seven) and they told me the guys had walked in about five minutes before. Rats! Brosius had done his signing and wouldn’t do any more that day. He and the other players walked by again after suiting up, on their way to a practice field. An older fella next to me at the fence told me he was a Blue Jays fan who lived in the neighborhood, but his granddaughter just loved the Yankees. He had brought his camera and was hoping to get a picture of Derek Jeter for her. I told him I didn’t think we’d see Jeter, since he was in Tampa, but I’d tell him who the others were. Each Yankee who came along I’d call out his name, and almost all of them stopped to have their photo snapped through the fence. David Justice even turned and gave a big smile, one hand holding up two fingers (V for Victory?). He snapped shots of Joe Oliver (new backup catcher), hot infield prospects Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano, D’Angelo Jimenez, and Erick Almonte, potential backup left fielder Henry Rodriguez, and that day’s starter, Sid Fernandez. If I had been thinking, I would have asked him to send me copies of the photos, but I figured I’d get my own shots inside. Hopefully I’d have a chance at some autographs over the top of the dugout, too.

Pitcher This

The fence, as it turned out, was a fine place for a quick chat with Randy Choate. If you’re not familiar with him here’s Choate in a nutshell: he’s a lefty sidearm slinger who was up with the big club much of last year, pitched in 22 games in relief, and only once blew the lead. He made the jump straight from Tampa (A) in ’99 to Columbus (AAA) in 2000, and then to the majors a month or so later, so fast that when he came up the press department didn’t even have a picture of him on file. He’s as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as they come, a really sweet kid. They convinced him to write a “rookie diary” for the Yankees Xtreme web site last season, and he had signed autographs for the Xtremists on Xtreme Day at the Stadium. Because of a scheduling glitch, he also ended up signing for a hundred or more regular fans that day in Monument Park, which must have been the first time he’d ever had to do that in the bigs.

“Hey Randy,” I yelled. “Are you still keeping up your diary?” He stopped at the fence, a little shocked that anyone knew his name.

“Oh, not for the site I’m not,” he said. “They shut that down.”

“I know, I mean just for yourself.”

“I’ll probably do it during the season. But not for Spring Training!”

He signed one of the photos I took of him on Xtreme Day, a picture in which he is autographing, which makes it kind of funny to see his signature on it. I told him I looked forward to seeing him pitch that week some time and he looked a bit down. I know they haven’t been using him much, but that’s because Joe already knows what he can do. I think Choate has a good shot at the lefty specialist job in the bullpen, and I hope he makes it.

Speaking of making it, let’s talk about Sid Fernandez. Here’s a guy trying to make a comeback after a couple of years in retirement for an elbow injury that turned out to be a phantom pain from his neck. A chiropractor straightened him out and he’s been pitching relatively well. I say relatively because although he hasn’t been dominating, when compared to Randy Keisler, Adrian Hernandez, and even Doc Gooden, he’s been great. Mel knows him from his days with the Mets, and he’s a lefty. So who knows? The history of the Yankees is full of comeback stories.

I’m no scout, but when sitting right behind the first base dugout (which is where our seats were), I could really see the movement on his pitches, and also really see the change of speed from the fast ball to the changeup. And this was during his warmup pitches. Once batters got in the box, it became even more obvious, as the hard-hitting Blue Jays were way out in front of the change and Sid’s slower breaking balls. Fernandez got ahead in the count a couple of times with big swings and misses. The only thing I worry about is he looks like a fly ball pitcher (remember Denny Neagle?) and with all the question marks in the outfield this year (who’s in left? will Paul O’Neill have to be held together with string and chewing gum? will Bernie stay healthy?) you have to wonder. He went four innings against Toronto’s best (the game was televised back in Canada), four hits (all singles), and gave up only one earned run. Everyone who came after him got hit hard, Darrell Einertson gave up a run-scoring double to Shannon Stewart, and Brian Boehringer gave up a home run to Albert Castillo, and back to back doubles to Stewart and Homer Bush. So I’d say Sid was pretty effective at keeping the Jay bats quiet. But can he keep it up? We’ll know if Torre and Mel think so in a couple of days, since they’ll have to announce the rotation eventually…

They Didn’t Break The Mold, Apparently

mickey-riversIf you didn’t know that Derek Jeter was absent that day, you might be forgiven for thinking you saw him. At shortstop the Yankees played prospect Erick Almonte and even I had to do a double take once or twice. If you stood them next to each other, you probably wouldn’t mix them up, but from a distance, Almonte walks like Jeter, has similar hair, same skin tone, and the same shape face. His demeanor, the way he carries himself–if you look quickly into the field, you just think “oh, there’s Derek at short.” Not only that, his batting stance is identical to Jeter’s, hands held high, fidgety… And the way he sets himself in the field? Carbon copy. Some of that can be explained by the coaches the two players have shared in the Yankee system, but not all. You especially thought it was Jeter out there when Homer Bush hit a hot shot in the first, which Jeter, I mean Almonte, leaped straight up in the air to snag. It was like that play in the 1999 ALCS that Jeter made–Nomar made the identical play the inning after. Woof! Of course, Almonte is yet another one of the hot pinstriped prospects whose upward mobility with the Yankees is blocked by Jeter. Maybe it just isn’t possible to have the two of them in the same place at the same time, like that X-Files episode with the dopplegangers…

And Justice For All

Once they opened the gates I took my usual place behind the Yankee dugout. It was cloudy again, which was actually better for us fans prepared to stand in one place for an hour or more, during BP and infield practice, as we didn’t get sunburned. (In fact it got so dark during the game, that they turned the lights on in the 6th inning. But it didn’t rain, so I can’t complain.)

I was standing with a couple from Atlanta and we got chatting about the usual things, baseball, trades and the like. The wife was carrying with her a ball signed by almost all the members of the Braves squad that won the World Series in 1995. One of the guys she was lacking was David Justice. “He never signs,” she lamented.

“He told us at the fence that he’d sign inside the park,” I told her.

“They always say things like that.”

But then, after taking his BP, Justice came sauntering toward the dugout. We were among about a dozen people up there who held out balls and pens. Justice looked at us and pursed his lips. “Now,” he said in his midwest/southern drawl, “If I sign here you folks will be throwing things at me and hitting me in the face.”

He paused. I wondered if maybe Derek had told him about getting smacked in the face with the ball right in that very spot last year. (Read all about it.)

“So I’ll meet you all over by the fence over there,” Justice finished. And he headed up the first base line.

I was so stunned it took me a few minutes to dig out my pen and program book–I hadn’t had a chance to buy any baseballs yet and the ones they were selling in Dunedin had the Blue Jays logo on them. By the time I did dig out my Sharpie and souvenir book, the wife was already back with Justice’s signature on the ball.

“I’m amazed,” she said. “He would never sign in Atlanta.”

“Maybe he didn’t like Braves fans,” I joked, but she didn’t hear me, and it was probably just as well. I made my way down to the throng that had gathered–even Blue Jays fans were trying to get the ALCS MVP’s signature! Fortunately, I’m short and skinny, and can slide between people fairly easily. I wormed my way to the front and held my program over the top of the fence, among the forest of hands, balls, pens, and items being dangled for him to sign.

I don’t remember now if I called him Mr. Justice or David. David, I think, and maybe I even winked. “Would you sign my program?”

He looked up. “Which one is yours?”

I waved it until he found it and then handed him the pen through the chain link. “So it’s your first Spring Training with the Yankees…” I began, wanting to ask him if it was different from the Braves or Indians.

“That’s right, you must read those programs, huh,” he said, as he handed it back, and then moved down the fence to more clamoring people. He signed for a good twenty minutes. When he got a hit in the first inning, I think even some Blue Jays fans were cheering.

The Game

Do you really want to know about the game? Although the Yankees hit the Jays pitching pretty hard, nine hits, six of them for extra bases, the only two runs came on home runs. Alfonso Soriano, playing in left field to increase his trade value or maybe just plug the hole out there created when Shane Spencer’s knee rehab was slowed down, batted lead off. The last time the Yankees had played in Dunedin, a few weeks back, the Jays had led off the game with a home run off Doc Gooden. Soriano had been watching, and he repeated the feat, launching one off Esteban Loaiza. It was really too bad that my family was still on the way from the airport then, as it was beautiful to see and also one of the real high points of the contest. Juan Rivera, who was playing in center field, hit a home run in the fourth, as well. We were quite confused about who he was at the time, since his jersey number read 85, but the lineup had announced him as #81, Wily Pena. What we didn’t know was that Pena had been traded mere hours before the game.

In the end the Jays pitchers, top notch guys (which is to say, all pitchers we’d actually heard of before) like Loaiza, Kelvim Escobar, Paul Quantrill, Dan Plesac, and Kevin Beirne were able to scatter the Yankee hits enough that they held us to two runs. Nine strikeouts might have something to do with that. As we were leaving the park, my mom grouped the family for a photo and a Blue Jays fan took it for us. As he handled the camera he said “Now wipe the tears out of your eyes,” ostensibly because we’d lost 4-2. But we had to be happy that our AAA and AA prospects were able to play Toronto’s stars (Mondesi, Delgado, Fullmer, Cruz, they were all in the game) to such a close game.

Back At The Fence

seabolI found myself ending the day as I began it, standing at the chain link fence with a few other Yankees fans, waiting for the guys to walk along back to the bus. The woman next to me was with her nine-year-old son, and hoping to get some autographs, but she didn’t recognize many of the players by name. I stopped Randy Choate for her, and Scott Seabol. Soriano for some reason was being shy, despite the home run, and ducked past in a knot of other Latin prospects.

I also snagged Mick Kelleher on his way by–he’s one of the infield coaches, the one who has been working with Chuck the most trying to get him over his throwing problem. “Do you think he’ll get through it?” I asked him. “I certainly hope so,” Kelleher said. “He looks great in practice, but…” But as we all know, come game time, anything could happen. Knoblauch had racked up close to an error per game already, including some wild throws that weren’t counted as errors. I had to wonder what had happened that day at Legends Field. Torre had said he thought it would only take a couple of good games in a row to get him back on track, but would today be one of them? We’d find out in tomorrow’s St. Petersburg Times.

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