Keeping Score: Play ball, indeed

Published: 03-29-2024 3:53 PM

Good morning!

The New York Mets broke training camp this week but left their newest free agent J.D. Martinez behind at Clover Park in St. Lucie West to get ready for the Braves series a week from Monday.

Clover Park is the stadium’s fifth name change. When it was called Tradition Field it was the cheapest place to watch a spring training game, but that changed with new ownership.

My spring training itinerary put me there Feb. 27 to watch the Mets host the Washington Nationals. Journeyman righthander Adrian Houser faced leadoff hittter Luis Arraez who drilled his pitch up the middle. Former Red Sox (and Tigers, Rockies, Angels, Reds and Orioles) shortstop Jose Iglesias flashed the leather and threw out Arraez who was last year’s Major League batting champion.

The previous year Arraez won the American League batting title for the Twins, and the Marlins got him for pitcher Pablo Lopez who was 11-8 with a 3.66 ERA for Minnesota.

But I digress. The morning began with a bacon-and-eggs breakfast at First Watch on Federal Highway that cost $20, and now the snowbirds who were parking cars wanted $15 so I pulled a U-turn back onto Peacock Boulevard and left the car at Duffy’s Sports Grill.    

My cousin Pete Weiss met me near the Big Red Bus and we headed toward the ticket office. A hefty Mets fan in baggy shorts and an unbuttoned Mets jersey named Greg was trying to unload a pair of $40 tickets. “My wife and kid didn’t want to come to the game,” he explained.

Greg was the kind of long-suffering Mets fan that Steven Spielberg would cast if he was doing a baseball movie. “I live 70 miles from Citi Field, pay $50 in tolls and $50 to park, and with traffic it takes me three hours to get home,” he said.

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“My 20-game season ticket package always included opening day and a Yankees game. This year it was one or the other, I can’t have both.”

Greg would’ve cut us a deal. His tickets were behind home plate but we said we’d decided to watch from the berm behind the centerfield fence. “Good luck,” he said nodding toward the ticket office. “Now they’re the scalpers.”

The nice part about watching from the berm is the elbow room. You can walk around and switch spots, and the last I knew it cost only 10 bucks, but Greg was right.

“Twenty-five dollars,” said the robotic voice from behind the bulletproof glass.

“Twenty-five bucks!” I exclaimed.

“Twenty-seven,” she said, correcting herself. “It’s game day.”

I slipped the credit card through the tray and griped that Mets owner Steve Cohen would burn in the seventh circle of hell.

My apologies for ranting about prices, but a pastrami sandwich cost $15 and a bottle of Smartwater was $7.75. A vendor who was working at a souvenir stand behind third base had stacked two dozen baseballs into a pyramid.

“How much?” I asked.

“Forty-three dollars,” he said. “It comes in its own case.”

Hahaha. LOL. A baseball in its own clear plastic case, what a deal.

“You want the ball?” he asked. “You’re at the game man, c’mon.”

No thanks, pal.    

Many of those who were selling programs and 50/50 raffle tickets are part-timers from up north. As reported last week, Turners Falls native Fran Togneri is an usher at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches. Meanwhile over in Bradenton, Greenfield native Mike Duprey bartends  at LECOM Park where the Pittsburgh Pirates play. Imagine going to a game and getting parched and seeing your former GHS fooball coach pouring draughts. “He’s loving every minute of it,” writes his wife Sabrina.

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Spring training is the last stop for a lot of veterans to prove they still belong in the show. You can say it’s a business or it’s not personal, but getting released must be devastating. The aforementioned Jose Iglesias batted .289 in 39 at-bats this spring. He’ll go to the Mets’ Triple-A team in Syracuse and wait for an infielder to get hurt and go on the injured list.

Luke Voit who hit 68 home runs for the Yankees from 2018-21, struck out twice and cursed after he grounded out. Voit batted .118 this spring and will join Iglesias in Syracuse, as will Ji-man Choi who belted a home run over the left-cenerfield fence in the game we watched.

Rafael Devers’s cousin Jose flew out to center field and was hitless in 14 at-bats with Miami this spring. The Diamondbacks released Elvis Andrus; the White Sox released Mike Moustakas.

OK, so who did make the cut this spring? Nick Ahmed batted .500 (10-for-20) for the Giants this spring and is penciled in to be their starting shortstop. In September, Ahmed was cut by the Diamondbacks who won the NL pennant. Digging in against them this season will be sweet revenge for the East Longmeadow native.

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The Houston Astros were easily the best team I witnessed in person this spring. Sure it was only a snapshot, but I saw Jose Altuve and Kyle Tucker go deep in the same inning and Jeremy Pena hit a hustle triple that became a four-bagger when the cutoff man dropped the throw. 

Others like Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Jose Abreu fill out a lineup reminiscent of Boston’s in the mid-aughts when they had Johnny Damon, Dustin Pedroia, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek, et al.

Now, as a Boston news station recently proved after it put a reporter and cameraman in front of Fenway Park, most Red Sox fans can’t name more than two players on the roster. 

They are a non-factor. The vast patch of outfield where Dwight Evans, Trot Nixon and Jackie Jensen once roamed will be occupied by the immortal Tyler O’Neill who batted .231 for the Cardinals last year.

Alex Cora will get the best out of them if Trevor Story and Rafael Devers can stay healthy, but the Bosox will be done by July and fans won’t have a safety net without the Patriots.

**** 

The longest home run I saw during my baseball journey wasn’t hit by a big leaguer but in Gainesville by a 6-foot-5, 21-year-old  college kid named Jac Caglianone. I stopped on the return trip for a two-night stay to visit my friend Crosby Hunt and watch No. 8 Florida host No. 4 Texas A&M which was 17-0.

Hunt’s a diehard Tigers fan who still bristles at the lousy coverage they got from SI after they won the 1968 World Series. Now he’s furious that the Tigers took Max Carter with the third overall pick in last year’s draft, not Wyatt Langford who helped the Gators reach the College World Series.

Texas took him and he’s already being touted as a rookie of the year candidate after he batted .350 this spring with six home runs and 20 RBIs. Carter meanwhile batted .224 in the low minors last season and doesn’t have any spring training stats.

Meanwhile pitcher/batter Caglianone is projected to be a top five pick this year, meaning he could go to the Guardians, Reds, Rockies, Athletics or White Sox. At this writing he was 5-0 with a 1.65 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 27.1 innings and batting .394 with 11 home runs and 24 RBIs. 

Standing in against Texas A&M starter Ryan Prager, his stance reminded me of  Carl Yastrzemski’s except he didn’t hold his bat as high as Big Yaz.

Prager was 4-0 and hadn’t allowed a run in 23.2 innings, but the wind was blowing out and Prager’s breaking stuff wasn’t breaking.

After a 1-2-3 top of the first, Caglianone drilled Prager’s fifth pitch over the centerfield wall. In the third inning he crushed Prager’s first pitch not just over the wall, but also over a 40-foot high wall behind it. According to a Gators baseball app, the ball went 455 feet.

The two teams combined to hit seven home runs, and the Gators handed the Aggies their first blemish, 8-6. The next day we watched Santa Fe Community College. The park was surrounded by chain link fences and the coach got into a spitting-mad argument with the umpires, proving that baseball is back at all levels and with all its passion. Play ball, it’s about time.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com