Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Spring Training Just Around the Corner

It’s Super Bowl week and that means one thing to me: Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training in 6 days.  Position players in 11 days and in 24 days the first exhibition game will be played.

Football season to me is just a sport that's played during the dog days of winter when the days are short and the nights and cold.  I suppose there has to be a respite from the baseball season and I guess the good Lord gave us winter because of that, but he also gave us Arizona and Florida to overcome those winters too.

In the Dodger blogosphere, message boards and Twitter, I see more and more reminders that the season is just around the corner as fan fest is occurring this Saturday.  Dodger fans are just warming up for baseball nirvana from March through October.  2014 looks to be one of the most promising seasons to look forward to in years.So let me just address a topic that is near and dear to my heart:  spring training.  

I’ve attended spring training games in Florida and Arizona ten times now over the past eighteen years.   I think I’ve come to understand the importance the Dodger organization has placed on providing their fans with an unforgettable and positive experience each late February and into March.  Allowing fans access to the players is an important part of that.  It is a Dodger tradition.  It is something the other organizations in baseball don’t allow.  It is one of the reasons that baseball fans should be Dodger fans, because no other organization cares this much about their fans.  I think it’s fantastic and something that sets the Dodgers apart from other organizations.

Take a look at Camelback Ranch (CBR) itself and compare the two teams that share the complex.  The White Sox players and coaches are completely segregated from their fans.  Their practice fields have no fan access to them.  Their players do not walk from their clubhouse to the fields through the fans.  The only way a White Sox fan will have access to talk to or interact with White Sox players is inside the stadium before the game.  That’s it.

Andre Ethier taking time to sign and chat with fans. 

The Dodgers, on the other hand, have allowed fan access to the players practice fields since 1948.  The players walk through the fans to get to the fields.  The minor league fields are completely open to the public for fans to watch from the early mornings to the afternoons.  Several Dodger players take the time to sign autographs and talk to their fans on a daily basis.  
Yasiel Puig was a frequent signer last year, accommodating fans from the day he arrived.

CBR is an ideal spot for the casual autograph collector to go and simply clean up.  There’s the Mattingly pole, where Don retreats to every day to sign for those that line up for a signature or a photo.  There is the parking lot egress point where players come and go throughout the day, with many stopping and accommodating waiting autograph seekers.  There are the former players that often are at the minor league fields that are happy to talk with fans and allow them to watch the goings-on without interruption.  

Even Mike Piazza, an Italian team coach, stopped and signed last year.  He came through during the Dodger game, so there weren't a lot of fans around.

The Lasorda Table
And there's Tommy Lasorda.  With Lasorda there's a recent development over the past few seasons that everyone seeking to interact with him needs to be aware of.

My son getting the third degree for not saying "please," while Lasorda signs his ball.  He made sure he said "thank you."  (photo from 2013 Spring Training)

The Lasorda table is set up daily, complete with a security person.   A line forms each day for the Hall of Fame manager to sign for the fans.  We joke now that it's becoming more and more like the "Soup Nazi" character scene from the Seinfeld show.  Now I mention that in jest because we have all come to know and love Tommy, but as he has gotten older, he’s become insistent that fans requesting his autograph remain polite and use proper decorum.  There is respect that he demands from everyone.   Otherwise, "No autograph for you."

Rules of the Lasorda autograph table:

  1. Don’t ever call him Tommy.  It is "Sir" or “Mr. Lasorda,” and it always will be.  The man is 86 years old now.  Give him some respect.
  2. You better say “please” when making a request.  Failure to do so will result in an admonition from the man.
  3. Just one item for signature.  You could push your luck with two items, but you’ll risk a tongue lashing, so I say, it’s not worth it.
  4. Keep you stories quick and to the point, the line is long and Tommy will remind you that he can barely remember what he had for breakfast, so don’t expect him to remember when you briefly met him 27 years ago.
  5. A “thank you, sir,” better be said after he obliges your autograph request, otherwise he’ll remind you of that.  And that’s for little kids too.  Little kids that are probably wondering why their parents have lined them up to have this chubby grumpy old man in a uniform sign a ball for them.
My seats for this game were down the first base line in the front row.  When Koufax walked in, a stampede ensued.  All of these people moved in front of our seats to get autographs.

The Koufax Effect
Last season a disturbing development occurred with autograph seekers as adults from the memorabilia industry converged upon CBR after Sandy Koufax arrived to work with the pitchers.  It was an ugly scene and it forced the Dodgers to replace the ropes with metal barricades to keep fans in their place.    There were literally people being trampled as some of these autograph seeks attempted to get near the Dodger legend.

Sandy, an extremely private person, doesn’t like the fuss and I seriously wonder if he’ll return again without some assurances that he won’t get some security for his own protection and those of the fans as well.  I personally witnessed a professional autograph seeker hand a twenty dollar bill to a little girl that he was using to get Koufax's signature.

The Koufax autograph is about as rare a find that there is in the baseball world.  Rare finds equate to huge dollars for a Koufax signature, and that isn’t a good thing for a lot of fans.
But truth of the matter is that things got quite disturbing.   If last season’s experience is a telling factor, Sandy just might not be back without drastic changes being put in place, and that is really unfortunate.

Sandy Koufax working on the back mounds with minor leaguers. (Spring Training 2013)

We saw Koufax arrive in February last year, before exhibition games had even started and he played a big role in working with all the pitchers.  It was a wonderful thing to see too, the 78 year old hall of famer working with prospect after prospect with one on one mound sessions.
2014 Spring Training Starts Early This Year
For the second year in a row, the Dodgers will begin spring training very early this time around.  Pitchers and catchers arrive on February 8th.  Last year all teams started early due to the World Baseball Classic interruption.  This year it is because of the Australia series in mid-March.  Both the D-Backs and Dodgers have been permitted to start earlier than other teams.  The first exhibition game will be on March 26th.  The Dodger's Cactus League schedule will wrap up by Sunday, March 16th as the season opener in Sydney is on March 22nd.
Dee Gordon, all smiles in 2013 Spring Training

I know we're still in January, but once the players start congregating in Arizona, the season seems just to be around the corner.  Within two weeks the talk of the town will be the Dodgers again, and that's always a good thing.

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