Baseball Prepares To Begin Again
Sunday, February 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
Even the alligators will know when Alex Rodriguez starts spring training.
Floating in the pond beyond the left-field wall at Charlotte County Stadium, the green monsters are sure to be bonked on the head once A-Rod and his new Texas teammates begin batting practice.
``I don't know if he'll be jumping into the water to get too many of his home run balls,'' said Matt LaBranche, overseeing the Rangers' operations in the Gulf Coast city of Port Charlotte, Fla.
Baseball will be full of interesting sights all over Florida and Arizona when camps open.
Mike Mussina wearing the pinstripes of the three-time World Series champion New York Yankees. Manny Ramirez batting for the Boston Red Sox and David Wells pitching for the Chicago White Sox.
John Smoltz recovering from elbow surgery. Tim Raines returning from retirement and Deion Sanders expected back from the NFL.
Broadcasters Buck Martinez and Bob Brenly out of the booth and into the dugouts. There are a half-dozen new managers, and they're each ready to shout about those high strikes that umpires intend to call this season.
It all starts Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report to the Cincinnati Reds' camp at Sarasota, Fla.
Look for All-Star outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. to join them shortly. He's ready to end his winter vacation, preferring to mix sun and sand with bat and ball.
``After one week, I'm ready to go,'' Junior said at the Pebble Beach golf tournament last week. ``I'm bored. I don't have any hobbies, except baseball.''
They're ready to go in places such as Vero Beach, Clearwater, Bradenton, little towns that spring to life when the ballplayers show up. It's true in Tucson and Tempe, too.
In Dunedin, Fla., a shipment of 10,000 balls recently arrived at the Toronto Blue Jays' complex. At HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., the Chicago Cubs are sure to sell out.
The exhibition season begins March 1, and this year's Grapefruit and Cactus league schedule includes games in Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
The regular season starts April 1 when A-Rod â€” the $252 million man â€” and the Rangers take on Toronto in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Outside Legends Field, the spring home of the Yankees in Tampa, Fla., workers are still tearing down banners for the Super Bowl that was played across the street. But baseball is clearly in the air.
World Series MVP Derek Jeter, armed with his new 10-year, $189 millionn contract, Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez already have begun informal workouts. Billy Connors â€” who took over as pitching coach last year when Mel Stottlemyre was treated for cancer â€” surveyed the busy scene with a smile.
``I started in 1961, so you're talking about 40 years,'' Connors said.
``Once you love this game, you never get tired of it. You look forward to it every day.''
Stottlemyre will be back this year, watching over ``El Duquecito.'' That's Adrian Hernandez, a top prospect with a windup similar to fellow Cuban defector Orlando ``El Duque'' Hernandez.
Rookies always attract a lot of attention at this time of year, and this crop of youngsters includes Milwaukee pitcher Ben Sheets, who shut out Cuba in the Olympics to help the United States win the gold medal, and Tampa Bay outfielder Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft.
Tall pitchers C.C. Sabathia (6-feet-7, Cleveland) and Ryan Anderson (6-feet-10, Seattle) might make a major impact this year. So could Japanese batting champion Ichiro Suzuki, now a part of the Mariners' outfield.
A lot of eyes will be on Smoltz and Rick Ankiel.
Smoltz tore his elbow last spring and missed the entire season. His absence clearly hurt the Atlanta Braves, who saw the New York Mets take away their NL pennant, and he's eager to report at Kissimmee, Fla.
Earlier this month, Smoltz was throwing off an indoor mound beneath Turner Field in Atlanta.
``I'd be ready to go tomorrow if it was the start of the season,'' he said. ``I've got a long way to go as far as improving my pitches, but I'm as excited as I've ever been.''
The St. Louis Cardinals, along with fans around the country, will closely watch Ankiel.
Ankiel's path to stardom took a shocking detour last October when he careened out of control, zinging wild pitches to the backstop during the playoffs.
``It's something that happened and it's something you want to forget about,'' said Ankiel, who visited baseball psychologist Harvey Dorfman during the winter. ``I pushed it away, and let's start with the season.''
Teammate Mark McGwire also is hoping for a fresh start. Sidelined by tendinitis in his right knee for most of the second half, he was reduced to pinch-hitting during the playoffs.
``Everything's good and I don't foresee any major problems,'' he said.
Texas All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez is expected to make a full recovery from a broken right thumb. He got hurt last July when his hand hit Mo Vaughn's bat. Vaughn might miss the entire 2001 season for Anaheim after rupturing a biceps tendon in his left arm.
Bryce Florie, meanwhile, is throwing at Boston's camp in Fort Myers, Fla. The Red Sox reliever is trying to come back after being hit in the right eye by a line drive last September.
Raines, at 41, will report to Montreal's camp after a one-year layoff, and Sanders, out of the majors since 1997, hopes to rejoin the Reds after a disappointing season with the Washington Redskins.
Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, both with Colorado, along with Juan Gonzalez (Cleveland), Johnny Damon (Oakland), Kevin Appier (Mets) and Mark Grace (Arizona) are among the big names in different settings.
The new managers are Brenly (Arizona), Martinez (Toronto), Larry Bowa (Philadelphia), Bob Boone (Cincinnati), Jim Tracy (Los Angeles) and Lloyd McClendon (Pittsburgh).
No doubt, they're all ready to get going. So is Jeffrey Hammonds.
Hammonds hit .335 with 106 RBIs last season for Colorado, then became a free agent and signed with Milwaukee. Last week, with a snowstorm bearing down on the East Coast, he attended a banquet near his home in New Jersey â€” but was already thinking about Brewers' camp in Maryvale, Ariz.
``I can't wait,'' he said, beaming. ``I might even go a few days early, just to get ready.''