A Happy Homecoming?

Pretty view on the road down to Fort Myers...not so pretty on the ride back after a loss

Pretty view on the road down to Fort Myers…not so pretty on the ride back after a loss

Well it’s safe to say this first week has been a grind, a disappointing, frustrating, annoying grind.  Since our come from behind win on Opening Night we’ve lost 6 in a row, and suddenly we’re at the bottom of our division looking up at everyone else.  We haven’t won in a week, which, combined with the fact that all of those games have been commuter trips has made for a really crappy time.  It seems like it’s been a routine of drive an hour to the stadium, play, get beat, pay the visiting clubhouse guy for our pregame spread and sit on the bus freezing and searching for answers.  Talk about frustrating, getting swept and then having to pay their clubby as you walk out of the ballpark.  The games have seemed to follow an eerily similar pattern, we fall behind early and by the 4th inning the gap is pretty ugly, and we spend the remaining 15 offensive outs trying to catch up.  I keep trying to figure out what it is, but I really don’t have any idea.  The core of this team is last years Bowling Green team that absolutely killed everyone for the majority of last season, so it seems a little weird that against a lot of the same guys we’re struggling like this.

My roommate Marcus Jensen doing some last minute preparation on the bullpen bag. Yes it's a pink Hello Kitty bag

My roommate Marcus Jensen doing some last minute preparation on the bullpen bag. Yes it’s a pink Hello Kitty bag

I got my second start behind the plate in the second game of a double header on Wednesday in Fort Myers, the home of the Miracle, the Twins affiliate.  Their ballpark, Hammond Stadium is absolutely enormous, and has a really cavernous feel from down on the field.  The bleacher seats, which are above the dark green chair back sections seem to stretch all the way to the sky, they go so high and so far from the field.  There are seats all the way around the outfield, including a cool section out in right center overlooking the gap.  Game 1 belonged to O’Conner behind the plate, and I spent the afternoon on bullpen duty.  I headed out in the 4th inning and hung out with the guys and their new pink bullpen snack bag.  It was a tough place to find a good seat, its nestled deep in the right field corner and looking back to the field we were basically staring into a blinding sunset.  I passed the time stretching out my hips, talking to the guys and flipping a ball to myself.  I got to warm up Molina before he went in, and caught Markel as he got “dry humped” a term used to describe a pitcher getting up and getting loose only to find out he isn’t going in the game. I jogged into the dugout and disappeared into the clubhouse to grab a quick snack, the Miracle had provided severely charred hot dogs and hamburgers for us, so I grabbed a burger and after my second bite I realized Suero, the starting pitcher, was ready to go outside.  I shoved another mouthful in and chucked the rest, heading back out to the field to get ready.

I took my stretch band and my gear out to the right field line and got loose while Suero ran and stretched out his arm.  He was loose really quickly and seemed to almost be rushing through the warmup, but it was a controlled rush.  Everything came out firm, and on target. Our pitching coach Doc Watson even was a little surprised by how quickly he was working reminding him that at that point he was still 25 minutes away from first pitch.  We slowed down a little before heading into the bullpen to get him loose off the mound.  Suero is a big lefty from the Dominican Republic, and he throws from a low 3/4 arm slot, meaning its somewhere between sidearm and the standard over the top delivery.  It creates a lot of side to side movement, which coupled with this long arms and legs makes picking the ball up a bit of a tricky task sometimes.  During his pregame bullpen he was absolutely locked in, everything was thrown to the corners, firm, and low in the zone.  He mixed all of his pitches in, and with one or two exceptions threw pretty much a perfect session.  When he finished we met halfway between the mound and the plate for a fist bump, pat on the back and we both told each other “good job papi.”  As we walked out of the bullpen we discussed the signs we’d use, the sequence with a runner on second base and then I let him go ahead and I hung back to talk to Doc.  We both noted how good he looked in the pen, and talked about helping to keep that going in the game.

Cavernous Hammond Stadium

Cavernous Hammond Stadium

The game again followed our ugly formula for letting games get out of hand, and by the third inning we were in an 8-0 hole.  Adam Brett Walker hit an opposite field home run in the bottom of the first, a towering shot to right center, into that section of seats and they were off to the races.  Unlike some of the other games we actually made a great come back in the middle innings bringing the game back to 8-6 by the end of our at bats in the 5th.  As quickly as we brought it back they got two more and iced it going ahead 10-6 which was the final.  I had two hits and an RBI, so I’m finally on the board in that category which is always a good thing, but it was another frustrating night.  It was cool to face a former Orleans Firebird teammate, Jason Wheeler, and he threw really well going 4.2 innings and only giving up 1 earned run.

 

 

Tonight we come back to Charlotte Sports Park for a series with the Palm Beach Cardinals, and hopefully Lopez can get us back on track with one of his masterful performances.  Between Lopey, Ames and Pruitt we definitely have the starting pitching to get some wins, now it’s just time to get it done.  No more meetings, no more waiting around, no more hoping.  To quote Coach Senk, “sometimes the best thing is to just shut up and play,” no more thinking or discussing.  We’re all here for a reason, something Doc alluded to in our pitchers and catcher meeting the other day, now we’ve got to believe in ourselves, believe in our teammates and our coaches and start rolling up some W’s.

We’ll get it right, I’m extremely confident in these guys. Go Crabs, Go Rays!

Head Shots, Jam Shots and More

My Instagram jersey collage...#19

My Instagram jersey collage…#19

Tuesday was our first official day as the 2014 Charlotte Stone Crabs, we arrived in the locker room to find that our clubhouse manager Pat had given out all of our Stone Crabs shorts and t-shirts, and had left instructions to go to his office to pick up our hats.  I noticed that my locker was one of the few that didn’t have jerseys in it, so obviously I was a little curious as to why.  I walked out of the main locker room and across the short hall to Pat’s office to get my hats and figure out the jersey situation.  On the way over, Marcus Jensen, one of my roommates, asked why I looked confused.  I told him I couldn’t figure out the jersey issue, and as is the case with most little things like missing jerseys there is always a joke to be made, “oh they didn’t tell you yet?” He was joking about getting cut, knowing full well that it wasn’t the reason my jerseys were gone.  The first day of the season is a pretty safe day in terms of knowing you’ll be around at least one more day, so I laughed and pretended to be sad as I walked on past.  When I got to Pat’s office he told me that when the Stone Crabs ordered new batting practice jerseys that they didn’t order number 39 and that I’d have to pick a different number.  He pointed me to the laundry room where all the extra jersey sets were hanging up, so I set out to figure out what number I’d wear considering 8, 16, 28, and 39 were all taken.  I shuffled the jerseys up and down the rack, checking the numbers and thinking of people I could remember wearing them.  After figuring 40 was both Nikolai Kulemin’s number (Leafs centerman) and too high, it became a no.  13 is my moms jersey number every time she decides she’s going to play in a tournament, but I’m superstitious so bad luck 13 was out.  9 was too close to my normal number 8 and I would have felt like I was doing something behind number 8′s back, so in the interest of long term jersey number karma 9 was out.  I finally settled on 19, the number Joffrey Lupul wears as he snipes shootout winning goals (it was in Mid December, yes I live in the past because they’ve sucked recently). I took my home white, road grey and alternate baby blue jerseys to Pat’s office to let him number my hats and write down my number on the roster sheet.

We got dressed in shorts and t-shirts and sat through a quick meeting with our General Manager, and the coaches.  It was all normal beginning of the year housekeeping stuff, our normal schedule, some rules and introductions to all of the stadium and front office staff.  When the meeting ended we threw on our white hats and baby blue caps for pictures.  We headed into the office area at the front of the complex and were met outside the door with the question “what do you want your walk up song to be?”  Answering this question is always a process, a long torturous one that takes away HOURS of sleep, and causes severe anxiety.  Okay, maybe that’s a little overblown, but we all spend hours trying to find the right song, lyric, or sound to go to the plate with.  I chose the song Shaking the Wheels by Chase Rice, the second time he’s been lucky enough to be the artist behind my walk up music.  I loved the guitar intro, its upbeat and has a cool feel to it so after plenty of unsuccessful searching I was set.  I walked into the room for my head shot and tried my best to look happy without being the “huge smile guy” that there always seems to be.  Three camera flashes later  I was done and headed to the locker room to get ready for practice.  We were to practice in our navy shorts and our grey team issued t-shirts.

We headed into the stadium shortly after 6 and got things going pretty quickly under the lights.  We stretched, ran and threw before going into pop up priorities.  We were perfect during that drill, so Jared cut it short.  We moved into cut offs and relays which were also fairly sharp given the first day jitters and not really knowing how the ballpark plays.  We finished defense and got ready for batting practice, I hit in group 1 with O’Conner, DePew and Marty Gannt.  Our hitting coach, Joe Szekely decided that for day one we should just hit, so we just rotated through 5 swing rounds with no routine.  The ball came off each guys bat with a loud crack in the empty stadium, and we all noticed how big the field played.  We finished practice with a three inning simulated game, and I caught all three.  Wednesday was more of the same, a quick practice and then most of the afternoon and evening off to rest up before Opening Night.

I will always love the look of a stadium dressed in red white and blue bunting before Opening Day!

I will always love the look of a stadium dressed in red white and blue bunting before Opening Day!

Thursday I arrived at the ballpark before noon for our 6:30 game.  I always like being in the clubhouse early, especially on Opening Day.  The day seemed to pass by at a snails pace, I couldn’t sit still. I walked to the training room and back, to the weight room and back, out to the bullpen and back, anything to help kill 30 seconds.  As game time drew closer we headed out for our normal pregame, we stretched, did some conditioning drills and threw.  We split into our BP groups and took our swings and before long we were walking out the right field gate to the clubhouse.  We had a nice pregame spread, cold cuts, turkey dogs, fresh fruit, and the Minor League classic, PB&J.  We sat and ate while listening to Andrew Toles talk ad nauseum about something, we think.  See, when Toles gets rolling on one of his little talks nobody knows exactly what the subject matter is, who he’s talking to, or if he’s even talking to any of us. It just kind of happens, we all sort of look around, have a laugh and someone always says “yup, good one Toles.”  He’s hysterical, a little off the wall but definitely a fun guy to have around.  After we ate we headed out to the parking lot where we were met by the Stone Crabs Booster Club.  They take care of minor things for us in a similar way to the host families in Fort Wayne, and for Opening Day they were tasked with driving us into the stadium in a pregame procession.  Each player in the starting lineup was in a car alone, and the others were doubled up. It was pretty cool to ride in like that, even though I will always be a fan of the classic trot out of the dugout intro a la last week in Montgomery.

The game was exciting, we fell behind early playing nervous, jittery baseball through the first 3 or 4 innings.  We slowly crept back into the game, and took the lead for the first time in the 8th.  I lead off with a hard single to right, my first official hit as a Baby Ray, and then moved to third on a botched double play attempt.  Standing on 3rd as the go ahead run I was really hoping for a deep fly ball so I could score easily, but I was ready for anything else, having just gone over every scenario with our manager Jared.  “Dirt ball you’re on your own, be smart. Get a good read if you’re gonna take it,” he told me.  The very next pitch was spiked into the dirt and ricocheted off the catcher to the backstop and I took off. I think I was moving pretty quickly considering I was absolutely terrified of making the first out at the plate, so when I slid in safely and popped up to give a high five to Goeddel who was hitting I was pretty excited.  I came back to the dugout to all my teammates waiting to give high fives or fist bumps, and it felt really strange seeing all the guys I used to play against waiting there for me.  I guess that’s part of being the new guy.  We locked down the game, Brandt got the save, Jensen got the win, and I scored the winning run, so naturally we knew it was because of the house that we all performed well.

*Press fast forward…*

Another return visit for me. McKechnie Field in Bradenton, where Zidie and I saw the pre McCutchen Pirates against the Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, Orlando Hudson Blue Jays

Another return visit for me. McKechnie Field in Bradenton, where Zidie and I saw the pre McCutchen Pirates against the Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, Orlando Hudson Blue Jays

I’m skipping through two uninspiring, dull, games that were the middle of our series with the Marauders and going right to the finale at McKechnie Field. I knew a few days in advance that Sunday would be my official debut behind the plate, something that made me incredibly nervous while on the bus ride to Bradenton. I tried to keep cool, and just listen to my music, but in the back of my mind I kept hearing the announcer saying “Catching today, number 19, Maxx Tissenbaum,” and I was just uneasy the whole time.  When we got to the stadium I changed into my BP shorts and t-shirt and went out to the enormous indoor cage that sits behind CF.  I took some front toss of of Jared, then switched cages and took BP off of Hoover who is in town for the week.  It’s a commonly known baseball fact that catchers throw the best BP, firm, straight, back spinning 4 seamers, so any time I see Hoov throwing I try to get a few swings off him.  My BP was pretty good, I felt much better than I had the previous few days when I felt very whippy, and quick to get out of the hitting zone.  I walked back to the clubhouse to get my ankle work done, Thursty took me through some manual resistance work and then taped me up.  I had absolutely no idea what the pregame timing was, even having started in Spring Training games, because regular season games are much more strictly run.  The game starts and the game gets played, no extended warm ups, no rolling innings when the pitch counts get high etc.  I was outside at 12:00 for a 1:00 start.  I took a stretch band and loosened up my legs for 10 minutes. I went back to the training room to get some super glue or tape spray to keep my wrist tape from unraveling because of all the sweat. I went back to the bullpen and stretched a little more with Weiss, our strength coach.  At 12:25 I started my pregame work, and I had Hoover out there to walk me through it.  I wanted to block and throw, having done receiving each of the last three days.  I felt awesome in the pregame work, I slid side to side and kept the ball close to me on my blocks.  My arm felt strong, my footwork felt mostly correct and I got a nice sweat going before fist bumping Hoov and O’Conner who had come out to help/hang out also.  I took off my mask and chest protector and chugged down what was left of my 2 litre jug of Gatorade.  I stood in the shade talking to Hoov until I saw Austin Pruitt, the starting pitcher come out and start getting stretched, at which point I went over and hung out with him on the RF line.  We threw long toss, and got into the bullpen, and before long I was drenched in sweat, and walking down the warning track to the dugout in the middle of our half of the first inning.  We got to the dugout in time to see the 3rd out, grab a quick swig of water and head out to start the game.

As I left the dugout I put enough rosin on my wrist tape and my throwing arm that I hoped might help me feel some grip throwing the ball.  I  was covered in the stuff. The first inning was ugly, and we fell behind a bunch of hitters, and ultimately left down 4-0.  As the game moved on we got a little closer to the command and “stuff” that I saw when I caught him in Spring Training, but with the damage already on the board he was out of the game pretty early.  I had my first “milestone” in the first inning when their leadoff hitter, Jeff Roy from URI, tried to steal 3rd, having already stolen 2nd.  I threw him out with a good throw to Goeddel which made me feel pretty good about myself and helped me settle in a little.  The very next inning he was on first again, and I knew he was going to run.  The first pitch to Chris Stewart (who has played parts of 7 Big League seasons, and is rehabbing here) was a fastball in, and Roy took off.  I let the ball travel, got my feet under me and put the ball on the bag throwing him out.  As soon as I threw it I was pretty confident I had him, and in my mind I said to myself “sit down!”  Problem was I didn’t say it in my mind, I blurted it out loud enough that Stewart heard, and he turned to me and asked “what, is that your first one?”  He was hinting, not so subtly that I should act like I’d done it before, but when I told him that actually, it was only my second one ever, we actually had a quick laugh before his at bat continued.

The rest of the game went by fairly smooth, I caught Jensen from the 4th to the 7th, then Nick Sawyer came in and the game kind of sped up on me.  The last two innings were a struggle for me as I fought the heat, the tired legs, and the scoreboard (we had fallen way behind) to try and stay mentally sharp.  Brandt picked up Sawyer when he came out, and got some quick outs, before Markel threw the 8th finishing out our pitching/defensive day.  At the end of the day we lost 11-3, dropping to 1 and 3 on the year.  I was disappointed in the result, but I thought that overall I did a pretty good job given that it was my first real game.  I had some very positive little chats with Hoover and Jared when w got back to Port Charlotte, and I walked away with a smile.

Two T-bones, 4 pork chops, a pot of baked beans and (not pictured) a bowl of fried mushrooms and onions...Dinner was AWESOME last night

Two T-bones, 4 pork chops, a pot of baked beans and (not pictured) a bowl of fried mushrooms and onions…Dinner was AWESOME last night

Today is a day off, so I slept in until close to 10 o’clock, and I’ll probably stay in bed until lunch time. I’m going out for dinner later tonight which I’m really looking forward to, even though I have no idea where.  It will be a nice, relaxing day filled with plenty of water and Gatorade to help keep my body feeling good.  I’m already itching to get back into a game, but I know I have to wait for the lineup cards to go up to know when the next time is that I’ll get that chance.  I’ll be ready when the time comes.

 

The Sweetest Taste

“Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”- Crash Davis said it best. Yes, here I am quoting Bull Durham again, and I guess its now even more relevant than ever given that Tampa’s AAA team is the Durham Bulls. This post however isn’t about AAA, it’s about The Show. It’s about a life that isn’t real to me yet. It’s about a couple of days that seemed to pass so quickly, yet with so many different incredibly vivid memories. This post is about the last two days of Spring Training during which six Minor League players, myself included, got to basically be Big Leaguers.

On Thursday morning we finished our regular morning meeting, and after Hoffy finished reading off who would be doing what for the day he asked to see seven of the guys for a quick meeting. Tommy Coyle, Pat Leonard, Marty Gannt, Hector Guevarra, Kes Carter, Justin O’Conner and I stayed behind, and Hoffy quickly told us that he needed to meet with us after the day was over. We rejoined our teammates for stretch and Pat, Tommy and I joked that maybe Hoffy didn’t have anything to tell us, and it was some kind of game. “Come meet me after practice” would turn into “come meet me tomorrow morning” which would turn into “meet me for dinner the next night.” We joked about the fact that he’d called us to a meeting to tell us we had a meeting later without any other details. The day went by pretty quickly and before long we were all in the coaches meeting room with a few of the staff. Hoffy told us that we’d been picked to spend two days with the Major League team, traveling first to Lakeland for a game against the Tigers, and then to Montgomery, Alabama for an exhibition game against the AA team. As if that wasn’t good enough news, he told us that we would travel to Montgomery with the Big League club, flying on their chartered flight. As if that wasn’t good enough news we’d also be staying in St. Pete after the Lakeland game so we were close by and didn’t have to travel back and forth the extra two times. If you’re following along, that’s a lot of really awesome news all at once. I headed to my locker to shower and change and packed up the little bit of stuff I’d need overnight in St. Pete.

IMG_0718Friday morning we loaded up the bus at Charlotte Sports Park, well not really loaded since there was only 10 people on the bus. We drove up to Tropicana Field, the Rays home stadium. When we got there we were shown where the clubhouse was and told to go make ourselves at home. We followed the tunnel under the stadium until we got to the sign that said “Home of the RAYS” and then slowly filed into the main clubhouse. We walked in and I immediately saw some familiar faces. David Price stood by his locker, a scrum of reporters asking him various questions. Yunel Escobar strolled in and headed to his two lockers, both of which were packed to the gills with shoes, cleats, gloves and bats. James Loney walked in, and shortly after we had music playing throughout the room on the sound system. Chris Archer sat at his locker getting ready to throw a little side session ahead of his Saturday start in Montgomery. It was around this point when I first realized I was in their world, I looked around and saw all these guys who really were more like TV characters to me than real people and tried to remind myself they were ball players too. I sat on one of the big navy couches and watched whatever shows were on MLB Network while these guys went about their business. At 10:30 we headed out to the bus and made the trip across Florida to Lakeland, pulling in just before noon for the 1 pm start. I took a locker in the corner with the rest of the Minor League guys, got dressed, and taped then grabbed a little food before heading outside at 12:30. We walked in the right field gate and across to the 3rd base dugout, passing some guy named Miguel Cabrera who was playing catch on the RF line getting loose. We walked across the outfield as Rajai Davis, Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson ran their sprints. I grabbed my catchers bag which had been delivered from the bus to the dugout and headed out to the bullpen in right center field and suddenly I was mere feet from Joba Chamberlain as he finished his pregame bullpen. I met the bullpen catcher Scott Corsi who was very friendly to me and the two pitchers that came along on the trip to Lakeland. I threw my shin guards on knowing I was going to spend the day out there and took a seat atop one of the three mounds and watched the game. I hung out with all the bullpen guys, Heath Bell, Grant Balfour, Joel Perralta, Jake McGee, and Josh Lueke. They were great, asking about our careers, and talking about all of the rules that the Rays have in the system. We traded stories, and before long I finally got to actually warm someone up, as Corsi let me get Lueke ready for the 8th inning. He’s got power stuff, hard fastballs, sharp breaking stuff and lots of movement. Corsi kind of walked me through his routine, giving me advice on where to set up on what pitches, and when to expect his two seam fastball as opposed to the four seamer. It was a quick bullpen, and before long he was headed out to the mound. We ended up losing the game, and I trekked back to the dugout to grab my helmet and bats which I’d left there in case I was called upon to hit. As I left the field I spent a few minutes talking to my grandparents who had driven up to see me, and also to Wynton Bernard, an outfielder the Tigers picked up during the offseason, and a former teammate of mine in both Eugene and Fort Wayne. We caught up briefly, wished each other luck and I had my gramma take a picture of us in our new uniforms. I hustled back to the clubhouse, showered and grabbed some food in the locker room before we left for the bus. I never had to touch my bags, they were taken from the front of the clubhouse and from in front of my locker and taken to the truck to go back to The Trop for the night. We took the bus back to The Trop, dropped off the few Big League guys and staff that took the bus (they’re allowed to drive themselves to the games so not many take the bus) and then headed to downtown St. Pete to our hotel. My hotel room was gorgeous and had an incredible view of Al Lang Field, the former home of Rays Spring Training, and the St. Pete harbor. Pat, Tommy, Marty and I took a cab to Tampa to the Hardrock Casino and had dinner, and played for a little bit, mostly just walking around hanging out. It was an easy, relaxing night without too much excitement.

I guess the clubhouse is pretty nice?

I guess the clubhouse is pretty nice?

Saturday morning rolled in quickly and we were on the bus at 7:15 headed back to The Trop. Again we walked under the stadium through the “Players Entrance” and into the clubhouse. We headed into the back dining room and enjoyed an awesome breakfast, scrambled eggs with sausage and cheese, home fries, muffins, bagels, toast, fresh fruit, yogurt, pancakes, waffles and an omelet station.  The fridges were stocked with everything a person might ever want to drink, juices, soda, sports drinks, water, and flavored water were packed in rows.  I had an omelet, some home fries, fruit and yogurt and grabbed a bottle of orange juice (guess what, it was Tropicana) and sat at the middle table looking at the behemoth of a TV on the wall. Shortly after we all sat down Oviedo and Archer came in and grabbed breakfast, and Arch sat and talked to all of us.  We headed back into the main locker room to wait for the bus and I grabbed my same spot on the couch to watch some more MLB Network.  The bus was much more full heading to the airport than it was heading to Lakeland, but we all still had our own seats.  When we got to the airport the bus drove onto the runway, parked maybe 100 feet from the plane, and we did a quick security check before boarding.  We brought our water bottles, our orange juice and all the other things you aren’t allowed to bring on the plane if you fly commercial.  We had been told to stay in the middle of the plane, as the older guys would go to the back to play cards, and the staff would be up front so I took a seat over the wing.  I looked up and saw Wil Myers sit down behind me.  Yea, that Wil Myers.  The Rookie of the Year. I saw the guys file on, Loney, Arch, Escobar etc and just had this realization that I was on the same flight as all of them.  I looked up again and saw Evan Longoria boarding, and he walked by giving the guys a smooth “sup guys?” Talk about a sharp dresser? He’s got that down to an art it seems.  I looked back down at my whole row of seats and noticed a menu for the flight, yes, a menu.  It had pretty much everything that we had eaten in the clubhouse listed and at the bottom it said “We apologize if your first choice is not available.”  I read over it and thought to myself, those are ALL my first choice based on the fact that they’re available!

Yea that's a menu for our flight...

Yea that’s a menu for our flight…

As the plane began to roll down the runway I was still listening to my music on my phone so Archer reached across Wil’s seat and tapped me on the shoulder “Sir you’re gonna need to power down that device and take off your headphones,” he told me.  I wasn’t sure what to do considering all the guys had theirs on, but then I remembered that on our flight to Omaha for the College World Series that there were no rules, so I told him “I flew charter once in college, I thought you didn’t have to?”  He laughed, gave me a fist bump and told me he was just messing with me.  The flight was surprisingly bumpy, apparently turbulence cares not whether the passengers are big leaguers or not.  We were bounced around so much that at one point David DeJesus sat bolt upright and yelled “KNUCKLEBALL!” Everyone was laughing hysterically since it was both terrifying and so unexpected.  We made it through the bumps and in under an hour were on the ground in Montgomery.  We were met by a police escort that shut down the highway en route to the ballpark and got us there without so much as a tap of the breaks.  When we arrived at Riverwalk Stadium James Loney pointed out that there was a red carpet leading to the door.  It was lined with fans! We grabbed our backpacks and walked in through the mass of people while the big guys all stopped and signed.  We got down to the locker room and found our lockers which all had a giant nameplate with our name, jersey number and the logo for the “Rays at Riverwalk” day.  My locker happened to be beside Myers, in the near corner.  There was a full brunch spread on the table in the middle of the locker room, and all the guys sort of floated around the room grabbing veggies and dip, and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pass the time.  Wil was dressed and ready to go in a hurry, we weren’t scheduled to get the cage for close to an hour but he was up and looking for Derek Shelton, the hitting coach, with the energy of a little kid at the batting cage with his dad.  It was almost “can we hit yet, can we hit yet, how about now?” No wonder the guy puts up the kind of numbers he does!  All the starters got into the cage and the rest of us just hung out in the locker room.  The rain held off and we were able to take batting practice on the field.  I headed out in my Rays hoodie, something we’re forbidden from doing in the minors and it was pretty cool to just be out there wearing whatever we wanted.  There was a HUGE crowd of people ringing the field when we got out there for stretch.

I jumped in line behind Longoria and went through the dynamic stretch pretty quietly trying not to get in anybody’s way.  When we started the static portion Yunel Escobar started talking to me about nothing in particular, telling jokes that I needed Longoria to explain.  Apparently they go back to Escobar’s time in the minors, but either way it somehow ended up being funny in spite of the fact that I really had no idea what was going on.  I talked to Longo for a little, he asked where I was from, when I was drafted etc and I asked him about his stops in the minors.  When stretch ended I threw with O’Conner who would start the game behind the plate.  Batting practice was exactly as cool as you’d expect it to be, fans yelling for autographs, baseballs or just a friendly wave.  Not having my name on display made it even better I think because nobody realized I was a Minor Leaguer.  I ran around the outfield tracking down fly balls and watching others sail way over the wall.  O’Conner, Corsi and I managed to all sneak a peak at the videoboard when we were shown posing out in right center field, we pretended to stretch so it wasn’t obvious we were looking.  I spent some time talking to Matt Joyce when he was taking fly balls and before long I was jogging to the dugout to head back inside.  We had a great pregame spread, way more elaborate than our plebeian minor league ones, and I sat at my locker texting with a few friends.  Mid text I noticed someone had walked to right in front of me and I looked up to be greeted by Andrew Friedman, the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager.  He shook my hand and welcomed me, and we had a great talk for a few minutes.  He even mentioned that he reads my blog which was cool.  We talked about my transition to catching, and he had very positive things to tell me which was very encouraging. It’s always different hearing things right from the top, and to have that conversation I was on another level of cloud 9.

My locker tag

My locker tag

We headed out to the dugout at 1:30 because introductions were set for 1:40. I didn’t realize until one of the guys pointed it out, but they actually had the Tropicana Field grounds crew come down to make sure the field played exactly like it should for the Big League stars.  Talk about taking care of your assets, no leaf was left unturned.  Introductions began when field prep finished. It was just like the playoff games, something Longo mentioned while we were sitting there being organized in the dugout.  The non-starters all went out to the line together and were introduced one by one.  Then, just like you see on TV the starters were called and trotted out to the line, fist bumping or high fiving us as they went down toward home plate.  The crowd went crazy for Longoria as he’d played parts of two seasons in Montgomery before ascending to the Big Leagues.  Joe Maddon also got a big cheer and he came down the line with a huge smile across his face.  The game started out fast, not many hits as the pitchers traded clean innings.  O’Conner absolutely gunned down Willie Argo stealing second, then went up and smacked a double off the 395 sign.  When he hit his second double and threw out his second runner the dugout was taken over by MVP chatter which was cool.  In the 5th inning I noticed my name had been written into the lineup.  I was taking over for as the DH for Matt Joyce.  I scrambled to get ready for my at bat in the top of the 6th, heading to the cage with Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe. I took three quick rounds of flips and ran back to the dugout, terrified I’d be late for my at bat.  Sean tried to tell me I had way more time than I thought but I was paranoid so I split and went back early, getting there before the bottom of the 5th had ended.  I hit second, behind James Loney who drew a walk to lead off.  I walked to the plate, and heard my name called and told myself to take a second to just look around.  I took a practice swing and looked into the first base dugout and saw all the guys.  I looked into the crowd, and saw the fans.  I took a big clearing breath and set my sights on the guy on the mound.  The count went to 3-2 after I sliced a ball foul into the seats in left on the 3-1 pitch. I got another fastball on 3-2 and lined it between the shortstop and third baseman into left field for a single.  What a high, jogging around the bag and coming back to take off my shin guard, elbow guard and batting gloves.  I got a nice fist bump as I passed all my stuff to the first base coach.  I checked the signs, and the outfielders to know where they were playing in case a ball got out there, but the next hitter bounced into a 6-4-3 double play.  I jogged back to the dugout and got high fives from all the guys, a few guys said “nice swing” others just “atta way.”  It was so hard not to break out into the goofiest smile but I held it together.

When the inning ended Jamie Nelson, our Big League catching coach, called me to the cage to do some work on throwing.  He had spoken to Hoov about me and had some drills he wanted to work on with me.  We worked on a series of four different drills to clean up my transfer and throwing and talked about all the things I was trying to work on and learn.  It’s amazing how much these guys all know and how much they love teaching it!  We headed back to the dugout so I could get ready for my second at bat, a less impressive ground out to short.  The AA team made a comeback in the late innings, mostly off their own pitchers that had been sent to pitch for the Big League team and they ended up beating us 6-5 riding home runs by Jeff Malm and Taylor Motter.

So long Montgomery, thanks for the memories!

So long Montgomery, thanks for the memories!

When the game ended I packed up my catchers bag and headed back to the clubhouse and found the guys that had come out of the game early already eating a huge dinner.  I changed and showered quickly before heading into the other room to load up a plate.  We had steak, pork tenderloin, pulled pork, chicken, salad, grilled vegetables, baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese and bevy of desserts, so I made sure not to miss anything, loading the plate with as much as it would hold.  The meal was incredible, hot, fresh and delicious, there were almost too many different flavors for it to really make sense.  Our bags were taken back to the bus and after a half an hour we were back on the bus.  We had to do a more thorough check at security on the way home for some reason so it wasn’t nearly as quick as on the way down, but before long we were back on the plane.  The flight attendants brought around Chik-Fil-A and Panera for anyone that had magically gotten hungry in the 35 minutes since our last outrageous meal.  I took a Panera chocolate chip cookie since they’re the best in the world and threw my headphones on.  The return flight was smooth, and most of the guys took a quick nap while we were airborne. I couldn’t help but realize it was a flight back to reality, the life nobody sees, the life without free “post meal meals,” the life of carrying your own bag and shining your own spikes.  When we landed Matt Joyce who I sat behind on the flight shook my hand and wished me luck this season and that was it.  We were on the bus, headed to The Trop to drop them off in their dream world, and then back to Port Charlotte.  I called my grandparents on the ride back, and had a nice half hour long talk about many of the things in this post.

Fans lined the red carpet as we left the ballpark as well

Fans lined the red carpet as we left the ballpark as well

All in all the two days were an absolute dream, a taste of what it’s really like being one of the select few that ever gets to don a Major League uniform.   I’ll tell you one thing, if the stratospheric salaries aren’t enough of an incentive, being able to live that life for two days certainly added a little motivation to get there in a hurry.  It was a fantasy world, it didn’t seem real.  Everything you could possibly need done was done before you knew it.  Everything you could possibly want was there, ready for you.  The memories of the two days will be with me the rest of my life, and hopefully will be something I can laugh at when that becomes more normal to me in the future.  I learned a lot being around those guys, and I tried to tip toe the line of being as comfortable in that situation as I could without seeming like I felt I belonged there.  If there are any young kids reading this just take this advice, GET TO WORK because there truly is nothing in the world as magical as the hallowed ground that is the Big Leagues.

Yesterday was a major up and down day, it started with a great relaxed workout for the seven of us and a quick move to the locker room we’ll use for the season as Stone Crabs.  When I got back to the hotel I found out my buddy Geoff Rowan had been reassigned to Bowling Green and I wouldn’t be able to live with him, so I began scrambling to find people to live with, then a place for us all to live.  After hours of calling, and calling back (by accident) we finally met up with a lady that had a house for us.  Marcus Jensen and I drove over to meet her and took a tour.  It wasn’t long before we agreed to take it, and she told us she’d rented it to Stone Crabs players for years, and had even had Matt Moore and Alex Cobb live here when they were in Charlotte.  We figured with it being a nice place, low rent and having some Big League connection that it was the one and we shook her hand confirming what we already knew, we’d found ourselves a house.  Our third roommate is Kevin Brandt, a lefty who pitched at East Carolina, who, according to the box score I just looked up, threw 8 shutout innings against us, allowing on 4 hits, 2 of which I picked up.  It’s awesome to be all settled in now, and know where I’ll be and have some great roommates.  I’m incredibly lucky I was able to find some guys and a place given that it was so late.

Today is a day off to relax and reset before we kick things off with media day and a practice in the stadium tomorrow night.  I can’t wait to get going again!

Go Crabs, Go Rays!

 

This and That

Spring Training continues to chug along at what seems to be a breakneck pace, the days all passing by as we get closer and closer to Opening Day.  I’ve been asked by a thousand different people if I know where I’ll play this season, a topic I really haven’t addressed.  The reason is simple, I have almost no idea where I’m going to be on Opening Day April 3rd.  I’ve fished around in conversations with coaches, searching for any clue, but they’ve done a great job of keeping everything quiet.  I normally wouldn’t bother trying to find out, but being that I’m new to both the organization the position I’m completely lost in terms of knowing what team I’ll be with, and what my role will be.  I spoke with Jared Sandberg, last years Bowling Green manager (and manager in Charlotte this summer), after our game on Saturday and told him it was really the first time in my career that I’d felt that lost.  He was understanding, but was unable to give me any answers.  I’m now just going into wait and see mode, with just under a week left in camp I’m just going to buckle down and try to keep swinging the bat well, and keep developing my skills behind the plate.

Gotta love arriving to work before the sun rises!

Gotta love arriving to work before the sun rises!

Since my last post I’ve continued my streak of playing every day which has been absolutely awesome, there is nothing better as a hitter than coming to the ballpark expecting to be in the lineup.  I think that has definitely played a part in my success, I’m getting to see live pitching every day, I’m getting to sort out my daily routines and I’m staying focused.  I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m focusing a lot on my mental skills this year, and that too has helped me in the day to day grind of playing.  I had a discussion with one of the coaches recently in which I mentioned how I felt like I was doing a much better job of “letting go” of things that would otherwise sidetrack me.  His answer surprised me at first, but then made sense as I thought about it.  He suggested that part of the reason is that as a catcher there isn’t time to dwell on a lousy at bat, a questionable call or any other distraction.  I noticed this for the first time the other day when I was catching in our game against the Orioles on Friday.  I had a bad at bat, leaving the bases loaded after swinging at a changeup that wasn’t in any way, shape or form a hittable pitch.  I got my gear on and ran out to the plate and before the pitcher threw his first pitch I made a conscious effort to “wipe” away the negative thoughts, and actually took my bare hand and swept the dirt, reminding myself to get back into the zone and refocused.  In past years I’ve tried little techniques like that, but they’ve always been just a motion, they’ve never had any sort of impact, or anchor.  I was impressed by how quickly I got back to thinking straight, ignoring the bad at bat, and getting back to call a good inning for my pitcher.

In terms of game calling, I’ve been learning a lot recently also, mostly from small mistakes I’ve made.  There have been a few different times when I’ve called a sequence of pitches that seemed to make sense, only to have a hitter make solid contact.  In between innings one of the coaches, or Hoov will come and ask me about the sequence, and talk through what I did, versus what a more advanced catcher might call.  Even when I’ve made these mistakes the conversations have been more about learning what I’m thinking pitch to pitch.  It has been really interesting to listen to and think about some of the combinations of pitches, all the while remembering back to at bats last year when the Bowling Green staff used those exact combinations against me.  It’s interesting to know that all these things I’m learning have really been used in game action and are successful. I had another conversation with Sandberg in the batting cage recently during which he told me that he had two completely different spray charts on me last season.  He told me that one chart showed I was almost always going to hit the ball to left-center, and that this chart was based on all the swing data from games against all teams other than Bowling Green.  My spray chart against Bowling Green said I almost always hit the ball on the ground to the right side, something I didn’t realize at the time, but thinking back on the year I’ve begun to notice that he was right.  Again, we talked about some of the pitch sequences, and the types of pitchers that I faced last year and he sort of talked me through how I ended up with that kind of weird split.  I’ve always loved learning about the intricacies of baseball and this spring I’ve had plenty of time to go over all the minutia that I enjoy.

Today was a really short day because of the torrential downpour that seemed to just wait for us to get loose before dumping on us.  We tried to change the schedule to beat the rain, but mother nature had no plan to watch baseball today and as we started the 2nd inning of our intersquad game she cut loose a crazy amount of rain and we headed for the cover of the clubhouse.  I spent a few minutes talking to Steve Campbell who was my baseball coach back in Peewee (13/14 yrs old).  He’s down here with some friends watching Spring Training games up and down the stretch of I75 between Fort Myers in the south and Dunedin in the north.  It was nice to get to see him and talk about everything that’s going on down here. I’m going to see him and his buddies for dinner one of the next few nights, so that will definitely be a fun night of baseball banter. I also recently got a visit from John Jepson, the General Manager of the Toronto Mets, the travel team I played for in high school.  JJ has always been a great baseball person, and definitely played a large part in my getting to where I am today.  He built the Toronto Mets program to be one that fostered an environment that would promote growth both on the field and in the classroom.  I was able to play elite level baseball, including the two National Championship in 2007 and 2008 while also having time and space to get my school work done, study for exams etc.  I’m incredibly happy that he was able to come and see me play, even if he saw me on a day that I was 1 for 3 with a bloop single as the DH.  It wasn’t an impressive performance by any means, but it was great to be able to have him see me play in a professional game, having had such an impact on my career.

Hopefully the weather maps are all wrong and we’ll get some nice weather in the next few days because I’d love to get some more games in before the end of Spring Training.  As nice as it is to get into the cage and just swing it and relax a little I know how important it is to stay in proper every day game shape.  Hopefully next time I post I’ll be able to answer that question we’re all dying to know the answer to, where will I be on April 3rd? Until then, it’s time to just keep hitting, blocking and throwing.

Go Rays!

 

 

 

Back to It

Take your grandparents to work day at Charlotte Sports Park!

Take your grandparents to work day at Charlotte Sports Park!

Well I ended my last post thinking that I’d be back to full go immediately after my little ankle roll up during that first game.  Well as is always the case with injuries, plans changed.  In spite of my best efforts to get back into the lineup I was held out of our Saturday game in Fort Myers against the Red Sox, and stayed back in Port Charlotte while my team traveled. I was allowed to participate in practice, and to catch in the bullpen which started out as a really tough task. I was really battling my ankle, but I knew I didn’t want to waste days and opportunities to at least work on something.  Hoov was great about having me do drills that kept me off my ankle as much as possible, so we did a lot of receiving work and ball transfer drills.  After practice ended I was able to stand and talk to my Gramma and Zidie who had driven across to see me for the week.  They had been sort of shadowing me as I moved around the complex, following me from Field 3 to the bullpen and back.  It was really nice to have them down to see me go through my Spring Training workouts, and it was especially cool because when I was younger Zidie and I did an annual Spring Training trip to Dunedin.  We used to spend pretty close to the same amount of time at the ballpark as the players did, watching from the time the guys walked out of the clubhouse for stretch until the final out of the Grapefruit League games.  To be able to now share my experience of going through Spring Training with him is something I’ll always remember.  Gramma somehow managed to beat him to it as she made the trip with me and my mom last year and got to see me go through mini camp with the Padres.  We stood and talked by the bullpens as I took off my gear and packed up, then they went to grab lunch while I went into the clubhouse to do the same.

I came back out to Field 4 for the afternoon BP session during which we hit off the pitching machine.  Liv, one of the hitting coordinators had it set to a right handed slider, a wide, sweeping pitch that was almost unrealistic in how wide it was, and the release point.  The idea of having it set like that was to force left handed hitters to stay inside the ball and not cast out and hook, while also training the righties to stay in and not bail out.  I had an absolutely awesome session, launching balls onto the half field behind the right centerfield wall.  In previous years I’ve been known to “Judy” balls to left field, opting for a slower, more passive swing, trying to just hit the ball rather than attacking it.  Over the off season I spent some time in Las Vegas with Dave Clark, a hitting coach my agent Blake set me up with, and the changes I’ve seen in my swing this spring are remarkable.  Dave offered me two suggestions for subtle changes to my swing, and the results have been insane, my bat speed is through the roof and I’ve been really driving the ball in a way I’ve never driven the ball before.  I finished the batting practice session by hammering a ball out to right, and it was really the first time I’ve ever known immediately off the bat that the ball was gone. It was such a perfect, pure feeling and I kind of walked out of the cage admiring it as it went and sort of whispered under my breath “thanks Dave.”  I said to my grandparents afterwards that I find it amazing what a difference a tiny little mechanical change, and an environment that breeds confidence can be, and it truly manifested itself in that BP session.  I headed inside to go take care of my ankle with the trainers and was introduced to what is now my new favorite toy, and the machine I swear will be the first thing I buy with my first big league pay check, the underwater treadmill.  Joe, the head athletic trainer here had me run on it for 15 minutes, and explained that the idea was to strengthen my legs and ankle without the jarring that running outside causes, its a low stress workout for joints, but a great workout for the body.  I absolutely loved it, and felt really good after I finished, and I couldn’t believe how quickly the 15 had passed.  Normally running for 15 minutes feels like an eternity, but being in the water it really wasn’t bad at all. I finished with some time in the cold tub, sharing the hydro therapy room with Yunel Escobar and James Loney who had taken to the hot tub after finishing up in their game.  I spoke briefly with Loney which was cool, and my ankle froze itself up in the frigid water, completing my day.  I showered and changed quickly before heading into the big league game to meet Gramma and Zidie, I figured rather than standing around watching me take one round of batting practice that watching the Rays vs Jays was probably a better use of their time, so I met up with them in Section 212 around the 6th inning and we stayed to watch until the 8th.  We left and headed to their hotel where we hung out for a while before heading out for dinner.

Not ashamed to post a Snapchat picture. The sunset at dinner the other night was absolutely gorgeous!!

Not ashamed to post a Snapchat picture. The sunset at dinner the other night was absolutely gorgeous!!

Yesterday was what we call a “camp day,” a really quick morning workout that consists of stretch, throwing program, batting practice and a 4 inning intersquad game.  After three long days of not being on the lineup card I was finally back in there for the game, catching and hitting third for Team Six.  We broke up onto our fields and stretched, then the starting catchers headed to the cage to get loose.  I started out with some no stride work to try and loosed up, get my hands working and really track the ball.  I managed to have a really good round, backspinning 6 or 7 balls to the end of the cage, before calling it quits for round one.  When I walked out, Chad Mottola, our new hitting coordinator and the former Jays big league hitting coach, asked me about the no stride drill.  I told him why I like doing it, and he told me he was impressed by how I stayed short, really used my hands well and didn’t try to “monkey” balls, which in English could mean crush, smash, or hammer the ball. I finished with some regular swings, then jogged across to gear up for my bullpen and get ready for the game.  Oscar and I managed to catch the wrong guys in the pen, each of us taking the other guys pitcher which lead to some confusion pregame, but we straightened it out pretty quickly and the game started without any delay.  I went 0 for 2, but absolutely smashed a first pitch changeup in my second at bat for a fly out to right field.  I was looking offspeed, got the pitch, it was up in the zone and I got a really great swing on it.  The only problem was that I hit it directly into the teeth of what was at times up to a 30 mph wind blowing straight in. When I hit it I put my head down and ran expecting to make the turn and go for an easy double, but when I got to first and checked to see the play I saw the right fielder camped out under the ball, which was a really annoying feeling.  I felt good overall about the at bat knowing I did everything I could and knowing the only thing that really beat me was the wind.  Sometimes it just “sucks to suck” as they say.  After the game I grabbed a quick lunch with my grandparents then headed up to Siesta Key with the guys to hang out at the beach for the afternoon which was a lot of fun.  It was a nice sunny day, and the we spent the day playing volleyball, bocce ball and cornhole while trying to even out our awful baseball tans. I headed back and met up with Gramma and Zidie for an incredible Italian dinner which really hit the spot after sitting in traffic on I75 for 2 hours trying to make the 40 minute drive back.

Today was a pretty cool day, and I guess makes this post hold true to the old adage “save the best for last.” While my team was stretching on Field 3 Hoffy, the field coordinator came by and told me that after stretch I was to head over to Field 5 to hit in a simulated game off of Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly known as Leo Nuñez of the Marlins) and Alex Cobb. I was so excited to get to take part in the sim game, something that normally creates about as much excitement as watching grass grow or watching paint dry. When we got over to Field 5 we were met by not only the pitchers that were throwing but also by Joel Peralta and David Price.  As we took turns seeing pitches from Oviedo we hung around the cage and chatted with Price, Peralta and the trainers tat were all overseeing the session. Oviedo has a quick delivery and was firing hard, running fastballs, mixing in a split-change to keep us off balance. Once Oviedo finished throwing the screens were taken off the field and Cobb came out of the bullpen to start his 7 inning sim game.  He was playing it as a true sim game, with half inning breaks ever three outs, no screens and base runners.  Cobb took the mound, and we started the game and quickly it became evident how tough he is on hitters.  He mixed fastballs, his split-change and an absolute HAMMER of a curveball.  Both offspeed pitches seemed to at times just disappear, darting down and away from our bats.  In 7 at bats against Cobb I managed 1 and a half hits (might have been a second hit on a hard grounder through the 3/4 hole, but without any defense it’s hard to say for sure), and struck out twice, yes I struck out twice swinging.  I have no problem saying that on the curveball he got me with in my third at bat, and the change he threw for the final pitch of the day that I missed by about a foot and a half each.  I’ve never seen a breaking ball, or a changeup move like that before, I actually laughed as I walked back to the dugout after the last one.  We shook hands with him and the pitching coach and trainer that were on the field making sure everything went according to plan and thanked them for having us over.  The day finished with batting practice off of Waurner Rincones back on Field 4 while the other minor league guys played in three different games, two of which were against the Twins and the other which was an intersquad between our AA and AAA teams.  Again we had gale force winds, so I tried to stay low with line drives, but still managed to get a couple up and snuck them out which felt really good.

I’ll meet up with Gramma and Zidie later for dinner, and again have some insanely awesome food, and laughs at Zidie’s crazy comments.  I’m so lucky that they’re able to spend the week here, it is truly a special time for me.

One final note, its March 17th, meaning we’re officially over half way done Spring Training and only have 10 more games.  Opening Day is coming baseball fans.

FINALLY

Let the Games Begin

So I’ve done the whole “Maxx is brain dead and forgot to write anything for a week” thing that I did last year during Spring Training last year, but I’m back.  Most of the days since my last post have been very similar in their schedules, with practices lasting all morning, then a quick lunch in the pavilion and batting practice in the afternoon.

On Sunday we played our first intersquad game, a 4 inning affair on Field 2. I checked the schedule board and found that my name was on the lineup card and that I was going to start behind the plate and hit 5th.  During our defensive time in BP the catchers all headed over to the bullpen and Hoov talked to us about our gameday routines.  He talked about the importance of getting some kind of prep work done before the game, drawing a parallel between our defensive drills and batting practice.  He explained that in the same way as we would never take our first swing of the day in a game we shouldn’t block our first ball, make our first transfer or do our first footwork in the game.  It made perfect sense, and it was good to know that a lot of the drills we’ve been doing on a daily basis are the same ones we’re going to use through the year.  He also talked about the importance of being honest in our evaluations of our play, and talked about how routines change based on what work we feel we need.  Again, the whole meeting centered on taking responsibility for our defensive skills and taking pride in being the best defender on the diamond.  Hoov does a great job at creating a sense of pride and confidence in us during his talks, even when they’re about something seemingly minute, like a 5-10 minute pregame routine.

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Beautiful sunny sky, a perennial All Star on the mound and a day to relax and be a fan. Life was good Tuesday afternoon!

We split up into pairs, each starter having his bullpen catcher for the day to help walk him through and help with any drills.  I was paired with Adam Pendelton who caught in the Gulf Coast League last year, so I had him walk me through some blocking buildups, doing the three ball drill, and some easy ball off the body drills.  I had him back up to about 30 feet and throw some balls for me to block, and finished with some ball out of the hand work to get my footwork and arm working.  All the work took about 6 or 7 minutes, and before long I was out on the left field line with Reinaldo Lopez playing long toss, getting him ready for the start.  It was cool to have him as the first pitcher I’d catch in a game because I had  a really good feel for his repertoire having faced him all of last year, and then having caught him a few times this spring.  He’s become a friend over the last couple of weeks, coming out for dinner with some guys I was with and always saying hi in the locker room.  He apparently thought it was hysterically funny that I called Oscar “lambon” which is a Dominican slang for a suck up.  We were joking around one day during practice and Oscar ran out to pick up a bunch of baseballs that were laying around so I called him “lambon” and it has been a running joke since.  When Lopez overheard us bantering about who is the bigger “lambon” he took to calling me that, so every morning he waves, gives me a high five or a fist bump and says “good morning lambon.”  I caught his pregame bullpen then we walked around to the third base dugout to grab a drink and sit down before going out. Our team was the “visitors” for the day so we hit first, and before I knew it I was jogging out, shaking the umpire’s hand and catching Lopey’s warmup pitches. In the intersquad games each inning starts with a runner on first base so there is a little more situational work going on both offensively and defensively.  I had a pretty good day behind the plate, I had a couple of blocks, received the ball pretty well and didn’t get shaken off too often for my first game.  I had one runner steal on me, and my throw was a little off to the 2nd base side of the bag.  It had good carry, and felt quick and easy out of my hand, but I just kind of pushed it a bit and wasn’t on line.  I got two at bats, and went 1 for 2 with a 2 out, 2 RBI double to left center.  My other at bat was what we call a GTMO situation, with a runner on second base and nobody out, so I hooked a ground ball to advance him to third.  It was a great start to my career as a Ray, even if it was in the most unofficial of ways.

Monday was another day of intersquad games but I was assigned to the live BP that was taking place on Field 4.  To say that I was bad might be the understatement of the century, if not the millennium.  I was so incredibly awful, in part because of the fact that I hadn’t slept well on Sunday night and had NeuroScience at 7:30 am.  It was just one of those days when everything that could go wrong did, I took hittable strikes in my at bats, I dropped easy pitches behind the plate, didn’t block pitches that were obviously “block” pitches and my only description of myself that day was “hands like feet.”  I have no trouble in admitting, Monday was a grind.  Running on very little sleep, coming off the high that is a day 1 start in a game and being used in the live BP added up to an easy mental lapse day and it whacked me hard in the side of the head.  The best part of the day was how the staff handled it, I could not be more grateful to Ray Ruiz, Hoov, and Skip for the way they worked with me, encouraged me and helped me brush it off.  At different points throughout the day they commented on things I could change, and improve upon, but they were ALWAYS put in a very positive way.  They were always helpful, and made me feel like I wasn’t nearly as useless as I felt as balls 13, 14 and 15 clanked off my mitt and rolled to the backstop.  At the end of the day Hoov came over and put his arm on my shoulder and sort of laughed and told me “Tiss, the day from hell is over brother.  You survived it.”  He told me he understood that I was tired, mentally and physically and the he knew exactly what I had gone through having been through the same conversion himself.  He told me to think about the things I didn’t do well, but to remember that overall I’ve had more good days, and have progressed well.  I left the field with such a sense of confidence, in spite of the poor performance because I knew they believed in me, and were going to help me through the days like that.

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Divisional rivalry! Was so happy to have Jack out at practice on Wednesday

Tuesday was a quick day, in preparation for Wednesday’s Minor League Grapefruit League opener up in Sarasota against the Orioles.  I spent the afternoon at the big league game, figuring watching David Price throw, Jose Molina behind the plate, and Joe Mauer hitting couldn’t be a bad way to spend an afternoon.  Oh and it was like 80 degrees and sunny without a cloud in the sky, so it was basically PERFECT baseball weather.  My cousin Jack and his dad Bruce were in town and stopped by to watch practice Wednesday morning, and got soak up some Rays spring training even though Jack hasn’t yet switched allegiances from his beloved Blue Jays.  It was awesome to have them there to watch me, and it was cool to get to go over and talk to Jack while still in my uniform and my gear.  When practice ended we grabbed a quick lunch and got on the bus to drive up to Sarasota.  I sat with Nick Ciuffo, another one of the catchers and plugged my headphones in and got into my zone.  I’m trying to do a better job this year of maintaining a level of mental performance to help my physical skills show up better every day.  Part of this new routine involves keeping some notes before and after the games, so I jotted some points into my notebook on the ride up.  I wrote quick reminders, a thought of the day and some words to help create confidence.  I developed a goal for the day, and my strategies for achieving the goal.  When we got to Sarasota we played pepper on the left field line, then got ready for the game.  I caught the bullpens for the first 5 innings then got into the game in the 6th.  I hit second and came up with a runner on 2nd base.  I hit a 1-1 fastball back through the pitchers legs into centerfield for an RBI single, and moved up to second on an errant throw.  I had a block in my first inning behind the plate which was awesome, and in my second inning I was tested with my first runner.  The pitch was a high fastball which is an easy pitch to throw on, and one that I get often from Hoov during drills.  I caught it, got my feet under me and fired a strike to second base to get the runner, my first Caught Stealing as a catcher and an end to the inning.  I came up in the top of the 8th and doubled home another run, on a ball that I hit really well to left center.  I finished 2 for 2 with 2 RBI’s, and a runner thrown out so it was an absolutely awesome day.  I even had my first play at the plate, which ended with the runner rolling up on my ankle which kept me out of practice today, nothing serious, just precautionary.  I’m looking forward to being back on the field tomorrow because as great as the trainers were, ice tubs, GameReady and the zappy machine are no fun compared to batting practice, bullpens and defense.

Go Rays!

We’re Live

Even though my legs won’t agree with me Spring Training is flying by right now, we’re already a couple of days into full squad workouts meaning there are close to 200 Tampa Bay Rays running around the back fields at Charlotte Sports Park.  As was the case when I met the bunch of guys that were down here for early workouts all of the position players that just arrived have been great to me.  Tuesday night was the reporting date for the position players, so there were reunions of all sorts around the hotel.  I went with my roommate Justin and one other guy (whose name escapes me right now) to see Ride Along, a movie starring Kevin Hart, in the afternoon.  There’s a theatre right around the corner from our hotel, so it was a quick ride over and back for us.  The movie was funny at times, but certainly wasn’t anything worth talking about. When we got back to the hotel O’Conner asked if I wanted to go get dinner with him and a bunch of the guys which was awesome, so we went down to Luke Maile’s room to wait for the rest of the guys to arrive.  We sat and chatted for a little while, the two of them catching up and Luke and I getting familiar with one another and trading stories about guys we’d both played with and against.  After a while the rest of the Bowling Green guys showed up so I met Patrick Leonard, Joey Rickard, Tommy Coyle, and Marty Gannt.  We split up into three cars and met over at Outback for dinner, and we talked about all the guys we faced last year, while Joey, Pat and O’Conner talked about their time in the Australian Baseball League this past winter. It was a really nice night getting to meet all those guys and hang out, and to try and start to build a new group to hang out with during the year.  The weirdest and most difficult part of camp so far has been not having my guys around.  It’s weird not getting to go and hang out with Fried, Walker, Shepherd, Joe Ross, and all the other San Diego/Fort Wayne guys.

I started out yesterday early with an interview on CBS Sports Radio Orlando, as I was invited on the morning show called “Baumann and Big Joe.”  The show had featured Ronnie Richardson, my former teammate from Eugene on Tuesday morning, so I guess they’d asked him to contact me and see if I wanted to go on.  I was thrilled to be invited, and even though I had to wake up early I had a great time talking to them about camp, the big league team and my blog.  It’s very cool to know that even sports talk radio guys know about this, and it was fun to discuss all of that stuff with them.  Since most of you follow me on Twitter or are friends with my sister and I on Facebook you may have already seen a link to the interview, but for those who haven’t, you can listen through the link my sister tweeted.

With the position players now in camp we’ve switched the format of the workouts from pitching groups to team groups.  We’ve been divided into working groups that will eventually begin to form into the Minor League rosters later on in camp.  Each morning we meet as a large group on Field 1 to go over the important notes for the day about which guys will be switching fields, and other housekeeping reminders.  Hoffy leads the meeting and almost always “Skip” Evers has a quick comment for the group.  Normally Skip talks about certain words like responsibility, and respect, reminding guys that the only way to make a career in this game is to be smart, and make responsible decisions that allow for proper rest, recovery, work etc.  We then split up onto two fields, pitchers on Field 1 and position guys on Field 4 (which is beside, the numbers go around in a circle around the observation tower in the middle).  We go through our stretching program, lead by a different strength coach every morning and then we do our conditioning.  Next is base running, same as last week when it was just catchers.  We then get our arms loosened up with our throwing program before the day really starts.  At that point the catchers all head down to one of the bullpen areas to do defense work with Hoov, Skip and the other coaches.  We have a specific area we work on each day and every one of us goes through the same series of drills.  For example, yesterday we did a lot of receiving work, so each coach was given a different drill to work on with a group of 3 or 4 catchers.  We started with some barehanded drills, working on staying under the ball, then we went to some mini glove work which is very similar in that we’re trying to work to keep the ball on the almost flat surface without closing the pocket.  We finished with a “receive and footwork” and a throwing station.  The receive/footwork drill helps to take us from just catching the ball to getting into our throwing position as if we were going to throw to get a runner at each base.  The throwing drill is always just down to second base, and I had a lot of trouble with it yesterday, struggling to stay on line and gain ground toward my target.  Yes Coach Pennucci, I STILL have an issue with gaining ground.

After we finished our defense work we head to our team fields to go into live BP (*title tie in*).  Live batting practice is more geared toward pitchers, getting them on the mound, and having a hitter in the box. We as hitters are allowed to swing so it’s technically working both guys, but it certainly is a pain in the ass as a hitter.  Unlike in a game when a hitter has a count and a scouting report live BP is done based on 5 pitches per hitter, and the guys throw their pitches in no particular order.  Since they have no fear of walking somebody they could miss with two fastballs and then throw something off speed, which in a game is pretty much a sin, so it makes our job as hitters much more difficult.  My group has three catchers, so during live BP we have one catcher on the field catching, one in the bullpen and one in the hitting group.  Yesterday I got to lead off, which again means nothing other than I went first.  I faced a lefty who threw from a high 3/4 arm slot, meaning that my first live pitches since last year were a little tricky to track.  I spent the first 5 pitches just watching, getting used to seeing the ball out of his hand and recognizing spin.  After that I figured I’d cut it loose a few times and swing.  I made some solid contact off both pitchers I faced, and a whole bunch of ass out, completely fooled “doinkers” off of changeups I didn’t pick up well.  I didn’t swing through any pitches, so that was positive, but knowing my eye at the plate during the season this was certainly day 1.  When I finished hitting I went to the bullpen to warm up three pitchers, two of whom would throw to the other catchers.  The third guy I brought in with me, and caught him on the field.  Both of the pitchers I caught on the field threw 20 pitches, but the two sessions flew by and I remember very little of them.  I think I was nervous, excited and a lot of other things that contributed to my blanking on them, but I know they went well because I only had 1 drop all day behind the plate, which was significantly better than my previous best of 3.

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My Instagram collage of my Spring Training jersey. Nothing like Majestic Uniforms, there is something incredibly special about arriving at my locker each morning and seeing this beauty!

Today we battled bad weather so everything was moved up earlier than normal to try and get it all in before the rain.  Half way through early work somebody called an audible, cut it short and we started practice at 9:15.  Normally we switch early work stations at around 9:15 and we finish at 9:45.  We hurried through stretch and conditioning and didn’t do base running in order to get our throwing and live BP in.  Today I started in the bullpen, warming up Molina who has the dubious honor of being the last guy to surrender a home run to me. He’s a lefty from Bowling Green’s team last summer with a good fastball, a change up and a slider that is still a work in progress.  I caught his thirty warm up pitches and sent him to the field, and he was followed by Ryan Garton who was also in Bowling Green last year.  He also pitched at FAU against us my sophomore year at Stony Brook, so I’m fairly familiar with him.  We talked briefly before he started throwing since he came over to the pen early, and he asked me how I liked catching, and if I had ever done it before, seeing as he’d only ever faced me as a 2B or SS.  He threw thirty or so pitches in the bullpen, working on his fastball, curveball, change up and cutter before being called onto the field.  As we walked out of the pen I asked how he wanted to work during his time on the field since the 20 pitches are limited to fastball and change up the first few times.  We decided upon a routine and went to it.  I had another clean day behind the plate, and was 2 pitches away from finishing his work when Araiza, one of the other catchers who was hitting at the time, fouled a ball off my right shoulder.  It was the first time I had gotten hit with a foul ball, and even though I thought it would be a traumatic, horrible feeling it really wasn’t awful.  I actually kind of liked getting hit in some weird way because it made me realize that it wouldn’t be that bad.  My last pitcher was Faria, a tall right hander who would only throw his fastball and change up to me since we were on the field.  He’s a taller kid, so I had a little bit of adjusting to do with my eyes because his high release point was above the batters eye in center field and with the grey cloudy sky the ball blended in.  I had 1 drop during his work on the field, a change up that just sort of floated on me and I didn’t follow it into my glove, yes Molly it was a f****** focus error. As I trotted off the field to get ready for my live BP hitting the rain began to come down hard, so Hoffy blew the air horn and we all headed under the canopy at Field 5. We met quickly and were sent inside to wait for our turns in the covered batting cages.  Group by group we darted through the rain to the cage, trying to get soaked as little as possible.  We hit inside for 15 minutes each, and were allowed to pick which cage we hit in, so I ended up hitting with Johnny Field, who I knew from my trip to Las Vegas, and from playing against him in the Cape.  The third guy in our group is Raul Mondesi’s son.  I remember watching Raul as a Blue Jay when I was growing up, he was known for having an absolute missile for an arm, routinely throwing guys out at third and the plate from way out deep in the right field corner.  When our 15 minutes was up we ran back inside, avoiding Oscar Hernandez who decided to try and jump in every puddle and splash us.  It was another good day baseball wise, and I’m starting to get comfortable with coaches names and some of the players.

An Official Start

It’s been a while since I posted something, and that’s partly because I was in the middle of my last post when I went out to meet some people and left my post unsaved.  When I came back, I found that my computer had run a bunch of updates and restarted so I lost the whole post, BUMMER!  That post was going to talk about last week, while I was completing my second week of optional pre camp workouts, and was joined by my mom and my sister who came over to spend three days with me.  It was awesome to have some company, and some people to hang out with every night while they were here and as always there were the normal Maxx/Molly incredibly stupid, laughing at nothing moments, during which Mom just bursts out laughing at us.  We had some great dinners at Captain Curt’s, the little seafood joint down the road, they got to see a few workouts and it was a very good week.

Thursday of this week we had an early morning BP only practice after which we cleaned out our temporary lockers, and put all our gear into boxes that would be loaded into our Spring Training lockers by the clubhouse staff. We hit from 9-10 in the morning, and then I met up with Mom and Molly for brunch before they got on the road.  I spent most of Thursday afternoon cleaning up the house, turning off lights, fans and other switches, and “closing” the place down according to the instructions I was given by my aunt Charlene.   I grabbed a quick dinner and went out with some friends that night up in Longboat Key.  It was a pretty nice, easy going night and even included a really nice walk on the beach and a much debated “shooting star.”

Friday was a day off so I went back to Longboat to hang out on the beach for the afternoon, I tried desperately to even out my baseball/farmers tan but obviously a two week head start for my forearms and neck was too much for the rest of my body to overcome.  We swam, played a little baseball on the beach and listened to music.  It was a great way to spend a day off. At 4:30 I hit the road and drove down to Port Charlotte to move into the team hotel for the rest of the spring.  The drive took a little over an hour, and before long I moved myself into my room.  I’m rooming with Justin O’Conner who was the catcher in Bowling Green last year, so I was sort of familiar with him when he arrived later that night.  We sat and talked with ESPN on as a background, and he asked how I liked catching, the coaches and being with Tampa Bay.

Saturday was the official start to Pitchers and Catchers on the minor league side of camp.  We began the day with a meeting in the coaches room during which Hoover discussed the importance of fundamentals in our defense, about our defensive program, and a bunch of other important topics we’d need to cover before hitting the field.  When we finished with that meeting we headed to Building B for a meeting with all the pitchers.  It was the standard welcome to Spring Training meeting during which Mitch, the Minor League Director introduced everybody.  We headed out to the field around 11 am and got stretched out.  The stretch was a very long, involved series that worked up a good sweat right away.  After stretch the pitchers had a whole series of conditioning, while we (catchers) ran arcs around the infield.  We knocked out the conditioning, and headed into a quick base running session during which we went over very basic things like our responsibilities on deck, our routes to first base and our lead offs.  My group was on Field 3, diagonally across from the field we stretched and would later throw on.  We threw after base running, then it was time for the day to start.  At this point anyone without an idea what was going on would immediately think the word “chaos.”  There were pitching groups on every field, catchers in the bullpens, hitting on one field and other guys running around between the stations.  My group took BP first, then caught bullpens.  I hit well, spraying balls all around the field and feeling pretty good about my swing.  I caught three bullpens, and had some positive feedback from both Hoov and some of the other coaches that were watching.

This morning was an early morning for me as I started out with my concussion baseline test before 7 am.  I knocked it out and then headed into the Pavilion to eat breakfast.  We had scrambled eggs with cheese, tater tots and the normal assortment of fruit and bagels/toast.  I had a good meal with some of the guys before heading inside to put on sunscreen and tape my wrist.  We had another meeting in the coaches room, this time one of the big league catching coaches came in and talked to us.  He again stressed the importance of defense in our organization, talking about all of the different things that the front office measures and quantifies.  When we finished with Nelly we headed to the cages for a meeting with Liv, one of the hitting coaches.  He talked about early work, cage rules and other house keeping stuff, it was another one of those welcome style meetings.  We all drudged back across the complex to Field 1 for stretch and did our whole morning routine.  Today we did blocking work before batting practice started.  That was the only real change schedule wise, other than Hoov breaking us into 4 groups instead of 3 groups to get everyone a little more work.  It was another good day, and I’m starting to figure some stuff out behind the plate.  The highlight of the day for me was wearing our full uniform for the first time.  It has been nice working out in shorts and tshirts, but there is definitely a sense of pride involved in wearing your big league club’s jersey and having your last name and a number on your back. It was very cool to see everyone in uniform and a big help to start getting names figured out.

I’ll be more regular on here now that I’m all settled in so my posts won’t be long boring summaries of the days like this might have been.  Until next time, Go Rays!

My Last Weekend Off

Put it in the books.  This weekend was the last weekend I’ll have off until the 2014 baseball season ends in September, and I couldn’t be happier.  This coming week will be made up of the final four or five optional early workouts and then my official report date with all the Minor League pitchers and catchers on Friday.  We were given the weekend off, and even had an earlier start time on Friday to allow us to get done sooner.  When I blocked my final ball in the bullpen during blocking drills I knew I had a long evening ahead of me.  I packed up my catchers gear, changed out of my cleats (we aren’t allowed to wear cleats inside the clubhouse) and scrambled as fast I could back to the clubhouse.  I was in a hurry for two very major reasons, first, Team Canada and Team USA were playing in the Mens Semi Final in the Olympic hockey tournament, and second, my Stony Brook Seawolves were opening their year at 6:00 pm in Miami.  I got to the locker room, peaked into the video room which happened to have the game on and saw that Team Canada had won, giving them a shot at gold.  I showered and changed as fast as possible and hit the road, stopping only to grab a quick sandwich and fill up my car with gas.

I shot south of I-75 making the 2.5 hour drive to Miami in hopes of getting there before first pitch.  That didn’t ultimately work out as a little bit of construction caused traffic and I was stuck moving really slowly for a while.  I made it to Florida International University around 6:20, and it was the top of the 2nd inning.  I quickly found my sister who had my ticket, and we walked in and sat down with my mom, grandparents and Denise Italiano, whose son Anthony was a teammate and good friend of mine during my Junior Year at Stony Brook.  We watched as FIU jumped out to an early lead, only to find the Seawolves right back in it around the 5th or 6th inning.  The guys played a decent ball game, and considering it was their first outing of the year I thought they did alright with a very young team.  I got to watch a bunch of former teammates get their first hits, rbi’s and innings pitched of their year.  After the game I went down to the field to say hello to the guys, and the coaches.  The guys were in pretty good spirits given the result.  I talked quickly with Cole who was the SS beside me during the 2012 year, as well as Tate, Anthony, Barry and a couple of others.  When the guys cleared out of the dugout I went in and said hi to Coach Senk, Coach Pennucci, Coach Marron and Roy, our athletic trainer.  It was awesome to see all of them as I really haven’t had much time down at Stony Brook since I signed.  When we walked out to the parking lot Coach Senk had Tom Koehler, a Miami Marlins pitcher (in the Big Leagues) and SB alum, talk to the whole team.  Koehler talked about how lucky the guys were to be doing what they are, and that they should enjoy every day together because of how fast it all goes by.  I nodded along, knowing that the message was clearer to me having been through the whole process.

I went back to the team hotel and then out for dinner with Coach Pennucci and Coach Marron.  We went to a little Cuban restaurant around the corner from the hotel and had an awesome dinner.  We talked about the game, all of the new players on the team and traded stories about a whole bunch of different topics.  It stands to reason that the dynamic at a dinner like that is obviously different than when I was a player and at practice, but it still blows me away how much fun they are to just sit and talk to.  We passed an hour really quickly, then I jumped on the highway to head back to Boca Raton where my grandparents place is.  I spent the night there because it’s only an hour drive down, and I planned to go to the Saturday game as well.  Coach Pennucci told me to come early, so I could go on the field with the team during batting practice.

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The best chicken and rice ever in the history of the world

Saturday afternoon my sister and I jumped in what we call the “fun-mobile” which is our Gramma’s convertible.  We dropped the top, and cranked the music up loud for the hour soaking up every last ray of 80 degree sunshine we could. We got to Miami around 1 and figured we should get lunch before heading to the ballpark.  We used Molly’s UrbanSpoon app (the same one that found us that incredible fried chicken place in Chattanooga) but this time we struck out.  The place we went into was a fancy sit down place, rather than a quick little “grab a quick bite” type of joint.  Disappointed we turned around and headed back toward the ballpark.  As we drove through the neighbourhood on Calle Cuba Molly spotted a little place on the corner that we figured was worth a shot.  All the signage was in Spanish, and there were a bunch of people going in and out of it so we parked and gave it a shot.  “This may be a bit of a struggle,” I joked with Molly as we walked in, but when it came my turn to order I spoke well enough to not let her or anyone else know that I wasn’t a real Spanish speaker.  The lady behind the counter and I had a quick little “hey how’s it going” before getting down to the business of ordering lunch.  I ordered two plates of “arroz con pollo” or rice and chicken.  I also spotted some fried plantains like I had when I was in the Dominican so I ordered us each one of those too.  The lady packed up our to-go boxes and asked if we wanted drinks.  Only when I said “diet coke” did she realize I spoke English and then tried to ask if I wanted salad in English.  I answered back in Spanish to make it easier on her and before long we had paid and walked back to the car.  We both had a moment as we sat down where we weren’t really sure how the hell I had pulled that off, but it was incredibly cool to be able to do it without the help of Rodney or Reyes like I had during Instructs.

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Pretending to be important while watching BP…Loved having a “field pass” for the day

We ate our lunch at the ballpark before I headed to the field for batting practice.  Molly went up into the stadium and sat with all the scouts.  I wore my red cage jacket so I looked like I was part of the group, and I caught for Coach Pennucci while he hit fungos to the infielders.  I stood around the cage and watched guys hit and did my best to look official, and enjoy being down there.  It was weird being down there without a care in the world, but it was still great to be back down there with the coaches and the guys. The game was ugly, but I spent a few innings talking to a few scouts that were sitting near me about our 2012 team, and my brief career in pro ball.  When the game ended Molly and I went for dinner with the Italiano’s, the McNitt’s, Chad Lee and Kevin Courtney.  It was great to get to spend the evening with those guys and share all sorts of stories, most of which were completely unrelated to baseball.  It’s awesome how friends and former teammates can just pick up like that, having not really seen one another in such a long time.

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The famjam post brunch this morning…Mom did the photography

This morning we did what 100% of Canadians all over the world did (okay slight exaggeration) and watched our boys in red and white knock off Sweden for their second straight Olympic Gold Medal.  It was a dominant performance, and there really was never any sort of tension that made the game seem like it was at all in doubt.  When the game ended we grabbed a quick brunch at my grandparents golf club and then I got in the car and drove back to Siesta Key for this last week.  I think my mom and sister are going to come across to watch a few practices this week which will be cool and then Friday will be the “OFFICIAL” start date for Spring Training.  No more weekends off, it’s now ALL BASEBALL, ALL THE TIME.  What better way to spend the next 7 and a half months?

 

Here We Go

I remember my first week at Stony Brook, an 18 year old kid freshly transplanted from his family, friends and life at home.  I was in a new city, in a new state, in a different country and would be joining a completely new team.  I had to live on my own for the first time in my life, and had to do all of that while earning good grades and playing baseball. I remember those first practices, thinking to myself “what the hell have I gotten myself into?”  I remember feeling like I had no idea where anything was, the training room, the weight room, or my classes.  I remember needing to ask Coach Nick or one of the Seniors what every single exercise on our card was.  I remember fighting myself to try and just “be better” at all the drills Coach Pennucci hit us with during our daily infield work.  It was a grind not only physically but mentally as well.

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Lost somewhere that was supposed to be 80 West but wasn’t really…

I arrived in Florida on Saturday and spent the afternoon and evening with my grandparents.  We went out for Cuban food that night and I felt a very similar uneasiness in my stomach the whole night.  I was excited, but I also had all these strange fears, doubts and questions floating around.  I tried to just enjoy my last night before the season got underway but I certainly didn’t feel like myself.  Sunday afternoon we went down to the Boca Beach Club for lunch with Uncle David and Suzanne (long time best friends of my grandparents).  We had a great meal, and had our usual very interesting conversations that cover pretty well anything and everything, and watched the Team Canada vs Team Finland game on tv.  As lunch drew to a close I felt all of that nervous energy reappearing as I knew I was leaving from lunch to drive to Port Charlotte.  We said our goodbyes and I hit the road following my GPS.  My grandparents who are normally incredibly trustworthy with their sense of direction recommended a different route than my GPS so I flipped around and took off up I-95.  I took a long, boring, meandering route across the state that I managed to get lost on.  Both their directions, the street sign and my gps said “stay on 80 west” which apparently actually meant “exit right TO STAY on 80 west.”  Next thing I knew I was entirely too far north, not far enough west, and spending more time in the car with my windows down and country music blaring.  It wasn’t all bad, I did enjoy the private concert I put on for myself.

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My arrival picture from Sunday afternoon…first base gate at the Big League stadium

I arrived in Port Charlotte around 4:30 and went directly to the stadium.  I called my dad, and my grandparents/mom/sister to let them know I made it before taking a few pictures, tweeting that I had made it and then getting back in my car to drive up to Siesta Key.  I had gotten an awesome offer from my uncle Allan, to let me stay at his place during the two weeks leading up to Spring Training since housing isn’t paid for or taken care of through the team.  I made the 40 ish minute drive up and found the key, let myself in and threw my bags into one of the bedrooms.  I’m here by myself, so I got to choose which room I wanted.  Next I plugged in my PlayStation so I could play some NHL when I got back from dinner.  I went and grabbed a quick bite to eat, picking the spot based on the music I heard playing inside this little joint on the water.  I had a great dinner and headed back home to rest up for my first day at camp.

I arrived around noon for a 1pm workout, much later than I had wanted to show up, but I had to make an emergency pit stop on the way to the complex after realizing I’d forgotten a very important piece of “equipment.”  I got to the gate, and asked the security person if I was in the right place, and sensing my nervousness he told me I wasn’t even in the right city.  I semi laughed, nervous that maybe I’d managed to find the wrong place, but half confident it was a joke.  He pointed me to the parking area for Minor League players, a little grassy area just outside the gates which enclose the Major League parking lot.  I parked and carried my navy Padres bag into the clubhouse.  I walked in and found the clubhouse manager and immediately recognized him from Bowling Green.  He told me I had to get rid of the bag, so I unloaded it quickly into my temporary locker and then hid it atop the locker behind a stool.  I got my Rays shorts, T-shirt and a velcro back hat (we get the fitted ones on our report date) and headed back to my locker.  I sat in my locker as the guys filed in slowly exchanging handshakes, pats on the back, hugs and all the other athlete “bro” greetings we exchange with long lost teammates.  I felt fairly invisible as the guys went about their reunion.  I talked briefly with Ryne Stanek, a pitcher out of University of Arkansas who I had faced in Cape Cod.  I also talked to Taylor Guerreri who I faced last year when he was pitching for Bowling Green.  It was good to talk to a couple of guys who recognized me, and it made me feel a little bit more comfortable.  Ryan Carpenter then came in and I got to talk to him, we were teammates for parts of two summers with Orleans in the Cape.  When it finally was time to head out to the field we all walked over to Field 2 and across to the right field line.  The guys began stretching and I was still in the middle of talking to the minor league coordinators and trying to figure out my position.  We chatted for a few minutes, and I felt awful that I wasn’t in the beginning of the workout, but I soon jumped in.

We stretched, then did some conditioning and threw to get loose.  As quickly as the day had started I was behind my mask and gear in the bullpen to catch a pair of pitchers.  I did my best to just relax and give a good target and I felt like overall as a first impression I did a pretty good job.  There were still some seriously sketchy attempts to block pitches in the dirt, but I worked both out of a traditional stance and off of one knee like Chris Robinson had been teaching me all winter.  When the pens were over we broke into BP groups, and the catchers were the last group.  We took 5 rounds of 5 swings, a pretty standard “dust off the cobwebs” type of batting practice session.  My first round I was jumping out at the ball trying so hard to do EVERYTHING right that I couldn’t do ANYTHING right. I flared balls to foul territory, hit them up into the top of the cage and rolled over.  I blamed the light, as I hadn’t hit outside in months, but I made sure to not get frustrated and just told myself to focus on seeing the ball.  I took a “yellow light” (reference to Heads Up Baseball by Ken Ravizza, a book my dude Robert Grilli recommended to me this offseason) and made sure to refocus and get back to “green.”  My next four rounds were awesome, I hit a couple balls out, hit the 410 sign in center field and dumped my normal amount of line drives into left field.  I felt absolutely incredible in there, loose, free and just insanely happy to be there.  We finished the day in the bullpen with Hoover the catching coordinator doing some defensive work.  We did a whole bunch of barehand transfer drills to work on exchanging the ball high to give us the best chance to make good throws.  We did some other little drills with the mini glove and were done about 20 minutes after the rest of the guys had gone inside.  I got a little frustrated that some of the tips he gave me weren’t being applied right away, and that I needed reminders every other throw.  I felt that same burning I felt at school that I just wanted it to happen, I wanted the changes to just be there, done right away.  It was frustrating at the time, but Hoov told me after that it was all normal, and part of the transition, the same transition that got him to the Big Leagues.  I walked away from Day 1 feeling great, I knew it was going to be a long working process defensively, but I liked the way he taught, and I felt like my hitting was great.

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Looking in from CF at the stadium, as I walked out of the complex today. Great view isn’t it?

Day two was very similar to the first day except we had no bullpens to catch.  We stretched, ran and then took BP before finishing up with defense in the bullpen. My hitting wasn’t as good as yesterday, but that could be attributed to a number of things not the least of which was that my body was tired from lifting earlier in the morning.  Just like my freshman year at school I had to ask what everything was, what the routine was, the reps, the weights etc to try and just get through the workout.  When I finished, I showered and changed back into my street clothes to get lunch, then came back for practice.  At the end of the day we apparently (catchers) had to go in to do shoulder care work with the trainers.  I had already showered and was about to leave when one of the trainers found me and told me to come in and get it done.  I threw my sweaty gross workout stuff back on, did the 15 or 20 minutes worth of “pre-hab” then showered for the 3rd time before heading back home.  I walked down the street to grab dinner a little while ago and have been down at the beach writing this.

I’m going to head back inside, watch some college basketball on TV and probably get on Skype at some point.  I’m starting to figure out the who, what, where and when of being a Tampa Bay Ray, but it will no doubt be a process too.  I’m enjoying it, and trying to learn as much as quickly as possible.  I still can’t believe all of the interaction I’ve had with all the Rays fans, that has been one of the coolest parts of this whole deal.  It has been awesome to know that there are so many people looking forward to following my blog, my season and my career with Tampa Bay.  I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to interact with you the way that I have through the blog and through Twitter.  I’ll always do my best to get back to everyone, but there are some things I’m not supposed to discuss on social media, and some that I really don’t have an answer for, but I LOVE talking baseball, so if you’ve ever got questions or comments always feel free to comment here or there.

Go Rays!

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