Dits Do Stuff

Well, we’re here.  We’re all settled into our apartments and ready for the upcoming Australian summer.  The past few days have been a complete whirlwind, and have seemed to pass by at warp speed.  Today, though it was our first official Rays only workout, has been mostly a slow day.  I’ve had a little time to just sit and relax a little and think back to some of the stuff we’ve done in our dizzying orientation to Brisbane. I’d like to add in before I start that I managed to drive us home from lunch safely, becoming the first American player to navigate the wrong side of the road, and the wrong side of the car!  Hip hip hooray for me!  Okay, here goes!

When we arrived in Brisbane we were met by Gonzo and Sam, two of the front office staff members.  They told us straight away that we’d be having a fully scheduled day, and that the idea was to not allow us any time to sleep during the day.  Why? By staying awake all day we were forced to adapt to the time change, which was 14 hours for Tommy, Granden and I, and 17 hours for Johnny.  We had a little hiccup at the airport as G’s bag mysteriously never showed up at baggage claim, but then after filing a lost luggage report the company somehow found his bag and he was triumphantly reunited with his clothes.  Our first stop was a little cafe nearby where we met up with our CEO Mark, our GM Kate and a whole mess of other staff members for breakfast.  We had our first case of “I’m a foreigner” syndrome (check WebMD, it’s a real thing) when Johnny tried to order a coffee.  He asked for “a coffee” and the waitress sort of looked at him as if to say “ya, what kind of coffee?”  We all picked up on it and said something like “a regular coffee with some milk, you know like just a cup of coffee.”  Our attempts were futile and everybody had a laugh at our expense.  The waitress explained that in Australia you order either a “flat white,” or “long black,” or one of the more specific styles of coffee like a mocha, cappuccino or espresso.

Ordering breakfast was much easier, and the food was fantastic.  We traded stories about where we were from, different people we knew in common (since most of the staff are actually American) and how each of the staff adjusted to life in Australia.  After breakfast we headed over to the field so that we could connect to the stadium wifi in order to Imessage, FaceTime, Viber and Voxer our families, girlfriends and friends to let them know we’d survived our journey around the world. We all snapped pictures, took quick videos and generally shared some positive head nods as we debriefed everyone important.  After wifi-ing ourselves up we headed to the apartments and checked in.  We threw our stuff in our rooms, and I jumped into a quick shower to get the 20 plus hours of travel grossness off of me.

We met up with Taylor, the Membership Sales Director and headed to King George Square, an outdoor mall area.  She took us first to the bank to get accounts and debit cards set up, then to the Vodaphone store so we could get our cell phones up and running.  We spent a couple of hours running back and forth between the places because we needed forms, stamps and signatures in order to do all the necessary “signing up” but after a while we managed to get it figured out.  I had to explain to the guys what unlocking a phone meant, and how it was relevant, and explained that it was no big deal.  It’s something I’ve had to do with my phones for the last 5 years in order to have service in both the USA and Canada.

My lunch from Grill'd

My lunch from Grill’d

We finished around 1:30 and headed back to our apartments.  We walked across the street to a cool little burger joint called Grill’d and ate lunch.  Their MO is being a major supporter of local groups and serving fresh local ingredients.  We each had a chicken sandwich with some veggies, bacon and sauce, and had some fries (or chips for the locals that are new readers).  After lunch we trekked down the street to the IGA grocery store and did a little shop.  Tommy and I agreed to buy proper food, and “respect our bods” as Tommy says, so we picked up chicken, salmon, vegetables, eggs, some herbs and seasoning for our proteins, and some milk, honey and chia seeds (more on the grouping later). All in all we spent about 100 Australian dollars each, but we were well stocked.  We came home, unpacked the fridge and changed into our practice clothes.

Mark, the CEO had invited us to “training” with his club team so that we could stay awake, meet some of the players that are both club and Bandits players, and knock some of the cobwebs off. The practice was a bit chaotic by our standards, but it seemed like everybody got his work done.  We warmed up in left field, then threw and broke up into groups to hit.  My BP was (and has been) awful, but it was the first time and I was exhausted so it was just fun to be out there.  After training Mark took us and about five of his club players out for dinner in China town.  He knows the couple that own the place, so we never saw a menu, he just rattled off a thousand different dishes and before we knew it there were heaps of food being piled on our plates.  It was great to get to sit and chat with some of the local ball players and just sort of familiarize ourselves with them.  Dinner was incredible, the company was a lot of fun, so our first night was a success.

The Bandits Sports Club

The Bandits Sports Club

Day two was also a long one. Once again, Mark took us out to eat and we went down to another great restaurant near our apartments for breakfast.  I had a huge omelette with avocado, ham, cheese and onions and a mixed berry smoothie.  Mark put the live stream of the World Series game on his phone and rested it against a glass at the end of the table so we could all see and hear it.  When we finished breakfast we went on a driving tour of the city, stopping by parks, restaurants and hotels (can anyone tell me the word we’d use in America? Answer is at the bottom…NO CHEATING!). We finished the tour at Bandits Headquarters, a sports club that the team owns.  It’s a restaurant, bar and a small casino-ish area of “pokies” (this is Aussie slang trivia #2) and a horse betting area.  Johnny and I both played a dollar on the pokies and lost, so we headed back to watch the game.  We met our field Manager Dave Nillson, or Dingo at this point.  After the Giants sealed the win over the Royals we picked up lunch in to go boxes and left Headquarters to come home for a pregame nap.

We’d been told we were going to play in the exhibition game that night, but we didn’t know how many innings.  We assumed 4 or 5 like how we split the games in Spring Training. I ended up catching 7, while the other three played all 10 innings. My at bats were pretty awful, but I blocked really well, got used to some of the pitchers and threw well between innings.  All in all I felt like the day was a success.  We were all excited to have gotten to wear our pants down, since we aren’t allowed during the year with the Rays.  Johnny hit a BOMB in the late innings, and Tommy had a couple hits which was good to see. I took the positives out of my defensive game.  After the game we headed up to the Members Room and had some pizza and signed a few posters before heading home.

IMG_1725Yesterday was a pretty laid back day.  We met up with Logan Wade, a Twins prospect and local player.  Logan took us to South Bank and showed us around the man made beach. We walked through, checked it out and then grabbed a burrito bowl at Guzman and Gomez, an Aussie equivalent to Chipotle.  We headed home, threw some Australia football on tv and took naps for the afternoon.  The four of us went our for dinner and drinks last night and ended up at Pig ‘N Whistle, a sports bar type place by the river. Granden and I shared a HUGE platter that had steak, chicken, sausages, lamb, bacon, and two eggs with a side of garlic mushrooms and a side of steamed vegetables. We grabbed a cab home, and went to one of the hotels nearby for a quick drink before calling it a night just before 9pm.

So there you go.  Welcome to Brisbane, we’ve loved it so far and are only just getting to figure out where we are!  This is going to be an absolutely awesome experience!

And off we go!

I wrote this post the other day while at the airport in Toronto but the internet was SO shaky that it wouldn’t post…so here you go. My messy, all over the place scrambled eggs for a brain post from the hours leading up to my flights.  It’s sort of raw, I think I rambled a bit.  Enjoy, let me know what you think!

—-

So today is the day. Well, maybe it’s tomorrow is the day, or maybe even the day after that is the day.  I’m not really sure what day “the day” really is.  Here’s what I know.  I leave Toronto this evening on a flight first to Los Angeles, then on to Brisbane.   The quandary is that I’m not sure if today is the day because I leave today, or if it’s tomorrow, because technically based on “home” time it will be tomorrow when I leave for Australia, or whether it’s the next day because that’s when I land. Monday on “home” time and Tuesday in Brisbane. Yup.  That clear.

It’s been over five years since I’ve felt ALL of these emotions, I mentioned to my parents that I feel like I’m right back in the week leading up to my Freshman Year at Stony Brook.  I don’t know anything, or anybody, yet I’m travelling.  Eyes closed, jump right in style. I’ve known I’m headed to Brisbane for winter ball for a while, but knowing it’s coming doesn’t create that sudden “oh ****” moment I’ve been having all day.  It hit me hard this morning. I won’t be home for a long time.  I won’t even be on the same day as home for a long time.  I’ll be 14 time zones and 19 hours of flight time away from now until the end of January. No friends, no family, no snow, and no winter.  I won’t be heading up to my off season job at Splash International ordering thousands of different Christmas ornaments, dolls, or pictures.  I won’t be going downtown to Real Sports or the Loose Moose to watch Leafs games with all my friends (then come home and watch the Lightning if they’re on the west coast like I did last night, I didn’t forget about you TB).  I won’t get to cook with my mom, or have dinner at Gramma and Zidie’s house.  Now you’re probably at the point where you’re thinking, “man, this really sucks.”  I’ve had a lot of that, but then I look forward past all of it and I see the opportunities.

Once I land, on Tuesday morning in Brisbane, which is Monday afternoon at home I’ll be back to summer.  I’ll be in Australia, a place that so many of my friends have either wanted to go to, are going to soon, or are planning to go to. I won’t be buying myself the round trip flight thanks to the Rays, so I won’t have to worry about saving up the $2500-$3000 that it looks like flights cost to get there.  I’ll be touring one of the world’s most interesting countries by many accounts, and I’ll get to do it while being paid to play baseball and develop my skills as a catcher.  I’ll even get to watch hockey games over the internet, albeit it will be weird watching Hockey Night in Canada as Hockey Breakfast in Australia.  I’ve got the chance to go scuba diving like some of the Rays guys did last year, and I get to avoid the snow and cold weather.  Now you’re probably at the point where you’re thinking “how is this kid so stupid to be worried about all those things, this is the coolest opportunity ever.”  I’ve had a lot of that too.

This is what makes the whole thing so much to think on.  I think back to my sister’s practice hockey sweater when she played for the Toronto Aeros.  Each girl wore a specific colored uniform depending on what line she was on, but on the back of each sweater were the words “TO WHOM MUCH IS GIVEN, MUCH IS EXPECTED.”  I feel like that is especially relevant in this situation. Here in front of me is this enormous opportunity to catch regularly, and develop my defensive skills.  I’m being given the opportunity I’ve dreamed of my whole life, I’m getting to play all year.  I’m getting to travel the world without footing the bill.  Baseball has given me so much, it’s given me the opportunity to travel all around the USA and Dominican Republic and now Australia.  I’m now expected to grow as a player.  I’m expected to come back much more polished than when I left.  I’m expected to keep my body and mind in “season” mode for 20 consecutive months.  “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I’m a whole mix of emotions right now, but I know that this organization is doing everything it can to help me reach my goal of playing in the Big Leagues.  I know that they’re giving me every opportunity to succeed.  I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  I’m excited to get out and see what Australia is all about on our days off and on our bye week.  I’m excited to see my name in a lineup card as more than a designated catcher like I was in Instructs.  I’m excited to get to try and unlock even more of my potential power at the plate, and to get more consistent throwing, blocking and receiving.  I’m nervous about this flight because it’s so long, and I’ve never flown more than Toronto to LA before.  I’m sad that I won’t get to lose to my mom in card games, heckle my dad about the Leafs beating the Habs (if they somehow manage to pull that off in 2015), to go watch my sister play goal at Harvard.  I’m worried about how I’m going to stay in touch with my family, my girlfriend and my friends.  I’m worried because of what I don’t know and get to do.

Debriefing and Briefing

Oooookay.  So. Here we go again, I’m back!  I took a month long break from writing and now it’s time to start again in preparation for my upcoming Australian Baseball League season.  So now we debrief, and discuss Instructional League, then look forward to heading “down under.”

Instructional League is a month long program at the end of the Minor League season that allows young players, toolsy prospects and players changing position to have an extra month of practice reps before heading home for the winter. I had a feeling way back in Spring Training that I’d be an “instructs” guy because of my position change, so it was no shock that I was invited, and no shock how the whole routine works, given that I’d been to instructs twice already.

Instructional League runs a lot like Spring Training or any of the “complex leagues” (Gulf Coast League in Florida and Arizona League in? Arizona, good guess).  The days are very long, and to say that instructs isn’t glamorous is not even close to descriptive enough.  The word routine is used a lot in professional baseball and there may not be a more routine, regimented scheduled part of the year than instructs.  This is part of the reason I didn’t write for the whole month, in my mind it wasn’t exciting enough to want to write about.  It was simply a great opportunity to work with Hoov, Tomas, Skip and the rest of the coaches to hammer out more reps and get more sound defensively behind the plate.  I was there to work, and get better, cut and dry, that’s it.  Now that I’ve been home for a while and spoken to a bunch of friends and family I’ve realized that a lot of their questions are very similar, they’ve all asked what instructs was like.  So here we go, let’s do a day in the life of Maxx Tissenbaum at Instructional League 2014.

6:25 am – My alarm rings, waking me up and signaling the start of another day.  I set the time to be as late as possible so that I could get as much sleep as possible while still being at the complex early enough to get all my pre practice “work” done.  I don’t snooze the alarm, I just roll out of bed, get dressed, brush my teeth and head out the door en route to Charlotte Sports Park.

6:50 – I arrived at the ballpark every day between 6:45 and 6:55 depending on how fast or slow I managed to get dressed.  I park in one of two spots every day, either right in front of the clubhouse or facing Field 1 in the second row of cars.  I tried to stay as close to the clubhouse doors as possible, knowing that when I would leave at between 4 and 5 o’clock it would be 90+ degrees and I’d have just showered, so these spots were ideal in terms of not starting to sweat in my clean clothes.  I’d scurry to my locker and get dressed in my Rays issued shorts and t-shirt, fill up my Blender Bottle with water from the cooler and head outside to the lounge to grab breakfast.

7:00 – Breakfast was about as routine as a person can get.  Every morning we had a buffet style spread of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns or home fries, bananas and oranges, and an assortment of cereal and toast.  I always went with a big scoop of eggs, some of whichever meat was being served that day, an orange and two cups of coffee.  At 7:00 am it made sense to me that if I only had to walk to the coffee machine once I’d be conserving precious energy while also getting my caffeine kick start.  In the lounge there is one TV at the far end of the room by the drink coolers so I’d always pick a spot facing the TV and watch SportsCenter while I ate.

7:20 – Finished eating I’d head into the clubhouse and finish my first bottle of water and refill, I always tried to get two bottles in before we went outside.  Hydration in Florida is an uphill battle at the best of times so I tried to be as proactive as possible.  After refilling I’d head down the main hallway to the bulletin board and check the schedule for the day, the BP groups, the bullpen groups and if there was a game, the lineup and pitching rotation.  Unlike during the regular season when pitchers are used in specific roles, during Instructional League each pitcher is as likely to throw the first inning as he is to throw the last.  There is a set schedule, and each guy throws a specific number of innings or pitches, regardless of how well or how poorly hes throwing.  Normally I’d be reading through and would help out some of the Spanish speaking players if they weren’t sure what something meant, and if I wasn’t sure how to translate whatever was on the board I at least knew how to direct them to someone that could actually help.

7:40 – After finishing up any work we’d have in “Building B” I’d head back to my locker and sit and chat for a little while.  My locker was in a room with all the catchers and a few outfielders who I became friendly with.  Each morning we’d sit and discuss whatever plans we had for after practice, or the day we got home.  We’d joke about anything and everything because there are really very few things off limits in the locker room.

7:50 – I’d pack my bag as the conversation finished so that I’d be all ready to go after my early work in the weight room.  Every morning the catchers are expected to do a series of exercises with the hurdles, and after the first week of instructs we also had some yoga that we were supposed to do to help with flexibility.  I got TC, the head strength coach, to give me a card that outlined the poses we did in our weekly catchers yoga class, and I tried to work in about 3 or 4 every morning.  I felt like doing the yoga made me feel “gumby,” yes, that was the word I chose to describe how my legs felt.  It was a combination of loose, wobbly, stringy, and bouncy.  I loved the feeling because I felt like my legs could go in all different directions without being sore which was important going into practice.

8:15 – Early work stretch! Every morning the catchers had early work, as did a group of the other position players.  Normally early work was split into two half hour sessions, half the catchers would start in the batting cage and the other half in the bullpen.  First, we had to stretch.  We did our normal regular season stretching program except, unlike during the season, each exercise was done for the full 90 feet, rather than 30.  Yes, that means three times as many shuffles, karaokes, power skips, high knees and butt kicks as usual.  The stretch was always on the clock and took exactly 15 minutes every day so that at 8:30 we were able to start our work.  It is expected at instructs that everybody runs everywhere, so the minute stretch finished we’d run over to the ‘pen or the cage to get to work.

8:30-9:30 – Early work.  Most of the time I’d start in the bullpen with my defensive work and finish with hitting, but there were some days I’d only have defensive work.  Each day Hoov Tomas and Skip would have a “theme” or an area of work that we’d be focused on during early work.  Some days were blocking days, some days were footwork days, some days were throwing days, some days were receiving days.  There were even a couple of “Fundamental Fridays” that weren’t always on Fridays. Hoov and Skip have a theory about teaching bottom to top, in that we start with the smallest possible version of the skill and build up to a game speed practice rep.  For example, when we have a blocking day we start out with our “shadow blocking” a drill to just get loose, get dirty and start sliding on our legs.  We then would do some drills sitting in our finished block position to just feel the ball hitting our gear, our body and our masks.  We’d then move to a drill using just our hands to start getting the move to cover our five hole down.  Then we’d get to regular blocking, then we’d go side to side as though we were taking either a left handed or right handed breaking ball in the dirt, and we’d finish with a block and recover drill.  Each guy would do a certain number of reps in each drill then help out picking up the balls that are left sitting in the batters box and around the other catcher that is working. By the time we’re done we’re the first group to be wearing dark grey t-shirts as we’ve all sweat through the light grey material.

9:30 – Meetings.  Every morning we meet on Field 1 down the left field line to go over the previous days game, to look ahead to the practice schedule and to just generally coordinate everyone so that we’re all on the same schedule all day.  Because of the number of Latin players the meeting is done both in English and Spanish, the English coach will speak about one topic, then the message is translated into Spanish.  I always tried to follow along with the Spanish so I was hearing the words, and phrases that they use so that I could put them to use.

9:40 – Warmup.  Pitchers are sent to Field 4 and position players stay on Field 1.  This stretch isn’t as long as the first one, but it is the one that we all love to complain about because most of us have already stretched and done some practice by now.  This stretch is more dynamic, movement based stuff, and usually also includes some conditioning.  All in all we spend about 15 more minutes with this stretch and conditioning before us catchers split off to the right field line for throwing program.  Our throwing program is also regimented and done by time.  There are a series of different drills that Hoover expects us to do while we play catch so that we’re working on transferring the ball and getting our footwork done.  The whole idea is that for the 10 minutes we’re not only getting our arms loose, but that we’re also getting something out of the warm up.

10:15 – This time slot is one of two things every day, individual defensive work or team defense.  If it is individual work we gear up and head to the bullpen to do more catching work. This stuff gets more player specific, as Hoov always asks what we want to work on.  Some guys may feel great blocking and feel off throwing, so they’ll do more throwing stuff.  With the amount of coaches we have available at this time we can get a lot done.  I’m big on feel when I’m learning, so if something wasn’t feeling right the day before or during early work I’d make sure to hammer it out in this session since it was still early enough to give my body time to recover if I was playing in the game.

10:30 – Batting practice.  We took BP on three fields every day and we always hit in group 1 so that as soon as we were done we could go and cover the bullpens that the pitchers needed to throw. Batting practice was normally four rounds of five swings, however some days we’d have to do the BP routine

  • Hit and run (hard on the ground)
  • Move the runner to 3rd (hit it to right field)
  • Infield in (hit something deep in the air)
  • Infield back (hard in the middle of the field)
  • Safety squeeze (bunt to first base side)

As soon as we finished our fourth round, we’d pick up the balls that were inside the cage, and I’d say thank you to the person that threw to us, then jog back to the bullpen.

10:45/10:50 – Bullpens.  While BP is going on for the infielders and outfielders the pitchers need to get their sides sessions (sides for short) in.  We normally would have between 2 and 5 sides all at the same time.  We’re expected to work on our receiving and blocking during these bullpens, so we have to work out of both our relaxed stance and our ready position.  I normally tried to catch a guy I knew so that I had a better feel for what each pitch would look like, but sometimes I’d end up working with someone I’d never seen before. Each side lasts about 30 pitches, give or take, and each catcher normally had to catch two.  If all the pitchers were being covered and I wasn’t catching a side, I’d be on one of the far bullpens working with Hoov and Tomas.  There isn’t any downtime or breaks during defense and bullpens.  The bright light is that we know as soon as bullpens are done that we’re finished for the practice day.  This is normally 15-20 minutes after everyone else has gone inside for lunch, gotta love being a catcher!

11:20/11:30 ish – Finally stagger back into the clubhouse drenched in sweat and hurry to get out of our gross practice clothes and into a shower.  Most guys shower after practice and before games, but some just choose to stay in their same stuff all day.  I’m a big shower guy, I can’t be sitting on the bus wearing sliders that are stuck to my legs and a shirt that is soaked to the point that I can wring out the sweat.  After a quick shower to rinse off we get dressed in our game gear (jerseys aside) and head back to the lounge for a quick lunch.  We eat cold cut sandwiches, a bag of chips and a Gatorade if we’re on the road, and we have hot sandwiches if we’re at home.  It’s a quick meal to keep us fueled up for the games.

12:20 –  We’ve either traveled to Sarasota, Bradenton, or Fort Myers (for road games at Orioles, Pirates and Twins respectively) or we’ve made it out to the home stadium for our game.  If I’m the starting catcher I need to be ready to throw with the pitcher by 12:40, so I give myself 20 minutes to stretch, and do some blocking in the bullpen with Tomas to get ready for the game.  If today was a blocking day this could be up to the third time I’m working on blocking. Remember I said it was a great opportunity for reps? At 12:40 I long toss with the pitcher, before he throws his bullpen to get ready for the game.  When he’s finished I grab my bag, a towel and a swig of water and we walk down to the dugout.  We go over the signs we’re going to use, and how we want to attack and set up hitters.

1:00 – First pitch…In Instructional League we typically are put in the lineup for half the game.  This allows more players to get at bats and innings defensively.  If I start a game I generally go 5 innings and the other catcher for the game gets the last 4.  There are always multiple catchers to cover the bullpen too, so that when we come out of the game we can stand with Hoov in the dugout and discuss our game and talk about what needs work.  These conversations cover everything from pitch calling to reading swings.

4:00 – Game over.  We head back into the clubhouse if we’re at home, or back to the bus if we’re on the road.  On the bus ride home from an away game we get a cold Gatorade as we get on the bus.  We’re all doubled up, that is, each row of two seats has two people.  During the season it was understood that catchers get their own seat on the bus, allowing us to spread out a little and not have someone falling asleep on our shoulders.  The bus rides are normally about an hour long, and the minute we get back it is a mad scramble to get changed, throw our laundry into the bins, shower and get either into the training room for ice or out of the complex to go home.

4:30 (home game) 5:15 (road  game) – Plunk myself down on the couch and scroll through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Finally I’m out of the heat and humidity so it’s now time to start rehydrating.  Lots of water and Gatorade and normally a couple of Media-Lyte tabs which are little salt pills provided by the trainers to help us get back some of what we lost over the course of the day.  I spend about an hour or so playing either NHL15 or NCAA13 on my PS3 (I’m now a PS4 person tho) and just forget about the day good or bad.  An idea for dinner usually pops into my head around 6:30, at which point we’ll sort of make a group decision about who’s eating what and when.

Night time –  I’m probably in bed watching some game on TV.  Whether it’s baseball, football or listening to preseason Leafs hockey (remember this was a few weeks ago) I’m almost always watching sports.  Sometimes I’ll flip to The Voice or some other show, but mostly I watch anything in which somebody is keeping score. Come to think of it, they’re kind of keeping score too!

10:30 – TV off, face into the pillow and off to sleep because I know that at 6:25 I’m starting all over again!

So there you go.  How does your body feel after that day?  Legs a little sore? Don’t want to walk up the stairs to your apartment? Get used to it, there are 23 more days to go! There’s just a bit more to this line of work than showing up for a 7 pm game!

Now that I’m home from instructs I’m getting ready to head to Australia for winter ball.  The ABL is a relatively new league that is being used more and more for player development.  I’ll be playing for the Brisbane Bandits.  There are four of us from the Stone Crabs heading down for the winter/their summer and we’re all pretty excited to get down there.  The worst part has been waiting, knowing we’re leaving our friends, families and girlfriends for the only time period we normally get to spend with them.  We’ve all said that once we get on that plane, we’re going to be super excited for the opportunity to see Australia and play 48 more games! Gotta love baseball season, even if it isn’t just a season!

Year End Wrap

I realize it’s been a VERY long time since I last wrote, and a lot of that had to do with the season winding down and my frustrations offensively in the final few weeks.  I felt as though the end of the year I lost myself at the plate and was really battling everything, the weather, the pitchers and my own body.  Now that it’s over I’ve had a couple of days to decompress and look back on what was really a great season for me.

Yes Hoov, it's much easier to receive and present pitches as strikes from one knee

Yes Hoov, it’s much easier to receive and present pitches as strikes from one knee

When I showed up in Port Charlotte in February I didn’t really know anyone and I didn’t know what position I’d be playing which made for enough stress to last me a lifetime.  Immediately all my fears and anxiety went away as I got to work finding out I’d be catching and working with what I believe has got to be the best Minor League coaching staff in all of professional baseball. Right from Day 1 working with Hoover, Skip, Nelly (when he came over from the Big League side) and all the other coaches that work with catchers I knew I was going to learn.  I got thrown right into the fire and got to work on building up the skills I would need to catch at any level of professional baseball.  I remember thinking not only how good the coaches were but also how great the other catchers were about helping me out since they all knew I was brand new to it. That month served as a huge boost to my confidence in addition to a rapid growth as a player. By the time I broke camp with the Stone Crabs I felt ready to attack a season behind the plate.

We had fun, our clubhouse was a positive environment and we all loved coming to work every day!

We had fun, our clubhouse was a positive environment and we all loved coming to work every day!

My first group of teammates in the Rays organization were awesome, and I can’t thank every single guy in that locker room enough for making this year memorable.  From grinding it out in bullpens, early work and meetings with DePew and O’Conner to goofing around the locker room with Soriano, Quinonez Goetzman and Schultz I truly enjoyed being around this team (in all of its iterations).  We scuffled on the field, but never let that get to us in terms of our work ethic, our enjoyment of being together at the ballpark or anything else.  This was truly a fun team to play for and to play with, even if spending a season with these guys got me suckered into playing Clash of Clans for more hours than I’d like to admit.  

Our coaching staff in Charlotte this year was awesome with me and I really believe I became a better player because of Jared, Joe and Doc.  I learned more about the technical aspects of catching, the mental side of hitting and how to handle the stresses of a Minor League season than I could have imagined.  I loved getting out to the cage and getting to take my early flips with Joe, it was always fun to get in there and whack.  We’d get our work done, have a few laughs when flips hit the L-Screen and shot wide and always managed to make sure my teammates and I were ready to rock at 6:30.  I loved having Jared around those cage sessions too!  Having played in the Big Leagues and been through a lot of the same stuff as us Jared always knew how to relate to us, whether it was a lesson he’d learned while playing, or something he’d noticed from his years coaching there was always a positive helpful message to be found.  Even though I never really figured out how to hit Doc’s BP pitching I did love getting to sit in the dugout when I DH’d or wasn’t in the lineup to pick his brain about different pitchers, pitch sequences and how to attack hitters.  I know that the conversations, interactions, and lessons these three guys had with and for me have made me a more complete ball player while helping me cope with the transition from infielder to catcher.

I think this was an awesome year for me both statistically and in terms of the learning I did. I will never be able to thank the Tampa Bay Rays organization enough for bringing me in, welcoming me and giving me every single opportunity, tool and advantage possible to help me succeed.  It’s truly a blessing to wake up every day and be a Ray.  The structure in place here is clearly the reason for all the success at the Big League level and it’s no surprise to me any more why this ball club can compete with the stratospheric payrolls in the AL East. I cannot wait until Spring Training rolls around so I can be back with all of the coaches, staff and players who made 2014 such a fantastic experience for me.

Thank you to everyone that made 2014 so memorable!

Thank you to everyone that made 2014 so memorable!

I KNOW They’re Lying!

Scandalous title alert! Well, I’ve recently discovered a secret and I’m about to expose HUNDREDS of baseball players for lying in interviews.  Any version of the words “we didn’t really think about it” or “it wasn’t something that crossed my mind” are complete BS and if you ever hear a pitcher or catcher use those phrases in an interview feel free to Tweet or otherwise share this post with said athlete.  How did I discover this blatant lying?  I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and got to catch the first no hitter in Stone Crabs history.

My last game was on Saturday and I caught Blake Snell.  We played a game against a variety of opponents, the Daytona Cubs, the weather, and the scoreboard.  The first is obvious, we were playing game two of a four game series against the Cubs.  The second is inferred, we play in Florida, and it’s August, there is rain every day.  The third is the trickiest and the one that lead to my shocking discovery.

Blake Snell, Snellzilla, BSneez or any of his other monikers firing strikes early in the game

Blake Snell, Snellzilla, BSneezy or any of his other monikers firing strikes early in the game

Blake started out the game with a perfect first inning, a great quick start to the game.  He struck out Marco Hernandez (FSL All Star) and Kyle Schwarber (2014 4th overall pick) swinging to close out the frame.  We came to bat against Tyler Skulina and were locked in from the very first pitch. We were patient and drew four free passes, Pat got a hit and we scratched across three runs, more than enough for “Snellzilla.” Vogelbach,

Contreras and Darvill, like clockwork all set down by Snell. Two more punch outs, and his total was quickly four through his first six outs.  His fastball was electric, explosive and unhittable.  A few 94’s 95’s and a couple 96’s later we were through three innings after he induced a broken bat double play ball that ran in so hard on the hitter’s hands that he fell over trying to stop the swing. I remember jogging off the field thinking “man that’s a great start, zeros so far.”

I picked up a hit in my second at bat, a two strike line drive into right field in an inning we tacked on two runs to bring the score to 5-0.  Blake and I were comfortable as we ran out to the field to start the fourth.

After a weak pop up to Querecuto at short Snell took over once again blowing away Schwarber again and freezing Vogelbach on a fastball that caught as little plate as it possibly could while still being a strike.  Blake was up to 7 strike outs through four.  I was now fully aware of what was going on, I had on two different occasions looked out to the scoreboard and noticed that stupid 0 staring at me.

Up 5-0 in the fourth our offense exploded putting up a crooked five spot, Sale and I each had an RBI and Granden Goetzman iced it with a three run triple to make the score 10-0 as we went out for the 5th.  Here comes the weather issue.  As we went out, our trainer and strength coach mentioned the rain was coming having checked the rain, and as we came out of the dugout it was clear we didn’t have much time.  The Cubs hitters were slow walking to the plate trying to get bailed out by the storms, but that wasn’t in the cards, a ground out and two more strikeouts later we were through enough innings to have the game be called complete.

As we took the field in the 6th inning we knew the rain was close, the temperature dropped drastically, the wind turned 180 degrees and we could see the grey haze out past the walls of the stadium.  When the rain finally hit Charlotte Sports Park we knew pretty quickly it had come to stay, the sky was black and rain poured out of the sky.  We sat in the dugout for a while waiting, Snell and I discussing that final pitch we wanted to get in before the rain, knowing there was nothing we could do to get him those last two outs.  When the umpires finally gave the signal that the game was called I gave him a hand shake and a “bro hug” and a big congratulations, as did Doc and Jared who had also waited in the dugout.

As I packed up my gear I told Jared that I’d never felt a level of stress like I did through the final couple of innings of that game.  Every time I went to put my fingers down to give a signal I held my breath. I wanted to keep his rhythm, I wanted to keep putting down signs he was 100% committed to throwing and I wanted to keep the hitters off balance.  Every time I flashed a sign I knew that we were one pitch away from it being broken up.  I knew it didn’t even need to be a mistake, somebody could have easily broken a bat on a great pitch and doinked one in for a hit.  In the unfair, imperfect world of baseball we had a perfect 5.1 innings of pitch calling, execution, and defense.

Final box score

Final box score

“Don’t Try and Be Better”

Cooper delivering to a Yankees hitter in the 9th

Cooper delivering to a Yankees hitter in the 9th

“Come on, don’t try and be better than that one,” our pitching coach Doc Watson yelled out to Coop last night in the 9th inning.  Coop had just thrown an absolutely perfect slider for strike one and followed it up with one that missed high and didn’t break much.  Doc’s lesson, one our team has sort of taught itself recently is that success doesn’t need to be improved upon. No, that isn’t to say getting better is bad, it’s not to say that we’re not working toward becoming better all around players.  The message is that sometimes as young, inexperienced ball players we find success and are spooked by it and feel like we need to “do more” to continue to succeed.  As was the case with Coop’s slider (which helped him to a four out save last night), a lot of guys on our team are starting to really figure it out lately.  We’ve played much better baseball as a group over our last 12 games, beginning with the Clearwater series and running through both Dunedin and most recently, Tampa.

We came home for an eight game road trip for the start of an eight game home stand.  We began that week at home with four games against the Tampa Yankees.  The first game of the series I DH’d and if you happened to check the box score or some of the Tweets about that game you’d think it was a pretty nice night for me.  I finished 2 for 4 with a double, definitely not a bad night statistically speaking.  I took MAJOR exception to the fact that I somehow managed to get both of my hits by fighting off pitches I should have really hit.  I looked at my bat after the second hit and saw the two ball marks were right down by the Zinger logo on my bats, which, if you’ve ever hit with wood, you know isn’t a good feeling. I was glad we picked up the win, and that I was able to have a decent numbers game in spite of my awful swings.  It’s always nice to go to sleep knowing my worst day process wise somehow got results, thank you to the Baseball Gods!  It’s definitely good to see that they haven’t forgotten some of my line drives that have found gloves throughout the year.

A much better swing in my first at bat of Game Two

A much better swing in my first at bat of Game Two

Game two of the series I was behind the plate to catch Lopez.  He spent much of the night battling his command, but somehow always seemed to get a key out when we needed one.  He went five innings, and in spite of his five walks he managed to limit the Yankees to one first inning run, scattering just two hits. By the time Lopez left the game we’d built up a 4-1 lead and turned the ball over to Mr. Reliable, Kevin Brandt.  Brandt had a bad outing which surprised both of us, as he was unusually wild, walking four and giving up three runs.  All game I was battling my body as I felt really nauseous, my stomach was doing back flips.  I felt like every few batters I was about to lose my pregame meal, but managed to stay ahead of it for 6 innings.  Right before I went out for the 7th I lost the battle and Thursty said it was best to come out of the game and go inside to get straightened out.  He took great care of me, running a bunch of tests to make sure nothing was seriously wrong. O’Conner finished the game for me, and I was glad he didn’t get an at bat at the end, because it would have been pretty crappy if he’d picked up an “0 for” after sitting for the better part of the game.  I felt awful having to have him come in on a day off, but there wasn’t much I could do.  In the bottom of the 8th Goeddel hit a triple and Tommy cashed him in with a sac fly to win the game for us.  Jensen locked it down in the 9th, finishing with 3.1 innings of shutout ball.

Game three I sat and watched from the dugout, periodically picking up O’Conner when he was stranded on deck, on base or as the last out.  Before the game started Soriano and I got our GM Jared with one of Soriano’s jokes.  He told Jared “one of my friends says you talk like an owl,” and so started the scene.  Jared seemed a bit flustered and tried to figure out which player had said that, or why.  Finally he gave us the punch line we were looking for asking “who?” so Soriano and I high fived and had a good laugh while he realized it was just a joke. No, baseball players do not have a more sophisticated sense of humor than most 10-12 year old kids, we were thoroughly entertained.  We all had a laugh and Jared radioed up to the press box letting them know we were ready to start, and the team rushed out onto the field.

Jared Mortenson (pitcher not GM or manager Jared, there are 3 now)  made his home debut for us and was pretty nasty, working nicely with his fastball and slider to keep hitters off balance.  He even had a strikeout on a slider that buckled the hitter so badly it looked like he was going to fall over. Over four innings he struck out 9 Yankees before Garton and Reavis finished the game out. Johnny Field and Goeddel both had a pair of RBI’s and O’Conner had three hits and an RBI to lead us to a nice 9-4 win and a second straight series win.

Yesterday was a funny day in the clubhouse and Quinonez and I traded little pranks on one another throughout the afternoon.  Q has a tendency to pull the “tap someones shoulder and run away move” and he’d gotten me with it about 15 times through the afternoon.  When he went to the weight room to workout, I decided to tape his locker up, putting strips of tape across the front of his locker making it difficult for him to get his stuff.  I then went to the cage and came back to find my locker covered up by garbage bags taped around to the wooden frame.  We both had a laugh at each others expense and balled up the tape and chucked it in the garbage.  It’s always fun to try and one up a guy in the locker room, because unless you somehow sneak attack and aren’t found out, you’re going to get it back really quickly.

High fives all around after a four game SWEEP!

High fives all around after a four game SWEEP!

Last night was the series finale and we went for the sweep.  Jordan Harrison took the mound for us, and I was back in as the DH.  I managed one hit in four at bats, but really didn’t hit anything well, my timing was horrible.  I was way out in front of everything the Yankees lefty threw, it felt like I was waiting forever for the ball to get to the plate and I was still WAY too early.  Seven of our nine starters had a hit, and Juniel Querecuto (recently called up from BG) hit a two RBI triple to jumpstart our offense. Harry, Molina and of course Cooper (you read about him earlier!) threw a really nice game for us and we picked up a great four game sweep!

Tonight we face the Daytona Cubs, and I believe I’ll be seeing my former Team Canada teammate Wes Darvill as he’s back in Daytona after a stint in AA.  Hopefully we take Doc’s advice and “don’t try to be better,” but just continue to pitch, play defense and get timely hits.  If we do, we’ll continue to be dangerous this last month.  Here’s to more wins!!

Go Crabs, Go Rays!

No Way They Played That?

Well another four games have come and gone, this time going mostly in our favor as we took three of four from the Dunedin Blue Jays.  Leaving Clearwater we knew we were heading from one of the best ballparks and clubhouses to one that the returning guys had said was questionable at best.  We arrived at Dunedin’s Florida Auto Exchange Park a ballpark I’d visited annual with my Zidie over 10 years ago.  When we made our annual Spring Training trip the stadium was known as Knology Park, and has since had a bunch of different names, but not much has been done to change or improve the stadium.  The one thing I noticed was a small bridge between the main seating area and the two sections farther down the RF line, otherwise the ballpark was exactly as I remembered it.  They even played Okay Blue Jays, the 7th inning theme song of the Toronto Blue Jays.  I didn’t really expect them to play it in Dunedin since it’s really a Toronto staple, and in spite of my best effort I smiled and sort of sang along.  It’s one of the songs I grew up on, and was on their post World Series tape that I listened to all the time when I was younger.  It was quite the surprise for me, and something that continued throughout the series.

Florida Auto Exchange Park, home of the Dunedin Blue Jays

Florida Auto Exchange Park, home of the Dunedin Blue Jays

I dropped my stuff in the locker room, taking a corner locker so I had extra space to put my bag and air out my catchers gear and headed out to look around a little.  I wandered out past the visiting batting cage and out to the half field.  Years ago at a Blue Jays event I’d been on that very practice field being served lunch by Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado.  It was strange to see the area being used as anything other than the post game season ticket holder barbecue area.  I wandered out to the left field line to look around and immediately recognized the ballpark and noted to someone that my Bar Mitzvah invitation picture was actually taken a few rows behind our dugout.  It was hotter than I remember it being all year so I quickly snapped some pictures and headed for the shelter of the air conditioning.

I had the first game off and spent it in the bullpen.  I didn’t have a very strenuous work load that night as Lopez was dominant, throwing 7 and 2/3 of one run baseball.  Our offense did enough to scratch two runs across off Sean Nolin who actually made his Big League debut last summer.  Reggie lead the offense knocking in both our runs, and Pat chipped in two hits.  Molina got three outs and a hold before handing the ball over to Cooper who was great again getting the final out.  Mo picked up his third hold and Coop his second save of the road trip.

Game two fell on July 25th, my 23rd birthday.  I had so many people send me texts, Facebook messages and Tweets wishing me a multi-hit day, a home run of an evening, and many other baseball related good wishes.  I was excited to play, especially given the two days off I’d just had, I missed being part of the action on the field.  I did exactly what every kid dreams of doing on his birthday. I bounced into two rally killing double plays and left the game tying run in scoring position in the 9th in a game we lost by 1 run.  I was incredibly frustrated with myself, but I was able to keep myself from having a meltdown thanks to my off season reading about “mental ninja voodo” (Thanks Molly, Grilli, and Gramma/Zidie).  After the game I was treated to an absolutely FANTASTIC dinner at City Fish.  We all had a great night, many laughs, many great dishes and some absolutely RIDICULOUS Oreo Cookies and Creme brownies.  It’s no exaggeration to say that these were good enough for me to never eat any other food, I could eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner if I didn’t have to worry about the whole “athletic body” deal.

Always good to see a friendly face. Marcus Knecht and I played together when we were 7 and 8 years old.

Always good to see a friendly face. Marcus Knecht and I played together when we were 7 and 8 years old.

Our third game was my game to catch and I was supposed to catch Jordan Harrison, a lefty.  While we were in the locker room Joel Peralta walked in, and we found out he’d actually “start” for us, and throw an inning or so on rehab assignment.  Lopez and Molina told him to call me lambon, their nickname for me, so I headed over to the couches where he was sitting to talk about pitch calling and his “stuff.”  We talked for a few minutes about how he likes to attack hitters, what signs we’d use and some other things that would eventually help us go through a fairly low stress inning together.  He struck out one, gave up a hit and no runs in his inning and before long was gone. Harry came in and was really good, scattering four hits over six innings of work while striking out six.  Cooper finished the game off with two innings of shutout ball.  We finished the day with a 6-1 win, and I contributed a hit and two RBI’s offensively, finally solving Griffin Murphy, a guy who I couldn’t for the life of me figure out last year.

Yesterday was the finale and I was back in the DH spot.  I went 2 for 5 with my fourth homer of the year, a solo shot to right center. Reggie again lead the way with 3 RBIs while Pat and Sale both drove in a pair of runs, all told we scored 9 runs on 17 hits, a huge offensive performance to end the series.  Pruitt continued to pitch well for us going 6 innings while only allowing one run on a home run, he was otherwise his normal self with a 10-2 ground outs to air outs split.  Garton and Jensen got the final 9 outs and we left Dunedin with three wins in four nights.  After the game I spent a few minutes talking to my Mom and Gramma before heading inside to do my shoulder program, shower and leave.

An awesome shot by Eddie Michaels, Dunedin's team photographer, of my home run

An awesome shot by Eddie Michaels, Dunedin’s team photographer, of my home run

I had an absolutely awesome weekend up in Dunedin with my family and couldn’t have been happier to hit that home run with them there.  It’s always so special to me to have family at my games, and to cap off the weekend with a home run was something I was really happy about.  Tonight we stick to our AL East theme as we open a four game home series against the Tampa Yankees.  We’re home for 8 straight games, and for most of the month of August which will be absolutely awesome.  I’m looking forward to finishing up the year strong, both personally and as a team.  It would be really nice to have a very solid month of winning baseball to take into the off season.

Go Crabs and Go Rays!

What is a Thresher?

What exactly is a Thresher?  This was one of the major topics of discussion in the bullpen over the last four days in which we split a series with Clearwater. The Threshers are the affiliate of the Phillies and it was our second 4 game series with them on the season.  I had never been inside Bright House Field, but I’d driven by it plenty of times on Spring Training trips with my Zidie, and watched college conference championship games there online.

Arriving at Bright House Field we were greeted by Don, our clubhouse manager, and welcomed into an enormous, bright, well air conditioned locker room with over sized steel lockers.  I picked a fairly central one, close to the tables that had our pregame spread, and equidistant from the coffee machines and the bathroom/showers.  I had two lockers, so I got to spread out which is always a bonus.  We played an afternoon game the first day of the series and had Jeremy Hellickson start for us. Helly threw 5 innings as we all battled the oppressive Florida heat in a game we would go on to lose.  I had an awful start to the series, striking out twice en route to an 0 for 3.  I was frustrated by the performance and by the fact that my swing felt horribly “off.”  I wasn’t sure what it was, but something was completely out of whack.  Chad and Joe both noted that I was really slow with my hands, and that caused me to “spin” on balls, a symptom of nearly 100% of my slumps in my career.

I caught the bullpens in game two and was a little surprised when some of the #RaysTwitFam came over and said hi while I was sitting watching the early innings.  It was awesome to get to stand and talk to some of them (or you depending on who is reading this right now lol) and to just chat about baseball, the blog, and even some minor technical things like big league baseballs vs minor league ones.  The game was uninspiring and we finished up with our second straight loss.

I found out early on that I’d catch game three, working again with Pruitt.  We’ve worked together a lot this year, and have had mixed results.  We most recently had our best game together, in which he was absolutely dominant over 5 innings, surrendering only 2 hits.  Early on he looked like he had that same sort of stuff, but as we got into the middle innings my rookie pitch calling got us into a bit of trouble and the game ended up tied at 4.  I felt much better at the plate having worked with Joe in the cage under the stadium earlier and managed to come up with 4 quality at bats.  I had a sac fly in the first, a double, and a single before my buddy Ethan Stewart finally got me out in a really long battle of an at bat.  We went back and forth as he threw everything, fastballs, a new slider and his change up.  He finally got the out as I grounded out to second on the 10th or 11th pitch of the at bat, but we later agreed that it was sort of a win win because we both managed to do some good.  I told him how I wanted to get a hit off him to continue my streak off of former Team Canada teammates (1 for 1 with a double last year off Smitty) and we had a good little laugh.

After the game I got to meet more of the Twitter crew which was awesome, and I found out that they’d actually been up in a suite for the game.  It was a lot of fun to have a lot of Rays/Crabs fans there among the big crowd that Clearwater had for the game, and it was even better to get that win to snap our little losing streak.

I spent yesterday in the bullpen again and the guys pulled out a great comeback win to finish the series.    I spent the evening in bed watching Alex Cobb dice up the Cardinals while also putting on an offensive display with a double and an RBI.  It was cool to watch him work having caught him in the pen, hit off him, and played with him already this year.  Let me tell you, I feel a hell of a lot safer knowing he’s throwing that disappearing voodoo change up to someone else.

Tonight I head back in time for a series with the Dunedin Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Park, fka Knology Park.  Zidie and I used to make an annual trip to see the Jays during Spring Training so it will definitely be cool to be back there for the first time in 10 plus years.  I’m also super excited for my Mom and Gramma to get in for the four days and to spend my birthday weekend with them!

Here’s to some big wins, big hits and more frequent blog posts.  I swear I’m not as much of an airhead as I have been this last month lol

Go Crabs/Rays Up!

My First Ballpark Review

Hello again, welcome back! I’ve stayed away from writing lately because our team has really been struggling and I didn’t think it was right to be blogging about our failures as a team while talking about a string of success I had personally.  Now that we’ve won a few and we’re starting to play a little better I’m going to try and get back to my regular schedule of posting once every 3 or 4 days.

This post is going to be my first foray into writing a ballpark review.  On Monday we had a day off and the Big League club was playing host to the Kansas City Royals so my girlfriend and I decided to make the hour and a half trip up to Tropicana Field.  I’d never been to The Trop as a fan, I’d only ever been inside the clubhouse during those two days at the end of Spring Training.  I’d also driven by The Trop on a failed attempt to find Dunedin with my Zidie 10 plus years ago.  I’d mentioned wanting to go see the ballpark and she was more than willing to go watch a game as she’s a big baseball fan too.

Panorama from our seats at the end of the game. Molina and Soriano (from my team) got tickets from Oviedo so they told us to come sit with them

Panorama from our seats at the end of the game. Molina and Soriano (from my team) got tickets from Oviedo so they told us to come sit with them

When we arrived at The Trop first thought was about the parking.  We parked in a nearby strip mall and made our waydown the walkway as “Infitine Skillz” rapped its multi platinum track Rays Up.  We had tickets at will call for pick up and ended up going on a major trek all the way around the outside of the ballpark in the blistering heat and humidity.  We got our tickets and quickly went in through Gate 5 and I felt like I’d walked in Madison Square Garden.  It was cold, very blue and there was nothing to indicate where on the field I was, or if I was in a hockey rink or baseball stadium. It was a weird feeling having no idea where I was, but we trudged on.  We started sitting down the first base line for a few innings before making our way all the way around the ballpark to get a bunch of different views.

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Sitting just past first base early in the game

Once we’d gotten into our seats I felt like it was a cool place to watch a game.  I was surprised by how much I actually liked the stadium given all of its poor reviews.  My only major complaint as a fan was about the orientation of the seats.  Given that The Trop was originally a multi purpose facility all of the seats are oriented to the middle of the “staging area” which is roughly 50 feet behind second base.  For a baseball fan this is uncomfortable because I was constantly sitting sideways to be able to see the pitch and the hitter. My only complaint as a would be player was that I had a very hard time tracking pop ups. The first fly ball hit to Kevin Kiermaier in right field was pretty much invisible to me, but each subsequent one was a little easier.  If I was in charge and had an unlimited amount of time and money (pretty perfect world no?) I think I’d try to take that roof off and put something on it more akin to Miller Park, Minute Maid Park or Safeco Field.  I think the building itself isn’t a bad venue for baseball, it has a cool feel to it, especially that you can walk all the way around the field without going outside the seating area.

I was pleasantly surprised by the food options, and elected to go with some Outback Steakhouse “steak and shrooms” for dinner.  The steak was really nicely done, juicy and flavorful and was served with fried mushrooms and onions and a side of fries.  For the amount of food and the fact that I was eating a nice pile of steak I wasn’t put off at all by the price, I felt like it was a pretty fair value.  We stopped out at the center field porch area to watch an inning or two from the outfield and have a drink and we were able to stand right over the ray tank out in right center.  I enjoyed the view from the outfield much more than I expected to, I guess it was a nice change in perspective from the dugout view I get on a nightly basis.  I had trouble finding the count, and other information about what was going on which was more annoying than anything, but again it is a relatively easy fix given a little time and money to update the place.

Standing out in center field

Standing out in center field

Overall I had a great time and really enjoyed the ballpark.  The views from all around the field were pretty good and the staff were friendly.  We left after 8 and a half innings as the Rays were down 6-0 and we still had an hour and a half drive to get back to Port Charlotte, but it was still a nice way to spend an off day.  It’s amazing how different it is to sit and watch a game as a fan and as a player not in the lineup.  I love being able to relax, kick back and just take in the game as opposed to being in “game” mode, trying to see if a pitcher is tipping, trying to read swings or whatever else.

I’d absolutely go back and see them again at The Trop, it’s not nearly as bad as people make it out to be.  It’s a fun atmosphere and a good ballpark overall.  Throw a winning team in there like 2013 or 2008’s edition and I’m sure that the atmosphere would be raucous.

As for my team, we’re on the bus heading north and east to Viera for a four game series against the Brevard County Manatees.  We’re only traveling with two catchers as Justin O’Conner stayed back to leave for the All Star Futures Game in Minnesota.  He’ll miss this series and likely just rejoin the team after our off day on Tuesday. I can’t imagine how exciting that must be, and I’ve already told him good luck, hopefully we’ll get to see some of the game either before or after our game that night.

LLLLLLLLOSING

Lots of Ls in the title no?

This is my losing sucks face

This is my losing sucks face

Recently we’ve gone completely cold as a team, unable to really turn in a complete performance.  Our pitchers haven’t pitched, our hitters haven’t hit and our defense hasn’t defended.  It seems like every night we find a new way to beat ourselves. It has been a very frustrating stretch for us as we struggle to find ways to get leads, and subsequently hold them.  It’s hard being in this situation because it seems like no matter what we do we still won’t win.

I feel like as a team we are living out a part of one of my favorite Coach Senk speeches.  Before a conference weekend against Binghamton or Maine he would talk about the season as a “self fulfilling prophecy.”  Whichever team it was would invariably be coming off a bad weekend, and so Coach would tell us in his pregame talk “it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.  Losing is right below the surface, if we score first they’ll be right back on their heels saying ‘here we go again.’  Don’t let them get comfortable, because they’re one shot from being totally out of it.”  We would then go out and score 3 or 4 runs in the first inning and there was a noticeable change in demeanor in the dugout across from us, we could see that “here we go again” mentality setting in.

Recently it seems like our team is facing a little bit of that fragility. We’ve scored runs early only to see a lead slip away and take away our energy.  We’ve fallen behind early and felt that “not again” mind shift.  We’ve even stayed in games in terms of the score but the games have felt out of reach because of that fragile just below the surface losing mindset.  It has been frustrating to be a part of because I know that each guy on this team (yes, all 25 of us) is so much better than how we’re playing.  I know our pitchers have dominant wipe out stuff.  I know our hitters have good enough swings to rack up 10 hits a game.  I know our defenders are good enough to fill out a full SportsCenter Top 10 highlight package with web gems.  I think we all know these things which makes the whole 8 game losing streak even more mystifying.  At one point late in the game yesterday I joked with my roommate Kevin Brandt that the winning run would be in scoring position, we’d get the hit that should win the game, and a black hole would swallow up our runner and we’d end up taking a loss somehow. It has been a streak almost that weird, we just haven’t put it all together as a group.

"Swung on and belted, deep to right, Walker looks up and yes sir, there she goes!" Home run number 3 on the year

“Swung on and belted, deep to right, Walker looks up and yes sir, there she goes!” Home run number 3 on the year

Recently I’ve found myself offensively, and discovered a bit of power I didn’t know I had.  Having missed all three games of the St. Lucie I returned to the lineup at home against Palm Beach and told myself to really try and track the ball in my first game.  The results weren’t what I wanted, I went 0 for 4, but the process was good and I felt like in four at bats I had gotten my hitting vision back.  My second game back I went 2 for 3 and launched my second home run of the year over the right field wall, a lead off shot that tied the game at 1 after my All Star Game teammate Charlie Tilson hit one in the top of the inning to give them the lead. I felt locked on, seeing the ball well and ultimately controlling my mind and my swing to get the results I wanted.  I followed that up with another 2 hit night, another home run and a 5 in the “HC” (hard contact) column on the hitters chart.  Game two against Fort Myers I posted an 0 for 4 but still had a 3 in the HC column, a day in which Chad Mottola our hitting coordinator told me not to change a thing.  I was in the dugout after my third line drive out and he told me “any time you can go 0 for your last 6 and walk away smiling you know you’re doing something right.”  I knew I did everything I could control and so my confidence stayed with my into the final game of the series, a game in which I finished 4 for 5 with two doubles, two singles an RBI and a run scored.  When I chugged around third and scored the tying run in the bottom of the 9th I really expected us to snap the streak, we’d made a few late inning comebacks and it seemed like a W was within reach.  We were still unable to finish and closed out our six game hom stand an ugly 0-6.

We’re now on the bus headed east to West Palm Beach where we will play six games, split into two three game series. We’ll have a rematch with the Palm Beach Cardinals and a three gamer with the Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins).  Hopefully the change of scenery will help us get on track, or maybe the C.R. Chicks chicken we all devour when we’re in Palm Beach will.  Whatever we attribute it to, we need something to get us on track fast because our start to the second half has been uninspiring at best.

There’s no time like the present, and no time to waste.  We’re on our way, even if we aren’t quite sure where or how.  I’m no fan of Ray Lewis, but he certainly hit the nail on the head during a speech he gave Stanford’s men basketball team.  “If you ain’t pissed off for greatness then that means you’re OK with being mediocre.”  Time to get angry.

Go Crabs!

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