Monday, March 02, 2009

Meeting the new Mets in Fort Lauderdale

The future of the Mets? Fernando Martinez and Dan Murphy get ready to take cuts.

I can understand why teams threaten to uproot and move their spring training sites after experiencing the contrasts during last weeks’ Grapefruit League road trips.

We’re going to set Josh’s baseball places aside for another adventure of our own, starting in beautfiul Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where both the Marlins and Cardinals train.

We arrived Tuesday afternoon, just as players were ending practice for the day. We had time to explore the gift shop, which stocked items for the two home teams as well as the frequent spring opponents, plus World Baseball Classic teams.

Trenni Kusnierek of the MLB Network was preparing to tape interviews for the 30-30 show.

The Marlins' batting cages are pretty colorful. The Cardinals are on the other side of the complex.

It was too late to inside the stadium, but as we were walking outside Dad spied a ball flying over the stadium wall and bouncing in the street in front of us. The exact same thing happened to Dad last year when we attended a minor-league game at the site.

Walking further we spied an MLB Network crew setting up for one of the 30/30 broadcasts.

The next day we shot down to Fort Lauderdale for the spring opener against the Orioles. You already know my parents spoil me wildly, and Dad got us there as the gates opened so we could check out batting practice.

The stadium is one of the oldest in use, and is nestled in an airport industrial park. Not the most picturesque location, but the planes flying over head reminded me of Shea.

Sadly, you can sense the Yankee Taint. The team trained there from 1962 until moving to Tampa. The Orioles took over in 1996.

The stadium lacks amenities you expect these days. No one wants to use a port-a-potty, and the food offerings were limited. But the team tried, adding a large barbeque that had the whole area smelling great and a lovely vendor from Queens warming large pretzels over charcoal – as they should be!

There were two booths like this that were as close to a team store as the stadium gets.

The old stadium has steep, narrow ramps and aisles, and on this particular day there were a lot of fans in their golden years. It was sad to watch them struggle, and it made it tough to get around quickly.

Since there wasn’t much to explore and many obstacles, I made my way right down to the Mets dugout and found a good spot to watch batting practice.

The A-team stayed back in St. Lucie, but Luis Castillo, Nick Evans and Dan Murphy were among the group taking cuts, with batting coach Howard Johnson pulling several aside for short discussions.
HoJo works with Luis Castillo, then Dan Murphy.

Sandy Alomar Sr. worked with Bobby Kielty on his fielding.

Jerry Manuel came out and hit fungos, then later came over and sat by the dugout signing autographs, including my glorious Mets book.

And Jerry looked like a genius during the game, with the oft-booed Luis Castillo moved to the lead-off spot and driving in four runs before being lifted in the sixth.

Nick Evans also looked great, going three-for-three with three runs scored.

And some forgotten players looked great, too. Angel Pagan had three hits and drew a walk. Jose Valentin didn’t do much at the plate, but made multiple outstanding plays at third.

Mega prospect Fernando Martinez looked horribly overmatched in his first at-bat, flailing at a two-strike pitch with the bases loaded. But he stroked a nice hit and scored a run in his next turn at the plate.
Fernando Martinez at the plate.

I was giddy watching the Mets pile on runs, even in a spring game, considering the Streak of Shame, which ended on a come-from-behind nail-biter in Cincinnati.

Jerry met with the media after the spring debut.

Walking out after the game I ran into General Manager Omar Minaya, asked him to sign the Mets book, which he did happily. I thanked him for the autograph, then said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done.” Remember, we were in rough shape for a while before he took over.

Omar smiled, and started to say something, but then someone else yelled, “Now go get Manny!” and he moved along.

Then we learned that while players take the bus home, but coaches get to drive home in their own cars – in uniform. HoJo stopped by his car to talk to fans, sign a certain Mets book and pose for photos.

All in all, a very good day at the ballpark. The home opener was even better. That's next.

The stadium has a designated autograph area. Note the slot in the fence. Also note the lack of players signing autographs after the game.

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