Spring Training Guide – Part 1

I’m getting anxious for Spring Training. I can’t help it. It’s dang cold here and nobody I care about at all is in the NFL playoffs, I don’t care at all about the NHL or NBA and no college team I care about is any good at all at basketball. It’s January and I have no reason whatsoever to care about anything sports related except baseball. Some might call that pathetic. Maybe it is.

I’ve heard from enough people that are considering taking their first Spring Training adventure to Ft. Myers this spring that I thought I might put together a series of posts that reflect a few things I’ve learned from my own experiences over the past few years. Keep in mind, I’m no expert on the subject and I have tended to find out what I like and don’t like just by going down there and playing it by ear. That’s pretty much just how I roll on casual personal travel in the first place.

Ron Gardenhire signs autographs at Spring Training

Most fans going to Spring Training for the first time have the same sorts of questions about tickets, hotels, food options, what goes on besides the Spring Training games themselves. In short, why should you go and what should you expect when you get there? That’s most people, of course… I am not most people. I went to my first Twins’ Spring Training game out of boredom. I was spending three weeks in the St. Petersburg FL area for work one March and saw that the Twins had a ST game in Tampa against the Yankees over one of the weekends I was there… so I went. I haven’t missed a Spring Training since.

Take that as a warning… if you go once, you’re probably going to want to go again. In a perfect world, I’d take the entire month of March off from work and spend it in Florida. It sucks that the world isn’t perfect.

I’ll break this in to three posts. Today I’ll cover some basic questions. The next post (whenever I get around to posting it) will focus on the Spring Training games themselves and then the last post will touch on things to do beyond just attending ST games.

How do I get there?

Some people really like cross-country driving. I used to be one of them. I’m also sure that there can be something fun and exciting about spending 24+ straight hours in a car with or without travel companions. I have no idea what those might be, however. I highly recommend flying.

Southwest Florida International Airport in Ft. Myers is served by several major airlines, including Delta, American, United and others, as well as a few other less major airlines (Southwest, AirTran, etc.). The existence of several “discount” airlines in this market usually makes fares relatively reasonable… unless you happen to be flying down there from Cedar Rapids IA, like me. I usually get a decent fare on Allegiant, which has direct flights from CR to St. Petersburg, which is about a 2 hour drive from Ft. Myers. You could probably also look for cheap fares to any other Florida city if you’re prepared for an even longer drive to Ft. Myers.

Do I need to rent a car there?

Yes, you or someone in your travel party will need a car. Don’t even think for a moment about trying to get by without one. Just do it. You’ll never be sorry you have one and if you don’t have one, I’ll guarantee you will, at some point (probably very early in your adventure) be sorry you don’t.

Where should I stay?

This is always a tough one to answer, because everyone’s tastes (and budgets) with regard to hotels is different. If I’m traveling alone, I feel like I spend so little time at the hotel itself that I don’t care about anything except having a clean room and reliable internet connections. Having food options nearby is nice.

There are no hotels in “easy walking distance” to the Lee County Sports Complex (the Twins’ ST facility). Most hotels that claim to be near the Ft. Myers airport will also be easy drives to the ballpark. Hotels on South Cleveland Avenue are also good bets to be a reasonable distance to the ballpark. (Note, hotels on North Cleveland Avenue will put you closer to the Red Sox facility.)

I’ve never had a problem getting a decent room for under $100 per night. Using Priceline.com or a similar internet site, you may even get something decent for $70 or even less. Verify your reservation before you head south. The only time I’ve ever had a problem getting a place to stay in Ft. Myers was the year I got down there and discovered the hotel had erroneously canceled my reservation. That was not a fun experience.

When I first considered going down to ST, I was hesitant because it coincides with “Spring Break” and in my mind, that meant expensive hotel rates and rowdy college kids. I’ve never had an issue with either problem, probably because I do not even try to look at hotels on/near the beach.

When should I go?

Choosing when to go see ST games is different than deciding when to go see the Twins play during the regular season. During the regular season, I make my plans based on factors such as the opponent, the standings, and pitching matchups. None of that really matters in Spring Training. Sure, you might think seeing the Twins host the Yankees would be very cool… until you show up and realize there are only 2-3 players wearing Yankee uniforms that you’ve ever heard of.

Chris Cates gets an AB in 2010 Spring Training

Instead, you need to make your decision based on what you want to see. I tend to break down the ST season in to 10-day segments. It’s not exact… but it’s close enough for my planning purposes.

Games 1-10: In early March, there are more players in the Major League camp. Pitchers don’t throw more than 1-3 innings in a game and “regular” position players generally come out of games after a couple of plate appearances. So if you are hoping to see the stars play a lot of baseball, this is not the time for you to go. On the other hand, if you are wondering who all these players are that the Twins signed during the off-season that you’ve never heard of… here’s your chance to find out what they look like. You’ll may see five or more pitchers throw an inning or two each in every game. Don’t even TRY to keep a score card.

Another thing to consider, especially if you are a big follower of minor leaguers, is that formal minor league games don’t start as early as the Major League games do. If you want to see minor league action, don’t rush to get down there the first week of March.

Games 11-20: Toward the middle of March, starting pitchers are getting 3-4 innings in and starting position players are playing at least 5-6 innings. This means many of the pitching prospects who have been in Major League camp to this point, will be getting sent across the facility to the minor league complex where they’ll get more innings in, since the formal minor league workouts and games are now underway.

This is the period that I personally prefer to spend time at ST. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed and informal (and the players are generally still having fun being back on the field playing ball again after the off-season), but the regular players are playing a few more innings to start getting their timing at the plate or building up stamina by throwing more pitches/innings on the mound.

Games 21-30: By this time, the “final” rotation is getting set up and throwing more pitches each start. Most of the Major League roster is set and those players are getting most of the playing time through 7 innings or so. You’ll still get a look at a handful of minor league prospects brought up to finish out the 8th-9th innings of games.

You also may notice some more subtle differences among the players. They’ve been “practicing” for over a month and playing games that don’t count. They’re anxious to get the season started and some of them aren’t quite as generous with their time signing autographs and interacting with fans, in general. On the other hand, if there’s going to be competition for any of the remaining Major League roster spots, this is your chance to see that drama play out.

That’s enough for today. Look for Part 2 tomorrow… or the next day… or next week sometime. Get off my back, I’ll post it eventually! 

- JC

Sunday Snippets

It’s Sunday afternoon, my Hawkeyes are getting drubbed by Purdue in mens’ hoops and even a Joe Posnanski in-game chat can’t get me enthused about watching the Chiefs and Ravens, so I thought this would be a good time to toss some things together and see if I could come up with enough material for a weekend post. (As if there’s any chance I won’t come up with about 1200 words without really trying!)

Unresolved Issues

The Twins really don’t have many things left to work out before Spring Training starts. This seems strange to say given that Bill Smith and his staff have made so few moves of any significance to this point. That said, there are a couple of issues yet to be addressed before camp opens up in Ft. Myers next month:

  1. The ‘Stache: If reports we’re reading are accurate, it’s just a matter of “when”, not “if”, Carl Pavano is officially signed to return to the Twins rotation in 2011. A while back, I noted that a lot of writers/bloggers who were not primarily focused on the Twins were predicting Pavano would be re-signed by the Twins, while almost all of the bloggers in Twinsville (myself included) considered it a foregone conclusion that he would NOT be returning. Guess now we see who knew what they were talking about. I’m still not able to figure out how bringing back the 2010 rotation improves your team, but maybe the thought is that Kyle Gibson will be ready to contribute by June and that’s their insurance policy in case someone is hurt or just not pitching well. He may free up one of the existing six starting pitchers to be dealt in a trade for more offense later, as well. I guess when it became clear that the Twins weren’t going to be able to trade for a legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher, it became a case of, “the only thing worse than re-signing Pavano would be not re-signing Pavano.” I just hope it works out.
  2. Bench bat: Assuming the Twins keep 12 pitchers to start the season, that leaves four roster spots for non-starting position players. Jason Repko, Drew Butera and Matt Tolbert are penciled in to three spots. It’s not hard to come up with players on the free agent market that would be upgrades over any/all of these three, but it would also be pointless. If anyone steals one of those spots, it will have to be an internal option that shows up in Spring Training and just wows the coaching staff. There isn’t a legitimate hitter among that group, however, so it makes it critical for the Twins to fill the fourth bench spot with a hitter who can… well… hit. Most of us expect that hitter to be Jim Thome and unless he’s really letting someone convince him he should demand over $5 million, that’s who the choice will likely be. I’m ok with that, I guess. As a fan, who wouldn’t welcome back a guy who performed the way he did last season? He’s a class act and I’d be proud to see him get HR #600 in a Twins uniform. Still… if you’re impartially looking at who the Twins really SHOULD fill that final roster spot with, you’d have to say it should be a right-handed hitter. Then again, you would have said the same thing last off-season and that didn’t stop the Twins from signing Thome then, either. If they do end up looking at right-handed options, I suspect Vlad Guerrero is too pricey, but guys like Troy Glaus and Marcus Thames may be reasonably priced alternatives. This topic probably warrants a full length post of its own and I may write one in a few days… or not.
  3. The bullpen: I wrote a whole post on this last week and nothing whatsoever has changed. Not much point in writing more now, other than to point out the obvious: there will be some interesting Spring Training battles for spots in the bullpen.

Hall of Fame Leftovers

As expected, the election of Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame was followed by a number of articles questioning his selection specifically and/or the selection process itself. A lot of them trotted out the, “how could his numbers get better over 14 years?” argument. I’m so tired of that line of BS. While men and women of good conscience can disagree over whether Bert and others like him had careers worthy of HoF induction, only idiots can fail to understand that it’s not a player’s numbers that can change over an extended period of time, but the perspectives of the voters and the context with which that player’s career is viewed that is worthy of re-examining. It’s why they require the five year waiting period and why they allow a player to stay on the ballot 15 years. Blyeleven’s election is proof that the system works the way it was intended. If Mike Schmidt and his buddies don’t think so, tough shit. His suggestion that a committee of current Hall members determine who gets in might be the funniest thing Schmidt’s ever said… though that isn’t saying much. He’s always been an idiot, in my humble opinion.

Which brings me to my inevitable Joe Posnanski plug. He reacted to suggestions that the HoF is not exclusive enough with this terrific post. (There’s also a post over there about his trip to see the Harry Potter World in Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park that’s a must-read if you’re a parent or were ever a kid yourself and ESPECIALLY if you’ve ever worked with kids!)

Spring (Training) Fever

Maybe it was when I put together the slideshow for this post last week or maybe it was the announcement that Twins’ single game tickets for games at Hammond Stadium in Ft. Myers were going on sale this past Saturday, but something motivated me to start looking seriously at potential dates for my annual trek to Spring Training in March. I figured out exactly the dates I wanted to go down there… March 13-20… and quickly discovered that airfares for those exact dates are outrageously expensive ($600-800 and up). Forget that.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Maybe fares will come down before I actually get around to booking a flight, but I found a couple of alternatives that look pretty good. I can cut fares about in half by changing to 3/14-21 or by waiting and going down for about the final week of Spring Training, 3/20-28. Either option offers a nice blend of home and road games of drivable distances from Ft. Myers, as well as a day or two to hang out on the beach. It didn’t really help the below-zero wind chill factors feel any warmer here this weekend, but making some plans did remind me that winter won’t last forever. If you’re planning a trip to Spring Training, too, leave a comment or drop us an email (click Contact Us at the top of the page) and let us know when you’re planning on being down there.

Housekeeping items

This spring will also mark our first blogging anniversary here at Knucklballs. We hope you’ve enjoyed coming here even half as much as we’ve enjoyed this adventure. Personally, I wasn’t sure, at the onset, that this was something I’d really enjoy doing consistently, but it has turned out to be a lot of fun. That’s largely a result of the terrific reception we’ve gotten from our readers. Whether in comment sections of the posts, in our GameChats during the season, or through various opportunities to interact with other Twins bloggers, we’ve come to feel welcomed and accepted by an outstanding group of fellow Twins fans.

The upcoming anniversary also has us contemplating some changes here. We’re considering whether to remain with our current web hosting provider and may play with the format or “theme” of the blog a bit. I mention this for a couple of reasons. Since our traffic count is understandably lower in the off-season, now is a good time for us to play with things a bit. So if you come for a visit and what you find here looks a bit strange (or you don’t find anything at all… yikes!), don’t stop trying to visit us. We may just be in one of our “mad scientist” modes and one of our experiments got a bit out of control.

As always, if you’d like to share your thoughts in the comments section, feel free to do so… especially if there were particular features or regular topics that you want to make sure we continue or if you have ideas for things we could do to make your visits here more enjoyable.

OK, that’s all for now!

- JC

HOF Announcement! – Bert’s IN!!!

Bert Blyleven

Well the day is here. This is the day when we finally find out whether Bert Blyleven will finally get enough votes to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The action will go live today on FSN at 1 pm – as far as I know of, that is the only place to see coverage of the 2011 class announcement.  Should things go Bert’s way, there will be extended opportunities to interview him, get loads of Bert stories from some of his teammates from back in the day and general frivolity.  FSN hasn’t exactly explained what they will do if Bert isn’t included in the HOF list.  I’m sure that they, like I, unlike Jon Heyman, are standing by with optimism and hope.

Whatever the result, I’ll come back to this post after the broadcast with my reactions.

**CONTINUED**

It’s OFFICIAL!!  Congratulations to Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar on being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011!!!!

My personal feelings are that this probably should have happened a long time ago.  But whether you were an apologist or a critic of Blyleven’s candidacy, it’s good to see that this yearly discussion is finally OVER.

There is likely to be a lot of discussion about his stats yet today but from now on, they will never be used as some sort of justification or argument.  They are now simply the career stats of a Hall of Famer.

I’m watching him be interviewed by Marnie at the moment and it’s funny to hear him describe his reaction as “relief” and to admit that if it hadn’t happened for him this year, he would have been angry.  You know what? I love the honesty and the bluntness.  If it were me, yeah, after 14 years and being told no every year, I’d have been angry too but there just aren’t many out there that would be comfortable enough to admit it.  It’s very touching that his first call after being notified was to his mother.  Knowing how much his family means to him and having heard so many of the stories of his childhood, I know that it’s really important that was the first person to hear.  I know he’s happy about it but I think it all comes down to the same feeling we ALL have – we’re glad it’s done and we can go on to the next discussion now!

Congratulations Bert, I think it’s a well-deserved honor.

photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins


Here’s the official ballot results from Baseball Writers of America‘s site:

2011 Hall of Fame voting

Name Votes Pct.
Roberto Alomar 523 90.0%
Bert Blyleven 463 79.7%
Barry Larkin 361 62.1%
Jack Morris 311 53.5%
Lee Smith 263 45.3%
Jeff Bagwell 242 41.7%
Tim Raines 218 37.5%
Edgar Martinez 191 32.9%
Alan Trammell 141 24.3%
Larry Walker 118 20.3%
Mark McGwire 115 19.8%
Fred McGriff 104 17.9%
Dave Parker 89 15.3%
Don Mattingly 79 13.6%
Dale Murphy 73 12.6%
Rafael Palmeiro 64 11.0%
Juan Gonzalez 30 5.2%
Harold Baines 28 4.8%
John Franco 27 4.6%
Kevin Brown 12 2.1%
Tino Martinez 6 1.0%
Marquis Grissom 4 0.7%
Al Leiter 4 0.7%
John Olerud 4 0.7%
B.J. Surhoff 2 0.3%
Bret Boone 1 0.2%
Benito Santiago 1 0.2%
Carlos Baerga 0 0.0%
Lenny Harris 0 0.0%
Bobby Higginson 0 0.0%
Charles Johnson 0 0.0%
Raul Mondesi 0 0.0%
Kirk Rueter 0 0.0%

Note: 436 votes (75%) required for enshrinement. Induction July 24, 2011 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Bullpen: White Knights or Black Hole?

If you’ve been reading anything about the Twins’ offseason, you may have heard this already… The Twins are going to need some new relief pitchers to fill out their bullpen. Shocking, I know.

Bullpen up in the air?

Truth is, the thing I find more surprising than anything else is that so many people seem to care so much about who’s going to make up the bullpen on Opening Day. I’m not ignorant of the fact that the Twins are losing half of the strong bullpen they finished the 2010 season with. Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are already members of other teams, with Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Randy Flores and Ron Mahay likely to follow.

So with all of the uncertainty about who will be keeping bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek company this season, why am I surprised that so many people are devoting so much time to fretting over the makeup of the Twins’ relief corps? It’s simple really.

It matters to me that the Twins appear at least one top-of-the-rotation pitcher short at the moment. Going in to the season with the current five young starting pitchers, backed up only by unproven younger options, and relying on being able to trade for a top starter at mid season is a risky proposition. It may work out. It may not. But it matters and if they don’t have someone like Carl Pavano in the rotation that can consistently go deep in to games and give the bullpen a rest, then it matters even more.

It matters to me that the Twins are apparently comfortable with a defensive outfield that is, to be kind, less than swift. It baffles me a bit that the Twins looked at the way Target Field played in its inaugural season and recognized that they needed more contact hitters with speed on offense to take advantage of the field’s outfield gaps that tend to kill power but favor gap hitters… but didn’t also arrive at the conclusion that they should upgrade the defense with the addition of at least one more outfielder with the range to prevent opposing hitters from benefiting quite so readily from this particular stadium quirk.

It matters to me that the Twins will once again start the season with a new middle infield combination. I happen to be more of an optimist with regard to Alexi Casilla than many are and, while I’m on record as having preferred that the Twins hang on to JJ Hardy, I believe there’s been far more gnashing of teeth over his departure than is warranted. I suspect Tsuyoshi Nishioka will do just fine offensively and defensively… and is much more likely to bring stability to the middle infield for the next few seasons than either Hardy or Orlando Hudson would have. But regardless, yes, this new middle infield combination matters to me.

It WOULD matter to me if the Twins had nobody returning with a history of providing adequate performance at the back end of the bullpen. But while they won’t start the season with as many proven late inning options as they had at the end of 2010, the combination of Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Jose Mijares has demonstrated in the past that they are capable of getting a few outs toward the end of a ballgame. Even though Nathan’s healthy return to pre-injury status is not guaranteed and that, as is the case with Lexi, I’m a bigger fan of Matt Capps than most of Twinsville seems to be, I can’t honestly say I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with late inning options if any of the departing arms were still around. Some people act like Crain, Rauch, Guerrier and Fuentes never coughed up a game in their careers.

There are four open spots in the 2011 bullpen. All are long relief and middle inning positions. Who will fill those spots? I’m sorry… but I can do no better than turn to the wisdom of Bill Murray for a response. In his first leading role in the 1979 “classic” film, Meatballs, Murray captured my feelings perfectly when he said (repeatedly)… “It just doesn’t matter!… it just doesn’t matter!…”.

Will Glen Perkins or Alex Burnett or Jeff Manship or Rob Delaney be the long relief options… or will one of the current five starting pitchers get bumped to the pen if Pavano re-signs? Who cares? It just doesn’t matter! They’re going to be used when the starting pitcher gets shelled in the first three innings of a game the Twins are highly unlikely to come back and win anyway.

Who’s going to bridge the gap between a starting pitcher who labors through four or five innings and the set-up guys during a game that the offense is managing to keep close? Will it be Pat Neshek, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey, or some free agent yet to be signed? I don’t know and it just doesn’t matter! Regardless of who fills those spots, I can guarantee you that sometimes they are going to pitch well and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they will get lucky and sometimes they won’t. If they pitch poorly or are unlucky too often early in the season, one of the other candidates will be plugged in and get his shot. But, as Ed Thoma pointed out this week on his Baseball Outsider blog, it’s not like Gardy and Rick Anderson have never had to build a bullpen before.

Still… since so many people see the bullpen as an issue to get riled up about (and because I’m devoting 1,000 words or so to the topic here), I feel compelled to come up with at least one suggestion for the Twins to consider. So here it is.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Never heard of him? That’s OK.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Kobayashi is a Japanese free agent (which means he’s available to sign without having to go through the posting process), was a team mate of Nishioka’s with the Chiba Lotte Marines and does have some international experience as a member of the Japanese national team. After a few mediocre seasons as a starting pitcher under the Marines’ former manager, Bobby Valentine, Kobayashi was moved by Valentine’s replacement in to the closer role in 2010 and apparently performed well enough to help Chiba win the Japanese championship.

Reports are that he doesn’t throw extremely hard (fastball runs 89-91 mph) but mixes in several other pitches effectively enough to miss bats consistently (striking out around 8 hitters per 9 nine innings in his career).

Some people have lamented the Twins not being aggressive about signing Hideki Okajima or some other Japenese relief pitcher to perhaps minimize the cultural shock Nishioka is inevitably going to face next season. What better way to do that than to bring in one of his team mates?

Gotta be more important stuff, right?

That’s enough from me today. Now we can turn our attention to more important stuff… I’m not sure what that might be, but there has to be SOMETHING more important than finding out who gets the duty of carrying the backpack of goodies to the bullpen this season.

- JC

The Real Househusbands of MN Sports

This is just a quick post to share an amusing series of unscripted video vignettes from MN team managers – some of the quirky things these guys face in real life with their families! I’m not going to say much – going to let the guys speak for themselves.

I’m really curious as to when these are going to show up and what FSN is planning!

Spring Training is Just Around the Corner

Happy New Year from Knuckleballs!

We all recognize that the Twins have work to do yet this off-season as the front office continues to mold a roster together and various players complete their rehab work as they continue efforts to overcome injuries of various degrees. Yet, as we toss out the 2010 calendars and put up those new 2011 versions, we’re reminded that baseball is coming!

Yes, the temperatures where most of us call home remain bone-chilling and it’s far too early to store away the snow shovels. But pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training NEXT MONTH so regardless of how cold it may feel outside, it’s time to get in the mood for baseball!

I’ve made the journey to Ft. Myers FL for the past few years to take in anywhere from a couple of days to a full week at the Twins’ Spring Training complex and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. I can’t speak for anyone else, but by March, there’s nothing quite like getting a jump on the warmer weather with a trip to the Florida Gulf Coast and when you can combine the warmer weather with getting a sneak peek at the upcoming year’s Twins roster, it just makes for a terrific trip.

But rather than try to describe what it’s like, I thought I’d dig in to my photobucket scrapbook and share this Spring Training Tour to make you feel warm all over… I hope you enjoy. – JC