Two Days In The Desert

Last weekend I went to Arizona to see the Rangers. Here’s what happened:

The Prelude

On Friday I arrived at my best friend’s house a couple ticks past 11:00 in the nighttime, fitted in my old heather grey Virginia Tech sweater and the loosest pair of black Levy’s I own. (The moment you realize the clothes that fit comfortably six months ago are now snug in all the wrong places, is a sad, sad day.) After entering Trey’s place I sat on his spacious leather chair — the one Trey often tattoos in — for about five minutes, calmly, composed, watching him manically scurry about the surrounding area to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything vital. His girlfriend sat in one of the wooden dining chairs about five feet adjacent to me. It was in this instance when I realized a childlike excitement brewing in the depths of my essence, like I was finally aware that soon I would embark on a fresh and mystical experience to see the Rangers in Surprise, Arizona. To be realistic here, other than specific women, I can’t think of many things that give me such a strong feeling. Okay, maybe when I’m gambling.

After he rounded all his shit together, we left his house. It was probably about 11:30 pm.

The problem with departing so early (or late, depending on your conception of what’s “early”) is that the actual spring training game wasn’t until 1:00 (Mountain Time) the following afternoon. Aside the five hour or so drive, Trey and I basically had 7 hours to kill time. That can sometimes be an issue with us, because almost everything worthwhile involves shedding some sort of capital, and it just so happened that there were, like, 12 casinos between where we live in Southern California and our destination in Arizona. Again, that’s an issue.

We found a casino we liked, where we’ve been before, called Aqua Caliente. It’s a few minutes before Palm Springs. I parked in the sparsely illuminated garage structure, and we made it through the doors a half hour past midnight. Our only tangible goal was to waste time. We’re good at that when we have a place to be, and it’s convenient how fast the clock flies when partaking in about 500 hands of blackjack. Of course, after awhile the objective shifted from wasting time into something that closer resembled we’re down $500 we need to get our money back, but shit happens. We’ve been through much worse together.

It wouldn’t be a real vacation without a little drama, but in this story, there was a happy ending. Somehow Trey got on a ridiculous run playing $25 a hand at blackjack — he probably won 7 or 8 in a row and many more than he lost after that — and we found ourselves walking out of the giant golden doors of Aqua Caliente $150 apiece richer than we walked in with. (The net gain was $300; we always split our winnings.)

Perhaps more importantly — but not really, because what’s more important than money? — it was almost 4:00 in the morning. We accomplished what we set out to accomplish: we shortened the downtime once we made it into Surprise.

* * * * * *

The Drive

The drive from the Palm Springs area across the border into Arizona is not particularly scenic. At all. There is desert. Then there’s more desert. And holy shit oh my god check that out! Even more desert. Trey tilted back his passenger chair less than an hour after we left the casino, so for the next few hours I was in my own little world, cruising on the 10-East with my best friend sleeping in the seat beside me, the hip hop-centric mix-tape I made playing on low volume.

This was an ethereal slice of paradise, but I don’t know if it was due to being excited at that exact moment, or if it was the anticipation I felt for where I was headed, and what I was headed there for. I suppose the answer is less important than the feeling itself.

The freeway consisted of two lanes headed in one direction; on the opposite side of the freeway there were another two lanes which ran parallel. Each stretch of road — which lasted anywhere within 20- and 30-minute intervals — began as descending from the top of a hill, to ascending upon another hill, and then repeating the process. Think of it like a line segment, and on either ending point there’s a rocky hill; the line portion of the segment is desert. It’s a cyclical up and down and up and down process; seemingly never-ending.

After a couple hours, I saw the sun come up over the mountains, off in the vague distance. Trey remained fast asleep.

The early morning sky changed like chemistry from pitch black, to a small light rising over the horizon, to a full-on sunbeam penetrating my sunglasses. The dawn comes quickly in Arizona, apparently, or maybe I’m just not that familiar with waking up at reasonable hours. My bad. I looked down at my phone and saw my clock had jumped ahead an hour as we headed down the home stretch. We were almost there.

Then Trey woke up.

As we reached Cotton Lane (roughly 15 minutes outside Surprise) at about 8:00 — which was the only new piece of information from my Map Quest search (because I’m terrible with directions) in the last 300 miles — we were exhausted. I hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours, which doesn’t sound like much, but I could feel it, and the only shuteye Trey got in the same time frame was the short snooze he took just prior. We were just happy to be somewhere.

 * * * * * *

Pre-Game

Check-in to our hotel wasn’t until 4:00 pm, which was another excruciating seven hours later. The game started at 1:00 local time. Trey and I made futile pleas to check-in extremely early, with the woman at the front desk, but to no avail. So that sucked. We were stranded in a new state on virtually no sleep with nowhere to go.

So, naturally, Trey and I did what we know best: we looked for somewhere to gamble. The place we found was a sketchy establishment: on the outside it looked like a K-Mart, though ostensibly there were a bunch of colored splotches on the windows that said things like “Free Drinks!” and “Free Snacks!”

Seems legit.

But not really. It also didn’t open for another couple hours.

Since gambling is legally only allowed on Indian reservations, the place known as Sweepstakes in Surprise, Arizona will probably be snuffed out and ostracized in no time. I’m curious why it hasn’t already.

As the clocked rolled past 10:30, we found a cozy slab of concrete just outside the doors, and each napped for about an hour. On the ground. In front of the sketchy establishment.

When we woke up, it was time to head over to the stadium to check out the game.

* * * * * *

The Game (But Better Than The Hip-Hop Artist)

When we made it to the ballpark, my first motive was eerily similar to every other baseball game I watch at a stadium: to get a beer. Trey bought a hotdog and a Dr. Pepper, and we found our seats. The game was just starting.

Ian Kinsler led off by getting ahead 2-0 on Guillermo Moscoso, then launching a line drive about 80 feet beyond the left field fence. The problem was it landed 40 feet foul. Bummer. He eventually popped out.

The second batter of the game, Elvis Andrus, is who’s really worth mentioning. On the first pitch he saw he blasted a fastball over the heart of the plate to the warning track, right in front of the ’400′ marker on the wall. I hate to sensationalize a fly out with too much hyperbole, but if it wasn’t the hardest struck fly ball of Elvis Andrus’s career, then it’s right up there. Regardless if it’s spring training or not, it’s an excellent sign if Andrus is showing some pop with his bat — especially to the opposite field. If he can elevate his career-high 95 wRC+ from 2012 even marginally, the Rangers’ chances of making the postseason get that much better.

I believe I was out of my seat when Nelson Cruz homered, so I don’t really have much to go on there. However, it was while I was up that I got a Tweet from Jason Parks, whom I Tweeted earlier in the day to ask if he’d be at the game. If you aren’t familiar with Parks, you are missing out on a true up-and-comer in the industry who is probably Baseball Prospectus’s biggest asset in replacing Kevin Goldstein (who recently became the scouting director of the Houston Astros).

Anyway, he was nice enough to give me an autograph. Me, shaking his hand like a fanboy, in the blue Round Rock Express hat my ex girlfriend from a long time ago got me for Christmas last year. I felt so lame and so excited at same time. In my head, I’m thinking to myself:

Are you really that much of a nerd that you are more excited to get Jason Parks’ autograph than your favorite Ranger, Ian Kinsler? You’re twenty-fucking-two. 

Whatever. The game remained uneventful. I saw a few of the starters get replaced early on. It was a pleasant surprise seeing Leury Garcia up close. He seems taller and thicker than I’d seen in photographs this past year. I only saw him get a couple plays in the field — at SS — but he handled them routinely.

Jurickson Profar replaced Ian Kinsler at 2B, and grounded out softly on a 2-2 pitch. In the field, he got one opportunity on a soft twelve hopper about 5 feet to his hand side, and he got the assist with ease.

Around the 7th inning, with a man on 3rd and one out, Ron Washington drew his infield in. There was a smash grounder to Mike Olt — who was playing 3rd base — and he booted it to allow the tying run to score. Olt is lauded for his above average defense at the hot corner, but he cost the team a run on a play that most big league 3rd basemen make. (Okay, except Michael Young.)

The game was tied at two heading into the 9th inning. Trey and I had just come back from being on the outskirts of the stadium, because, shit, I just can’t suppress the urge to have a delicious cigarette while drinking only the finest of spring training ale.

When we reentered the gates, Trey pointed out the sound of bats cracking — in the batting cage (naturally). We walked over and saw two older white men in white Rangers caps standing attentively with their arms folded. In my head I was hoping they were scouts and the players in the cage were important.

I asked the first guy, “Do you know who this is?”

I already knew who it was; Joey Gallo.

He said, “Nope.”

He left a few seconds later.

I asked the second guy, “Are you a scout?”

He replied, “No,” almost in a whisper.

It made me feel like I was the only Rangers’ fan who was aware of anything prospect-related. Gallo was in the cage with Lewis Brinson, Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara. All of them are among the high-ceiling core of lower-level hitting talent in the Rangers’ farm system. They are all expected to begin 2013 at full-season Hickory.

They finished up, and based on how many beers I had, I was past the point of feeling too cool to ask someone for an autograph. Trey also helped calm my nerves, because, well, I guess you’re never too old to get starstruck. “Fuck it,” he said.

I called out, “Joey!” “Joey Gallo!”

He looked up. Went about his business picking up his circuit of baseballs.

“Lewis Brinson!”

He smiled back and gave the head-knod recognition.

Let’s just say game recognize game.

I mean, shit, my best friend standing next to me has three face tattoos. Can’t you appreciate the dedication to our specific field’s?

Much to my jubilant surprise, Gallo and Brinson both came over, signed my program, and hung out with Trey and I for a couple minutes. On one level, I’m just grateful they signed something. But more importantly, it was nice of them to stay behind the group and chop it up with a couple random people.

Even Trey — who knows virtually nothing about the Rangers beyond what I tell him, who has no emotional ties to any of the team’s prospects — said to Gallo: “That bat you were using looks a little cracked; you should let us take that off your hands.”

Gallo laughed and turned his head to the bat, grabbing a quick hold of it in hesitation. He was actually going to give it to us.

“Man, I would give you guys this bat, but the equipment managers will throw a bitch fit at me,” Gallo said. We all laughed. Then we said bye and returned to the action.

We eventually made it back to our seats. The Rangers sat down quietly and lackadaisically in the top of the 9th, and then on the bottom half, former Angels’ Minor League Legend — Brandon Wood — muscled a hanging breaking ball over the left field fence.

Royals win, 4-2.

* * * * * *

Observations

  • Nelson Cruz looks like he’s in very good shape. He looks a fair amount leaner, a tick faster, and could easily be in his best physical form since joining the Rangers organization.
  • You can pretty much pencil David Murphy into every spring training lineup at a high spot in the order when a lefty is starting the game. Texas appears committed to play him as their every day left fielder in 2013.
  • An intriguing bench candidate, at least in my eyes, is 1B/OF Brandon Allen. Only 27, he’s in that stage of his career that, if he was ever going to have success, it would be now. He has an abysmal career K rate hovering around 35%, but does draw his fair share of walks (10.8%). If he can start putting the bat on the ball consistently, he could be a decent ’3 True Outcomes’ bench asset.
  • I was hoping to see someone like Derek Holland (who pitched Friday) or Matt Harrison (who pitched Sunday) or Alexi Ogando (who pitched Friday), but I got stuck with Randy Wells. I’m pretty sure he’s a Triple-A reclamation project, but it’s nice to see fringy starters up close, because you never know when they can find something and put a nice couple years together.
  • The quartet of players I saw in the batting cage are all mammoth in size. Guzman looked the most filled out of the group, followed by Gallo, Brinson, and the frail Mazara. The latter three look like they can easily put on 30 pounds apiece. Lewis Brinson, in particular, looks like he could turn into an absolute thoroughbred, if he isn’t one already.

 

All photos courtesy of my iPhone.

Topics: Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Joey Gallo, Jurickson Profar, Leury Garcia, Lewis Brinson, Matt Harrison, Nelson Cruz, Nomar Mazara, Ron Washington, Ronald Guzman, Yu Darvish

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