Grounded for most of a rainy weekend, the Seattle Mariners passed another spring milestone Monday in Peoria, Arizona as they played their first intrasquad game, following an hour of workouts, position by position — i.e., pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders gathering in separate groups for specialized instruction.
The game, played on practice field number 1 at the Peoria complex, was delayed while the field dried. It drew a strong turnout of Seattle fans, who kept up a running banter with the players, who responded in kind to the fans. This is a scene which will not replicated once the team moves into Peoria Stadium Wednesday to begin exhibition play against other teams.
Fans hooted at pitchers Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, who began the game as batboys for the two squads. Each wore a large "B.B" sign on his back and bowed and gestured to the fans as they went about their menial duties. When Ichiro Suzuki came to bat, fans began to chant "Ichiro, Ichiro!" and got a friendly wave in response. When Ken Griffey Jr. fouled off an attempted bunt, someone shouted from the stands, "C'mon, Griffey, get that ball down!" Griffey, at first surprised, turned and then grinned.
For the record, the first batter of the game was outfielder Michael Saunders. Pitcher Ian Snell got two strikes past him before Saunders lined out to deep centerfield.
I closely watched Jose Lopez, working out at third base in a possible position switch (from his regular second-base) this spring. He got individual instruction for an hour before the game from infield coach Mike Brumley. As in previous days, Lopez showed a strong throwing arm and moved naturally around the position. He clearly is starting from scratch. Brumley was taking him step-by-step through such fundamentals as where to position himself against lefthanded and righthanded hitters.
Lopez was not exactly enthusiastic, it appeared, about learning a new role after several years as a regular at second base. But he applied himself and looked generally capable. He hit a scorching double to left field in the intrasquad game that followed.
As games loom against other teams, the Mariners will be well scouted. Their present roster has a surplus of perhaps four starting pitchers and three relief pitchers — all valuable assets for possible use in trades before the season begins. General manager Jack Zduriencik sat behind homeplate and took a couple cellphone calls, perhaps from teams looking to deal for pitching.
The close-to-the-field metal benches, seating a hundred fans, and the nearby dugouts make for the kind of smalltown-ball environment that is hard to find these days. There is a close connection, full of goodwill, between players and fans.
Meantime, across the Peoria complex, the San Diego Padres were working out to a total absence of fans. Strangely, San Diego fans, who can make a day trip to Peoria, seldom bother to come. The Mariners' faithful heavily outnumber them. The Mariners players know they are loved.