PEORIA, AZ — Our Seattle Mariners are at the early stages of spring training in Peoria, Arizona, with the full roster just reporting this weekend. Only pitchers, catchers, and a few position players voluntarily coming early were present during the first week of camp.
But to those who love baseball, the very first days can be the most rewarding. They summon memories of early spring practices at Little League, high-school, and summer-league levels — memories shared by millions of Americans who still keep their gloves and spikes in a closet or garage.
Coaches and players dream big dreams in early spring. After all, every team is unbeaten and tied for first place at this juncture. At major-league level, rookies are trying to impress enough to make the 25-man roster and veterans to hang on for a last year or two. That means they are trying hard.
Here in Peoria, there are more rookies and young players than veterans. When position players arrive, there are 67 players in camp, each with some chance to crack the final 25. The biggest logjam is in pitching, where 35 players are competing for the 11 or 12 slots on opening day. Some eight slots, beginning with Felix Hernandez at No. 1, already are nailed down. That means 27 pitchers are competing for the remaining three or four.
At this early stage, you look in particular for signs that differentiate some players from others. They may not be physical. Japanese shortstop Munehori Kawasaki, for instance, is always on his toes and radiates intensity. An all-star in Japan, he is competing for a utility infielder slot with the Mariners.
Observing him for a few days, you see that he truly savors the game and think his intensity will help a team that sometimes has lacked it. It is too soon to make a call on his countryman, pitcher Hishashi Iwakuma, expected to be the Mariners' No. 2 or 3 starter this season. Japanese TV crews film his every move. In warmup sessions, he clearly is pressing a bit and not throwing quite as hard or as easily as you might have expected. But his throwing motion is natural and you think he will come along.
New catcher Jesus Montero, acquired in trade from the Yankees, also radiates intensity and a love for the game. In batting practice, he shows the skills of a natural hitter. Some players have that; others have to work hard to get close to it. In catching drills, he lacks the quickness and agility of some others in camp while fielding bunts. He is a big man with a big frame but he is not some lumbering oaf. He clearly is working to improve his behind-the-plate skills, even while warming up pitchers, and you think that, contrary to some predictions, he will have a future at catcher and not be restricted to designated-hitter duty.
There are many good young pitchers in Peoria. Watching their warmup sessions, it is difficult to predict which might be training-camp surprises this year. There is always at least one. Rookie starters Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker have gotten most of the early hype. But slender right-hander Erasmo Ramirez has an extra something about him that makes you watch him. His pitches in warmups have movement and life. He moves quickly and shows good reflexes. His body language tells you he is hungry and a competitor. Ramirez will be special, you think, and will be on the roster at mid-season if not at opening day.
Vinnie Catricala, the Mariners' minor-league player of the year in 2011, is both a third baseman and outfielder. He, too, shows signs of specialness. In the batting cage, he hits the ball hard and with power. He moves easily in the field. The way he carries himself tells you that he is confident and competitive and not intimidated by his first major-league camp.
- You wonder if there are not too many pitchers in camp. Their large number means fewer repetitions in drills for each of them. Many have not played before for the Mariners or in their farm system. You spot uncertainty and perhaps a bit of nervousness in their movements.
- Players in camp are in terrific physical condition and ready to go.
- Things are being run efficiently but, at this stage, somewhat low-key. You don't hear the noisy chatter and bantering that will come as the team coalesces.
- Manager Eric Wedge, in his second season, is a smiling, vigilant presence. He is a committed baseball lifer. You sense that he is noting all things, large and small, and have confidence that he will make the right decisions as the playing roster is pared.
The 2012 Mariners team will be competing with the Oakland Athletics for third and fourth places in the American League West.
The division will be dominated by the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles (Anaheim) Angels, both of which spent big money over the winter to strengthen their already strong rosters. But the Mariners nonetheless will be an interesting team and improved over last season's edition.
The fans in early camp are true fans, far fewer in number than those arriving after March 1, when exhibition games will begin against other major-league teams. This is retirement-mecca Arizona, after all, and some are senior citizens wearing baseball caps or jackets, not necessarily of the Mariners. There are small family groups. Japanese fans will begin arriving in large number with Ichiro Suzuki's arrival this weekend, along with other position-playing veterans.
Maybe a third of those watching workouts, on four practice fields, have cameras and/or autograph books in hand. You can strike up a conversation with just about any fan here and find him or her to be truly knowledgeable about the game. License plates in the parking lot are not only from Washington but also from British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
Come on down, before the games begin if you can. Watch the players as Wedge and his coaches are watching them — for "tells" that indicate whether they are destined to be stars or journeymen. I've come to early Mariners spring training for a few days during each of the past 12 years. If you love the Mariners, or just love baseball, it's time well spent in a sunnier clime.