THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 29, 2007
I’ve known at least a handful of players for enough years now that I can recognize the phase change during the off-season. When the season ends, for a good while you can sense the decompression, and the blend of frustration over a season that didn’t end up where they wanted it to with the gratification of real time spent with family, the former gradually giving way more and more to the latter.
And then, after the holidays, a state of relaxation, and a bunch of cutting up where that frustration used to be.
As the end of January arrives, you start to see the game face coming back. Then the Fan Fest weekend, which in a palpable way gets all of us back in a baseball frame of mind, seems to pull the players in, too.
My guess is part of that is the guys coming back together, some from a few miles away, others from a few states away, a few crossing borders to get back to the Metroplex. It’s the first time for a lot of them to see each other and their coaches since October, and the first thing you notice is how happy they are to get back together. But underneath that, unless I’m mistaken, you can see that thing, that look of the troops coming together, the silent singleness of mind of a bunch of ballplayers about to give it another run.
It may not surprise you to learn that it doesn’t take a whole lot to get me fired up for baseball. The Awards Dinner and Fan Fest tandem is a slam dunk to do it for me every year, not just because of where it means the calendar is, just a handful of sleeps before the trucks are loaded up for Surprise, but also because of the 7,000 people gathered at Eddie Deen’s and Ameriquest Field, brought together by baseball, and you can see it in the players’ eyes: the swarm generates a vibe, felt both by the fans and by the guys that are weeks away from putting the uniform back on.
Two of those guys, Nate Gold and Eric Hurley, stood before a group of fans on Friday night as big as a lot of the sub-Frisco crowds they’d played in front of, accepting awards for the 2006 seasons they had. The two of them then sat behind a table on Saturday, signing autographs for kids and matching their smiles, and whether or not they were thinking it, I was: there was probably a time when Gold was that kid across the table, where Hurley was that kid too, meeting a professional baseball player and dreaming of the day that’s now just a couple weeks away for them, that first day taking part in a major league spring training workout. They might not have imagined that they’d each be supporting and be supported by a wife and a four-month-old daughter as that first big league camp awaited, but kids don’t think about those things.
Gold reminded me a little bit of Ben Kozlowski, a giant with an incredible knack for connecting with kids. There are some players who, no matter how much you thought of them before, you pull for even more after seeing how they are as people. Jeff Zimmerman, Chad Hawkins, Ben Kozlowski, Justin Hatcher. Nate Gold.
Hurley, five years younger than Gold, has just the right combination of confidence and reticence. He’s not one to draw attention to himself, but he knows his ability to pitch baseballs — and to get better at it — has him on a pretty exciting path.
Chris Davis. Great dude. He came up on the elevator with Rudy Jaramillo, which I’m guessing is the couple minutes he’ll remember most about his morning at Ameriquest Field. Big guy in the Ryan Bukvich mold, and a great attitude to go along with what scouts are calling the kind of power you can’t teach. Don’t be surprised if Davis ends up playing some third base this year, after a debut season spent entirely at first base and on the outfield corners. He got an extended instructional league look at the hot corner.
Thomas Diamond was the same as he always is: Nothing like the guy that will drill you up and in if he feels like it. He’s supremely confident, but he applies his confidence in a different way when he’s not on the hill. Diamond has one of those infectious Southern personalities that makes five-year-olds and 45-year-olds equally happy to be around him.
Eleanor Czajka has loaded a bunch of photos from the Saturday events on the Minor Details page, accessible from the Newberg Report website.
As for Friday night, the moments I’ll remember most were Eric Nadel’s on-stage interview with Eric Gagne, who spoke no English until he migrated from Montreal down to Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. Gagne seems like the right mix of battle-tested closer and “just one of the guys.”
The man he deposed from the ninth-inning job, Akinori Otsuka, traveled from Japan just for the weekend and his acceptance speech for the Rangers Pitcher of the Year Award was outstanding. In his broken but improving English, which he’s very proud of, he pointed to Art Howe in the crowd and expressed his thanks that Howe, who as Mets skipper twice complained to umpires about the hesitation in his delivery, won’t be complaining any more.
The Rangers appropriately recognized Mark and Leigh Teixeira’s increasing and inspiring presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth community, and Mark was appropriately blunt when he said, “I’ve never been a winner as a Texas Ranger. And it’s getting old. It really is. We’re ready to win in 2007.”
Frank Lucchesi’s tribute to Mark Holtz was really cool.
Jon Daniels and Michael Young were absent from the event for the first time each, though they recorded videotaped messages that were shown near the beginning of the program. Daniels delivered a message to the fans from the hospital, ducking away while making an ice chips run for his wife Robyn, who gave birth later that evening to seven pound, one ounce Lincoln Jacob. Young thanked the fans in his video message and took a dig at Teixeira, wondering aloud (though unable to do so with a straight face) how in the world Tex came away with the Good Guy Award.
The reason for Young’s absence, which was not explained at the event or by the press, was that he went back to UCSB for its baseball alumni weekend, an event he’d missed every year since reaching the big leagues with Texas.
Young was recruited by UCSB to play center field, but a scout told him after his freshman season that he’d have a better chance of getting drafted high if he moved to shortstop. He went to his coach, Bob Brontsema, and said he’d like to move to shortstop for his sophomore year, even though the Gauchos had already devoted a full scholarship to his high school teammate, a shortstop named Steve Medrano. Brontsema promised Young a chance to compete for the job, though, and as it turns out, Medrano was drafted by Kansas City the summer before he would have joined the UCSB program, and Young got the shortstop job. He would lead the conference in errors that season, but Brontsema kept him at shortstop as a junior in 1997, and he went to Toronto in the fifth round (the same round Medrano was taken by the Royals two years earlier).
Young made a commitment to Brontsema, one of the first baseball men (and we all know there have been several) who took some heat for standing behind Young, to be in Santa Barbara for the weekend. He took with him a bunch of his old equipment (bats, batting gloves, etc.) to give to the current UCSB team to use in practice.
The events in Arlington weren’t the same without Young there, to be sure, but what Young did with his weekend is another example (as if we needed one) of the kind of stand-up guy he is.
I wish the fans could have had the chance to be in the same room as Ron Washington this weekend, but he was unable to attend because of a death in the family.
This weekend always gets my blood pumping, and this year my adrenaline is ratcheted up even more than usual because, like Ella Gold’s Dad and Aislynn Hurley’s Dad and Lincoln Jacob Daniels’s Dad and Ron Washington, I’m about to embark on a pretty big step in my life. Six of my partners and I are about to start up our own law firm.
It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and daunting, but no more so than a couple young ballplayers about to get their first experience in major league camp or a couple having their first child or a lifelong baseball man getting to manage his first big league club. I don’t want to forget what these next couple weeks are going to feel like (the soundtrack’s going to be Incubus’s “Light Grenades”), all the good and all the bad, which makes me no different from Gold or Hurley or Daniels or Washington.
This is one of those times in my life when I know that, for a good while, I won’t get nearly enough sleep because I’ll be so fired up to wake up each day and get rolling. The formidable baseball optimist in me is thankful that this career move of mine will coincide roughly with those perfect words: Pitchers and Catchers Report.
Whether it’s the expectations I have for my baseball team as the scrape of cleats and the pop of the catcher’s mitt perk up my senses, or, on a professional level, the exhilaration of creating something that’s, at the same time, brand new and well established, this is no time to let uncertainty creep in and buzzkill the whole thing.
“Kill your doubt/With the coldest of weapons: Confidence.”