THE NEWBERG REPORT — OCTOBER 7, 2007
Part of the periphery of each of my 15 or so annual spring training trips to Florida or Arizona has always been March Madness on TV. Baseball in the morning, a quick lunch, baseball in the afternoon, some sort of baseball dinner, and college basketball on the tube as things wind down. Automatic.
This was my first fall instructional league expedition, and among all the obvious differences from spring training was that the days ended not with NCAA hoops, but with playoff baseball.
One thing that struck me this week about what’s happening out here is the emphasis on team-building. Among the indelible moments will unquestionably be Engel Beltre’s play in center field, Elvis Andrus’s effortless presence and seemingly effortless play, Miguel Alfonzo and Jorge Quintero’s mocking of their relative anonymity, David Paisano and Leonel De Los Santos’s hoses, Don Welke’s personality (and Tommy Hunter’s, too), and the fact that the two most impressive pitching performances over three days of games turned out to be the very first inning I saw (Michael Main) and the final frame (Neftali Feliz). But just as eye-opening was the culture of the camp.
There was no hint of a barrier between the players born in the United States and those born in Latin America. Unified by those gray and red “The Future Is Here” Under Armour shirts, there was more to it than that. Bilingually charismatic, Andrus and Beltre and Julio Borbon each seemed to be at the center of helping make this one group of 50 rather than several disconnected, segregated cliques, but of course everyone had to buy in to make it really work. Andrus and Main were together in charge of a world map showing every player’s birthplace. Fabio Castillo and Marcus Lemon organized an effort to have each player educate everyone else on his hometown, his family, his non-baseball interests, and so on.
You’ve got to remember that Andrus and Main and Castillo and Lemon, like the majority of the players here, are teenagers. They’re still kids. But among these kids are leaders.
There’s work being done here, of course. Lots of it. But it has a different feel from the work that’s done in March, when the players are getting back into condition, shaking off the winter rust as they fight for a promotion, if not a job. Players spend spring training ramping up physically, mentally, and rhythmically, preparing for the grind that awaits, a brand of natural selection that pits these kids not only against Angels prospects and Indians farmhands and future Rockies, but also against each other, in a way.
The difference in Fall Instructs is that it’s the culmination, for one year, of that grind, an eight-month crucible that for some began in Surprise, for others in high school or in college or on Latin America fields, playing with all the adrenaline and intensity you’d expect from a kid trying to earn the attention of pro scouts authorized to pay large signing bonuses and open the door to a lifelong dream.
At the end of the 2007 grind these kids came together, literally and otherwise, learning not only about situational hitting and defense and pitching technique, but also about each other and about what it’s going to take to get where they want to be, as baseball players, together. To develop to the point at which “Texas Rangers” adorns not only the complex they train in, but the uniform they get to wear when the games count.
At the end of each day in spring training, I’m used to seeing Kansas and Georgetown and Gonzaga, a considerable contrast from Indians-Yankees, or Diamondbacks-Cubs. That’s just how the calendar falls. But it fits.
I doubt there are framed photos in the Surprise clubhouse of Travis Hafner from his Instructional League days in a Rangers uniform, or of Doug Davis, or of Scott Eyre, but those guys have been framed on TBS this week, and some of them will be next week, too, as Fall Instructional League continues against the backdrop of the major league playoffs. That should be inspiration enough.
October baseball, both on TV and in the way it’s orchestrated in Surprise, probably helps fire these guys up, as the year’s grind nears its end, to get after it again in the spring. Bet they can’t wait to get back to Surprise in five months.
I know I can’t.