Surprise report, v.1.

I’ve done about 15 spring trainings and have never had a bad one.  Not even Port Charlotte in 1990, when the work stoppage meant that Nolan Ryan and Ruben Sierra and Rafael Palmeiro weren’t around, but I was, with a few college buddies, Tom House’s kid (who I was kind [and bored] enough to play catch with several times), and very few others, getting the chance to see Donald Harris’s first camp and coming away thinking Dan Peltier had the much better shot at a big league career, if not a batting title or two.

But there have been irritating starts to my March trips.  Sometimes a baggage claim nightmare, a rental car issue, or worse, being seated on a plane one year for three hours between the teenager heading to Florida hoping to open a body piercing/tattoo parlor (and looking like he’d been a preferred customer at about 20 of them himself) and the disinterested middle-aged pro wrestler, and enduring a flight-long barrage of questions that would have fit nicely on the Paul McCartney episode of The Chris Farley Show (with Graffiti Boy in the Farley role and Stone Cold Kabuki as McCartney) — keeping in mind that the airspace for this largely one-way beatdown of a three-hour conversation was basically my head.

It didn’t occur to me until we got in the car to head for the airport before dawn yesterday that it was Friday the 13th.  I mentally steeled myself for the worst, or at least another missing rent car.

While my superstitiousness is minor and mostly confined to sports, it wasn’t lost on me once I glanced at our boarding passes that we were assigned to sit in Row 13.

But the flight was great.  The baggage claim was quick.  The rental car was ready, and so was our room.  The weather couldn’t have been better, and lunch at Old Pueblo Cafe had us wishing there were more Mom & Pop’s like it in Dallas.

The only bad luck we really had yesterday — and I don’t minimize the terror of the situation — was when the Litchfield Park Spring Art & Culinary Festival forced a detour from our hotel as we headed to dinner, resulting not only in the negotiation of a longer stretch of Bell Road than we’d intended, but also — I know, I know — a confrontation with the absolute worst intersection of two insanity-inducing roadways in the history of ever.

Our path to dinner went through the intersection of Bell Road and Grand Avenue. 

(Callback to my March 13, 2007 report:

Like Icarus ignoring sound heliological principles, like Barry Switzer defiantly relying on “Load Left,” like Brad Lidge giving Albert Pujols something to hit, I have nobody to blame but myself. 
I knew from years of experience that there was exactly one choice not to make, and I summoned up every ounce of hubris I could, and made that one choice anyway.
I chose Grand Avenue.  Taunted it.

And naturally, having taken on Bell and Grand during Friday afternoon rush hour yesterday with eyes wide open, we accepted our obvious punishment with humble resignation: on top of everything else bad that the intersection promises, we were sitting through our second or third red light cycle when, as if to mock the boldness of our stupidity and make sure we didn’t skate through Friday the 13th unscathed, the crossing arms descended so that we’d have box seats to the passing of a freight train.  A very long freight train.

But we survived the ordeal, partly because we knew that on the other side of it was dinner with a friend of ours at the greatness that is NYPD Pizza.  And when they brought out those monster ice cream sundaes for Erica and Max at the end of dinner, prompting the biggest natural smiles you’ve ever seen, 20 minutes before they’d fall asleep on the ride back to the hotel (with no Bell and no Grand and no train reengaged), we knew we’d managed a pretty good day, despite its thirteenness.

But you didn’t open this email to read about any of that.  I’m guessing what happened between morning and night is more of interest.

We caught the last two-thirds of the Rangers-Royals split-squad game, a fairly uneventful game.  I came away with these observations:

1. I’d fear Warner Madrigal if the Angels figured out how to keep him.  He’s learning fast.

2. Joaquin Arias is going to play in playoff games before his career is done, and help someone win.  I didn’t see his arm tested (he played second base yesterday, only having to make a couple routine throws) and so I’m not ready to say he’s a big leaguer in April, but he’s got that something extra that you can’t teach.

3. Frank Catalanotto still has some life in his bat.  He has no role here, but he can still hit big league pitching.

4. A.J. Preller will be wearing The Uniform — black golf shirt, khaki pants, fisherman’s hat — 40 years from now when he’s semi-retired into a role scouting amateur players in Bolivia.

5. I love watching Justin Smoak play defense.  He made a play in the seventh that Chris Davis would have made, that Max Ramirez would have made, that Ben Broussard or Mike Lamb or Dan Peltier would have made.  It wasn’t an unusually difficult play.  It’s just the way he made it, the smoothness of the actions.  He’s good at baseball.

6. It slipped my mind as I was writing up my 32 Things on Wednesday, but I absolutely should have included righthander Carlos Melo, half of the package Texas received from Detroit for Gerald Laird.  Melo, who turned 18 two weeks ago, is a top 10 must-see for me this week.  Maybe top five.

7. The afternoon workouts on the back fields were largely held by Arizona State and Kansas, as they prepared to play in Surprise Stadium after Texas and Kansas City finished.  This morning there’s a big league intrasquad game on the back fields, and I suspect full minor league workouts as well, so I’ll have considerably more Rangers action to take in and share with you tomorrow.

Texas reportedly offered Chad Cordero more money than Seattle did, but the Mariners padded their one-year, minor league contract offer with a legitimate shot at the closer’s job once he’s physically ready, expected to be in mid-May.

Speaking of Seattle, if you have any unwanted cash lying around, consider sending it to the Washington Nationals, who own the first pick in the 2009 draft, just ahead of the Mariners.  San Diego State (and Scott Boras asset) Stephen Strasburg, who has been described recently as perhaps the best college pitching prospect ever, has pitched 27.1 innings this season.  He has issued five walks.  And struck out 59.

Good news on the report that five unidentified Rangers minor leaguers are among the 42 players from the Dominican Republic whose ages are being investigated by Major League Baseball.  Evan Grant reports that none of the five are among Baseball America’s top 30 Rangers prospects.  That means these players are not among those under investigation: Neftali Feliz, Engel Beltre, Julio Borbon, Jose Vallejo, Kennil Gomez, or Arias (or Elvis Andrus, Martin Perez, Max Ramirez, Wilfredo Boscan, Wilmer Font, Guillermo Moscoso, or Omar Poveda, who are Venezuelan).  Grant adds that one of the five should be in camp on Monday, and the other four could be only briefly delayed.

John Sickels counts Rangers first base prospect Clark Murphy as a sleeper/breakout candidate for 2009.  Yep.

New Ryan Tatusko “Back Field Diaries” entry tonight.

And more baseball from me tomorrow.

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