Surprise report, v.7.
Inspired all week by a four-year-old and an eight-year-old, on Thursday I was blown away by two 16-year-olds.
My day at the complex ended with the top of the fourth inning in the Low A game pitting Texas against the White Sox. After watching a riveting Wilmer Font performance and disappointing Kyle Ocampo and Wilfredo Boscan efforts, the stage was set for the debut of 16-year-old righthander Richard Alvarez, the prize of the Rangers’ 2008 Latin American haul.
Font had been brilliant, sitting at 95-96 and flashing a better change than I’d ever seen from him, freezing the second and third Chicago hitters he faced early in the count by pulling the string, and setting the side down in order on a three-foot dribbler, a called third strike, and a lazy fly to left. Ocampo and Boscan struggled badly in the second, though, giving up nine runs between them and none cheaply. Five runs scored on Boscan’s watch in one-third of an inning (though not all of them went on his ledger); for the sake of comparison, in his breakthrough 2008 season, Boscan permitted more than four runs one time in 15 appearances.
The White Sox squad was more than locked in against Ocampo and Boscan, two righthanders who went a combined 12-2, 3.19 last season, so when the 16-year-old righty who had never pitched a professional inning at any level trotted in to take the ball in the third, I was eager to see what he had, but not terribly optimistic.
Alvarez was working in the mid- to upper-80s, but — not unlike Boscan when he arrived in the organization — he’s mechanically advanced, free and easy with command of everything. Chicago’s leadoff hitter, 23-year-old Justin Greene, swung through a filthy change that Alvarez buried in the dirt for strike three. Jordan Cheatham, 21, flailed at a first-pitch change, foul-tipped a fastball for strike two, and then fanned on a tight curve that also found dirt, forcing Leonel De Los Santos to fire to first to complete the punchout. Alvarez started 22-year-old Tyler Kuhn off with two straight fastballs out of the zone, but then got Kuhn — a .375/.424/.570 hitter in 2008 — to swing hopelessly ahead of another brilliant change before beating the fourth pitch into the ground for an unassisted putout by first baseman Michael Ortiz.
For a great photo of Alvarez from yesterday’s action — as well as more than 100 other shots from the back fields this week — go here, where Scott Lucas has shared some of the best Rangers photography you’ll find.
Martin Perez unquestionably keyed the Rangers’ 2007 crop out of Latin America. My first look at Alvarez, a fellow Venezuelan, didn’t have me quite as fired up as when I first saw Perez, but it was one of the most eye-opening innings I’ve caught this week, and I can’t wait to see more.
Four hours earlier, it was another 16-year-old kid whose presence lifted everyone’s spirits, in a much more powerful, meaningful way.
You’ve probably read Carson Leslie’s story more than once by now (perhaps here, or here, or here, or here). The sophomore from Dallas’s Covenant School was diagnosed with a malignant medulloblastoma tumor in October 2006, a cancerous mass that developed in his brain and metastasized onto his spinal column. Carson was on the batting practice field Thursday morning, and while the spring in the onetime shortstop’s step and smile on his face were probably borne in part by the thrill of being on the diamond and in uniform, there was also an overriding sense that Carson’s upbeat attitude shows up regularly, regardless of what’s going on around him. His parents Annette and Craig and his brother Craig Jr. marvel as much at his biting sense of humor as his infectious spirit.
Carson went through surgery and a heavy five-month course of radiation and chemotherapy after the 2006 diagnosis, and his scans were clear late in 2007. He was in remission. But the cancer resurfaced in November, and now he awaits an April 7 MRI to see if his current chemotherapy medication has produced the desired results. If it doesn’t, the family will have to consider what’s been described as a “radical remedy” as the next step.
Michael Young and his wife Cristina, who share Major League Baseball’s current Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, met Carson in 2007 through the Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer organization that they’ve been energetically involved with for years. Michael invited Carson to pair up with him that year at the organization’s charity golf tournament, after which he and Kevin Millwood battled each other in the live auction for a painting Carson had made of his favorite player at the time, Derek Jeter. The bidding surpassed $5,000, and Michael and Kevin agreed to pay $5,000 each — if Carson would paint a second one so they could each have one. Deal.
Then Michael quietly took the original to New York, had Jeter sign it, and gave it back to Carson, who now hangs it in his room at home.
Just a few months ago, Carson and Annette ran into Michael and Cristina at the mall, and after an exchange of bear hugs and big smiles, tempered by the news that Carson’s cancer had returned, Michael offered to host the Leslie’s in Surprise for several days.
They were in town yesterday, five weeks into Carson’s current course of chemotherapy. Carson arrived in uniform, as did his 19-year-old brother Craig. Michael refused to have them wait in the dugout and instead took them on the field for warmup long-toss and then behind the cage for batting practice. Bouts of laughter were usually the result of the 16-year-old busting up the man twice his age.
Later in the day, Carson would throw out the first pitch in the Rangers’ 8-5 win over Oakland, caught by his new favorite player, who would start the game as the designated hitter (as Carson served as batboy) and contribute a single, a walk, and a run. (Has Michael unseated Jeter as Carson’s favorite player? With his buddy right next to him, Carson wouldn’t commit: “Michael’s definitely growing on me.”)
While Michael and most of his teammates make a two-and-a-half hour trip to Tucson today, Carson and his family will stay back and mark the first day of spring with a hot air balloon ride. What Carson’s future holds may not be as clear as it is for Richard Alvarez or most other 16-year-old’s, but the energy and tenacity Carson takes between the lines are full of all the vitality you’d want to see out of a young pitcher with unlimited potential.
And the character and mental toughness and determination, the heart and the persistence, that you’ve come to expect out of the leader of your baseball team. The competitiveness, no matter what they say the odds are.
Michael Young, who along with Cristina has done for Carson and so many other kids battling cancer the types of the things that are, at the same time, unbelievable and absolutely believable, said yesterday to MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan: “I see these kids, for the most part, have incredible attitudes and incredible optimism. Because of that, it’s easy for me. Carson is a great kid. I’m not going to pretend I know what he’s going through, but I have huge admiration for the way he conducts himself, and the way he live
s his life.”
I’ve got some other observations to add from Thursday, but not in this morning’s report. We’ll get to those another time. For now, we’ll head back to Dallas, coming off another week that provided the perfect balance of things I couldn’t wait to see and others I could have never expected. I’m ready for some baseball, with a whole new batch of people I’m inspired to root for, most of whom play baseball for a living, others of whom do not.
You can read more from Jamey Newberg at http://www.NewbergReport.com.