Now that I have been back in California for a couple days, I’ve had some time to process and write out some of the observations from my trip down to Dunedin for Spring Training. I was younger than a minor leaguer the last time I saw a Blue Jays spring training game, so it was a completely new experience for me. Here are my main takeaways from four days in Florida:
The Minor League Games at the Mattick Training Center were an Unexpected Highlight
I had been advised by several people to check out some of the minor league games happening at the Mattick Training Center (about a 12 minute drive from Dunedin Stadium), so a brief stop there was scheduled for the first day. I was immediately taken aback at how casual and intimate the environment was. There were two games scheduled for that day, a AAA and a AA game, but Blue Jays prospects from all levels of the system were there. The games were played on fields directly beside each other, so it was easy to pop back and forth.
The number of outside spectators didn’t top more than 30, and once the autograph hounds cleared out, there were even fewer. If you wanted to stand up right behind home plate and lean up against the chain link fence to get a first-hand glance at some of the organization’s top prospects, it was easily accessible.
One thing that really surprised me was the camaraderie and teamwork I noticed amongst the players. They were a self-functioning unit who did everything for each other, including score keeping and helping out with equipment. The players who weren’t playing that day filtered out of the dugout, chatting amongst themselves while cheering on their teammates. For the AAA game, pitcher Conor Fisk was operating the live scoreboard.
The players were very willing to talk to me. I asked several what they thought people would be the most surprised to know about being a minor league player, and the answer was overwhelmingly how little they were paid. Most of them mentioned they had off season jobs; one helped out with his parents’ farm, another worked at his friend’s shop, and a third worked as a private baseball coach.
The more recent draftees I spoke with seemed to be happy to just be making advancements through their levels, while the more advanced prospects had the big show on their mind. “You don’t play baseball to stay in AAA” one of them said.
The whole experience came full circle when I was able to see several of the players I either chatted with or watched play that day partake in the big-league spring games soon after; some starting, some as late inning replacements. Of course being able to watch Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette play first hand was special, but seeing the other prospects play alongside the big-league team was equally memorable as they often brought a tremendous amount of excitement. A very lackluster game at the Tampa Bay Rays had the Blue Jays down 4-0 until the top of the ninth, when Pruitt, Noda, Adams, DJ Davis and Williams put up five runs to take the lead. During the final game in Dunedin, Cantwell, Ngoepe, Fields, Biggio, and Noda loaded the bases twice and put up two runs in the bottom of the seventh, and Fisk pitched a clean inning.
Prior to that day, I didn’t place as much importance in distinguishing between the names I wasn’t familiar with on the line-up cards or in the box score. The conversations I had reminded me of each player’s individual journey, and I found myself extremely proud and excited to be watching them get their chance to impress with the major league team.
The Yankees Ballpark Was in a League of Its Own (No Pun Intended)
I know they are the Evil Empire, and I wanted to dislike Steinbrenner Field, but it was by far the best experience out of all four parks I visited. The park itself was huge, beautiful, and stacked with tributes to both current players and the franchise greats. Their parking lot attendees were volunteers, and the most jovial people around. Even though the park’s capacity was 10,000, it wasn’t too crowded that you couldn’t easily find a seat along the boardwalk surrounding the outfield. The 50/50 raffle at Steinbrenner ended over $17,000 that day - it closed around $1500 at both the Blue Jays and Rays parks.
Dunedin Stadium Will Greatly Benefit from Forthcoming Upgrades
While LECOM Park (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Charlotte Sports Park (Tampa Bay Rays) weren’t nearly as impressive as Steinbrenner Field, they were extremely enjoyable to visit. Both venues also had a boardwalk that circled the outfield, allowing you to walk a full loop around the park. The placement of the elevated walkway allowed for a bird’s eye view above both team’s bullpens, which was incredibly fascinating to watch. It also gave you an opportunity to catch home run balls either during batting practice, or later on during the game. You could also book out different seated sections of the boardwalk for private parties, or just hang out with a drink from the Tiki Bar. Dunedin Stadium offered none of these features, but they are part of the renovation plans. They also had one brick wall with the names of all the former Dunedin Jays who have made the majors, but that was it.
Devon Travis Looked Healthy
Devon Travis appeared to be in high spirits, buzzing around the dugout and greeting every person in there. He was full on sprinting down the base paths and looked very much like himself. Travis has claimed many times throughout the spring that he is feeling good, so it was reassuring to have visual confirmation of that. A full season of a healthy Devon Travis could really make a difference for the Blue Jays this year.
Josh Donaldson Did Not
During the final home game, Josh Donaldson did not warm up on the field with the rest of his team. He eventually surfaced no sooner than 10 minutes prior to the first pitch. During the game, it really looked like he was holding back. At one point, Gift Ngoepe even ran past him to catch a high pop-up in foul territory to the left of third base. Up to that point, Donaldson had been dismissing any reports of real injury, but what I saw in that last game was concerning. Donaldson admitted to Shi Davidi yesterday that he is “getting through some things”, confirming my suspicions.
Curtis Granderson is Delightful to Watch
Attribute it to the relaxed atmosphere of Spring Training if you like, but Curtis Granderson was always smiling. He, along with Kevin Pillar, signed autographs right up until the first pitch at the Yankees game. He is one player I am confident we are going to really love watching this year.
Steve Pearce is Trying Out New Eye Black
I’m sure you may have noticed during the 2017 season that Steve Pearce couldn’t get his liquid eye black to last for more than a couple innings. During the Tampa Bay game, Pearce had black stickers on, then in the last home game in Dunedin, he opted for a traditional blue with the Jays logo on it.
Going into Spring Training, I had read a fair amount about the casual and intimate environment over there so I was expecting much of what I experienced, but the reality superseded my expectations. It seemed like every person we encountered from the stadium workers, to the players, to the people in Yankees gear (yes, really) were happy, relaxed and lovely to chat with. I know venturing down there is a large commitment of both time and money, so I hope this post helps to give you an idea of what you can expect if the opportunity ever presents itself. For what it’s worth, I highly recommend going. There’s nothing quite like it.