Fort Myers, March 13– Here I am on a no-expense paid trip to Florida to file a report on a Grapefruit League game between the Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals. The Twins somehow confused me for a journalist and gave me press credentials for a game that might have been a World Series rematch last year if Francisco Liriano’s left elbow ligament hadn’t shredded to pieces last season. It was as exciting a match-up as one could hope for in Spring Training. The Twins alone boast the 2006 American League MVP, Batting Champion, and Cy Young Winner in Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Johan Santana– all of whom happened to be starting the game. Adding the Cards’ Albert Pujols to the mix meant that I had the chance to watch a quartet of baseball’s elite players. When was the last time you got to watch four premier talents all in the absolute prime of their careers? Okay, Wild Hogs starring John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, Tim Allen, and William H. Macy, but when else?
Graced with locker room and field access, I milled around the field as the Cardinals warmed up and the Twins were locked in a closed-door clubhouse meeting with Donald Fehr, the Executive Director of the MLB Player’s Association. I saw ESPN’s Peter Gammons and Tim Kurkjian talk to Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa while he was hitting grounders around the infield. I thought about sliding into that conversation, but I decided that might be a bit awkward. Instead, I hung back and watched Albert Pujols put on a show in batting practice. He hit five home runs in eight swings. So Taguchi, the Cards fourth outfielder and postseason hero, came up next and sprayed some soft liners around the infield. Hitting after Pujols in batting practice must be driving Taguchi closer and closer to using Human Growth Hormone every day.
Before the game started, my friend Bobby and I snagged empty seats ten rows behind home plate amidst an eclectic group of senior citizens and hung-over Spring Breakers. We had a great view of two fantastic showdowns between baseball’s best pitcher and hitter when Santana faced Pujols. Santana got the better of both match-ups, twice fooling Pujols into making outs on defensive swings. In the first inning, Pujols sent a sky-high pop-out to shallow center. Three innings later, Santana got the 2005 National League MVP to roll his wrists on a devastating changeup that forced a weak groundout to third base. Santana’s changeup might be the single most effective pitch in the Major Leagues. Because the pitch is set up by his mid-nineties fastball, it seems to float to the plate in slow motion. The crafty southpaw usually pinpoints his change-up on the outside corner.
Morneau provided the most impressive at-bat of the game in the bottom of the fourth inning when he faced journeyman Kip Wells. He barely missed home runs down each foul line before smoking a line-drive single to center. The left-handed Morneau ripped his first near-miss deep the opposite way on a 1-1 fastball, but it hooked a few feet in front of the foul pole. He turned on the very next pitch and drove it down the right field line, missing a homerun as narrowly as he did on the third pitch of the at bat. After taking a few pitches, he laced a low line-drive single to center. I came into the game thinking Morneau was an overrated slugger who might not have even been the most valuable player on his own team last year, but I was extremely impressed with his approach and balance. He hits to the entire field with tremendous power and has a great chance of equaling or surpassing his 34 homeruns and .321 batting average mark from last season.
The game provided another Spring Training staple: a potential feel-good comeback story. In this case, the contender is Rick Ankiel, the former Cardinals pitching phenom who suffered a bizarre psychological breakdown against the Braves and Mets in the 2000 playoffs. Ankiel threw seven wild pitches in two playoff starts and permanently lost his ability to throw strikes. Now he’s ditched his trademark knee-high striped socks and is trying to make a comeback as a Major League outfielder. Ankiel played the entire game in left field for the Cardinals, going 1-3 and flashing both his exciting tools and immaturity as a position player. He has a quick, level swing and a cannon arm in the outfield. In the top of the sixth, he ripped a double off the right field wall. Later on, he nearly threw out Jeff Cirillo at the plate with a no-bounce throw from deep left that drew a collective “wow” from everyone in the stadium. However, in his other two at-bats, Ankiel chased bad pitches early in the count and popped out both times. He also missed two cutoff men after uncorking a wild throw to third in the eighth inning. The Cardinals reassigned Ankiel to Triple-A last Monday, but he’s still only 27 years old. If he builds on the 21 homeruns he hit in the low minors in 2005 and recovers well from the knee injury that forced him to miss last season, he could very well be called up by midseason to play a role in a shaky Cardinals outfield that’s begging for upgrades around Jim Edmonds.
The game was sweet. The Twins gave me a free ticket and I got to walk around the field and clubhouse. I shook Joe Mauer’s hand, but he walked away when I asked him if he was upset that Justin Morneau won the MVP even though Morneau had a lower VORP than he did. That was a bummer, but I balanced the rejection by lying to a group of old ladies who asked me why I was scribbling notes and carrying around a copy of the 602-page Baseball Prospectus 2007. Wearing my White Sox hat in a sea of Cardinals and Twins apparel, I told the Golden Girls that I was a scout for Chicago. I think they actually believed me.