February 2011

Tales from Exit 138: Three Players; Three Different Perspectives

Tales from Exit 138: Baseball as a Surreality

At times, I have referred to baseball as a type of pseudo-reality. But there are certain special moments where it is more of a surreality than anything else. Sometimes my experiences seem unreal to me because they are completely unexpected. Although I certainly have a memory for certain plays, specific pitching performances, and first major-league hits that I like to bring up when I’m talking with a player; it seems that my fondest memories of the game come from my experiences off the field.

Monday was my third trip to Fort Myers in a week, and when I came to think about it, three trips to Fort Myers already equals half my total of last year. I think that I am especially eager to spend as much time as possible there this year because it is my last spring in which I have the liberty to go up almost whenever I want. The funny part is that games haven’t even started yet; and even though 90% of the workouts is simply watching drills, I really don’t mind. I think that I developed even more of an appreciation for these meticulous drills after having attended the Fall Instructional League

The last two times I was at the complex, I took a mental note on where the best places were to stand for picture opportunities (these mental notes were taken while I was standing in what was probably the most inconvenient place possible). I stationed myself close to where most of the position players walk out to stretch. My observations paid off as I was able to snag what I like to call “good morning pictures” with Nate Spears, Andrew Miller, and Michael Bowden.
Nate Spears
Andrew Miller
Michael Bowden 2I will always have a specific affinity towards Michael Bowden because he was my first interview, and that interview really inspired everything I do today.

As I was doing my rounds and watching the early morning drills, I was approached by Colin, a camera man for WEEI. He asked if I wrote a blog about the Red Sox, and the reason why he recognized me is because every time he googles a Red Sox prospect, my blog comes up. We talked for a bit, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing an interview for WEEI later. It is always a surreal experience to be recognized from my blog or twitter.

One of the drills I enjoyed watching the most was the situational run down drills. A runner would be placed at one of the bases, and the ball would be hit to a random spot in the infield, and everyone had to adjust accordingly. I was happy to see Junichi Tazawa participating after having Tommy John surgery nearly a year ago.
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Then, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Peter Gammons. Mr. Gammons follows me on twitter, so I introduced myself as “@redsoxgirl46” before introducing myself as Elizabeth. I actually find it quite amusing that some people recognize me more by my twitter name than my actual name, and I think that this is indicative of the changing times. A similar experience happened when I met Mike Antonellis, the radio broadcaster for the Sea Dogs, when I was working in Portland. Mr. Cameron introduced me as Elizabeth, which I clarified as “redsoxgirl46 from Twitter,” and Mike was immediately familiar.

Mr. Gammons and I actually talked a lot about the changing industry and how everything is moving towards the online medium. We also talked about the importance of networking in this day and age. It was definitely interesting to hear his perspective on this shift because he has been a pioneer in the sports writing industry. I really appreciated his taking the time to talk to me.

Nearly all of the pitchers went in earlier than usual today (around 10:30), but many of the position players took extended batting practice until nearly 12:30. While this was going on, I was interviewed by Robert Bradford of WEEI about what I enjoy about spring training and my blog and its goals. It was kind of surreal being interviewed out of the blue like that, but now that I think about it, I guess that’s how the players feel when I approach them. The interview will be up sometime next week.

The last batting practice drill of the day was a situational hitting drill, which I had never seen before. Before my interview with Anthony Rizzo this summer, I hadn’t really realized that guys try to hit to certain areas of the ballpark depending on where the runners are. When there was a runner on third, it was incredible for me to see the hitter try to get under the ball a little bit more to induce a sacrifice fly.
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Lars Anderson 2
After they finished, Josh Reddick and Lars Anderson were kind enough to stop to take pictures with me. I was able to congratulate Anderson on his first major-league hit, which came on a 94-mph fastball off of Matt Garza.

After that, the workout was essentially done, so my dad and I headed back to the stadium for autographs (and by that I mean pictures) with some of the minor league players. We were on the last bus. Kyle Weiland, Daniel Nava, Tim Federowciz, Luis Exposito, and Che-Hsuan Lin were signing. I had some special stuff to show Weiland and Nava. For Weiland, I had my score sheet from the game where he struck out eight batters and retired 20 straight, and for Nava, I had my notes from his Double-A debut. 

The line moved at a glacially slow pa
ce, but it was worth the wait. I always assume that players won’t remember me, but there are few things in this world that make me happier when they stop me mid-explanation of who I am, implying that they remember me.
Kyle Weiland 2
It was great to see Weiland again and just tell him that I was really looking forward to his season. He is working on adding a cutter (or bringing it back from his college days) to his already fabulous arsenal of a fastball, changeup, and slider. I offered him the scorecard for sentimental value, but he said that the Sea Dogs keep books and books of statistics. He said that he really appreciated it though.
Daniel Nava
I could tell that Daniel Nava was really into my game notes once he finally figured out what it was, and read through them a bit.
Tim Federowicz
It was great to meet Tim Federowicz, though we didn’t get a chance to chat for long. I asked him how to pronounce his last name for future reference, but I think that will always be a name that I will have my own pronunciation for.
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It was great to see Luis Expostio again. I already have his signature so I just shook his hand. We were being rushed along so I only got to shake Che-Hsuan Lin’s hand, and I proceeded to drop some of my papers all over the place.

Something that I especially enjoy is meeting and talking to people who
read my blog (which doesn’t happen that often). This spring I have had the pleasure of meeting Helen,
Melissa, and her son Christopher. And talking to them has really shown
me baseball’s perpetual ability to foster connections and unite people. 

One of the things that I love about spring training is that it always reminds me why I write, and this has been especially important this year with all of the discouraging college news. It has made me realize that I could not care less about their opinions about me. I’ll take Lars Anderson asking “How’s your blog?” or a recognition from Kyle Weiland or a “your blog comes up every time I google a prospect” over a college acceptance letter any day of the week. I didn’t start this blog so I could put it on my college application; I started this blog because I love baseball.

I probably won’t get up to anymore major league squad workouts, but I am very excited to start covering the minor league workouts as soon as next weekend.    

Tales from Exit 138: Fog on the Barrow Downs

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Another 5:30 am wake up call and on a Saturday morning no less. But it was a small price to pay to go watch the first official full-squad workout. Since it was a Saturday, I went with my dad, and we were on the road by 6. We left so early that there was still some fog on the sides of the alley, and we were able to watch the sun rise behind us and the moon fade in front of us.

I had all of the essentials packed, which includes my big notebook which I have been using since my first Portland Sea Dogs game in 2009 against the Altoona Curve. It was Daniel Nava’s Double-A debut, Luis Exposito DH’d, Adam Mills pitched, and Ryan Kalish had reached base in 18 straight games–not to mention the fact that he hit a two-run homer. Normally my notebook is full of all the papers I accumulated over the summer: scorecards, game notes, etc, but I had put that in a file so I wouldn’t get confused between those and my spring training papers.

For the pitchers and catchers workout, I had made a spread sheet full of statistics for all of the minor league players that I intend on scouting this spring. I also had a document with their mugshots because I memorize statistics, not faces. This time, I brought a list of players that the website “Sox Prospects” wants me to get pictures of. Hardly any of the minor league players on my list were present, but they will be by this time next week.

I was going to bring a scooter this time so that I would be more evenly matched with the complex, but I decided not to since I would be carrying my dad’s fancy camera around. This ended up being good intuition because I finally noticed this sign with some rules on it right before I walked into the complex. Among them was “No skateboarding.”

Initially, I had planned on attempting to kill two birds with one stone: I wanted to check out the minor league workout at the stadium, and then check out the normal one at the Player’s Development Complex. But when I asked the security guards if the minor league players were at the stadium, they did not seem to know what I was talking about. I further investigated this dilemma when I got home, and multiple twitter accounts have corroborated my theory that they had the weekend off.
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We arrived at the complex no later than 8:30, but I started to become suspicious around 9:15 when not even the catchers had emerged from the clubhouse. But it was nice to simply walk around the complex in the early morning and feel the wet grass between my toes. It smelled like baseball. Luis Tiant walked out to one of the fields about a half an hour before the players came out, and Jim Rice went up to the NESN booth with Peter Gammons & co.
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When the players finally did come out, I was on the wrong side of things. Not that it really mattered much, anyway, as only Lars Anderson stopped to sign on the way out. The catchers did pass where I was standing though.

Again, it was not the best day for autographs and pictures with players because it was the first full squad workout and everyone was figuring out the rotation. While I certainly do enjoy getting pictures with the players, that’s not the reason why I go: I go because I find the drills fascinating.

The players were split up by position, and it even seemed like the everyday players were kept together. I mainly watched the pitching and infield drills. What fascinates me is that these are essentially the same drills that you do in little league, high school, and college. The level of difficulty my change, but the game itself always stays the same.

I think that we take advantage of how good these players really are because they make everything look so easy: whether it is completing a 6-4-3 double play or something as simple as catching a fly ball, it’s not as easy as it seems.
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The infield drill that I enjoyed the most was the slow roller one. Lars Anderson was at first base, and Jose Iglesias, Yamaico Navarro, and Nate Spears had to charge the ball and get it over to first.
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Then I watched batting practice for a while. I completely ignored the regulars like Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez taking batting practice and instead focused on Josh Reddick, Daniel Nava, Lars Anderson, Yamaico Navarro, and Jose Iglesias taking batting practice.

At one point I was between two fields, hoping to catch players between them, and I said hello to Darnell McDonald as he walked by. I was completely shocked that he remembered me from Tampa. It was a quick “Oh yeah, I remember you,” but it was still a cool moment.

I anticipated the players going back in around 12, so I intended on getting a spot around 11:30. Little did I know that the players were going in around 11:30 instead, so I ended up in a pretty poor spot. After a while, a cleanly-shaven Kevin Youkilis came over and signed for nearly everybody down the line, and I was nearly smushed on my way out.
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I was on my way out of the complex when I noticed Jose Iglesias getting his stuff together. A few people were going over for autographs, but by no means was it a mob-scene, so I decided to go over and ask for a picture.
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There was, however, a rather large mob of people on my way out, and Mike Cameron was signing autographs for everyone. It was kind of a weird angle for a picture, but he quickly posed for one nonetheless.

So as you can see, the whole getting-pictures-with-players proces
s at the workouts is kind of random, and it has a lot to do with luck. I was able to gauge, however, where they go between drills, so I will do my best to position myself wisely when I go up again tomorrow (Monday). It’s an open house tomorrow, so regardless of whether or not I get anything done at the complex, there will definitely be autograph opportunities (which I will turn into photo opportunities). There are activities all day on the field for little kids, and let’s get real: we all know that the slime making booth at first base is the real reason why I’m going. 

I did have my very expired press pass with me on Saturday, but I did not put it to any use. I had intended to try and attend a press conference at the end, but they all seemed to be held at the beginning. Plus the security guards remembered me despite my attempted disguise of straight hair.  Honestly, I should just try some these-are-not-the-droids-you’re-looking-for Jedi mind tricks, and see how far I can get.

More stories to come from the Fort tomorrow!

Tales from Exit 138: First Official Pitchers & Catchers Workout

Mark Twain once said, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” (This quote was brought to my attention by Will of The Smiler’s Dugout).

Despite the fact that I think Mark Twain is highly overrated, I decided to take his advice on Tuesday because it worked in my favor. Don’t get me wrong: I think that schooling is fundamental; but at the same time, school does not teach you some of the most important lessons of life–the things you learn in the real world: how to love, how to forgive, how to maintain a friendship, etc. Nor does it teach you how to pursue a passion. Passion can’t be taught: it is something that strikes when we least expect it to. School can only take you so far, and I think the rest has a lot to do with passion.

This is why I skipped school on Tuesday and went to Fort Myers to see the first official workout for pitchers and catchers. Baseball is my education, and it actually has taught me a lot. I did not let my schooling interfere with my education.

I woke up at 5:30 am, and was on the road a little after 6, with the intention of arriving around 8:30. The last time I left my house this early was for the Fall Instructional League. I don’t even think I have left for class that early.

It was actually my first time driving up to Fort Myers by myself. It’s not a hard drive, but it is a bit lengthy: especially the mundane stretch of Alligator Alley. I’ve made the drive so many times, that I could probably make it with my eyes closed. Even though I did not have anyone to keep me company, I kept myself entertained by rocking out to Journey on the way up. And, of course, I kept Tolkien’s advice in the back of my head:

“It’s a dangerous business: going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

I arrived at the stadium around 8:15, and arrived at the complex via shuttle bus before 8:30. I forget how much I love baseball during the off season, but it certainly did not take me long to remember. I think that a fan’s love for the game is almost like muscle memory: “when a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for the task, allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.” And even if we are away from the game for a while, it does not take long to pick it back up.
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The catchers were the first group to come out just after 9. Among them, of course, were Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They were going through a series of drills, and one of the things I really noticed was how much of a leader Saltalamacchia has become. He was the one leading all of the guys from station to station.

This is not to say that Jason Varitek is not the leader he used to be. But I think that for the spring, he is letting Saltalamacchia take the reigns. The catching situation is still a little bit vague, but I think that Saltalamacchia and Varitek will split responsibilities a little more evenly than Varitek and Martinez did, but I think that Saltalamacchia will be the primary catcher. That being said, this is probably why Salty is acting as the leader out there. I was really glad to see that because catchers are the guys who control the game, and Saltalamacchia looks like he is becoming really comfortable with his new team.
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Since it was not a full-squad workout (ie. with the position players too), the pitchers were split up into small groups of five and split up around the fields. That being said. the minor league complex has an unfair advantage over me: there are five fields and one of me. It was nearly impossible to keep tabs on everyone. Kyle Weiland and Michael Bowden were on Field 5, while Alex Wilson was on Field 4, while Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront are on Field 3. I kept losing people (I lost the catchers completely at one point).

I would station myself diligently between fields hoping to catch guys between rotations, but the second I left to go watch Luis Exposito hit in the cages, the pitchers switched stations. I just couldn’t win. But it’s not like the players were signing/able to stop and take pictures, anyway. It was the first day, so like me, they were figuring things out too. I’m sure that they will sign and stop for pictures more once they are used to the whole atmosphere.

However, I am resolved to defeat the complex’s unfair advantage over me. I began to weigh my options, and since neither cloning myself nor time travel is a feasible option, I think I’m going to bring a scooter next time.

There were a lot of position players at camp too: Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava, Lars Anderson, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Iglesias, and Josh Reddick were just a few of the many guys taking batting practice and shagging balls in the outfield.
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Lars stopped to sign for some people before he went into the clubhouse, so I was able to say hello. He recognized me immediately and asked how my blog was, and we briefly talked about our respective off seasons.

I wanted to say hello to Michael Bowden and Kyle Weiland, but I wasn’t able to get a good spot. I was only able to say hello as they were walking in to the clubhouse, but I’m pretty sure they recognized me.

It seemed like everything was done for the day, and I was beginning to think that hope was lost for a picture. But after Jarrod Saltalamacchia finished an interview, he came over and signed down the line for every last person, and he was even nice enough to pose for a quick picture with me.
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Hideki Okajima, whose situation on the roster is uncertain, also signed for a lot of people. What really surprised me, though, was that Jason Varitek was actually signing because an autograph from him is hard to come by. There was a huge crowd of people, and I thought any attempt would be futile, but patience was indeed a virtue.

He was not the happiest of guys when I got up there, though. People wanted multiple things signed, and he was getting frustrated with it. He said, “You guys have come back two or three times, and it’s not fair to the other fans. I don’t appreciate it.” It did not surprise me that Jason Varitek was promoting fairness–just as any good captain should.

This whole process was 90% standing around doing nothing/watching drills and 10% getting pictures, autographs, etc. But it’s not like time was completely wasted during that 90%. Brian MacPherson, the writer that I shadowed when I was in Pawtucket, was around, so I got to catch up with him,
and he was encouraging despite the not-so-good college news.

So it was not the best day for photos and small conversations with players, but it was a great day nonetheless just because baseball is back. Nearly all of my senses were invigorated: watching the drills, smelling the grass and the dirt, the sound of the glove snapping over the ball, and holding a baseball–which fits perfectly in the palm. I have no doubt that I will have more luck as the spring goes on.

My next pilgrimage will be Saturday: the first full-squad workout. I was serious about bringing a scooter. I’m also planning on wearing an old press pass backwards and seeing how much access I can get. Let’s see how far audacity can take me this year.

Spring Training: My Coming of Age

There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is obviously that spring training–in its most basic form–is here. The bad news is that UNC Chapel Hill was not my pitch either. Another strike, but I am neither out nor in the hole: for I have been accepted into both Marquette and the University of Maryland. I have not been lucky when it comes to the crapshoot that we call the college admissions process, but hard as it has been, I have done my best to keep some degree of faith. As J.R.R. Tolkien says, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” My road has darkened considerably, but I’m hoping that I’ll end up in the right place. Having two strikes is certainly a precarious and uncomfortable position to be in, but it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Tolkien also says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” No matter where I end up going to school, I figure as long as I take advantage of my resources and spend my time wisely, I will still achieve my goals.

Baseball is a bizarre game, and college admissions is a bizarre process. You can look at and measure statistics, but you can never truly predict the end. You can’t try to figure out what the next pitch is going to be. Baseball players have to adapt. Sometimes a pitcher’s curveball isn’t working, so they have to make an adjustment. Similarly, I’m adapting to what is being thrown at me.

Let’s focus on the good news, though: baseball officially returns today. Baseball fans are crazy because not only do we get excited over games that don’t even count, but we also get excited over workouts. For the rest of February, we will get excited over essential, but otherwise monotonous fundamental drills, batting practice, and bullpen sessions.

Spring Training has been a sort of coming-of-age process for me. My intentions seem to change ever year. I’m pretty sure my first spring training game ever was a Red Sox vs Marlins game at Roger Dean Stadium in 2005. I had not yet developed a passion for minor league baseball, so I was only looking forward to seeing the big-league stars. That being said, I was really disappointed when, after a two hour rain delay, I had no idea who was in the lineup.

Then spring training became more about getting autographs. I would always get to games early to watch batting practice, but then I started to realize that I could spend that time getting autographs. And then I became more interested in the minor league players than the regulars. And I think that this interest actually stemmed from my pursuit of autographs.

Once you begin to collect autographs, you realize that it’s an art–especially during spring training when the jersey numbers are between the 50s-90s, and there are new ones everyday. It was always necessary to have a roster at hand to match the number with the name. The guys that were the best about signing were the non-roster invitees. Spring training for them is obviously quite a different experience than it is for the regulars: it is their chance to make an impression. Not only do they go above and beyond on the field, but also off the field. I really appreciated as small of a gesture as a signature, and it made me want to know more. I got especially excited when they came up to bat because they had signed my ball.

The non-roster invitees may not have secured a spot on the 25-man roster, but they had certainly succeeded in making a lasting impression. I wanted to continue to follow them in the minor leagues, so I started my project program. Essentially, if a player impressed me during the spring, he became my project: a guy whom I thought could have an impact on the club come September or injury.

And what if I had the opportunity to talk to one of my projects? I never anticipated that opportunity, but in the summer of 2009, when I was in Pawtucket, I spent an entire baseball game talking to my favorite pitching project, Michael Bowden. That conversation literally changed my life. If Bowden had not been so friendly and willing to talk to me, I don’t think I would have the confidence that I have today in approaching other players. I learned more about the game in those three hours with him than I had learned in a whole lifetime of watching the game. He literally changed the way I watched the game.

Again, what may have seemed like a small gesture to him changed everything for me. I became even more enthralled with minor league baseball than I already was. I took more interest in the draft, and especially the lower levels of baseball.

Last year during spring training, I decided to go to the minor league complex instead of going to watch the regulars take batting practice before the game. I realized that I had been missing something. Sure, these games are even less relevant than the major league ones are, but there was still something that absolutely enthralled me. I would not have left had I not had tickets for the major league game. The ability to simply walk and talk with players after their workouts was thrilling for me because I could ask whatever I wanted. So that experience not only inspired me to seek opportunities with the Pawtucket Red Sox and Portland Sea Dogs this past summer, but also inspired me to approach spring training from a completely different angle this year.

This year, I have decided that I do not want to go to any major league spring training games at City of Palms Park. I am resolved to attend exclusively minor league spring training games at the player’s development complex. I plan on making my first pilgramage tomorrow: for the first official workouts for pitchers and catchers that is open to the public.

I want to share with you a few of the minor league prospects I plan on focusing on this spring that will not be in big league camp:  Alex Hassan, Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Bryce Brentz, Chris Hernandez, David Renfroe, Derrik Gibson, Drake Britton, Felix Sanchez, Garin Cecchini, Jason Garcia, Kolbrin Vitek, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Lucas Leblanc, Madison Younginer, Pete Hissey, Ryan Westmoreland, Sean Coyle, Swen Huijer, and Will Middlebrooks.

Of course, I can’t forget about the guys who are lucky enough to be in major league camp. I know they will be working hard to leave an impression. From the 40-man roster, I suggest you keep an eye out for Michael Bowden, Felix Doubront, Stolmy Pimentel, Luis Exposito, Lars Anderson, Jose Iglesias, Yamaico Navarro, Oscar Tejeda, Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Josh Reddick.

From the non-roster invitees, I suggest keeping an eye on all of them. The ones I am already familiar with are Andrew Miller, Jason Rice, Kyle Weiland, Alex Wilson, Tim Federowicz, Ryan Lavarnway, Nate Spears, and Che-Hsuan Lin.

Anthony Ranaudo is a guy whom I am really excited about because his 2009 campaign at LSU was incredible. He is a guy that is getting a lot of hype right now, but I don’t think that we should set our expectations too high simply because this will be his first year in professional ball. Same mentality applies for Brandon Jacobs. 

Drake Britton is certainly a name to start getting familiar with. He had a fantastic campaign in Greenville last year (Single-A affiliate). Again, we should not set the bar too high because he will be advancing to another level. It is possible that he could go straight to Portland, but I would like to see him dominate Salem for at least a bit because after speaking with Kyle Weiland this past summer, it seems very hard for a pitcher to skip levels.

I think Madison Younginer is going to break onto a lot of people’s radars this season. He posted pretty decent numbers for his first professional season in Lowell (shortseason, Single-A affiliate), and I think he will continue to adjust
this season. Drake Britton won the Sox Prospects Breakout Player of the Year Award last year, and I predict that either Younginer or Ranaudo will win it this year.

Garin Cecchini, Sean Coyle, and Will Middlebrooks are the infielders that I look forward the most to covering this spring.

I think that this will be Kyle Weiland’s season to break onto everyone’s radar. When I was in Portland, not only did I get to interview him, but I also got to cover one of his starts, and it was one of the best pitching performances I have ever seen. I’d like to see him dominate in Portland a little bit more, get promoted to Pawtucket, do some work there, and then I hope to see him up in September.

This spring, I plan on taking Tolkein’s advice. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” I have decided to spend my time pursuing minor league spring training, and I hope that this will be my best spring training yet. And I hope especially that those of you that read this blog can live vicariously through my experiences. If you have any specific requests for what you would like me to cover during the spring–whether it be particular questions for particular players–please let me know by either leaving a comment below or e-mailing me.

And for real time updates while I’m at the complex with quotes, pictures, and more, please follow me on Twitter

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