Thursday, February 28, 2008

Our Final Day In Viera

Today was the last full day for The African Queen and I at Spring Training for Our Washington Nationals. Friday morning, we will head back to Our Nation's Capital. Ironically, On Sunday Morning, I will be flying right back down to Florida--this time to Orlando (just 40 minutes west of here) for a television news assignment. Maybe, Manny's not done with me just yet.

For two years in a row--Sohna and I have vacationed (some would say worked) here to cover Training Camp in our own unique way--alternative coverage that we hope adds a little spice to everyone's interest in the team. No, we can't cover everything, but finding something different and off beat--is interesting to write about. Our players, for the most part--seem to accept us--and understand the fun we are having. Despite having no press credentials this time around--most everyone stopped to talk with us. So many, that 10 player interviews are still in the can--including some real good ones with Chad Cordero, Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson and Jason Bergmann--among others. If not for the fact we could only remain in Viera for nine days--we might have caught up with the entire team.

But, that's not the point. Watching practice, observing the interactions and the sometimes hi-jinks are enjoyable. Where else can you hear some of the many comments overhead this past week--just by hanging out. The access is good and, for our money, better than watching just another exhibition game with a revolving door of substitutes.

A fact that Sohna and I observed this morning in Our Washington Nationals 15-0 slaughter of Georgetown University. Except for Jesus Flores--all of our starters were removed by the second inning. Garbage time started early which led The African Queen and I to get up and finish off The Kennedy Space Center and Astronaut Hall of Fame. A detour worth the effort.

Although that does not take away from some of the enjoyment we experienced at Space Coast Stadium late this morning. Nothing better than this Cincinnati Fan attempting to get autographs from various members of Our Team that once played for The Reds. First, Aaron Boone kindly signed a ball--after completing his workout--even after this fellow first gave Aaron a pen that did not work. Later, while the game was continuing--this Reds Fan spots Jose Rijo sitting with Our General Manager Jim Bowden on the third level of the stadium. Calling out to Jose--the guy tries six times to loft a baseball up to Rijo--only to miss each and every time. Then, when they finally connect, the Reds Fan misses the baseball after Jose Rijo drops it back down. Later--the fan COMPLAINS that the ball is smudged and is worthless. Sohna and I just shook our heads and laughed at the autograph hound. How pathetic can one be. He was so upset, he ventured outside the ballpark to wait for Jose Rijo--if and when Old Number 27 left the stadium--to obtain another signature. (All True--and just amazing to us)

Jason Bergmann pitched a solid two innings against Georgetown University. Whether The Hoyas were overmatched or not--Our Number 57 looked sharp and was in command during his entire short stint on the mound. Josh Smoker relieved him and looked solid, if unspectacular.

With the score already 4-0 in the first inning and nobody out--Austin Kearns was at the plate--and had two strikes against him. This lone fan from somewhere behind home plate yells out--"Come On Austin!! You don't want to record the first out in this inning. And, a strikeout would be a total embarrassment for you!! Just about everyone in the spare crowd laughed. Even the players on Our Washington Nationals Bench--leaning out on the railings--chuckled.
When Jesus Flores stroked a first inning single down the left field line--Dmitri Young was standing on second. When Our Number 21 lumbered to third base and did not score--Wily Mo Pena and Ray King were ALL OVER HIM!! Whether Dmitri could score or not--was not going to take the fun out of the moment for Pena and King. The hooting and howling from Our Bench was hilarious.

Watching a game at this stadium was a new experience for The African Queen and I. We sat in row three, just behind The Nats First Base Dugout. Not only can you hear and talk to the players--freely--but we were also within "The Dead Zone". Moments after explaining to Sohna how the reaction time for a foul ball heading our way--was virtually non existent--Ronnie Belliard lashes one right over our heads. From that point forward--Sohna paid attention to each and every right handed hitter that stepped to the plate. She didn't want to get hit. Stating: "I thought it was bad enough sitting 25 rows from the field. This is ridiculous."

Other Highlights From Today's Game:

Both First Base Coach Jerry Morales and Third Base Coach Tim Tolman wore protective helmets in the field today. Not sure if this is mandatory now--but no doubt is a reaction to the unfortunate death of Colorado Rockies Minor League First Base Coach--Mike Coolbaugh last summer. You may recall Coolbaugh--manning the first base coaching box in a minor league game--was struck in the temple on a liner he could not avoid--and died.

This young fan was sitting in the very front row, behind Our Washington Nationals Dugout--with his Grandfather. At the beginning of the ballgame, Ryan Zimmerman came over and tossed him his warm up ball. Later, Dmitri Young provided the youngster with another. We couldn't figure who was having a better time--The Child or The Grandfather. The gestures by "Z" and "D" did not go unnoticed by the crowd.

Did you know why Our Washington Nationals scheduled a game today with Georgetown University? As it turns out, The Senior Vice President of Business Affairs for Our Washington Nationals--not only graduated from Georgetown, but played baseball for his alma mater. Today, was the first time in Georgetown's storied history--any of their sports teams had played a professional one. Washington had a date open, and Mr. Mike Shapiro set up the meet.

. Cozy and clean is our best description of Space Coast Stadium. Although, virtually zero shade protection from the sun. Apparently, there is a new Digital Screen above the left field scoreboard. Not large--but can clearly be seen throughout the park. We like the newly painted blue seats and red railings--in Nationals colors. Really, the stadium is so compact--there are no bad seats to watch any game.

And finally, The Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle Memorial Foul Poles are a very nice touch.

Quote Of The Day:

"Felipe Lopez is walking past The African Queen. He is looking right at her. Sohna says: "Hi Flop, how you doing?" Without hesitation, FLop responds: "Great!!, good to see you too." I nearly died laughing. Felipe Lopez not only knows his nickname, but accepts it. Way To Go Flop!! You made my day!! Felipe's nickname has become an endearing name--which we enjoy calling him.

Picture Of The Day:

Congratulations to Jose Rijo--Special Assistant to Our General Manager. On January 27th (Yesterday) his wife, Teddy, gave birth to a baby boy. Jose Alejandro Rijo was born in Central Florida. Both Teddy and The Baby are doing fine. Do notice that Old Number 27's baby was born on the 27th. Mr. Rijo planned this one out perfectly. Sohna's "Diplomat"--as she likes to call Jose--is one very Proud Papa. And, said he would be honored if we announced the good news on The Nats320 blog.

Pete Orr

in 2008, Our Manager Manny Acta will have some solid help off the bench. All due to the signings of some veteran talents, players that can field more than one position. One of those possibilities includes Pete Orr. This Ontario, Canada Native can play 2B, 3B & Shortstop--as well as--the outfield. A perfect combination that gives Our New Number 4 a distinct chance of finding a role with Our Washington Nationals.

Pete was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time on Tuesday Afternoon.

You are one of the most intriguing players in camp, one of the many bench players they are looking to add to this team. How do you feel about this opportunity? (SBF)

“Coming into this camp, in this situation, I can’t try to look at the numbers thing. I can’t try worry about whether I can make the team—stuff like that—you just have got to play. I am looking forward to playing and when I get my chance—get going and noticed early."

Does anyone like Manny (Acta) ever really say anything to you? (SBF)

No—not really. Its hard for Manny and Jim (Bowden) to deal with many of us individually. Look at the numbers here (17 Infielders are in camp). Its hard to talk to players because you can’t really promise anybody anything and you know that everyone is fighting for a spot. It's one of those things were you have to play your way in. When you get the chance, make them notice you. Make them say; 'Hey, he can help.' Once they realize what you can do—then they begin to pay more attention.”

Would you accept a minor league assignment? (SBF)

“If I do start the year in AAA, I will just go with a positive attitude and play very hard to get out of there. The season is long, things happen, people get injured—opportunity usually always arises.”

Knowing how crowded the field is here—did you come here feeling you would get a shot at making the Major League Club? (SBF)

“Kind of, but I think this is a team that is growing up and developing an identity. Many (players) are aware of what's happening here. It would be very nice to be apart of that. But anytime and anyplace, when you go out there with the attitude that you can contribute to winning games—good things will happen. I know I can help this team.”

One thing this team has always lacked the past few seasons is someone like you that can play multiple positions, well—that’s helpful for you in this case? (SBF)

“Yes, but the tough part of that is there are others that can fill that role too here in this camp. I can’t let that get me down. I try to have the most positive attitude I can. I really like the group of guys, the coaching staff and the manager. Hopefully, I can be a part of the team and I will work hard to try to get there.”

I find it interesting that you and two other Braves Teammates are currently all in the same situation here with Washington. Willie Harris and Ryan Langerhans are alongside you fighting for a spot on The Nationals Roster. (SBF)

(Chuckling) “Yep, Langy and I came up all the way through The Braves system. We have been roommates most of our professional careers. Its very nice to be with both of them here again. Ryan is a good friend, and I became very good friends with Willie last season. So, it is nice to have people you know and someone you can talk to, confide in, than not know anybody and be silent—not talking to each other.”

Well you can also talk to The Team President—also from The Braves? (SBF—laughing)

“Yeah, there you go!! Stan Kasten and we have Pat Corrales too, and Johnny Estrada—there seems to be a bunch of us.”

And, a bunch of former Reds. (SBF)

“Yes, that too. But, honestly, I am lucky to know a bunch of guys. It makes everything easier. But, this is a great group of guys. There are no egos here. Everyone is a good person and hopefully I will get to be a part of that.”

You want to wear that Red, White & Gold. (SBF)

“That would be VERY NICE!!” (laughing)

Pete Orr--just one of the many players in camp for Our Washington Nationals looking to find a new home and contribute in 2008. Good attitude and from what he showed on the field--nice speed, very decent fielder.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sohna's Day At Cape Canaveral

As promised--Wednesday, February 27 was Sohna's Day. For 24 Hours--No Baseball (Yeah, I know that's hard to believe--but it happened). The timing was perfect. Not much daytime baseball, nor practice--as Our Washington Nationals were playing their first exhibition game of the season in Jupiter--two hours south.

So, Sohna chose to visit Cape Canaveral and The Kennedy Space Center. In fact, Space Shuttle Endeavour cooperated by already being in place on Launch Pad 39A--for its scheduled March 11th Lift Off to service The International Space Station.

We had a great time. Having worked many shuttle and payload launches over the years, I was able to provide The African Queen with a little more insight--than what the normal tours offer. In fact, we are going back tomorrow afternoon--after the Georgetown University exhibition to finish off some exhibits we could not get to today.

By they way--if you ever do take The Kennedy Space Center Tours--Sohna and I highly recommend purchasing the Commanders Pass. If it costs $38 each for a two day pass--you might as well pay $100 for Two One Year Passes. Including the special discounts provided under this particular program--you basically get the extra $24 back during your visit--in rebates. And, if you plan on attending Spring Training--two years running--a visit to Cape Canaveral Next Year is FREE!! Not a bad deal--if you enjoy The Space Program.

The Presentations at The Kennedy Space Center are really terrific. The Space Shuttle Launch Experience is quite exceptional. In the shuttle mock up--you simulate taking off from The Cape--very realistic.
This particular effort was our favorite picture taken from today.
And finally, check out these Sunset shots from The Cape this evening. Winners Baby.

Baseball and Our Washington Nationals returns tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Few Minutes With Shawn Hill

He has missed a full season and parts of most others. Yet, Shawn Hill is still one of the most talented young pitchers in baseball. The soon to be 27 year old has one of the best sinker balls in the game. Unfortunately, he just can't stay healthy. Having just 25 starts over the past five seasons of Major League Baseball--might get anyone down. While some might even consider hanging up the spikes--Not Shawn Hill. This always engaging and interesting Canadian is one of Our Washington Nationals best starters. Early in this 2008 Spring, Our Number 41 has been lights out in his first few intersquad assignments. Just today, he was untouchable again on the mound. Throwing just 40 pitches per session--Shawn Hill is the talk of camp. And everyone realizes he still has potential.

Of course--after throwing his second batting practice round of the spring--Shawn Hill reported some right elbow tightness this afternoon. This from a man who just four months ago--had surgery on his right elbow (radial nerve) and had his left shoulder repaired after he separated it--in a head first slide last April against The Marlins.

Is it time to worry again?

With that in mind--its appropriate to post up our chat with Hill a few days ago. Over the past year, I have been pleased to speak with him on four separate occasions. Shawn not only has an agreeable personality, but he is thoughtful in his responses. As Sohna likes to say--maybe it's his Commonwealth Country Background From North of The Border. But, whatever the reason--Shawn Hill is fun to talk to.

So, here we go with A Few Minutes With Shawn Hill:

You know what I am going to be starting with? (SBF)

“The injuries, I figure.”

Yeah, you know it. (chuckling—SBF)

“That is everybody’s question.”

As you know, I have always said you are one of the most talented pitchers I have seen, but its never worked out for you. (SBF)

“No, it hasn’t. Me, and Patty (John Patterson) always have something weird kind of happen. The Tommy John (Surgery) I saw that coming. The nerve thing I didn’t see coming. Little things, the shoulder, but I feel good so far.”

I guess you will not be sliding back into third base anytime soon? (SBF—laughing)

“Yeah (joining in the laugh), No more. If I do—it will be FEET FIRST!! (Everyone busting out laughing) Feet first, standing up, even if I get thrown out. I am never doing that again. (The fun continuing). Now, I can’t promise it, but if it happens in a game, it happens, but I am not diving back into the bag.”

Instinct takes over sometimes. (SBF)

“That was the problem. Hanley (Ramirez of The Marlins) was really close to the bag. How can I get back to the bag safely. I have to go around him. I can plow into him or I can go around him. I tried to go around him and it didn’t work out so well (dislocated shoulder).”

How strange was it to have surgery on both shoulders—basically? (SBF)

“Pretty odd. I had to wait two weeks between each surgery. I wanted to have both at the same time—but they (the doctors) said no. Even as it turned out, I was in a sling for both arms for a short period of time. So, they couldn’t take both arms away from me. This one (his left) hurt pretty bad in the shoulder. This one (his right) didn’t hurt a whole lot—it was just more of getting it done. It was a little different (nodding his head up and down).

Were those scars (on his right forearm and elbow) a result of the surgery? (SBF)

“Yeah, and a couple of dots I got—just from the scope. (Showing me all the scars). Yes, these are my souvenirs.”

How tough is it to come back, time after time. (SBF)

“Ah (thinking), to be honest it gets harder AND easier the more it happens. Harder in the sense you keep getting frustrated—how much more I have to go through. Easier in the sense that now since you have dealt with it—you know what to expect and what you go through. The biggest thing is patience—where you realize—take it easy, don’t jump right back into it. Half the time that’s not going to work out too well.”

I was talking with Alex Escobar about his similar problems. (SBF)

“Yes, we are very much alike.”

So, I asked him what keeps you going? And, he responded: I believe I have Major League Talent and I am going to try until I can’t do it anymore. You must feel the same way. (SBF)

“Yeah, if I was 45 (years old), and I was running into this—it would be a different issue. Still, if I can get healthy—either this year or next year, or even five years from now---I am not giving up. Ideally, I have 15 years to go. Granted, that’s reaching high, but if I can even get a fraction of that (playing time)—that would be a pretty good chunk of time.”

You can never give up—when you have the talent. (SBF)

"No. No way. If I was going through this same stuff and I was (playing) in Low A (Ball), that’s one thing. You are being paid pennies and all that. But, I am being paid pretty well and I can’t complain. This is one of those things, were if you can suffer through a couple of setbacks—and get to the point where you are healthy with things going well—it will work out in the long run. So, its just a matter of going through the paces.”

That's good attitude to take. (SBF)

"Well, these are the cards as they were dealt. I have to deal with them."

Changing subjects--We (Sohna and I) have been to the new ballpark a few times. (SBF)

“Yeah, I know, I’ve seen some of your pictures.”

You telling me you read the blog? (SBF)

“Yeah, I do. It’s a long winter. We have plenty of time.”

Are you looking forward to going? (The African Queen)

“Very much. It will be nice to play in the exhibition game (on March 29th) to get a feel for it—and of course the festivities on the 30th. But, RFK (Stadium) was not as bad as everyone made it out to be.”

I agree with that. (SBF)

“Its definitely not a great park, especially for baseball. But, its not as bad as its made out to be. The New Park after looking at all your pictures, the clubhouse—its going to be 10 times nicer. So, its something I am very much looking forward to—more spacious and hopefully more fans out to see us. I think we have a decent hard core following, but its fairly small. Hopefully, we can build on that. Success usually has something to do with that. In a perfect world, a new stadium will bring out 5000 more people per game, maybe 10000 people per game. If you can hook some of them—you can gradually build a fan base year by year. If we can build a larger fans base—the ballpark will be more cozier to play in.”

The New Stadium is open to the outfield. There is the possibility the winds will whip in from Centerfield. How will that affect your sinkerball? (SBF)

“The way I throw that should not really bother me. If it blows in, the wind will not help my sinker at all. I am indifferent to it that way as it keeps the ball in the park. So, that helps me there. If the wind is blowing out—obviously if a guy hits the ball up in the air--that hurts. But, its a lot like (Tim) Wakefield’s Knuckleball—if the wind is blowing in your face, the more movement you have—the wind will accentuate that. So, if I have a little bit of sync and the wind in my face—all of sudden—(the wind) helps a lot. The hitter is trying to hit home runs. But, the baseball is moving more. So, it kind of balances out. The wind has never been a big issue for me. The overall dimensions of the park are smaller, so the park will be more hitter friendly. But, some have said (New Nationals Park) will be a hitter park. Some have said it would be a pitchers park. Others say it will be neutral.”

Wily Mo, Zimmerman and a few others came out to the park late last year. None of them could hit it out of the park. (SBF)

“But, wasn’t the wind blowing in?”

Yes, and they couldn’t hit the baseball out. (SBF)

“That explains it. You have to wonder if the wind was blowing out—whether they would just be launching them. It will probably be around the All-Star Break before you get a true feel of what way the ballpark will play.”

You are looking forward to the upcoming season. (SBF)

"Yes, very much so. If I can stay healthy, and help this team win some games, great. That's all I really want to accomplish right now. Win and Stay Healthy.

After today's solid effort on the mound, I can only hope Shawn Hill is physically fine. Watching his performance on the practice fields this Tuesday was thrilling to watch. Sure, its very early and the hitters are just beginning to get their strokes together, but when any pitcher can handcuff Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and Alex Escobar--you've got some serious pitching talent out there. And, Our Washington Natiionals KNOW, they have a top of the line starter.

Quality Pitching, Dry Cereal & "Agent 99"

Sohna and I showed up fashionably late for practice this morning at Space Coast Stadium--10:15AM. As it turned out, we were right on time. Because--former Major League Players Bobby Bonilla and Phil Bradley were in camp representing The Major League Baseball Players Association. The Union making their yearly visits to each team to go over league business--involving each and every player. John Patterson is Our Washington Nationals Player Representative (And Many Thanks to Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post--for passing along the information).

The big news today, was the sight of Nick Johnson actually taking sliding practice. Although I was working on another angle at that time--its my understanding Our Number 24 had no problems. Of course--even when healthy--Nick Johnson has one of the most awkward slides ever--but the fact that he tested his leg and felt no pain--was a very good sign.

Paul LoDuca was on the field practicing. He did not take Batting Practice, but he did do long toss with Johnny Estrada.

Shawn Hill was nothing short of stellar in the 40 pitch limit live batting practice session he threw. Facing a formidable lineup of Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and Alex Escobar--no one could touch Our Number 41's lively sinker. Swing after swing, stroke after stroke--not much serious contact by Washington's Top Sluggers. Escobar on finally lofting a meager pop just to the outfield grass--raises his arms in Triumph!! "I Own You!!, he yells at Hill. Knowing full well--Shawn was the one in control this afternoon. Was he ever impressive.

Afterwards--Our General Manager Jim Bowden wheeled over on his Segway for a private conversation with Hill. Complimentary remarks that left Shawn telling Bowden--"Thank you sir, for those remarks" (must be the Canadian influence--Shawn always the gentleman). As Hill was leaving the field, briefly we chatted. When I asked him how he felt, he once again proved to be his best critic--"I did OK, (OK--he was lights out!!) but more importantly, I feel healthy and great." You gotta love this guy. He is very impressive, both and on and off the field. (Yeah, I know--Sohna and I have a very nice interview in the can with Shawn Hill--but there is only so much time in the day right now for us.)

"The Chief"--seemingly had the slider working well during his Live Batting Practice Session--facing such "luminaries" as Josh Whitesell and Jorge Padilla. The point is not who you are facing--but how well you command your pitches. Just Two Weeks into this camp--no one is throwing close to 100%. Chad Cordero had his breaking stuff working well this morning. Honestly, he looked good.

And finally, as promised--The Band Is Officially Back Together Again. Dave Jageler posted up for his very first day of Spring Training Workouts. In Mid-Season Form--Dave reported the year started well this morning, when for breakfast, he enjoyed his customary cereal sans the milk. Mr. Jageler has never put milk on his cereal and has never enjoyed the pleasure of hearing the "Snap, Crackle & Pop" of Rice Krispies. A story that his partner, Charlie Slowes, loves to tell. Some of the fun that has played out on the radio broadcasts the past few seasons. "I don't like soggy cereal," Dave told Sohna (laughing). "I don't blame you," replied The African Queen.

Speaking of Charlie--he reminded me that I left out his favorite line from yesterday's conversation about "GET SMART" and the shoe phone. "That phone was well ahead of its time--except for The Rotary Dial!" The African Queen and I couldn't stop laughing over Slowes pretending to dial his shoe, stating: "I can just hear the clicks of the dialing wheel, now." Charlie Slowes is quite the character.

And--he coined a new name for The African Queen at The Nationals Practice Fields today. Throughout the day and later at The Team Store--whenever Charlie came across Sohna--he stated: "Hello, Agent 99", or "Agent 99". It was funny, and Sohna loved hearing her new alias. Are we nuts, or what? All three of us must still be stuck in our childhood days. There is something endearing about that fact. Really there is. (The New "Agent 99" and I are chuckling while writing this). Charlie--gives us a call from your "Shoe Phone".

Come On!!--you have got to love the humor of it all. Moments like this--make Spring Training Fun for us. No question about it.

Quotes Of The Day:

Sohna and I are chatting with Jason Bergmann about his just completed Live Batting Practice Session. Our Number 57 is resting on the bench--while we are standing behind the fence. He mentions that he likes to work quickly between pitches. "I don't like to think too much about the situation," says Jason. SBF says: "So, I guess no one could ever call you "The Human Rain Delay" like Jesus Colome? " Laughing & enjoying the moment, Our Number 57 replies: "Just call me Mr. 10% Chance of Rain!!" The African Queen and I crack up--Bergmann smiling--proud of his remark. That moniker is a keeper. From now on Mr. Bergmann just earned a new nickname name for The Nats320 Blog--"Mr. 10% Chance of Rain".

Earlier, Bergmann and Shawn Hill have just finished their warmup tosses for their live batting practice sessions. They, along with Chad Cordero, are the first pitchers to throw in today's BP. Minor League Pitching Instructor Spin Williams is standing between Bergmann and Hill and yells over to "The Chief"--"You ready?!" Our Number 32 calls back: "No, I need 5 or 6 more pitches." Shawn Hill fires back: "It figures--you are always late for the party." Chad Cordero grins from ear to ear--Hill snickers. The fun of Spring Training.

Photos of The Day:

If you have never been to Space Coast Stadium and Our Washington Nationals Practice Facility--this will give you a good idea how close you can get to Our Players. A number of fans from other teams that show up in Viera--always tell "Agent 99" and I that they just CAN'T BELIEVE the accessibility here and how friendly most of the players are. As long as you don't go on the practice fields and you allow the players to move freely from field to field--this situation is perfect. Management does frown on fans and the autograph hounds (the dealers) stopping players for signatures between drills. But, most all make themselves available after practice for autographs and photos. I can't tell you the number of folks that tell The African Queen and I how other camps rope off access. Our Washington Nationals are Fan Friendly. There is no question about that in Viera, Florida.

And, Along with Our Good Friends Phil & Robert--Sohna and I were offered the opportunity to take pictures inside Space Coast Stadium this afternoon. We all enjoyed the moment.