Friday, February 22, 2008

First Day Of Full Squad Workouts--Viera, Florida

The First Full Day of Workouts for Our Washington Nationals commenced a little after 10AM on a Sunny--84 degree day in Viera, Florida. Was the African Queen and I ever happy not to be dealing with the Ice Storm in Washington. Everyone we talked with today here (And Curly's Mom in DC)--mentioned the storm there. Sorry to hear--its so bad.
In total, 74 players are in Big League Camp. Except for Jesus Flores--still delayed by Visa Problems--I believe most everyone else has arrived.
What is very nice about The Practice Facility is the set up for fans. Four Fields in a circle--anyone is allowed to stand outside the fields of the common areas. Every single player basically has to walk through what Sohna calls "The Gauntlet". Fan after Fan--young and old--looking for that brief moment to get an autograph, take a picture or just say hello. Now, Sohna and I have never been to any other Major League Spring Training Sites--but for accessibility--there could be few better than the way Our Washington Nationals handle their Training Camp.

Of course--the autograph seekers for profit are again looking to hoard everyone's time with page after page--binder after binder of cards and pictures to sell for profit. Their attendance this morning brought the crowd total to over 100 folks. More than Sohna and I remember from last season's first day full squad workout.

At times--it did not matter who was walking to the fields before practice because that player would be overtaken by fans--looking for that briefest of personal moments. Which set up this very funny circumstance. As Ryan Zimmerman was beseiged by just about everyone--here comes Lastings Milledge jogging along. And No One--not a SINGLE FAN recognized him. I found that quite hilarious. Here he was--one of Our Washington Nationals biggest off season additions. You just knew--the autograph hounds wanted him badly. Yet, as he whisked right past them--untouched--I stuck out my hand: "Welcome to Washington"--and Lastings Milledge immediately stopped--returning the shake. "How you doing?" he said. And while looking me straight in the eyes--responded "Thanks for the welcome--I am really looking forward to the opportunity." He laughed--and so did I as he proceeded to jog onto the field. Only at that very last igni-second--did the group surrounding Ryan Zimmerman understand who they had just missed. Really, it was funny.

Practice itself consists of various stations. The Pitchers move between fields conducting various drills every 10 minutes of so. If its a throwing day--they are working on the mounds. Third Base Coach Tim Tolman is back with his trusty Air Horn and is not shy to use it. All players must jog between fields--no walking. The Everyday Players took fielding and hitting on one field--while all took swings in The Batting Cages.

Being the first day of camp--there is little outward worry. Players are renewing friendships and making new ones. The off season always brings change to a teams make up. There is alot of joking going on between the lines. Yes, the work is serious--but the atmosphere is fun. Even Manny Acta is fielding grounders and participating in drills--shouting out encouragement throughout the day.

No--this practice stuff is not overly exciting--but without these repetitions and timing--there is no fluidity to the game. But, there are some moments. None better than what happened around 12:40PM.

The Big Bangers took to the batting circle on the hitting field. Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and Elijah Dukes were all in the same group. EVERYONE turned to watch. These three sluggers put on a show. Milledge slamming liner after liner--occasionally a shot over the fence. Wily Mo--not only pounding the baseball over the fence--but attempting to hit the other way--as well. As for Dukes--He can HAMMER the baseball. Our General Manager Jim Bowden was watching closely. Our Manager Manny Acta could not turn his head away. And, Hitting Instructor Lenny Harris had his eye on his targets. Even the media stopped to not only watch--but film the display. If this moment was a harbinger of things to come--this was impressive. Yes, its only the first day--and the Batting Practice Pitcher is tossing the baseball in lightly. But, Power is Power--in anybody's league. These three youngsters put on a fine performance. Jimbo must have been proud--as he immediately held an impromptu Press Conference on the field--when it ended. This was not only his sluggers time to shine--but his as well. And, He knew it.

Other Highlights:

For Two Days in row--Nick Johnson continues to show why he is a fan favorite. Yesterday, he handed a baseball to a little girl as he walked off the fields. Today--he absolutely SHOCKED a young boy and his father when he handed over his Adirondack Practice Used Bat--and then offered to sign it for the kid. The Father COULDN'T BELIEVE IT!! Profusely thanking "Mr. Johnson" for his unexpected gift. Sohna saying to the kid--"This made your day?" His father exclaims: "No--he made My Day!! I can't believe he just did that!" The African Queen responds: "He is a very nice guy."

Aria--a young lady whose relative is a huge Washington Nationals Fan--in Los Angeles--donned a Nats Spring Training shirt to get various players signatures. Fluent in Spanish--she had no problem getting the many players to stop. Luis Ayala--as always, was gracious with his time.

And of course--the interviews for The Nats320 Blog. Sohna and I enjoyed meeting Josh Smoker. This 19 Year Old Georgian was like a young child in the candy store. Excited and quite thrilled to be attending his first Major League Camp. He was enjoyable to speak with. Smoker one of many that took the time to speak with The African Queen and I today. Those chats will come as I transcribe them--including some very thoughtful words from Shawn Hill. This Young Man never ceases to impress me with his knowledge and composure. John Lannan, Collin Balester, Matt Chico, Justin Maxwell and Dmitri Young were all generous with their time. Barry Larkin on Ryan Zimmerman's development. And, Randy St.Claire continues to show why his work ethic and knowledge of the game--has made him one of The Best Pitching Coaches in the game.

That's all coming later--as they are transcribed. No--Sohna and don't have access to The Clubhouse--but we are making the best of the given situation--provided by Our Washington Nationals.

Quotes of The Day:

Johnny Estrada was preparing to begin his Pitchers/Catchers Session. As Ismael Ramirez walked to the mound to toss his first warmups--Estrada turned to fellow catcher Chad Moeller--suiting up. "You know who this guy is?" asked Johnny. Chad Moeller responds--"Never heard of him." Immediately followed by Estrada's: "Welcome to Spring Training."

After being kind enough to chat with Sohna and I for an extended interview--Shawn Hill was preparing to take the customary photo with The African Queen. He yells over to Matt Chico: "Hey Glav--get over here, join us!!" Matt Chico admits "Tommy Glavine is my favorite player--its why I have always worn his number." Then, you would have loved if Glavine had signed here for 2008? (SBF) "Yeah, I would have been pumped!! He is my idol."

While standing on the fence line of a practice field this morning--I turned to see Team President Stan Kasten and Our General Manager Jim Bowden driving right toward me in a golf cart. Bowden at the wheel--calling out: "Watch out, I don't want to hit SBF!!" Everyone laughing.

And finally--The Picture of The Day--and its a good one.

Elijah Dukes while trotting through the Main Walkway to reach the first full squad workout--and he stops when approached by a young kid--asking for his autograph. The child only knows he's a player for Our Washington Nationals. Kindly--Dukes responds and signs the boy's baseball. The kid's father upon realizing who his son had just snared an autograph from (thanks to Sohna)--was very, very proud.

Others may have missed it--but this was THE MOMENT IN TIME from Friday, February 22, 2008.

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