Monday, March 21, 2005

Back from the Desert Southwest

Well, it was quite the vacation. Went down to the Phoenix area on March 10th and came back late on the 16th. The theme of the week was nothing but food, golf, and most importantly, spring training baseball.

We got down to Phoenix and its 70 degree weather around 5pm on Thursday, leaving the Wisconsin snow behind. We had quite the time getting our rental car with Alamo at the airport, it took well over an hour to get the SUV we had ordered. When we got there, the only SUV's that were left were hundreds of Ford Escapes, or a couple of huge, Canyonero-esque Chevy Suburbans, nothing in between like my dad had requested. We finally were able to raise enough hell so that a Chevy Trailblazer magically appeared. Then we were off to find the hotel in Scottsdale.

We stayed at what seemed like was one of the seventeen Marriott Hotels in Scottsdale, particularly, the Scottsdale Renaissance Marriott on the north end of town. The area was a lot more than just the hotel, in fact, there really wasn't even a hotel. It was more like a gated community of condos with its own shopping center, pool, tennis courts, etc. I failed to take advantage of the tennis courts!! Each **room** had its own private jacuzzi as well. I really liked that, even though I only went in it a few times. The one problem that I had with the room was the number of bugs and flies that were all up in our grills the entire time there. They didn't seem to bother anyone else as much as me, but I didn't expect to need a mosquito net to sleep in peace at night!

On Friday, my dad and I went to our first spring training game in Scottsdale, home of the SF Giants. Scottsdale Stadium is located right downtown and was sold out. We got a couple general admission tickets and sat out on the grass berm in the outfield. I was really impressed with the stadium, much nicer looking than the Brewers' main field. It was also the first time that I was exposed to 90+ degree heat in many months! We both did some heavy duty perspiring all while not lifting a finger! After the game, things got a little out of hand....

My mom and sister had the car, so us two guys were on our own for getting back to the hotel. We took a free trolley that got us to a huge shopping mall just north of downtown, where we decided to walk back from to our hotel. Let's just say that this wasn't one of our better decisions on the trip!! Well, I at least, didn't account for the fact that when you're driving at 45 MPH down the main drag, it wouldn't seem too far to walk, but I was wrong. Plus it was hotter than shit outside. To put this in perspective, it took about 20 minutes to get to the hotel to the stadium on the way to the game. The game finished up around 3 PM, got on the trolley, went a few blocks, and was at the mall by about 3:30. After walking for TWO HOURS while dodging over expressway on-ramps, getting blisters from new shoes, and having to drop a deuce in sweltering heat, we made it back. I was ready to collapse, and did!

Saturday's main event for me was a round of golf at Arizona State University's own Karsten golf course. It was right next to Sundevil Stadium and their baseball field. It provided for some very scenic backdrops. The course was actually designed about 10 years ago by Pete Dye, who is famous for designing many, many impossible golf courses, such as the TPC of Sawgrass in Florida and Whistling Straights In Wisconsin. Having seen what Whistling Straights looks like first hand, I can honestly say that the ASU Karsten course was pretty close to the same thing, only scaled down just a notch. The fairways were very narrow, with tons of sand bunkers and railroad ties dotting the perimeter of each hole. The mounds and hills were also rampant throughout the course. It must have taken a ton of work to sculpt the entire course. The only thing that made the course manageable compared to Whistling Straights was the length of the rough. It was over a foot long, like it was for the PGA Championship last summer, but instead was only a couple inches long so it was easier to maneuver around in.

As for how I performed, I thought I did extremely well, considering it was my first time out in over 6 months, plus the fact that it was the most difficult course that I have ever played on in my life. My tee time was for 11:45 and me and my dad got there around 10:30 so I could get a little practice in on the driving range and putting green. My dad decided to stick around and watch me get frustrated as all hell on the driving range. I'm not sure, but that might have been the first time in about 10 years that he's ever really seen me hit a golf ball. I made him take some video of my swing so I could see what I look like when I'm up there hacking. I was cringing when I saw it for the first time!! No wonder I had to have back surgery!!! It feels like I have a decent swing, nothing like the guys on Tour, but not terrible either. It turns out that I'm just one big whirling durbish out there!!!! I looked so terrible, the only thing I could do was laugh at myself!! Anyway, after hitting a bag of balls, my dad left and I headed to the putting surface to time the greens a little bit. Turns out that the greens were damn near impossible. I also discovered that I had given myself a blister the size of a dime on my right pinky finger, didn't have any bandaids, so I had to drastically change my grip, all before I even teed off on the first hole! I was just a little nervous on the first tee...playing with three old guys that were damn near pros, plus having the starter staring me down the whole time, and that's not even mentioning the fact that a four lane highway was directly in my shank-left zone! I hacked the first hole up with a 10, spraying my first drive right at some on-coming traffic, losing 2 balls, and managed to hit a pitching wedge 210 yards somehow. To make a long story short, I managed to get a hold of things and shot a 51 on the front, and a 47 on the back, for a total of 98 in my first round of the year at a damn near impossible course. I'll take it.

Sunday, we went to the Maryvale Complex for the first time, which is in not such a nice neighborhood in west Phoenix, where the Brewers hold their games and workouts. All four of us got there around 10AM. I immediately went to get a ball to have signed for autographs, and no sooner did I get out of the fan shop, but the two phenom prospects, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, came out of the clubhouse and walked right past me to the practice fields. I promptly got both of their autographs, which promptly made my day! In all, I got Fielder, Weeks, Vinny Rottino, Brad Nelson, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Dave Krynzel, Jeff Housman, Mike Adams, Doug Davis, Chris Capuano, and Nedley Yost to autograph my baseball.

I then went over to watch the minor leaguers, (the future of the Brewers). This was actually pretty exciting for me. I got to see so many of the players that I've read about and followed for the past couple of years. There were 8 different fields, I think, and a row of 4 batting cages, and two other separate areas for pitching/catching/bunting drills. It was really a nice setup with how everything was organized down there.

I had a chance to talk to Vinny Rottino, an old HS teammate and college classmate, for a little bit. He said that he would be focusing on catching a little bit more this year than in the past, but he still intends on being the super utility guy as he was last year. He felt that it was the best chance for him to make it to Milwaukee, since every team needs a super sub off the bench. He looked really smooth receiving the ball when catching, but I never got the chance to see him, or any other catchers for that matter, make any throws to second or third base.

Other highlights from minor league camp.

....Catcher Lou Palmisano is one helluva cocky S.O.B., by far the most self-confident player I seen there.

....2005 1st round Pick Mark Rogers is huge, especially for only being 18. He seems like a very nice guy as well. His mechanics seemed to me as if they could use some more work, although they didn't look too bad, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least bit if he ran into arm trouble in his career if no changes are made to address his cross-body throwing style.

....Manny Parra looked to be the most polished of the pitchers in minor league camp. His delivery looked very smooth, and had some life on his fastball. I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a spot start in Milwaukee like Chris Saenz did last year. Hopefully he's over his arm troubles from last year.

....Catcher John Vanden Berg (UW-Milwaukee) did not impress me at all behind the plate. Reports are that he can handle himself at the plate, but when I saw him catch, I was less than impressed. He couldn't block a ball to save his life, and the number of passed balls in an intrasquad scrimmage was also very high. I could see the pitchers almost privately getting upset with him on the mound.

....Dana Eveland didn't appear to be as large as I thought he would be, which was a nice surprise. I was expecting David Wells, but he was nowhere near that size. Spotted his heater really well in simulated scrimmage. Pretty funny/joking guy too.

...."The Hurricane" Hernan Irrabaren looked very good, both in the field and at the plate. The ball seemed to really jump off his bat, especially for his size. He also picked up on my "Hurricane" shout out.

....Alcides Escobar looked to be in grade school. He made the Hurricane look like Albert Belle.

....One of my personal faves, Roque Mercedes, looked very mature for his age, great build, didn't see him actually throw though.

....Ty Taubenheim looks like a freakin' linebacker!! He's the biggest player they had in camp. Even though he's a relief pitcher, he kept joking about his superior batting/bunting skills ala Ben Sheets.

....Angel Salome looked like the shortest player in camp. I'm 6'4'' and had the chance to stand next to him, he topped out at my chest, and that's WITH his spikes on! Never did get a chance to see him in action, however.

And now my observations from the games and players that I had to pay to watch.

....Ben Hendrickson simply didn't look too good. I'm not sure what it is, but it just doesn't look like he has any confidence in himself at all. It seemed as if he didn't throw a first pitch strike, he would sulk the rest of the at bat by getting down on himself more and more. I would truly have liked to have seen Lil' Ben pitch in Indianapolis last year where he dominated the league because I just can't believe that it's the same player. His velocity appeared to be down, nowhere near reports of a 90+ mph fastball. He couldn't come close to spotting his fastball either, it seemed as if he was just hoping that it would be somewhere in the strikezone, instead of hitting the corners. The "so called" adjustments to his delivery also seemed to be playing games with his head. When he left for the clubhouse after his outing was finished, he passed me on the first base line. He seemed as if he had no idea what had just happened and was out of ideas, but that's just my observation. I'm sure he was frustrated. I sure do hope that he can pull it together because now is the most opportune time for him to get comfortable in the big leagues with him and JJ Hardy being the only two likely rookies to make an impact with the Crew this year.

....Prince Fielder is a man playing amongst boys. I don't believe that he's only 20 years old, he looks at least 30!! All the reports about him being able to hit are true. He does have a good eye, but I noticed that it seems like he makes his mind up before he gets to the plate what he wants to do. Either he'll look at a lot of pitches, or he'll go up there swinging for the fences at the first three pitches that he sees, no matter where they are. His defense looked pretty solid in the field, but I can see him having problems receiving throws from the infielders with his limited stature. He won't be able to save as many throwing errors from the likes of Helms and Hall like Overbay and Sexson are able to do with their taller frames.

....Rickie Weeks also made a good impression on me. It was my first time seeing the Sheffield-esque batting stance. I wish him the best of luck with that! I've never been a fan of all sorts of movement in the box. I'd prefer a quiet approach like Molitor or Ginter and just explode on the ball when it gets to the zone. I can see him having some difficulties getting his timing down with his new stance. He is one of the quickest players that I've seen in a long time as well. Also a lot bigger than I had expected. Attached at the hip with Prince. It seemed as if the two of them didn't talk to anyone else but each other. Must have been lonely when they were split up for the split squad games last Tuesday.

....Didn't get a chance to see J.J. Hardy play shortstop as much as I wanted to. Too much Bill Hall out there for my liking. I did like what I saw on defense though. Very, very smooth. He seemed like he was in slow motion sometimes out there. Maybe it's just me, but I thought he would have had a stronger arm than he does. Maybe he just wasn't displaying it at times, doing just enough to make the play. Positioning and footwork were phenomenal. Had a good approach at the plate, but didn't seem to do a whole lot when up there, which is to be expected.

....Corey Hart seemed to be the toughest player to figure out. He seemed so erratic. He'd look great on one play, then look completely lost the next. I saw him play in left field every time he was in the game. He can definitely move around out there. He did have some problems communicating with Brady Clark in center on a routine deep fly ball. Brady had to make a last second dive after standing still to catch a ball that Hart had called and lost track of. Displayed an above average arm when forced to make a throw. I am affraid everytime he needs to either make a shoe-string, diving, or sliding catch. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he killed himself trying to make the impossible play. He was a mixed bag at the plate. Seems to handle the inside pitches well when he's ahead in the count. Struggled when the pitcher got ahead of him. Made pretty good contact.

....My favorite whipping boy, Wesley Helms, didn't do much of anything to distinguish himself in the 3B race with 3TO Russell Branyan. Reports of Wes losing a lot of weight and looking much more fit didn't seem to fit with what I saw. He still looked like his doughboy self. I think the fact that he had a nice, new short haircut might have been what made everyone seem to think he came into camp in great shape. I will say, in disgust, that he did move around better than last year. He was making solid contact, even though it didn't show up in the hit column. He even knocked my socks off when he made a diving stab on a grounder towards the line and made the play. Maybe, just maybe, there's hope for him being useful this year afterall.

....Russell Branyan, 3TO, is just plain awesome. He can hit for days. Enough said.

....Another interesting little tidbit that I got out of Dougie Davis. He said that he loved it in Milwaukee and really appreciated the chance Doug Melvin took on him. I asked him if he ever envisioned him heading back to the Texas Rangers. He said that he would really like to, but not with their current ownership they have in place there. He said he really likes Buck Showalter, but cannot stand for GM John Hart. Here's hoping that Hart is around in Texas for the next 5 years!!

Back to the vacation!! Monday we were back at the Spring training complex early around 10 again to see more minor league action before the actual Brewers - Diamondbacks game at 1pm. We got to see an intrasquad game between all of the top minor league prospects. That was the highlight of see all the young guys.

After the game, Dad and I met up with Mom and sister and headed to a comedy club on the ASU campus. It was my first time seeing an actual, real comedy act. Some guy that has appeared on Comedy Central, can't remember his name, was there and was really quite funny. I was quite impressed and woke up the next morning with my stomach in pain from laughing so much.

Tuesday I went out and played the TPC of Scottsdale. They hold the FBR Open there for the PGA Tour in February. That tournament routinely draws the largest crowds on tour, except for the Majors. I didn't play the Stadium Course, where the PGA plays, but instead played the Desert Course. The weather was actually pretty refreshing. It was only about 50 degrees, tops, but the sun was out and there was a nice breeze. The course was in immaculate condition. It was a completely different layout that the course I played earlier in the week. If you didn't hit the fairway, there was a good chance you were hitting from desert rocks and sand. Luckily, I hit the majority of the fairways for a change! The TPC was nowhere near as tough as the Pete Dye designed course. I ended up shooting an 89, which is the best 18-hole round of golf that I've ever had. I don't know what it is, but I always tend to play my best on the nicer courses for whatever reason. I also spent waaay too much money in the pro shop after my round, but that's what credit cards are for!!

After the round of golf, I headed back to the hotel, showered up, and grabbed something to eat before heading off back to Maryvale to catch the Brewers - Rangers night game. Sheets made his second start of the spring and didn't look to good, nothing to be worried about yet. The highlight of that game was getting to see Vinny Rottino make a couple plays at 3B in the later innings of the game.

We didn't do much of anything special on Wednesday, except for clearing out of our hotel room and heading to the airport.

There were a lot of things that I wished I had time to do when I was there. I never made it to my favorite restaurant in the world, the Waffle House. That will continue to haunt me. I would have liked to go up into the mountains to either drive/walk/hike for a little bit. We did that the last time we were there, but the weather was terrible and couldn't fully enjoy it. I also would have liked to get a tour of the BOB (Bank One Ballpark). It looks so similar to Miller Park, I would have liked to check it out.

Other thoughts....the number of banks in Scottsdale was simply mind-boggling. On the main drag, Scottsdale Road, you seriously couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a Wells Fargo, Bank One, or M&I Bank. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear Wells Fargo's headquarters were in Phoenix, not San Francisco. On a ten mile stretch of the main drag, there were seriously at least 10 different WF banks. That's absurd....The layout of everything is so much different than in Wisconsin, obviously. But everything is so secluded. There are walls around EVERYTHING down there. Every building must be somewhat similar to specifications of nothing really flashy, and adobe/clay looking buildings....Not too many places had Miller Lite on their menus. That really made me unhappy. Being from Wisconsin, I take it for granted and just automatically assume bars and restaurants will have it all over the country. Wrong....The food was some of the best food that I've ever eaten in my life, besides my mothers, of course. I seriously put on 10 pounds from eating meals 2 and 3 times a day, instead of my regular school routine of eating scraps once a day. My body didn't know what to do with all the stuff I was feeding it!!

Just want to say thanks, Dad. I truly appreciate everything you did for us to make this happen. That goes for Mom and Sis as well. I had one hell of a time and wish we could do this more often.


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