Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Back on the diamond

“Happy new year!”

To the uninitiated, Oakland A’s co-commentator Ray Fosse’s choice of opening phrase on Saturday would have seemed completely bizarre. Yet to his fellow broadcasters and all of us A’s fans listening, Fosse had got the sentiment just right.

We might have been 54 days into the 2013 calendar year, but Oakland’s first Spring Training game was the true beginning of the year.

For fans of any sport, the calendar is dictated by the season’s schedule rather than something as arbitrary as 31 December turning to 1 January. The effect is all the more pronounced in baseball because of the way the games keep on coming. This isn’t a case of a pre-season friendly one day, backed up by another seven days later over the course of a month before the competitive action begins.

Day One of Spring Training in baseball heralds the start of a daily routine –peppered with the occasional single day off here and there –that will last until the end of September, or into October for the lucky ten making it to the postseason.

Saturday was the first full day of all 30 teams taking to the field, but Friday was the first day of 2013 when you could listen to live baseball once again.

Spring Training is a time of optimism for every team and for some that optimism is better placed than for others.

The Cleveland Indians’ radio team on WTAM had every reason to be full of the joys of spring, even if the 2013 season may not end up with the Tribe pegging a playoff place. They had lived through the daily drudgery of last September, coming off a disastrous 5-24 August, with a team out of contention and no immediate hopes of making a splash in the coming offseason.

All it took was to read out the starting lineup for their spring opener against the Cincinnati Reds to put those desperate days behind them. “Wow, do things change in a short amount of time”, remarked one of the commentary team.

The WTAM crew were especially energised by their feeling that “there’s finally some personality in the clubhouse”. That’s particularly important for those broadcasting every day, but there was also a keen sense that there was a completely different atmosphere around the team, primarily due to the “non-stop talker” Nick Swisher. The commentators were quick to point out that personality doesn’t win you ballgames and Swisher, like the other new recruits, has to play well first and foremost. However if he performs on the field then maybe, just maybe, the energy and enthusiasm he and others can bring to the clubhouse can help the team too.

The early Spring Training games give fans the chance to see new players, and old players, in their new uniforms. It was typical that the first person to step into the batting box against Cleveland was the former Indian Shin-Soo Choo. He led off the game against Geovany Soto, something that momentarily caught me off guard when considering the unlikely prospect of the Texas Rangers’ catcher of the same name having changed teams and positions without me realising it.

Confusion comes easily at the beginning of Spring Training, as new Cleveland outfielders Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs found to their cost when a fly ball landed between them. It was the classic radio commentary moment when the relaxed tone of an impending easy catch suddenly leaps in volume as “THE BALL DROPS BETWEEN THEM!”.

New outfielders were also causing confusion in the Atlanta Braves’ game against the Detroit Tigers, although this time it was among the Braves’ WFOM commentary team.

The first fly ball to left-centre posed the dilemma as to how they should call plays with two Uptons converging in the outfield. The obvious choice of referring to them as Justin and B.J. left one of the commentators a little nervous, joking that he didn’t know them well enough to be on first-name terms just yet. His colleague helpfully suggested he should take the Uptons out for a meal to get to know them a bit better. Perhaps B.J. could find a few dollars from his $75m contract to pick up the bill for that.

The WFOM team soon moved on from the Upton dilemma as the Braves’ pitching staff flirted with a no-hitter that the Tigers broke up in the top of the eighth inning. It’s a standard line in every commentary or game report that pitchers are ahead of the hitters early in Spring Training. There’s a certain logic behind the statement and it’s often true; however it can seem like a curse to a pitcher that has a bad outing.

The Seattle Mariners’ Hector Noesi was the first pitcher of 2013 to bemoan such bad luck. He gave up a grand slam to the San Diego Padres’ Jed Gyorko before departing with six runs against his name (4 earned) and only two outs recorded.

Thankfully for Noesi, he’ll be able to fall back on the argument that he’s just starting out, getting rid of the rust and maybe working on a new pitch without worrying about the results. The pressure and tension of the regular season can wait for now.

This is the time of year when we’re all just glad to have baseball back with us once again.

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