Thursday, March 08, 2007


Spring Training-Always a Good Sign

Like the rest of you, I get my first look at the upcoming baseball season through the media. Snippets of video, articles in the local and national press, blurbs from the boom box.

There are patches of lawn sneaking through the snow. But not many. Most of us are combing our fields of snow for branches that fell during the latest storm. The one when it didn’t know whether or not it should snow, rain, sleet, hail, drizzle. The one when there was significant sparkly accumulation on all of the trees and we began to wonder how long it would be before power would be restored.

But they are soft tossing in the southern States, stretching, jogging, limbering up. And we are readying ourselves for another season of the great game of baseball.

In less than a month’s time, the boys of summer will be heading north to ply the trade until October. Fauna of all description---Blue Jays, Orioles, Cardinals, Cubs, Marlins, Tigers, Devil Rays. Gentlemen with a variety of occupations---Mariners, Rangers, Brewers, and even members of the cloth-the Padres. Yankees, Twins, Dodgers and all the others.

There is excitement at every camp in the south. There had better be. No team leaves spring training with the belief that they will be losers. Every team thinks positively. They all have a chance. Anything can happen---and sometimes does. It is a very long season, and the variables are almost limitless. The last couple of collective bargaining agreements---CBAs---have made the playing fields quite level.

Every manager has a few silent wishes: two or three young arms come out of Class “A” ball, throw smoke and record twenty wins; those ageing veterans that were picked up in the off season bat three hundred, smack 30 home runs, and are wonderful mentors for the kids in the clubhouse; pitchers field ground balls cleanly, without injury; the team solidifies in the middle, from the catcher out; all of his boys behave themselves off the field.

Bingo! Can’t you hear those World Series cheers?

Alas, just dreams.

The Toronto Blue Jays are no different from any other major league baseball team. They have worked hard in the off season to prepare for the grind. They have signed superstars, they have drafted kids who would like a chance to play in the big leagues. They have kept the team intact, for the most part. But it all takes place on the field. That is where the games are won and lost. It is up to the guys in uniform to make it happen.

Enter Frank Thomas. The “Big Hurt” has come to play in Toronto, and it will be a pleasure to watch him continue the marvellous comeback he had last year. Since 2000, he has not been a completely healthy puppy. But from 1991 to 2000, he was the most dynamic power hitter in the game.

In only one year did he hit less than .300. Several times he had more than 40 home runs. His name is etched on the lists of the greatest players in the game. He currently stands in ninth place on the All Time American League Home Run list. He is on the short lists for Runs Batted In, walks, and extra base hits.

He played ten seasons garnering 100 RBIs and 100 walks. Only three players have accomplished that feat more times: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Pretty impressive company.

He is indeed an intimidating presence at the plate---he stands six feet five inches, and weighs in around 275. As an opposing pitcher, I would not look forward to his charging the mound. I can only think of a few pitchers who would brush him back: Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, Sal “The Barber” Maglie of the Giants, Nolan Ryan, and perhaps Dave Stewart.

Until last season, Thomas had played his entire career for the Chicago White Sox. Following a couple of disheartening years spent primarily on the disabled list, he elected to go the free agency route at the end of the 2005 season. Oakland took a shot a him for the 2006 season, and he rewarded them in spades.

He hit 39 home runs last year, batting .270. He played in 137 games, and had a relatively injury-free season. The brass in the tower on Blue Jays Way would like to see him strut to the plate about 500 times, in about 160 games this coming season.

Thomas should provide another very loud stick in an already noisy lineup. Overbay, Wells, Glaus, Rios, Johnson….It should be fun.

Several years ago, I watched an Old Timers Game prior to the regular Saturday afternoon game. An elderly batter, seventy-eight years old, ambled from the on deck circle for his turn at bat. He fouled off a couple of pitchers, then smacked the ball over the left field fence for a home run. His name was Luke “Old Aches and Pains” Appling. In 2005, Frank Thomas scored his 1320th run for the White Sox, establishing a new team record. It had been held by Luke Appling.

Get on line, and get your tickets. Call the box office. Plenty of good seats left. Take yourself out to the ball game. Think baseball. Forget the cold.

James Hurst


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