SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–Taking a flight from Raleigh to Phoenix in early March is a journey from one sports-obsessed culture to another. In Raleigh, all you see are hats and t-shirts representing the local college basketball teams knee deep in the ACC tournament. The Phoenix airport is cure for what ails any baseball fan; a sea of supporters that have flown in for the weekend to take in some Cactus League action.
Everywhere you look is pockets of people sporting gear of the teams that train in the Phoenix area, with the Cubs, Angels and Athletics being the most prominent. There is no other sport where you find fans so enthusiastic for preseason games and it is contagious.
I drove into Phoenix high on the proximity of a new baseball season and had an enjoyable day at Giants camp, though one prominent player did his best to temper my Arizona enthusiasm.
After visiting the Giants’™ minor league complex, I decided to try and catch the end of their game against Oakland with hopes of chatting with Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Lincecum.
One of benefits of spring training is that they open the locker rooms during the game so that reporters can talk with players who are done for the day while the game is still going on. I got to the Giants’™ locker room in the seventh inning and fortunately caught up with Sanchez as he was about to leave for the day.
Other than clubhouse attendants prepping for post game, the clubhouse was sparsely populated, though Barry Bonds was conspicuously chatting with a couple of other unidentified men. Let’™s be honest, anything Bonds does is conspicuous at this point.
By the time I was done talking to Sanchez, it was pretty much just Bonds and myself in the clubhouse and I figured I would just wait for Lincecum down there as Bonds dressed and ate a sandwich. It is hot in Arizona and it is air-conditioned in the clubhouse, it seemed like an easy choice.
Being fully aware of Bonds’™ adversarial relationship with the media, I figured there would be no problems as long as I was minding my business. While I have some experience with big league locker rooms, I am far more comfortable in the minor league locker room where a reporters’™ presence is often met with excitement and rarely disdain.
After about 10 minutes of looking everywhere but Bonds’™ direction, I heard someone address me from across the room.
“You waiting for someone?”
It was Barry.
“Yeah, Tim Lincecum,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could.
“Well is he pitching?” Bonds asked.
“I don’™t think so,” I said.
“If he is not pitching then he is not going to be down here until after the game,” Bonds said.
“The game is almost over, I figured I would just wait here,” I said while not pointing out that Sanchez had not pitched but had left early.
Bonds paused for a moment and I thought it was over.
“Well, you can’™t just stand there,” he said firmly with a stern look.
I thought about my options for a couple of seconds. I knew that no one else was bothered by my presence and that it was within my rights as a media member to stand there if I wanted to. However, I also knew that I did not want to end up as the lead story on SportsCenter. I had already spotted ESPN Bonds’™ correspondent Pedro Gomez, so I knew it was a possibility. Figuring that escalating the confrontation was not in my best interest, I calmly walked out of the locker room knowing that I could come back in 20 minutes to talk to Lincecum.
Unfortunately, when I walked into the clubhouse moments after the game ended
Lincecum had already dressed and left.
One might say that it was a case of a reporter who should have stood his ground, but it was just as much of a case of this generation’™s greatest player living up to his obnoxious reputation.
Despite the fact that Jonathan Sanchez was one of the most dominant pitchers in the minors last year, not that much has been written about him.
The 24-year-old began the season with 46-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 31 innings for Double-A Norwich and finished the year in the Giants’™ bullpen. In 105 innings between three levels he allowed just three home runs.
Now in his second big league camp, the lefthander from NAIA Ohio Domincan came to Scottsdale with his sights set on a spot on the big league staff. Unfortunately, some mild bicep tendinits has prevented him doing much thus far.
Sanchez experienced soreness early in camp and the Giants have limited the lefthander’™s workload and in his one outing he allowed two runs in one inning against the Mariners.
“He played winter ball,” roving pitching coordinator Bert Bradley said. “Maybe a little bit of a dead arm.”
The fact that he is even this close to the big leaguers is pretty remarkable for a 27th-round pick in 2004 that signed for $2,500.
“I didn’™t sign for a lot of money so I had to work hard to get here and thank God I did,” Sanchez said. “A lot of people they sign for a lot of money and they get here soon because of how much they got. I didn’™t get anything so I had to work and work hard and I did it in three years.”
Sanchez is most notable for his electric fastball that reaches 95 mph. His velocity varied widely when he signed, but some small adjustments made by Giants’™ instructors got him throwing with more consistency in the low 90s.
“He was a drifter in his delivery, got out front,” Bradley said. “I don’™t even know if he ever thought about his mechanics when he pitched in college. He was weak too. Just a little bit of adjustment on his mechanics and timing and staying back and plus the fact that he got stronger.
“Those two things in concert made his velocity go up. But he has got a long, whippy loose arm, which is what you want in a pitcher. It was pretty amazing what he did from one year to the next in terms of velocity. He has got the kind of fastball that carries. It doesn’™t just hit the glove and die, it is still hopping.”
The Puerto Rican native seems ready for a spot in the majors, but his role is still up in the air. He complements his fastball with a plus changeup, but his breaking ball is still a work in progress.
Sanchez has said that going from starting in the minors last year to relieving in his 40 big league innings wore him down and manager Bruce Bochy has said he does not want him switching back and forth between roles.
Sanchez, who pitches on Saturday, is blunt about his preference.
“Starter, but it doesn’™t matter,” Sanchez said. “If I am in the big leagues I am doing my job, no matter what it is.”
• After electrifying the low Class A South Atlantic League in 2005, last season was essentially a lost one for Marcus Sanders, who hit .213/.302/.265 for high Class A San Jose.
Right shoulder problems hindered his ability to drive the ball and his arm, which was already weak, could no longer handle shortstop adequately. The shoulder had been operated on following the 2005 season, but it never recovered in 2006. Sanders elected rehab over surgery this past offseason with a renewed focus.
“I definitely worked out harder,” the 21-year-old said. “I started doing what I was supposed to be doing. I actually got focused on what I was supposed to do.”
Sanders reported to camp on January 15 and began a throwing program designed to help him move from short to second. He now throws more across his body and feels it makes it easier for him. He still cannot throw all out all the time, and he is yet to practice his first double-play pivot with a runner bearing down on him. He played some second base as an amateur and remains optimistic about his defense and season in general.
“Last year is done with, this is a new year,” Sanders said. “My brother always told me if you want to get recognized, you have to lead the league in at least three categories. Whether it is run scored, stolen bases, walks, whatever. I want to be in the top in at least three categories.”
• Similar to Sanders, Fred Lewis has gone what could be considered a wasted season as the second-round pick out of Southern in 2002 hit an empty .273 at Double-A Norwich in 2005. He rebounded to hit. 276/.375/.453 for Triple-A Fresno in 2006 and put himself back on the prospect map. He turned 26 in December and while stardom seems unlikely, his athleticism should make him a solid extra outfielder and the Giants appear to be giving him a serious look.
“(I’™m playing) a lot more than I have played in previous years,” Lewis said. “I used to get in the game just for baserunning. Now I am in for defense and offense.”
He also gave a fair assessment of what he needs to do to prove his deserves that spot.
“Minimize my mistakes in the outfield, my routes and small stuff like that,” Lewis said. “Turning on the inside pitch a hole lot more. It is something I have really focused on. Up in the big leagues guys pitch to both sides of the plate and I have to get ready for that.”
• An unidentified Giants minor leaguer walked out of their cafeteria rapping, “Biggie Smalls is the illest, your style is played out like Arnold with that what you talkin’™ bout Willis,” which rap fans will recognize from Biggie’™s song ‘˜Unbelievable.’™ Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to ask the player if he knew that Friday was the 10th anniversary of the murder of the Notorious B.I.G.