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Monday, March 22, 2004

Visiting the Republic of Summer

Mesa, AZ -- It went straight from winter into summer here, daytime highs rocketing skyward nearly 30 degrees in less than a month. Yesterday, before the Cubs/Padres game started, the field temperature was 95 in the shade.

When we left, it was 106.

Now, of course there are a couple caveats. First, the thermometer is the car's on-board unit, which is notoriously inaccurate -- or at least, takes flights of fancy on occaision. But the Padres in their navy blue tops must have been sweating something fierce. Second, there is indeed something to the "but it's a dry heat" mantra you sometimes hear from folks in these parts. We thought it was in the mid-90's leaving the game, but the car thermometer thought otherwise. Dryness combined with slight elevation counts for something. The skies, muddied by stratocumulus clouds, managed to sunburn Helen even though we sat in coveted shade. (I put on sunblock beforehand as a precaution, and was glad I did -- she's lobsterville now.) Andre Codrescu, the Romanian writer and sometime NPR commentator, calls his adopted New Orleans "the Republic of Summer", but he may as well have been talking about Phoenix.

Last year gave so much hope to the beleaguered Cubs fans that they flooded the Arizona cities surrounding Hohokam Park, their spring training home. Every hotel in Mesa is sold out through Tuesday, an event unprecedented in Mesa history. Yesterday's game set a spring training attendance record for them; I wasn't paying attention, but it looked like a capacity crowd pushing 13,000. Scalpers report cheap seats in the grass hill "bleachers" back of left and right field going in excess of $50, when they can be had at all. The feeling is this year will be like last year, only this time there'll be no five-outs-away, no heartbreak. The pitching staff is young, and better, among the elite of the National League, and if the hitters aren't, at least they can be counted on for one more good year. (Baseball Prospectus disagrees a bit, but more on that later in the week, perhaps.) The mood is one of general optimism and conviviality, as if we're about to see something really great happen, like watching an imploded building construct itself in reverse-motion magic. We sat in front of a half-dozen or so I-Cub fans (Iowa Cubs, their AAA affiliate), all middle-aged women, cheerfully gabbing about the minor leaguers the Cubs were trying out in the game. This was their eighteenth year going to spring training, and were having a ball.

It was a lazy game: Derrick Lee attended first base but did not play the position, looking more like Fred McGriff with several "olé" plays, and costing the Cubs a couple men on base. His gold gloves, safely crated elsewhere, need unpacking. But his bat needed no special torque as he knocked out three hits to atone for his miserable glovework. On the mound, perennial prospect-turned-suspect Juan Cruz gave up three runs and six hits; it's obvious, after the number of chances Cruz has had, that he's no longer even a questionable entry for the starting rotation and is now likely to become a PTBNL mentioned in a trade with some AL team. BP likes him as a long reliever, but I have my doubts; his control is suspect and that doesn't describe the sort of fellow you want pitching in tight games. LaTroy Hawkins visited the mound in the 9th, score 7-3, and left with the score 7-6. It's probably a good thing Hawkins is going to another central division team, albeit in a different league; facing higher quality hitting in the AL West or East divisions he'd get raked, and I suspect hard. Meantime, Brian Giles performed acceptably, going 1-3, but it seemed in general the Padres had a tough time of it, even against the relatively inconsistent pitching of Cruz, up until Hawkins offered up his gifts.

We won't see an Angels game until Friday. Today we'll see the A's, who have done very well in ST thus far.

Postscriptum: I will be away from my mail for the balance of the week, but thanks to a convenient Schlotsky's Deli across the street from my hotel with Internet access, I can post.


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