By J.P. Antonacci
CANADIAN BASEBALL NETWORK
DUNEDIN -- As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot by watching. Spending a few days at the Toronto Blue Jays spring training complex in Dunedin was a real eye-opener.
Donaldson’s MVP entrance
Most players were already out stretching early on a sunny Thursday morning, but two Blue Jays stars were missing.
Out from the clubhouse came Troy Tulowitzki, silently staring straight ahead, his face expressionless as he took long, slow strides toward the field.
Josh Donaldson emerged moments later. Wearing wraparound shades and a big grin, he sauntered over to his teammates, hip-hop music blasting from the portable speaker hoisted over his shoulder.
Talk about an MVP entrance.
Field generals or robots
Got talking with radio analyst Joe Siddall by the batting cage, and when the conversation turned to pitch-calling, steam started coming out of his ears.
The former big-league backstop bemoaned the fact that these days, young catchers get to the majors with no idea how to call a game.
Siddall explained that college coaches typically don’t entrust this crucial in-game task to their catchers, who instead have to look to the dugout for the sign, check the crib notes scrawled on their wristband, and then convey the coach’s request to the pitcher.
“Sweatbands should be for wiping your forehead, not calling pitches,” said Siddall, a Windsor native who credits former catcher and Montreal Expos coach Luis Pujols for teaching him the finer points of pitch sequencing.
Catchers are often called “field generals” because they take on a leadership role between the foul lines. But Siddall and fellow catcher-turned-broadcaster Buck Martinez used a different word to describe catchers who come up through today’s player development pipeline: robots.
“In the minor leagues, they want catchers who can hit. In the big leagues, they want catchers who can call a game and play defence,” said Martinez.
He considers game-calling a fundamental skill for catchers at all levels, just as important as blocking balls in the dirt or throwing out baserunners.
The pair of ex-catchers agreed that having coaches call games also has negative consequences for pitchers, who often rely on their battery mates to understand how to outwit hitters.
Better than Jeter?
“Tulo! Tulo!” called an autograph-seeker as Toronto’s shortstop made his way to the dugout before a game against the Phillies.
Tulowitzki kept going, and the disgruntled fan changed tack.
“Jeter’s better!” he shouted.
Tulowitzki didn’t flinch. But a short time later, he launched the first pitch of the game over the fence for a leadoff home run.
True patriot love
Children from a local public school sang the pregame anthems one afternoon, but opted to forgo microphones. That created a nice call-and-response, as the young voices sang briskly while the older voices in the packed bleachers echoed at a more leisurely pace.
Canadian catcher Russell Martin was spotted singing along to O Canada while standing with his teammates along the first base line.
Power to dream on
Even in today’s high-octane MLB, where power arms dominate most bullpens, 20-year-olds that hit 98 on the radar gun don’t exactly grow on trees.
That’s why Conner Greene’s big-league spring training debut on March 5 got so many hearts beating a little quicker.
Blue Jays fans were treated to a glimpse of Greene’s explosive potential, as the highly touted pitching prospect pumped in upper-90s fastballs with ease.
While he struck out the side, Greene took all four batters he faced (J.P. Arencibia walked) to full counts, and will continue to refine his command in the minors to start the season.
But there’s little doubt that the remarkably self-possessed youngster – who chats with fans, greets strangers with a smile, and seems just delighted to be wearing a big-league uniform – will be quickening hearts at Rogers Centre before long.
There has been much discussion of the Blue Jays’ future in Dunedin, with the club’s lease at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium set to expire next year and continued grumbling about the state of the aging facility, plus the fact that Toronto’s practice fields are a bus ride away.
Despite a certain no-frills charm possessed by the only spring home the organization has ever known, it can’t be denied that a state-of-the-art complex with five or six diamonds on the same property would be more convenient.
That said, along with the reported $85 million in spinoff economic activity the Jays bring to the area every March, Dunedin would lose some of its vitality should the team leave town.
From restaurant chalkboards to signs outside churches, messages of welcome and support for Toronto’s team and its fans abound throughout the city.
The retirees who work in reception, concessions and security at the stadium love their six-week springtime gig, and the Canadians who make the trip south add a hometown feel to Blue Jays games.
The business case, geography (the stadium is penned in by the downtown core, making expansion a difficult prospect) and the team’s practical needs will ultimately trump sentiment.
But it’s clear that after a 40-year union that better resembles a lovefest, a breakup between the Jays and the city would leave many Dunedinites reaching for the ice cream.