Whether I was reeling from the cumulative effects of a multi-season rebuild or because I was nonplussed by an offseason in which the Reds’ only notable acquisitions were thirty-something journeymen relievers, I nearly scrapped my annual spring training road trip this year. “I never go to Phoenix to see the Reds play the Diamondbacks during the regular season,” I told myself, “so why should I bother driving six hours each way to see games that don’t even count?”

I was still on the fence last Wednesday, but when I saw that the Reds’ slugfest against the White Sox was streaming for free online, I took a peek and quickly got excited. Well, perhaps excited isn’t the right word to describe seeing Homer Bailey get shelled for six runs, but the game reignited a spark of interest in watching the Redlegs in person and convinced me to keep my Arizona plans intact.

That said, I hit the road Friday morning for a relatively smooth drive to Goodyear. This was my fifth consecutive year of taking a spring training weekender, and as with my four previous trips, this one began with a stop at Taste Of Italy, a great by-the-slice pizza joint just down the street from the Reds’ practice complex. (Don’t just take my word for it, as MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon came in to place an order just as I was finishing my meal. Apparently the catering in Goodyear’s press box leaves much to be desired.)

I then headed back up the street to Goodyear Ballpark, a cozy facility with a capacity of 10,000, for the Reds’ first night game of the spring, As I tend to take assigned seating as more of a suggestion than anything else, I grabbed a seat in the front row alongside the third base line and figured I’d linger until the true ticket-holder arrived. Luckily for me, that never happened, so I had a great view as I watched Eugenio Suarez hit a pair of homers and Tucker Barnhart connect for one of his own. On the mound, meanwhile, Anthony DeSclafani and Tyler Mahle combined for six innings of two-hit ball against the Rangers, which was incredibly encouraging (at the time, anyway). Granted, wins and losses don’t matter in exhibition games, but it’s still more fun to see the Reds win, so the 6-3 final score was a nice exclamation point on a fun day.

Saturday’s home game against the Mariners was also a night game, so I headed to the Reds’ practice complex down the street from the ballpark around noon. There were two games with prospects and minor leaguers that were just wrapping up as I arrived, but with apologies to Doug Gray, I was more excited to see Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Lou Piniella milling around on site. I also spotted Corky Miller and Micah Owings.

The major leaguers (and those competing for spots on the big-league roster) weren’t scheduled to start practicing until around 2 p.m., so I wandered aimlessly for a bit before finding Alex Blandino and Brandon Dixon doing fielding drills. It might sound boring on paper, but being able to watch such workouts from just a few feet away gives you incredible insight into the work that players put in to make plays look routine. In past years, I marveled as Todd Frazier snagged dozens of awkwardly-bouncing grounders and Reds’ outfield prospects worked on 85-percent drills – that is, catching fly balls and then heaving them to the catcher, with the goal of landing a one-hop throw that covered 85 percent of the distance toward home plate. Watching Blandino and Dixon was just as fun.

Dixon, a prospect who can play multiple positions, was working on catching throws from across the infield at first base. The drill seemed to be intended to improve his reflexes, as he would run toward the bag, plant his foot and then turn to face a throw that was already en route to him. Sometimes, the throw would be to one side of him or the other; other times, he’d have to scoop the throw from the dirt. If memory serves, I only saw him miss once, when the ball came out of his glove after he caught it on a bounce.

Blandino, meanwhile, was working on fielding ground balls at second base and then turning toward the bag to begin a theoretical double-play relay. Later, the Reds’ coach who had been working with Dixon started covering second base, giving Blandino someone to throw to. He fielded dozens of grounders effortlessly, and the speed and accuracy at which he transferred the ball from his glove to second base was impressive.

Unfortunately, scattered afternoon showers led the Reds to cancel the rest of their planned outdoor practices in favor of indoor “cage work,” so I didn’t have a chance to see anything else worthwhile in Goodyear that afternoon. I made lemonade, though, and discovered 8-Bit Aleworks, a great Nintendo-themed brewery in nearby Avondale where I marveled at my muscle memory as I relived the fun of playing as the 1987 National League All-Star team (which featured Davis and John Franco) in the original RBI Baseball.

After another quick visit to Taste Of Italy, I returned to Goodyear Ballpark to see the Reds take on the Mariners. Again, I headed toward the third base line – where I scored a half-dozen autographs for my son before the game, including Patrick Kivlehan (who joked about having to pick a new uniform number after Scooter Gennett took his), Raisel Iglesias (who signs as “Ig”) and Joey Votto – and staked out a front-row seat right by the tarp. I chose well, for in the first inning, I snagged a foul ball for the first time in my life. (Since I already had several souvenirs for my son, I gave it to a kid two rows behind me. The karma paid off, as once again, no one ever came for the seat I’d chosen.)

The game started with a bang, as Devin Meso-rocked a two-run blast in the first inning and Sal Romano continued to make a compelling case to join the starting rotation with four innings of one-hit ball in which he struck out seven. Unfortunately, David Hernandez – one of the uninspiring veteran relief offseason additions – and Wandy Peralta coughed up five runs in a disastrous fifth inning, and the good guys fell 5-2. It was fun to see Blandino and Dixon come into the game in the seventh, though. Dixon didn’t get any action in left field, but Blandino made a few nice plays at second, including a 4-6-3 double play in the eighth that was a near-carbon copy of what he was diligently practicing hours earlier.

My final day in Arizona this year took me to Peoria, where the Mariners and Padres both train. I seem to end up there every year, but it’s a nice facility that’s slightly bigger than the park in Goodyear, presumably due to more ample general admission lawn seating in the outfield. That’s where my ticket suggested I park myself, but I decided to test my luck once again and snagged a third row seat behind home plate and adjacent to the Reds’ dugout. Luckily for me, the previous day’s karma carried over, and I had an incredible view of the most exciting spring training game I’ve ever seen.

Now a Mariner, Mike Leake looked exactly like the pitcher he was as a Red, working fast and yielding numerous hits that somehow don’t add up to anything meaningful. (In four-plus innings, the eight hits he gave up only netted one earned run.) As for Cincinnati, Brandon Finnegan struck out Seattle’s first batter, returning hero Ichiro Suzuki, before yielding a four-pitch walk to Jean Segura, after which Bryan Price headed to the mound immediately. As Finnegan exited the game, I scrolled through my Twitter feed for the first time in a few hours to see if anyone else saw something I didn’t, only to come across the crushing news of DeSclafani’s oblique strain. Get well soon, Disco.

If ever there was a time for Michael Lorenzen to step up, Sunday’s game provided that platform, and he performed commendably in his three innings of work. At this point, I’d still rather see him end up in the bullpen, but I’m glad he’s being given a chance to show what he’s capable of, and I hope he’ll receive similar opportunities over the next two weeks.

Despite racking up 11 hits over six innings, the Reds couldn’t find a way to score more than two runs in that time frame. Their bats went comparatively silent in the seventh and eighth, and they entered the ninth down 4-2. Business then picked up considerably, as the Reds batted around and put four runs on the board. The first came on an RBI single by Blandino, who entered the game at third base in the sixth (where he began a textbook a 5-4-3 double play). Backup first baseman Tony Cruz then smacked a three-run bomb to give the Reds the lead going into the bottom of the ninth.

After a fluky infield single that deflected off of reliever Dylan Floro and a hard-hit two-out double that brought the tying run into scoring position, Mariner Evan White hit a grounder that Floro deflected into shallow right field. Dixon – who entered the game at second base in the sixth – then retrieved it and threw a strike to backup catcher Joe Hudson, who tagged out the potentially tying run to preserve a 6-5 win.

While the injuries of DeSclafani and Finnegan are obviously worrisome, I’m sure I’ll remember this year’s Arizona pilgrimage fondly. Getting to see the Reds in action – and especially seeing Dixon and Blandino each have a chance to shine – unquestionably resuscitated my hibernating fandom, to the point that I’m struggling with the reality of being back home rather than attending today’s game against the Angels in Tempe. The good news is that I’ll get to see the Reds again next month in Cincinnati and then again in May when they visit Dodger Stadium. After that, I’ll start counting the days until next year’s spring training road trip – and if I end up having second thoughts once again, hopefully re-reading these words will steer me in the right direction: east.

8 Responses

  1. cfd3000

    Thanks for the terrific travelogue Clay. While we all yearn for wins and playoff appearances, for me seeing the game played at the highest level, and seeing young (and old) players working to perfect the craft is always a thrill. I’m excited about some of the solid veterans returning to Cincinnati this year, about some of the prospects beginning to emerge – Senzel and Winker of course, but perhaps Blandino and Long soon as well, and I’m excited that there are so many real prospects for the starting rotation. I don’t know who will emerge as a dominant starter, but with Romano, Garrett, Mahle, Lorenzen, Reed, and Stevenson all showing flashes of brilliance (and Castillo already well on his way), could be a fun year. Bring it on!

    • Clay Marshall

      Thanks for commenting. I didn’t have as much of a chance to see Winker and Senzel as I hoped — they both got only one AB after coming in as replacements during Friday’s game, and they didn’t play on Sunday (although they did go a combined 2-for-5 on Saturday before exiting) — but hopefully we’ll have plenty of chances to see them in action in the near future.

      I did, however, have the opportunity to watch Ben Revere start two games — one as DH, and one in RF, where he made perhaps the worst throw home I’ve ever seen (and that includes the one I air-mailed over the backstop as a Little Leaguer). If 85% is the goal, I’m not sure if his covered two-thirds of that.

  2. Dave Fleck

    Clay, my son, son-in-law and I mirrored your trip last weekend. We were the guys behind you on Saturday that helped you decide which young man deserved that foul ball. I saw that Blandino tossed you a practice ball after watching him field on the small field. I was thinking how many balls I would drop watching Dixon look up after finding first base and the throw almost upon him. As a foodie side note, stop at Jimbo’s near Peoria before the Mariners’ game. Before noon on Sunday’s get a schooner of beer and a free breakfast for $5. Biker-like bar that was awesome.

    • Clay Marshall

      Hi Dave, thanks for commenting, and sorry I didn’t have the chance to say hello in person! Thanks as well for the tip about Jimbo’s. I always seem to make it to Peoria by the skin of my teeth — on Sunday, I made it to the X-ray line right as the anthem began — but hopefully next year I’ll have time to stop in. Hope you three enjoyed your weekend as much as I did.

  3. big5ed

    Great stuff. I’ll be there for St. Patrick’s Day.

  4. Clay Marshall

    Mark Sheldon just predicted that Pennington and Revere will both make the opening day roster. Yikes!

  5. Still a Red

    Great write up Clay…especially the stuff about the drills players go through. Makes me think of doing some spring training travel one of these days. Thanks.