Part 10: Pop. Crack. Pop.

by Timothy Malcolm

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

All the while a warm sun drapes on your shoulders. You’re watching dozens of conditioned men throw and catch balls, and dozens of other conditioned men swing baseball bats. The balls fly into the limitless blue sky. The fictional John Kinsella wondered if an Iowa cornfield was heaven. You’re standing at the precipice of a ball field in Clearwater, Florida, and you’re damn well determined to advocate for this place.

Spring training officially started for the Phillies on February 18, but most of the pitchers, catchers and position players reported before that date. The first team workout was February 19, but most of the players worked out before that date. This was commonplace practice throughout the Phillies organization. Baseball wasn’t merely a game, not merely a sport. It was hard work, it was life. Roy Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, reported to the practice fields at 5 a.m. for his own brand of training. While in Philadelphia during the offseason, Halladay was spotted throwing on the field of Citizens Bank Park. Around him, the National Hockey League assembled a hockey rink for the annual Winter Classic. It was late December. It was mere insanity. But that was commonplace practice. Training never ends. Work never ends. The goal is an October celebration. It’s what brought Jim Thome back to Philadelphia. It’s what brought Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia. The Roy Halladay way. The Chase Utley way. The Phillie Way. Never stop working. Pitchers and catchers? They were already changing condo sheets on February 18.

On February 29 the Phillies met the Florida State Seminoles in their annual exhibition. Per usual, the Phillies defeated the Seminoles, though the outcome didn’t matter. The players’ performances really didn’t matter, either. What mattered was watching the men playing baseball on the fields of Florida. Actual baseball. Grass stuck to cleats. Dirt kicked into the air. Chalk mixed with dust. Numbers piled into box scores. Words pounded about the actions on the diamond, the smell of the rubber, the bite of the sun, the sound of the game.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

***

In every spring, a team showcases a handful of names that hang out of place. Amongst the Rollinses and Lees are Galvises and Elartons. Newcomers to the spotlight. Newcomers to the red and white. Reporters scramble to scribble their life stories. The first Sunday story about a flashy young infielder with a vaunted glove, or an aging veteran who escaped obesity and hasn’t pitched since the Bush administration.

Freddy Galvis is the flashy infielder, a twenty-two-year-old who knows nothing but acrobatic, unthinkable ground ball fielding. His glove has already been compared to that of Omar Vizquel, one of the greatest ever at the job. He broke camp a longshot to make a major league roster, but with every eye-raising defensive play and every surprising slice into the gap, Galvis was increasing his stock. A utility job was becoming possible. Hell, maybe a starting job. But that wasn’t really up to him.

Spring training 2011 meant flashes of light, gaggles of reporters and photographers hovering around the honor complex the Phillies dub Carpenter. While lenses pointed at Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, the wrinkled star of second base, Chase Utley, was ducking and weaving. The Phillies, and Utley, contained speculation about an injury nagging the second baseman; they did it so well that nobody knew exactly what was wrong. In time the word was revealed: chondromalacia – pain caused by irritation to cartilage under the kneecap. The knee injury shelved Utley until May and, as it was chronic, slowed him late in the season. So while Utley told reporters he felt fine at the start of spring training 2012, he didn’t play. Every morning reporters photographed that afternoon’s starting lineup, all the names scribed in perfect calligraphy by bench coach Pete Mackanin. And each day the lineup picture didn’t reveal “Utley” in perfect calligraphy, bloggers, fans, reporters and baseball people grew slightly more concerned.

“Where’s Chase Utley?” was the piece written by Baseball Nation’s Wendy Thurm, which largely detailed why Utley wasn’t playing. The Philadelphia Daily News’ David Murphy wrote about the Utley situation, telling fans not to jump the bridge. There was, very probably, a plan.

“So as we look at this first week of Grapefruit League play and spin our worst-case scenarios, we must also acknowledge that April 5 is the goal,” Murphy wrote. “The 25 games that remain before Opening Day present more than enough time for a veteran hitter like Utley to get the at-bats that he needs.”

CSNPhilly’s Casey Feeney concluded “if Utley doesn’t emerge as an all-star caliber second baseman again … the Phillies offense figures to be inconsistent in 2012.” Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe the Phillies thought young Freddy Galvis and his superior defense was enough to sustain a team reliant more on its pitching than ever before. Maybe offense didn’t matter so much. Hell, they won 102 with an inconsistent offense.

It seemed the Phillies were hedging more bets on a stacked pitching staff. There was Halladay, Lee and Hamels, plus Papelbon, newly acquired Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo. But early in camp the Phillies touted a bullpen session by Joe Blanton, returning from a rash of elbow injuries in 2011. Vance Worley was adding pitches with Halladay’s help. Pitching coach Rich Dubee talked highly of prospect Jake Diekman. Rising prospect Austin Hyatt received the exhibition start, a prize for an over-achieving pitcher. Pitching led the way early, and why not? It’s what the Phillies did best.

One pitcher attracted high attention for his unorthodox road to spring training. Scott Elarton is the aging veteran, debuting in 1998 for the Houston Astros, winning 17 games as a twenty-four-year-old in 2000. He never dominated; in fact, Elarton annually rivaled some of baseball’s worst starting pitchers. He last pitched in the majors in 2008, eight games with the Cleveland Indians. He grew lazy and overweight, brushing against 300 pounds at one point. It snapped him. He lost the weight, started throwing and got back into baseball shape. He met Ruben Amaro Jr. while visiting a Phillies game and asked him for a shot. This is his shot.

Elarton made good work of the first shot, throwing two perfect innings against New York Yankees regulars. His appearance was part of a three-game super-series to start play in the Grapefruit League, the conglomerate of teams that make spring home in Florida. Galvis played, too, and started with a hot bat and hotter glove. Utley wasn’t there. But Halladay was, and Lee was, and Hamels was, and Blanton was, and Worley was. They all started strong. The Phillies were starting strong.

***

Spring training would also prove an important moment for the ballad of Domonic Brown. An outstanding spring meant a possible spot on the Phillies’ opening day roster. A solid spring meant high hopes heading to triple-A Lehigh Valley. A poor spring, or an injury, meant further doubt, increased exasperation and another glimpse at a potential Rust Age. But Brown, determined to nudge doubt and grow into a major league stud, struck a working relationship with Nicole Gabriel, manager of Next Level Performance Training. Gabriel worked Brown into a bulky beast, transforming his 230-pound frame into a lean, strong hitting machine. Hunter Pence joined Brown at workouts, and soon they were showing off their bodies for Twitter, making women swoon and men nod in approval for what could be a breakthrough in the ascension of young Domonic Brown.

“I’m not at peace if I start at triple-A,” he told David Hale of the Wilmington News Journal. “I’m coming to win a job.” He wasn’t as forthright in 2011, when he broke the hamate bone in his hand, sidelining him and starting a year of doubt and frustration. This was a new Domonic Brown, a young man matured, not proud but impassioned.

So Brown played heavily against the Yankees. He swung well, struck the ball hard and notched a few hits. He looked solid at the dish. In the field, the story was a little different. In game three of the series, whip-fast outfielder Brett Gardner dropped a tailing fly ball into left-center field. Brown closed on it, dove, and in the warm, blinding Florida sun, missed the ball. Fans sighed. Bloggers groaned. Reporters pounded it out: Another fielding mistake by Brown. Gardner strode into third, then scored on an errant relay throw, and all eyes fixed on Brown, shrugging it off, hoping for redemption. Instead, he found a nag. When he dove, he landed awkwardly on his thumb. It hurt. He didn’t play for a few days. He got an MRI. He had a minor thumb injury.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

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