Can the Bucs be salvaged?

That’s a popular question on Tampa Bay sports talk radio, and it’s usually not referring to a baseball team.  But to the faithful gathered in Bradenton this morning, baseball and the Buccos were at the center of our universe.   

Even though I was held up for what seemed like hours by a slow-moving train full of Tropicana orange juice, I was still the first fan to arrive at the Pirate City complex.  This gave me a few minutes to wander around and chat with the grounds crew.  Soon more people started trickling in, but these were a wholly different species than the gentle snowbirds I encountered yesterday in Dunedin – these were rabid autograph hounds.  

Now I was very much into collecting autographs when I was a kid.  Holding something in my hands that Mickey Mantle or Cal Ripken had also held in their own hands created a magical, undeniable connection between us.  It seemed heretical to me in my youth that the gods could be mere flesh and blood.  I regarded even the benchwarmers with such intense veneration that I may have pissed my pants if I ever saw them as closely as I did today.  But, in accordance with the natural machinations of the universe, this all-out idolatry subsided, and was replaced by a wholesome respect for ballplayers’ dedication to their craft (consequently Jennifer Aniston soon replaced Wade Boggs as the subject of my daydream fantasies).  So when I see an awe-struck kid holding out a ball and pen in silent supplication, it makes me smile.  When I see adults with their color-coordinated Sharpies, it leaves me utterly befuddled.  I get along with them just fine; I’m not one to tell another how to worship.  But the hounds were evidently even more confused by my style than I am by theirs, as several of them incredulously inquired of me, “What’d you come here for?  Just…just to watch?”  

The Pirates famously endured their record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season in 2009.  They appear to be marooned, without a plan or even much sober-minded hope.  But the atmosphere in a Floridian February is invariably one of great optimism.  So it was that the boys in black and gold strode into focus out of the morning mist and took some batting practice.  Bobby Crosby, who has not done much of anything since his Rookie of the Year campaign six  years ago, looks ready to bounce back in a big way with his new club.  His first time in the box he hit a few balls weakly off the handle, prompting a spirited lesson from one of the nearby coaches.  Apparently he was able to diagnose the problem, for although there was no detectable difference in his swing, Crosby proceded to pound line drives deep into the outfield with the remainder of his turns.  

As coaches conducted infield and outfield drills on all four diamonds, Manny Sanguillen hobbled around spreading good cheer, discreetly using a bat as a cane to compensate for the wear and tear of 1114 big league games behind the plate.  “How’s everybody doo-eeng?  Eet’s a leettle cold today, no?  Not like Pittsburgh, though.  I’m go-eeng back to Panama in a couple weeks, 89 every day…  Dees year, we gonna make everybody feel good in Pittsburgh.”  

Their current backstop (and former Lehigh Valley Iron Pig) Jason Jaramillo offered no such predictions.  He spent much of the morning trying to share his thoughts on last night’s episode of American Idol, but every one of his teammates that he asked said that they hadn’t seen it.  Eventually Jaramillo gave up and quietly focused on his catching duties.  These included warming up the pitchers, each of whom threw a simulated game of two 17-pitch “innings” to a few hitters.  

This full-squad workout was much more extensive and entertaining than the Jays’ exercise that I saw yesterday.  The Pirates have some promising prospects (unlike say, the Royals).  Paul Maholm featured quite the assortment of sick junk, and Jose Tabata (whatever his age may be) hit one over the big batter’s eye out in deep center.  Still, I have a hard time envisioning anything other than an 18th consecutive losing season for Pittsburgh in 2010.  They are the early favorites to lead the league in dreadlocks, so they have that going for them.  That and the fact that a day spent watching the worst team in MLB history would still be better than a day at the office!  

More pics – click to enlarge  

the whole bloody crew!

 

In The Show, you hit white balls for batting practice.

check out the sweet tattoo

Ross Ohlendorf and Kevin Hart warming up

In The Show, you do soft-toss?

It hurts my elbow just watching D.J. Carrasco

Iwamura has a lot of fans in these parts

the all-seeing eye of the manager

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