Saturday, March 15, 2008
I just finished glancing through the 1978 edition of the Cauldron, which is the name of Mercer University's yearbook. 1978 was my senior year. Gosh, I was young. And I had a lot of hair. And I had a mustache. And I was skinny. A lot has changed.
Some things have not changed, however. I loved baseball then and I love baseball now.
Back during my student years, I would occasionally drop by the office of my professor, advisor, and mentor Dr. Howard Giddens. He had an open door policy--literally. If he was in his office he kept the door open and that open door was an invitation to anyone who needed to see him. So, when I needed advice or guidance or just some good conversation, I'd go by to see him. Sometimes I'd just listen to his stories. He had great stories.
Some of the stories he'd tell me were about his trips to Florida for the annual ritual of baseball Spring Training. The first time he told me that he was going to be going to Spring Training I asked, "Are you going to West Palm Beach to see the Braves?" "No," he answered, "we're going to see some good baseball." You must undertand that he uttered those words during a time when the Braves were not a very good baseball team. I learned later, though, that it was his tradition to go to St. Petersburg, which was on the opposite coast from West Palm.
Dr. Giddens made his first trip to St. Pete for Spring Training in the late 1940s when he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia. His father and brother, both of whom lived in Dr. Giddens' South Georgia hometown of Nashville, had been going for a few years and they finally prevailed upon him to accompany them. Thus the tradition began. Eventually a large group of men from Athens joined in the trip and, from the stories Dr. Giddens tells, I gather that a grand time was had by all.
Time changes things, though, and eventually Dr. Giddens' father died and one by one the other men became unable to go. Finally the travelling party got reduced to Dr. Giddens and his brother Holmes. At some point, I guess not long after I got out of seminary, Dr. Giddens began asking me to go with them. I couldn't, of course, because I was too busy. I stayed too busy for far too many years.
Finally, though, around 1997, Dr. Giddens called and said, "Mike, if you don't go with us, we're not going to be able to go. We need someone to drive. Holmes is getting old." At that time Dr. Giddens was around 86 and his brother was two years older than he! So I told him that if they could go during my Spring Break (I was teaching at Belmont at that time), I'd go. As it turned out, Holmes was unable to go that year and he never returned. In fact, he died one year while Dr. Giddens and I were at Spring Training.
Thus began a string of ten years that Dr. Giddens and I went to Spring Training together. Those memories are among my most cherished.
Dr. Giddens can't make the trip anymore. The last two years three men from my church have acccompanied me and we have kept the tradition alive. We have made one change--we go to Orlando where the Braves now train because we are all diehard Braves fans. We stay in Orlando and watch them at their Spring Training home at Disney's Wide World of Sports. When they play somewhere else during our time there, we travel to see them.
This year we caught a break and were able to go at a time when the Braves had six straight home games in Orlando so we didn't have to travel. It's always a great trip. We basically watch baseball and eat and tell stories. I suspect it's much like what Dr. Giddens and his buddies used to do. God is good.
So, here are some impressions I have about the 2008 Atlanta Braves. My impressions are based on the six games we saw. I should offer some qualifications to my remarks. First, we were there pretty early in the process. There are two weeks to go in Spring Training and a lot can happen in two weeks. Second, neither veteran ace John Smoltz nor anticipated closer Rafael Soriano pitched while we were there, Smoltz because he was on an individualized training regimen and Soriano because of illness and arm soreness. Third, trades or other changes could always come about. With those qualifications, here are some of my thoughts.
First, the starting lineup will almost certainly include these players probably batting in this order:
2B Kelly Johnson
SS Yunel Escobar
3B Chipper Jones
1B Mark Texeira
RF Jeff Francoeur
C Brian McCann
LF Matt Diaz
CF Mark Kotsay.
Second, it's hard to tell whether we can depend on very expensive and oft-injured pitcher Mike Hampton. He started the first game we saw and left in the second inning with a mild groin strain. He was scheduled to pitch the last day we were there but pitched in a simulated game instead. If he is able, he will be the #4 starter in the pitching rotation. The first three slots will be filled by Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. Hudson and Glavine looked solid in the games we saw them pitch.
Third, the fifth starter will most likely be 22-year-old Jair Jurrjens, who was acquired in the offseason trade that sent Edgar Renteria to Detoit. He looked fantastic on the day we saw him. I understand that he had a rough time in his start today (Saturday), so we'll see. Other candidates are Jo-Jo Reyes, who has looked terrible, Chuck James, who is coming off a shoulder injury, Buddy Carlyle, who has looked average, and Jeff Bennett, who has not pitched a lot yet due to illness. I still think it'll be Jurrjens unless he bombs from here on.
Fourth, middle relief is the biggest question mark. They have a lot of candidates for just a few spots. The team has already sent Matt DeSalvo, a pickup from the Yankees system, to the minor league camp and I was very impressed with his ability to make batters hit the ball on the ground. Blaine Boyer looked good. I was also fairly impressed with Chris Resop, who pitched last year for the Angels. All of those are righthanded pitchers. I was not terribly impressed with the left-handed options, although Will Ohlman, acquired from the Cubs, will almost certainly be on the team and play an important set-up role.
Fifth, two of the young prospects are the real deal. Brent Lillibridge, who was acquired before last season in the Adam LaRoche trade with the Pirates, may make the team as a utility player. We saw him play both shortstop and third base; I understand that he can also play in the outfield. He is a good, hard-nosed player. Jordan Schafer, who, although he has not yet played above Class A ball, is regarded as the likely Braves centerfielder in 2009, is fun to watch. He plays sound defense, has some speed, and hits well. I believe he is pencilled in to play center for the AAA Richmond Braves this year.
I hope the Braves have what it takes to make a run at the division championship. They look to me to be more of a contender for the Wild Card.
The first game of the regular season is March 30 vs. the Washington Nationals. 162 games later, we'll know.