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Larry Stone: Arizona heat, baseball drills and rotten bananas: What I’ll miss most about spring training this year

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 17, 2021

Seattle Mariners prospect Julio Rodriguez signs autographs before a spring training game last February in Peoria, Ariz.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners prospect Julio Rodriguez signs autographs before a spring training game last February in Peoria, Ariz. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

Seattle Times reporter Ryan Divish has already been sending me screenshots of the temperature in Peoria, Arizona – a sunny 66 degrees at last check – and you know what? It doesn’t bother me too much.

Gloating over the beautiful weather to the poor souls back home stuck in the rain, snow and/or cold is one of the perks of covering spring training. And I happily embraced it for more than three decades.

In other words, I deserve a little schadenfreude.

So Ryan’s playful jabs didn’t make me bitter; just a little nostalgic. OK, a LOT nostalgic. For the first time since 1986 – an uninterrupted 34-year span, which encompassed four newspapers – I am not covering spring training this year.

The reason is obvious: COVID-19. With Arizona a particular hotbed of disease, it didn’t make sense to send my 60-plus-year-old self into potential risk. For a variety of reasons, Ryan is far less vulnerable and will be able to provide essential day-to-day Mariners coverage from a regulated, socially distanced but still bird’s-eye vantage point.

I calculate I’ve cumulatively spent more than three years of my life in Arizona, blissfully watching exhibition baseball, so there’s a little bit of jealousy. I’m only human. But mostly, as the four greatest words in the English language are uttered Wednesday – “pitchers and catchers report” – I feel a whole bunch of wistfulness.

Here’s what I’ll miss about spring training (some of which wouldn’t have been available anyway because of COVID-19 restrictions):

That first glorious blast of warmth when you step off the plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and realize you’re not in Kansas, or Washington, anymore.

The first time you step into the stadium and see actual baseball being performed. It’s invariably mundane stuff – batting practice, infield drills, PFPs (pitchers fielding practice) – but it’s as riveting to me as a Broadway play.

A special adjunct to the item above: watching the ballet-like precision of Mariners coach Perry Hill’s infield practice, which he rules over like a benevolent drill sergeant. I could literally watch this all day and not be bored.

The mystery and anticipation of the back fields, where the bulk of workouts take place and where you never know what you’re going to see. Maybe an obscure prospect showing flashes of future brilliance, or a nonroster veteran trying desperately to show he has one last vestige of value to offer.

Closely related: Watching from a ridiculously close vantage point the bullpen session of pitchers, and being in awe of the velocity and movement that even journeymen put forth. When you get a true star such as a Felix Hernandez or Randy Johnson, it’s jaw-dropping. And makes you wonder how anyone puts the ball in play against them. It’s always fun to put on your scout hat and see who has the stuff that will play at the major league level.

Once the minor-leaguers reported (a couple weeks after the major-leaguers), I’d always make a point to check out a few of their workouts, putting faces to names and seeing who stands out. It was cool to measure their progress from year to year and to marvel at how raw these kids, some as young as 18, look compared with their older, more-established peers. And how the contrast lessens each year.

Of course, it’s always a high point to watch the hot prospects especially closely and gauge how close they are to helping the Mariners. And, of course, whether they’re really as good as cracked up to be. Sometimes, yes (Alex Rodriguez, Freddy Garcia, Felix), sometimes no (Ryan Anderson, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero). Now, of course, the Mariners have a new crop of blue-chippers on the rise, led by Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert, who would have absorbed a major part of my focus this spring.

I always have loved the grand entrance into camp of the reigning superstar. This dates back to my decade covering the A’s and Giants in the Bay Area, where arrival of the likes of Barry Bonds, Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark was an annual Event, capital E. Rumor has it that in A’s camp, Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco would sit in their cars in the parking lot, trying to wait out the other so they could be the last one reporting.

The Mariners have had their own share of superstars without whose presence it wasn’t truly spring training yet, starting of course with Ken Griffey Jr. The breathlessly anticipated “State of Junior” address when he finally sat down with the media eventually segued into the annual “State of Ichiro” address until the baton was passed to Felix. The M’s don’t really have anyone of such stature at the moment – Kyle Seager is closest – but if all goes according to general manager Jerry Dipoto’s master plan, they’ll have ample star power in the near future.

Speaking of which, no matter how beleaguered the team appears to be, no matter how dire the outlook for the upcoming season, there’s always one telling moment during the Cactus League games. Maybe a rotation hopeful is mowing down the opposition, or someone vying for a position job bashes a couple of extra-base hits to make you say to yourself, “Hey, they might not actually be so bad.” Eventually, reality reasserts itself, and the pending doom is cemented. But the lure of hope and possibilities might be the single greatest asset of spring training.

The interplay between fans (remember them?) and players in an environment that offers more intimacy than you’ll get at any other time of the year.

The hot buttered rolls at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant across from the Peoria Sports Complex, sinfully delicious. Don’t judge me until you’ve tried them.

Speaking of food, I’ll miss the annual tradition at the condo Ryan and I shared in Peoria. We’d each stock up with groceries when we arrived, and I always buy a few bananas to serve as a quick on-the-go breakfast. Invariably, however, I’d end my Arizona stint with one banana uneaten – and for the past several years Ryan has chronicled via social media the gradual decay of that rotting banana as it sat on the counter. Ryan has promised to sacrifice one banana to keep that gross tradition alive.

That bittersweet feeling when you head to the airport for the trip home, a mix of contentment for the uplifting experience with sadness that it’s over – and now it’s back to the rain, snow and/or cold.

The thought I always have then is the same one I have now: Can’t wait until next year.

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