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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. contributing baseball writer Bryan Hoch is in Florida this week to check out the action of the Grapefruit League. He will be filing daily reports from the Sunshine State:
  • Previous: Back out at Thomas J. White Stadium for a second straight day, it quickly becomes clear just why the Brooklyn earmarked Florida to launch the concept of spring training. Today was just a gorgeous day in Port St. Lucie, with temperatures in the 90's underneath blue, cloudy skies. It's so cliché to say, but it was a perfect day for baseball, and my girlfriend Stephanie and I saw plenty of it today as the hometown welcomed in a split-squad of division rival Atlanta for a 1:10 contest. The themselves were a split-squad, with a weaker roster heading over to Lakeland to take on the . Most of the stars remained here at home, including , , and . Today, this is where the action is.


    9:30 a.m. — We wander into the ' early morning workouts back on Field Two, to which admission is again free. About fifty fans have taken advantage of the access, and as we approach the chain-link fence that separates the players from the faithful, spring catching instructor Gary Carter is again holding court with the crowd. Even though he's going into the Hall of Fame this summer with a Montreal hat on his plaque, "The Kid" has made it clear just where his sentiments lie this spring. Carter has been extremely personable and accessible with the fans all spring long, and reportedly he's actually performed a little bit of work for the team as well. Even if he hadn't, that'd be just fine with us. It's good to see the smile on Carter's face underneath a cap again, and one half expects him to take one more of those curtain calls that made him so beloved at Shea Stadium (and reviled in opposing dugouts) back in 1986. 10:20 a.m. is on one of the back fields, assisting in a pitchers' fielding drill. It's one of those typical spring training scenes that's played out a thousand times a spring, with the pitchers fielding bunts and tossing the ball to first, or letting Vaughn field the ball while the pitchers cover the bag. Generally mundane stuff, but wherever Vaughn goes, he's an attraction this spring. Unfortunately, the big guy doesn't seem to embrace it — when his services are no longer required, Vaughn calls for a staffer to pick him up in a golf cart and drive him the quarter-mile back to the stadium at minimal speed. Meanwhile, it's no problem for pitchers , and others — all of whom have just spent 15 minutes repeatedly breaking in off of a mound to field balls — to make the walk amongst the fans. The irony of the situation prompts one fan to wonder why Vaughn is so afraid of burning a few calories on foot, considering he was so devoted on the treadmill this winter to lose 15-20 pounds. 10:45 a.m. — Outside the stadium, we run into local area resident Jim Fertitta, who achieved his own fifteen minutes of fame a few years ago when FOX Sports Net selected him as the Number One fan and featured him in a series of television commercials. Fertitta takes great pride in his ever-expanding collection of memorabilia and photography, the latter of which he performs himself and has been featured on St. Lucie baseball cards and in other publications. This spring, Jim's got a baseball card of his own: the front of the custom-made glossy trading card features a snapshot of himself and his wife, Susan, while the reverse displays a photograph of his "Mets Home." We're not kidding — the house is painted orange and blue, with a giant skyline logo sketched on the garage door and an authentic dugout built into one of the rooms. Don't take our word for it, check out the web site: 12:40 p.m. — Inside the ballpark, Atlanta's is putting on quite the show during batting practice, belting ball after ball into the grassy plain beyond the right field wall. After achieving only marginal star status with the , Fick's acquisition slipped under a lot of radar screens. Make no mistake about it, this guy can flat-out hit, and there's a very good chance that Fick could be one of the big surprises this year as the look to keep their hold on the NL East title. 12:45 p.m. outfielder , who was a Met last season for about 30 seconds, is asked by a fan what he thinks of former manager Bobby Valentine. Bragg, leading away from third base during baserunning drills, responds by taking a punch at the air around the area of his kneecap and then stomping the ground with his right foot. The same leather-lunged fan is giving a hard time to third baseman , inquiring as to just what happened to his home run power. "You used to average 28 jacks a year," the fan says. "You'd better watch out, soon 's going to take your job." Not likely. 1:00 p.m. super-prospect pops his head out of the third base dugout and appears to be in good spirits. There's a reason: Reyes, the 20-year-old wonder-kid who some are calling the ' best position player prospect since Darryl Strawberry came up in 1983, expects to finally appear in a Grapefruit League game tomorrow. He's been limited to simple workouts ever since pulling his quadriceps in winter ball. Prospects Justin Huber and Prentice Redman are joined in the autograph signing contingent by 40-year-old David Cone, who seems to be going for the all-time record in fan congeniality this spring. We're told that Cone and Gary Carter have been, by far, the easiest signatures to acquire at the ballpark. 1:10 p.m. — Lefthander gets the starting call for New York today, and he needs a good outing to keep pace in the race for the vacant fifth starter slot. Actually, as the learned today, they'll have two openings in their starting rotation on March 31st, as projected third starter is likely to begin the season on the disabled list due to a strained right shoulder. Bacsik made a mess last time out, allowing seven runs and eight hits in 1 2/3 innings to the last week, so it's easy to see that he was markedly better in this contest. He faced the minimum over his three innings of work, helped out by a pair of nifty 4-6-3 double plays in the first two innings, but remnants of that horrid Baltimore start were visible as he allowed several long fly ball outs. He's not a hard thrower, regularly topping out at around 87 mph, so location is a key for Bacsik's success. Unfortunately, the lefthander still seems to be leaving too many pitches up in the zone, so for the moment he might be considered third in line for a rotation slot behind righties and, yes, Cone. Atlanta starter looks pretty good, getting touched for a leadoff double by and a run-scoring sacrifice fly by in the first but holding New York scoreless in the second and third innings. He's helped out in the third by a sensational diving catch by Bragg in left-center field, robbing Cedeno of what would have easily been his second double of the game. 2:15 p.m. is the lucky recipient of a gift single, as hurler Brett Evert breaks to cover first base on a sky-high pop in front of the plate. Neither catcher nor Castilla at third nor Fick at first have any idea what's going on, so the ball plops down onto the grass right in front of the mound for a hit. That's why we're down here, boys. 2:30 p.m. — I'm telling you, you can't beat that high-quality Florida State League entertainment. It's not just "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch anymore: attendees at Thomas J. White Stadium are also treated to the booty-shaking antics of Uncle Johnnie, the "Dancing Usher." Uncle Johnnie, it should be mentioned, appears to be well into his seventies, and the fans seem to get a kick out of it. 2:50 p.m. — Who's that arm? A youngster, wearing number 88, takes over at shortstop for Wilson Betemit in the sixth inning, and promptly unleashes two rockets to first base on successive ground balls hit by Sanchez and pinch-hitter John Wilson. With two out and nobody on, lefty gets himself into a bit of a jam, hitting both and and walking Jorge Velandia. But it's our mystery shortstop to the rescue again, scooping up Prentice Redman's grounder and winging it to first base just in the nick of time to save a run. Atlanta third base coach Bobby Dews clues us in: the strong-armed shortstop is Tony Pena, Jr., the son of the former veteran catcher of the same name. Like father, like son; the elder Pena was pretty well known in his own right for possessing a gifted right arm behind the plate over an 18-year career. 3:10 p.m. — More family connections: the send out a diminutive-looking second baseman wearing a No. 87 jersey with no name as a defensive replacement. The player turns out to be Matt Galante Jr., the son of New York's third base coach. He flies out to right and receives a sizable ovation for the deed. 3:13 p.m. third baseman , batting with one out in the eighth, loses his bat and flings it toward the on-deck circle, nearly clipping . Bell meekly wanders over to retrieve the bat and, seconds later, promptly sends it helicoptering back in Burnitz's direction for a second time. Burnitz did a good deal of this late last season, turning the seating area above the first-base dugout at Shea Stadium into something of a danger zone. That being the case, there's nobody better to ask about your problems than someone who's experienced them himself, and Burnitz (whose swing is actually looking a little more crisp, believe it or not) obliges Bell by adding some extra pine tar to the bat himself. It turns out, Bell wouldn't need the bat anyway: he struck out looking.

    Coming up next

    Tomorrow brings Tony LaRussa's St. Louis to town to take on Art Howe's boys, allowing a face-off between two managers who have led the Oakland to the playoffs. What better way to mark the occasion (which, yes, has happened once already this spring) than by scheduling Howe's Bobblehead Day? Pour on the sarcasm: You just know we won't be able to wait for that. Check in tomorrow for some ballpark giveaway tales and maybe even a little baseball. Bryan Hoch is a contributing writer to He can be contacted at
  • Tagged: Braves, Mets, Henry Blanco, Wilson Betemit, Jose Reyes

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