*Cue “The Final Countdown” by Europe*
I’m not really sure how many times I can stress this, because it still doesn’t feel quite real to me just yet.
I know the team has been playing; I’ve printed box scores from each game. I know ticket sales are in full swing; I’ve seen the influx of fans at the box office. I know the grounds staff is making the field look top-notch; I’ve walked around the diamond hundreds of times. But finally, if I stop and let it sink in —
I know the Home Opener is actually here; we’ve finally made it.
The entire front office staff has been all-hands-on-deck as we prepare to draw the curtain for Friday’s Home Opener. Finishing touches are being applied throughout Isotopes Park, from the fourth floor suites to the depths of the dugouts.
And Armed with hours of pre-season meetings and a corny, though insightful, inspirational video about giving our fans “the pickle” (http://bit.ly/HhbHw4), the Albuquerque Isotopes are ready to welcome everyone to The Lab for the 2012 season.
As you first approach the ballpark this year, you’ll see the famous Isotopes logo stenciled in the walkway. Maintenance has been hard at work to re-buff and re-paint this iconic mark of the team as we begin our 10th season.
Upon entry to Isotopes Park, aside from seeing the field, you’ll notice the always popular vending stations are set to be stocked for Friday’s game. Of course, the food and face paint stands will be back like usual, but featured here, thanks to numerous requests on the Facebook post about Opening Day, are the beer vendors. First round is on me! (Don’t hold me to that)
Professional baseball is officially back in Albuquerque when the lineup boards are up-to-date and set for the day’s game. As you can see from the picture, the standings aren’t ideal as of yet, but like the old adage says, “the season is a marathon not a sprint.” I’m sure the boys will bring their “A” game in front of 16,000 strong on Opening Night.
In case the free scarves and beanies aren’t enough to fill out your ‘Topes wardrobe, the Pro Shop is fully loaded to meet all of your shopping needs. Let me restate that, and as the picture clearly shows, the Pro Shop is F-U-L-L-Y L-O-A-D-E-D. Trust me, it took an entire day just to unload and stock the hats, so you can imagine the amount of great merchandise waiting on our shelves.
As you make your way around the concourse you might notice our huge statue of Captain Morgan. The Captain’s there as a friendly reminder about the incredible deal in our new “small group” section, the Captain’s Corner. This seating area is perfect for friends and family to enjoy the game in their own “VIP” section of Isotopes Park. Saying the view from here is incredible would only be an understatement.
Now that Media Day has come and gone, our Creative Services staff is well equipped with “fascinating” information on this year’s ‘Topes roster. We have the inside scoop on all the players’ preferences for topics like “favorite superhero,” “least favorite animal” and my personal favorite, “what actor would play YOU in a movie about your life.” Stay tuned to the video board throughout the game to find out these entertaining (and sometimes revealing) answers.
A trip to The Lab wouldn’t be complete without venturing out to the Fun Zone. Our Stadium Operations department has left no stone unturned in their pre-season upkeep, and as the picture shows, have recently finished adding a fresh coat of paint to the ticket booth. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a kid again (at least at heart) and spend an hour or two in the Fun Zone this year.
Last, but definitely not least, the centerpiece of baseball, our home field diamond. Pretty ain’t she. While it’s a 365-days-a-year job to maintain this piece of artwork, the past two weeks have been the icing on the cake to ensure the field looks picture perfect. And judging by the image below, it does.
So let the final countdown begin! Roughly 32 hours until the soothing voice of the PA announcer welcomes you back for another season of the greatest sport on the planet. The ballpark. Isotopes Park. The Lab. Whatever you call it, we guarantee our 10th season here as the ‘Topes will be the best.
Relief pitcher, Ramon Troncoso, has cleared waivers and will be sent to Triple-A Albuquerque to begin the 2012 season. Troncoso was originally designated for assignment last Thursday to reinstate Ronald Belisario from the restricted list. The reliever was out of options on his minor-league contract and had to clear waivers in order to return to the Dodgers’ organization.
Troncoso got off to a shaky start in spring training, posting a 5.40 ERA through five innings pitched. He will likely continue his role of the previous few years, spending most of the season with the Isotopes while making a few, spot relief appearances with the Dodgers.
The left-hander looked like a promising reliever during the 2009-10 seasons under then-manager, Joe Torre. In a somewhat bittersweet situation, Torre relied heavily on the lefty’s arm throughout both campaigns, pitching Troncoso 73 times in 2009 and 15 times in a 21 game stretch during 2010. The heavy workload may have worn on the reliever’s arm as he hasn’t posted consistent numbers since the call-ups.
Following his big league stints of two seasons ago, Troncoso has pitched 79 innings in the hitter-friendly confines of Isotopes Park. His 2011 highlights include tossing nine consecutive, scoreless innings during a six-game span last season, and earning 18 relief appearances with the Dodgers.
If Troncoso can return to “2009 form,” he could serve as a consistent reliever in both the ‘Topes’ and Dodgers’ bullpen.
The former big league catcher wakes up in his house in small-town Garner, N.C., far removed from the ballpark lights of Colorado. It’s been nearly eight years since his first major-league hit with the Rockies, off four-time MLB all-star and Olympic gold medalist, Ben Sheets, none the less.
He rolls over and sees his nightstand lined with championship rings. Yep, still there.
All five of them.
But this life seems a thing of the past to the ex-MLB backstop. He now has a family, a wife, two kids, who, if he’s not out of bed soon, might not make it to school on time. Sighing and swinging his legs onto the floor, he puts on his regular clothes, no baseball uniform today. This morning, there’s no time to play catcher, it’s time to play dad.
“Class Act,” is how one of his former coaches describes him. “He cares, works hard, listens and tries to get better.”
But just because he’s out of the game, doesn’t mean he can’t stay in touch. Typing from his Twitter account he sends a message to current Dodgers’ prospect, Justin Sellers, who’ll be headed to spring training in just a few weeks.
“Things r good just enjoying the time with the family,” he tweets to Sellers. “Glad they (the team) r doing well tell them I say hello as well. Good luck this year.”
Those were the days.
The days when he was named “Mr. Baseball” in Indiana. The days when he was drafted in the fifth round directly out of high school. The days when he was on the fast-track to the Majors, set to be an everyday starter in 2005 by Baseball America.
Those were the days.
Before then, scouts weren’t drooling over his power at the plate. He wasn’t winning state championships in high school yet, much less showing up on anybody’s radar as a potential MLB star.
He was, however, known by his original name, Jeffrey Darrin.
Jeffrey Darrin Closser, or as of 1999, J.D. Closser, was tagged for baseball success. He led the minor leagues in various hitting categories his first three seasons as a professional and even hit over .300 in 36 games during his first MLB call-up — all by the age of 24. Closser collected Player of the Months and All-Star appearances like it was his job.
And until July 16 of last season, it was.
After 14 years as a professional baseball player, several stints in the Majors and various appearances in Triple-A ball, Closser got the news every big league athlete dreads; you’ve been cut.
The transaction came as a shock to both Closser and fans of Triple-A Albuquerque, as the catcher had been a critical part of the 2009 ‘Topes PCL Division Championship while continuing to hit .297 during the 2011 campaign. Closser’s release wasn’t necessarily on performance either, just a needed move to create roster space for A.J. Ellis.
Even Isotopes Manager, Lorenzo Bundy, admitted it was a hard decision to make.
“It was tough, it was really tough,” Bundy told the Albuquerque Examiner. “Obviously the best stretch of the year we had, he was a big part of it. He carried us for a couple weeks. He took it (being cut) like an ultimate pro, disappointed at first.”
Didn’t someone say “class act?”
Faced with a decision to hang up the cleats or leave his family behind in a few months for winter baseball in the Dominican Republic, Closser had to weigh out his options. The catcher was 31 years old, still had a love for baseball, but hadn’t stepped foot on a Major League diamond in five years. Should he forget the elusive dream of becoming a big league star?
This time, it wasn’t a tweet that kept Closser in touch with baseball.
A text from the North American Baseball League’s (NABL) Edmonton Capitals offered one last chance for the backstop. The team’s Manager, Orv Franchuk, reached out to add Closser to a team in the heat of a championship race. This championship, however, was for a team in Canada that belonged to a developing league in its first ever season as the NABL.
“Orv texted me the day I got released,” Closser told the Edmonton Sun. “I wasn’t quite sure if this is where I wanted to come right away. But Orv kept coming after me and nothing was coming up, so I decided to come to Edmonton, stay in shape and see how things go.”
Canada Independent League baseball is a long way from the lights of The Show, but staying in baseball ultimately overruled the downgrade from an MLB stage. Closser stayed true to form to humbly approach this new chance in a non-affiliated league.
“I’m here to do pretty much whatever’s needed,” Closser said after joining the Capitals with only 30 games remaining in the regular season. “I just want to be out here, I just want to be in the lineup as much as I can.”
The Capitals had no problem penciling Closser into the lineup on a nightly basis. He became an overnight sensation, batting .333 during the regular season and an unmatched .421 during the playoffs. Closser’s consistent swing propelled Edmonton to the Championship series against the Rio Grande Valley Wings.
Only two months removed from unemployment, and he’s stepping back into the box for a championship ring.
Edmonton, on the back of former MLB catcher Closser, took the inaugural NABL championship in five games, scoring seven or more runs in each of their victories. Closser sparked the offensive success by slapping a .522 average for the series, including a four-for-five performance in the series-clinching game.
Chance to gloat after dominating Rio Grande’s pitching?
“It’s really cold!” Closser said after being showered with Champagne in the post-game interview.
Unfortunately, the celebrations didn’t last long for Edmonton and the NABL. On Feb. 21, 2012, the Capitals officially announced the team would suspend operations for the 2012 season, citing a drop in registered teams in the North American League. The club has released a number of its players, including J.D. Closser.
“We would love to have him back,” Capitals Manager Orv Franchuk said. “I think he could be a backup catcher for at least 15 big league clubs — he’s that good.”
As for Closser, Edmonton was just another stop on his roller coaster ride back to the big leagues. The MLB, MilB and NALB veteran isn’t ready to call it quits just yet, and continues to look for the right opportunity.
Responding to a question from his Twitter account about “hanging up the cleats” Closser said, “No don’t want to, just don’t have a job offer as of now —
Waiting for the call.”
A text or tweet will also suffice.
We thought it might be enough to hang on.
When Jerry Sands stepped into the box Monday afternoon, facing a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth, he had the chance to leave the stadium as a hero.
And he did. (http://atmlb.com/GUPoXc)
Sands ripped a walk-off single to send the White Sox packing in a not-so-important spring training game. To the Dodgers, a walk-off hit is nice. To Sands, a walk-off hit can be the difference between Prime Rib in Los Angeles and Green Chile in Albuquerque.
The game-winner also came in the wake of Sands’ nine consecutive hitless at-bats. The hit had the potential to give the infielder some of his confidence back, which up until Monday, came at a premium. Without putting the former Isotope to too much shame, Sands was hitting only roughly better than I am while I sit at my desk.
“I have been feeling pretty brutal,” Sands told ESPN. “I’m just trying to work on some things. I have made some adjustments here and there, and I’m trying to get comfortable with some of the changes that I have made.”
You have to feel for the guy who showed such great flashes of potential last season when he hit .342 in 20 games during September for the Dodgers. Sands had tinkered with his swing a few times before posting those numbers, a sort of foreshadow to spring training.
At camp, Dodgers’ hitting coaches (that’s plural, coaches — all three of them) each offered their own insight to perfect Sands’ swing. And Sands, a teacher himself, knows three different voices telling you three different things can lead to trouble.
“You like to get help, and a lot of different people were trying to help,” Sands said.”But everybody is different as a hitter. I appreciate the help, and I love to listen, because I know I don’t know all of it. But I was up there thinking so many things at the plate, thinking about my swing and all that, and it’s tough enough already when you have that pitcher throwing 95 (mph).
A classic case of over-thinking.
Sands had initially entered camp with a legitimate, if not almost certain, shot at making the Opening Day 25-man roster. He has the ability to serve as a power-hitter for the Dodgers against lefties, but was never able to perform quite up to par in Glendale, Arizona.
“Even with the hit yesterday, he doesn’t feel good, he doesn’t feel right,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. “It’s been a rough camp for Jerry, and obviously, Jerry knows it.”
With those final words to seal Sands’ fate, Mattingly today announced he had optioned Sands to minor-league camp, most likely placing him in Albuquerque for the start of the 2012 season. From there, Sands has been told he may still figure into the Dodgers’ game plan at some point later this season.
“Right now, I’m just trying to see some pitches and get good swings on them,” Sands said. “I’m taking it at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch.”
May I suggest walk-off to walk-off?
I’m scared to write this blog. I’ll admit it. I seem to have brought bad luck, bad at-bats and a bad spring training in general to anyone I spotlight in the ‘Topes Tattler. I’m sincerely sorry Jerry Sands (now batting .174), Justin Sellers (injured on March 19, and going 3-for-his-last-13 before) and Scott Van Slyke (hitless in 5 of 10 exhibition games). Please don’t hold it against me.
So, to at least make myself feel better about all of this, I’ll blame the recent streak of terrible luck on the ‘Topes Tattler, and not myself.
We’ll call it “The Curse Of The Tattler.”
Fingers crossed, knocking on wood, rabbit foot in my other hand, witchcraft book open to any page but 13 — deep breath — here we go: Hello, Josh Fields.
Anyone who is anyone knows about the final roster battle waging between former ‘Topes Jerry Sands and Justin Sellers, now also features another PCL player from 2011, Josh Fields. The trio is in a daily competition against each other, where every at-bat weighs as much, if not more, than all previous playing time in each prospect’s career. The winner to the Pro’s, the losers (though not really “losers” in our book) to the Isotopes.
No pressure or anything.
Even at the very top the situation is as unclear today as it was before spring training started. Dodgers General Manager, Ned Colletti, recently told Dodgers Radio that the ever-changing shape of the Opening Day roster is “fluid.”
“We’ll see what the situation is day-by-day and do what’s best for everybody,” Colletti said.
Given the nature of this year’s spring training, day-to-day is about as fair as any player can ask. This also means the last reserve, bench spot on the Dodgers 25-man will likely be decided within the next nine spring training games.
Three players. Two at-bats a game. One roster spot.
And one Curse of the Tattler.
But as of recent, nonroster invitee Josh Fields has slowly begun to emerge as the likely candidate, hitting .385, second on the team to only Andre Ethier (.440). In fact, Fields credits much of his success at the plate to the point that he WASN’T a roster invitee this spring.
“It gives you a little bit more to strive for, a little bit more drive to come in,” Fields told the LA Daily News. “I’m going to earn every single bit of it. I’m past the point of having things handed out and given (to me).”
Fields’ lack of notice from other teams may come from his decision to split from Triple-A Colorado Springs last season, to finish out 2011 overseas for Yomiuri in the Japan Central League. Playing the corners of the infield for the Giants, Fields appeared in 50 games while hitting a lack-luster .202.
That’s the kind of numbers that cause coaches to hesitate when offering a new contract, especially when they’re unsure of a player’s loyalty to staying in Major League Baseball.
However, Fields was eventually offered, and signed, a contract to play in the Dodgers system, most likely beginning the season in Albuquerque. Now that overseas ball is a thing of the past, Fields insists he’s here for the long-run.
“I had an offer to go back to Japan, but I chose not to,” he told ESPN. “My focus is here. This is where I want to be… But I know I’m going to have to hit my way back to the big leagues.”
Hitting .385 in 15 games (tied for most on the team) is a good start for Fields. As is playing enough positions around the diamond you’d think the Dodgers had six guys named Josh Fields.
“He’s been pretty good,” Manager Don Mattingly said. “We’ve been trying different things — first, third, left (last Monday) — and you can’t complain about any of his at-bats.”
An all-around utility fielder seems to be the go-to route for this final roster position. Between Fields, Sellers and Sands, the nonroster invitee is beginning to stake out a small advantage with his versatility. He’ll be able to fill-in across the field, which in-turn will likely create a few more at-bat opportunities as spring training comes to its conclusion.
And although his recent tagline may read “Made in Japan,” Fields assured the entire organization that he wants to be here, battling it out for the last roster opening.
“I’m a Dodger,” Fields said. “I just want to stay healthy and show them what I can do.”
I just hope for curses’ sake, he doesn’t read this.