For those of us who make the annual pilgrimage to Port St. Lucie to welcome the first breath of both baseball and spring, there is something which seems to immediately distinguish spring training 2018 from past years. And it revolves around the new manager.
It has always been fascinating to watch just how the succession of Mets’ skippers over the years have conducted these training sessions, which are open and free to the public (best value anywhere).
The most memorable was Bobby Valentine, who would stand on the upper level of the gazebo-like structure a hundred feet behind the main practice field and yell out commands with a bullhorn. Terry Collins, on the other hand, would stand at a distance from the drills and survey the scenery while chatting up and glad-handing the assembled fans. Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel seemed more aloof, and communicated mostly with their coaches. Art Howe seemed to just stand there.
But true to what we have come to expect over the three non-baseball months since we were introduced to the Mets’ 21st Manager, young Mickey Callaway was right in the middle of things, overseeing and even conducting drills himself, keeping a close eye on details and kibitzing with the players – once walking all the way to left field to speak to Yoenis Cespedes. This is one small but perhaps telling sign of the changing of the guard, and the new vibe surrounding this franchise.
There were a few players who attracted particular interest among the gathering of a few hundred of the Mets faithful. One of the weapons Callaway was gifted late during this long-dormant offseason, third baseman Todd Frazier, seemed right at home in his new surroundings, his Jersey roots very much evident in what seemed like an entourage of well-wishers.
The fans seemed stunned by Dominic Smith and his slimmed-down body. Honestly, after shedding 30 pounds during the winter, I did a double-take before being certain it was him. Whether this will make a consequential difference in his game – and whether he can keep the pounds off during the long season – remains to be seen.
Adrian Gonzalez, the veteran brought in to hold down first base until the team is comfortable giving the job to Smith, took his licks in the cage, and looked to be assuming a more upright stance, perhaps in an effort to protect his back. Especially since he recently admitted that the back problems which ruined his 2017 season still need to be “managed,” one wonders about both his capacity and durability at age 35.
When it was over, they traversed from the back field to the main field by a narrow walkway lined with fans and autograph seekers. And while the fans offered some scattered words of encouragement to Smith and Nimmo, when Tebow came through, he was mobbed. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Tebow could have stood there for an hour and not fulfilled all the requests for autographs and selfies. Tebow-mania seems to have no expiration date.
The man who has drawn as much hate from Mets fans over the years as Tebow has drawn love from his adoring admirers also made an appearance, Owner Fred Wilpon, perhaps feeling vindicated by a flurry of signings that have largely soothed the savage beast known as Mets fandom, entered the main practice field – dressed down as he always is at spring training and walked right up to his prize catch during the offseason, Jay Bruce (presumably exhorting Bruce not to make him look bad for opening up his wallet for the right fielder). But Mr. Wilpon did not take any chances – he kept his face pointed to the field and did not come near the fans. Draw your own conclusions.
So the first exhibition game beckons, and with it a sense of both optimism about post-season possibilities that seemed so distant before the team was fortified in these last weeks, and anxiety about this team’s ability to avoid the injuries which turned 2017 into a black hole. But being here – in perfect weather and surrounded by the crack of the bat and baseballs hitting leather – optimism is most definitely the order of the day.