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LONGVIEW, TX -- One of the great things about baseball is that something
is always happening. The World Series ends in late October, but the GM
Winter Meetings, off season trades and free agent signings ensure that we
will always have something to talk about with this great game. The hot
stove league keeps us busy right up through mid-February when camps open
in Arizona and Florida.

Some of my most heated baseball discussions have come during those winter
months. Which player should your favorite team go after? Who will be the
next rising star? What's going on in winter baseball? Are injuries
rehabbing according to schedule?

This particular off-season was among the busiest in recent history. There
were no blockbuster superstar trades, but there was much to say about a
Red Sox team that ended 86 years of frustration and finally put the ghost
of Babe Ruth behind them forever. What a story, especially considering
the way they came back against the Babe's old team to do so.

Sadly, most of the talk this winter has revolved around the steroid
issue. The problem is much more complex than most have made it out to be.
There are some clearly wrong, and illegal, choices made by some players.
Others have strayed uncomfortably close to the line that separates
"gaining a competitive edge" through legal products and potentially
damaging their bodies or breaking the law.

I won't be asking the players I see on this year's spring trip about
steroids. The games have started, and that's what counts now. Plus, I
am not convinced using steroids can make a significant difference to how
well a person can hit or pitch anyway, so I'll leave those questions to
those willing to spend their time one such.

I do know this much, however - In early February, I reconvened my
8-and-under machine pitch baseball team, the Longview Texas Rangers (of
course). To hear 7 and 8 year olds talking about steroids is sad, but
they know what has been going on.

The opportunity for an important message for these and other young
athletes is clear - stay away from steroids and other "substances."
Improve your game the way that will bring permanent results: practice,
and then practice some more.

We're excited to be heading out on the Fourth Annual Out of Bounds Spring
Training trip this week, which will take us out west to the Cactus League
is sunny Arizona. Kenny "the Lizard" Lattin once again is the trip's
"savvy veteran," as he will be making his sixth trip to spring training,
his second to Arizona. The Lizard has a sixth sense when it comes to
finding the best route to the park, the best place to park, and, most
importantly, the Steak-n-Shake. The Lizard lives in Longview and works
for Texas Bank and Trust.

Returning to the fold this year is Clayton "Perkins" Pecot, or as most of
you refer to him when I see you around town, "that guy who likes that
restaurant." You may remember that Perkins didn't make the trip last
year due to the birth of his second son, T.D. the Red. I wanted to make
sure that didn't happen again, so last June (9 months ago), I sent out an
e-mail to everyone who was thinking about going on this year's trip: If
you are going to start or continue a family, please wait until July or
August to do so! Perkins is from Longview, is employed with Harmony
Living Centers, and is making his third spring trip, second to Arizona.

Last year's newcomer Dan "Blue" Wilson returns this year to get his first
glimpse of the Cactus League. The Lizard has already been asking if Blue
will remember his binoculars. I told him the Blue keeps them with him at
all times - you never know when he may need a "closer look." Dan lives in
Kilgore and is an independent league umpire. If you happen through New
York or New Jersey this summer, go look him up. He's the only umpire out
there with binoculars.

And finally, there's yours truly, Joshua V. Best. I'll be making my
fourth trip to spring training, second to Arizona, and you can read all
about it right here, every day for the next week or so. I live here in
Longview with my wife Robin, and sons Joel and Jacob - Hello boys!

Writing these columns has become one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Every year beginning is about January, I see people all over town who
begin asking, "When are you heading out on your baseball trip?" It is a
pleasure to be able to share our experiences and the great game of
baseball with all of you each spring. Remember to take a look at, where you can see pictures from all our previous
trips. And enjoy the articles - we'll eat a hot dog for you (except for
Perkins. He'll eat a "chocolate chipper" for you…)

Lordsburg, NM – One of the best things about having Perkins Pecot back
with us on the trip is what he brings along with him. There are the years
of baseball experience as a player and umpire, and the culinary acumen
that only a man of his considerable experience could possess. But mostly,
it is the luxurious travel in the Yukon XL.

Pecot started out behind the wheel this year. Between him and Dan, there
will be little need for anyone else to drive, though the Lizard did take
a shift. Not that they would ask me to drive anyway. You see, if you
really want to travel in style and comfort, just make sure you spend your
first turn at the wheel a lot of time on the shoulder and weaving all
over the road. If your traveling companions stop you before the HI-PO
does, you’ll be in great shape.

By the time we were to Lindale, the baseball talk had begun. Reference
materials for this year’s trip include the Newberg Texas Rangers Report
and the 2005 Baseball Prospectus. If you have not familiarized yourself
with the Prospectus and enjoy baseball statistics, I strongly suggest you
acquire a copy.

The Lizard and I analyzed the Ranger lineup from top to bottom, excited
about the prospect of their entering the 2005 season with another year’s
experience under their belts. This is a critical time for some players.
While Michael Young and Mark Teixeira have pretty well established
themselves as solid big leaguers, the latter as a potential MVP
candidate, players like Lance Nix, Chris Young, and Gerald Laird will
need to take it to the next level to keep the Rangers above .500.

We need to watch Hank Blalock and Kevin Mench this year as well. Both
have tremendous upsides, but suffered through extended dry spells last
season and strike out too much. They’ll need to improve their performance
on the road, too, where Blalock hit just .239 last season, and Mench only

By the time we had exhausted that subject, Perkins Pecot was making our
first major stop. We were only to Arlington, but there’s a Steak-n-Shake
there, and that’s one of the big red signs he’ll always stop for.

Baseball trivia is always a big part of spring training trips, and this
year’s first entry was unique. We were listening to the classic song
“Talkin’ Baseball” and started out a game of “name they player.” The
lyrics are full of references to ballplayers and nicknames, and we
decided to see if we could identify them. We got all but two – the Lizard
knowing more of them that anyone else. I’m suspicious, though, since
this particular contest was his idea.

By midnight, we saw our first major change implemented since our previous
trip to the Cactus League in 2003. Shortly after entering New Mexico, we
were stopped at a border patrol station on the Interstate. Dan was
driving at this point, and I was confused to awaken to the sight of
uniformed officers brandishing AK-47s.

“We are still heading west, aren’t we - you didn't turn south did you?” I
drearily asked.

But these particular guys obviously aren’t that concerned with
identifying and apprehending suspicious characters – they let us through
without incident.

Around 2:00 AM local time we decided to call it a day and pulled into a
Holiday Inn here in Lordsburg. We needed to leave for Phoenix by 8:00, so
we went right to sleep. It was a pleasantly uneventful day that featured
the expected CDs, a couple of movies, plenty of joking around, and
anticipation of the baseball to come. Tomorrow the games will begin, and
we’ll start it off right, seeing the Rangers visiting the Angels. That
will be great, especially since, as I remember it, there sure isn’t
anything to see between here and there.

The annual "on the way to the game" pictures.  Top to bottom: Clayton "Perkins" Pecot, Dan "Blue" Wilson, Kenny "The Lizard" Lattin, and "Mr. OOB," Joshua V. Best.
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