03/10/2002 Clearwater, FL - First stop has finally arrived. What better place to begin than at Jack Russell Stadium, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies who were facing the Rangers. Well, some of the Rangers were there. I'm pretty sure all the big names were on the golf course. This presented an opportunity to evaluate some of the up and coming talent like Hank Blaylock and Kevin Mench. They didn't disappoint.
The Phillies have been training in Clearwater since the 1950's, the second longest of any club tenure in the Grapefruit league. My first visit to a spring facility made it clear why everyone loves spring ball so much. With palm trees lining the walks and the history of players like Schmidt and Carlton everywhere, we knew we had stepped into history at Jack Russell. You can even get an authentic cheesesteak there to complete the experience.
This is also the home of the group that peddles various toys and desk accessories made from Louisville Sluggers. You can get a toy car, a paper weight, a keychain, or the more traditional broken game-used bats for dirt cheap. Neat novelty items.
On the field, Doug Davis took the mound for the Rangers, getting off to a tough start. He surrendered three in the bottom of the first thanks to some timely hitting by Philadelphia and poor infield defensive play by Texas. Thankfully it would not matter, as the youngsters would more than make up for this. Later in the game, Mario Ramos, acquired from the Athletics in the Carlos Pena deal, pitched three strong innings. He got into some trouble at one point and surrendered two runs, but overall showed good control and stayed in command.
Right fielder Kevin Mench was particularly good, going 3 for 5 with two homers and five RBI - he was absolutely crushing the ball, and doing so off everyone he faced. We also kept a close eye on Hank Blalock, the third baseman rated as the number one prospect in the Texas organization by "Baseball America." We had heard a lot about this guy and were anxious to see him in action.
In the bottom of the first, Blalock speared a hot shot down the line, moving to his right to help Doug Davis out of a jam. Later in the game, he climbed the ladder to steal another double, and he played solid D throughout the rest of the game. He did not limit himself to glove work, though, as he went 4 for 5 with two runs scored and two doubles. Watch out for him as he competes for a big league job.
Gabe Kapler and Frank Catalanotto were the only regulars to play. Kapler also drove in two and played his usual stellar defense, including one fine diving catch after which he popped up and doubled a guy off of first. When all was said and done, the Rangers had posted a 9-5 win.
After the game, Mench was all smiles. He roamed the on-deck area for about 20 minutes, wearing his glove on his head and bantering with the fans. This guy just looks and acts like a big leaguer, and I am predicting good things from him. He knows how to have fun and keep it light. Then again, after playing like that, I would be pretty happy too.
As for our group, after spending three hours out in the sun, the Lizard proved himself to be a chameleon, having changed colors to a lovely shade of Phillie red. Clayton made his way down to the "Bats by Stan" stand and acquired an engraved mini-bat for his son Harrison, which will no doubt be used to bop friends and cousins on the head. I stopped off for my traditional key chain and program. And as for young Jake, wait, I think we left him somewhere in section J.