DOUG'S DIGGINGS: Spring baseball spawns hope, but I'm not so optimistic
By the time you read this column, baseball season will have begun.
Spring is always an exciting time for baseball fans because hope springs eternal as teams enter spring training and get ready for opening day.
I was able to make it to Fort Myers again this spring and attended a couple of Twins baseball games. To be honest with you, however, I'm not sure I see a lot of hope for the Twins as they enter the 2013 season.
Unlike other pro sports, there is little chance for a team to make a quick turnaround. You see the quick turns in other sports: A pro football team can be terrible and add a couple of players, draft a couple of players and often turn things around in a single season. Same with basketball, have one good draft and you can be an instant contender. The same with hockey. Unlike baseball, all the other pro teams are usually a couple of players away from being contenders. I would guess it has something to do with parity, length of schedule, salary structures and more.
Baseball, however, is a huge puzzle and all the pieces have to be in place before a team can contend. It has something to do with the schedule. You can't hide anything when you're playing 162 games. There is no dumb luck involved. Contrarily, a football team can get off to a quick start, get a couple of breaks from the officials along the way and suddenly find itself winning 10 games and in the playoffs. A 162-game schedule leaves no margin for error, or dumb luck -- all weaknesses will be exposed!
Also, baseball needs so many pieces at once. The team needs at least three very good starting pitchers and a couple that are adequate. Then you need the hitting, the fielding, the bullpen... Except for the big-market teams, all of those thing have to come together for that magical couple of years when you have your window of opportunity to make noise in the playoffs. A football team can be competitive if you find one really good player -- a quarterback. A baseball team cannot be competitive if it has only one really good pitcher!
Back to spring training. I attended a Twins game at Hammond Stadium and saw the Twins loose to Pittsburgh 7-4. Despite the addition of several starting pitchers, it appears that the Twins are still going to be hard pressed to hold down their opponents. The new pitchers are not "great." The hope is that they are adequate and that the Twins offense will be more productive. Maybe they can beat some teams 6-5 and 7-6. Going into opening day, however, I don't see any "sure things" amongst the Twins starters. If you get lucky and a couple of them have decent years, you're still a long way from being a contender.
The next game I attended was against the Red Sox at Jet Blue Park (spring home for the Sox) in Fort Myers. The Twins lost that game 5-0. Of course, two spring training losses don't tell the story, but I just don't see a Twins roster that's going to make a lot of noise in the Central Division.
Jet Blue Park, by the way, is a gorgeous facility that opened last year at a cost of $82 million. It holds about 11,000 fans and has the exact field dimensions of Fenway Park in Boston, including a Green Monster in left field. The wall is constructed a bit differently, with seating about half way up, but there is netting in front of those seats so the players get the same dimensions when batting or fielding.
I think the Twins were a bit jealous of Jet Blue and have convinced Florida/Fort Myers to be part of a $42.5 renovation project for Hammond Stadium.
The renovations are scheduled to be complete in time for the 2015 season, with construction set to begin in April 2014. Hammond Stadium's seating capacity will be expanded from about 8,000 to 9,300. The concourses will also be extended with a new outfield boardwalk around the playing field, including a party deck in right field. Additionally, the dimensions of the field will be altered to match those of Target Field.
The concession stands, bathrooms, suites and press box areas will also be renovated under the plan, with a new gift shop being added as well.
The clubhouses will also be upgraded, with a new weight room and hydrotherapy area being added. Another Major League practice field will also be added, along with an adjacent agility field. A dormitory will also be constructed that would include 55 sleeping rooms for players and staff.
The Twins have been training at the Lee County Sports Complex since 1991. The Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle and Gulf Coast League Twins also play at Hammond Stadium.
Hammond probably needs all those improvements -- compared to Jet Blue, the park is nice, but pretty basic. The corridors are extremely narrow, making it difficult to get around. The pro shop is about the size of a fancy bathroom, and everybody who goes to spring training wants to buy something with "Fort Myers" on it. We joked about it -- I'll go to Twins games at Target Field all the time and don't buy anything in the pro shop for years; when I go to spring training, however, I need a cap, T-shirt or something declaring my presence!
Of course, spring training has become big business, with big crowds at each game. I remember going to a game in 1997 and the seats were about one-third filled for a game against the Red Sox. It is quite different today, when you can buy a seat at Target Field cheaper than a seat for a spring training game at Hammond Stadium.
The Florida trip did include other activities, but the biggest joy was just getting out of the Midwest snow for a week!
Hopefully my pessimism about the 2013 Twins season won't come to pass. Hopefully all the very average pitchers astound the baseball world and have great seasons. We'll know better in a few weeks or months.