Monday March 28th, 2011

TAMPA -- As spring training winds down, it's impossible to summarize my past five weeks of travel with a single dateline, so while Tampa is where I am as I start to write this -- sitting on my hotel's fifth-floor balcony on a warm spring evening while my home of New York City is getting pelted by a late March storm bearing snow and hail -- a more appropriate dateline would be:

TAMPA by way of KISSIMMEE, BRADENTON, LAKELAND, DUNEDIN, FORT MYERS, JUPITER, CLEARWATER, PORT CHARLOTTE and LARGO, Fla., plus GOODYEAR, MARYVALE, MESA, PEORIA, TEMPE, SURPRISE and SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

For those scoring at home, that's 2,193 miles on three rental cars (just as gas prices soared), 22 of 30 major-league teams seen in game action, way too many sunrises witnessed, far too many gallons of coffee consumed and roughly 150 interviews ranging from a few quick decline-to-comments (Barry Bonds, predictably, was a radioactive topic) to a half-hour spent chatting with one of several scouts SI leaned on for critiques of each major league team in our magazine's season preview issue (hitting newsstands Wednesday).

With major league camps in such close concentration, especially in Arizona where it's possible to hit two or even three camps in a day, spring training is a fertile ground for any reporter. That's partly because every team has some optimism, partly because of the great weather and partly because each player seems to magically report to camp in the best shape of his life.

That last one, of course, is spring training's undying cliché, but in many cases it's true. Among this year's more novel workouts: new Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay experimented with P90X; Brewers closer John Axford tried cross-fit workouts; Astros rightfielder Hunter Pence did yoga (although he quit the hot Bikram yoga after two sessions because of blurry vision) and Astros general manager Ed Wade, 55, ran his second marathon, completing January's Houston Marathon in 4:39:03.

There, of course was also plenty of golfing, hunting and fishing -- the classic offseason pastimes of ballplayers for more than a century. Among the newcomers to hunting, however, was Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus, who had never given it a shot until this offseason despite growing up in Alabama. He nabbed his first deer.

The offseason is also a time for interleague fraternization -- for example, Reds starter Homer Bailey said his winter throwing partner in the Austin, Texas, area was Orioles starter Jake Arrieta.

But the award for best offseason story goes to Rays first baseman Dan Johnson, a Minnesota native who built a 90' by 50' hockey rink in his backyard, using plywood for boards and stringing up lights for night sessions. His children, neighbors and friends all used it, and he too laced them up -- for shooting and skating rather than playing games. It may be coincidental, but Johnson is having the best spring of his career, with 13 hits, which include eight for extra bases and four home runs.

As I continue emptying the spring-training notebook, here were some other fun moments that had not seen the light of day..until now:

• Next week's issue of Sports Illustrated features the baseball preview package, in which I examine the National League Central, including an essay on the division's incredible collection of talent at first base. One point of interest was how well many of them know each other.

Among the connections: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Brett Wallace share an agent (Dan Lozano); Overbay and Pujols were Arizona Fall League teammates in 2000 (said Overbay of Pujols, "It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, hitting-wise -- every hit was a line drive off the wall or a home run"); Prince Fielder and Pujols have twice been NL All-Star teammates; Carlos Peña and Pujols have become friendly since sharing a flight to the Dominican Republic; Peña and Overbay played four years together in the American League East; Peña recalled Votto approaching him in spring training one year to ask a hitting question years ago; and Wallace has spent time in the Cardinals' and Blue Jays' spring camps alongside Pujols and Overbay.

• Also, Overbay played five years with the Blue Jays in Toronto, Votto's native city, so when the two had time to talk, they discussed the city -- and the curious Canadian concoction of bags of milk, rather than jugs. Reminded of the conversation, Votto smiled and said he wasn't too sure either, offering up the tongue-in-cheek theory that Canadians are weak and couldn't lift a jug. Overbay, meanwhile, has three young sons and said this question had been on his mind because "I go through milk left and right. I've cut more bags than I've got hits."

• When Wallace was reminded of his three trades in 12 months -- either directly or indirectly involved in deals for Matt Holliday, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt -- he laughed and acknowledged that his real estate decisions have been easy: "I have not purchased a house anywhere yet," he said. In fact Wallace said he's renting in the same apartment building as Astros third baseman Chris Johnson, whom Houston collectively hopes will become its corner-infield cornerstones for years to come.

In working toward that goal, it was impossible not to notice that Wallace's right hand was raw and blistered as we spoke. "You try to put in some extra work and that's what you get," he said with a knowing chuckle suggesting this wasn't the first time and won't be the last. This spring Wallace, who counted working with about 15 hitting coaches and roving minor-league hitting instructors in his many professional travels, seems to feel comfortable and it has shown this spring with a terrific .365/.391/.556 batting line, having gone 23-for-63 with 18 RBIs in 20 games through Sunday.

• I had the pleasure of spending some time with new Red Sox leftfielder Carl Crawford for this month's Sports Illustrated Kids cover story -- available now -- and he was his usual pleasant, energetic and accommodating self. He sounded excited for the nightly energy of Fenway Park's capacity crowds and told a few funny stories, including snagging a few balls from Burger King's playpen for games of front-yard stickball and exacting revenge on his younger brother, Cory, for striking him out but homering on a pitch in the dirt the next time they faced.

For a list of favorites that run alongside SI Kids profiles, I asked Crawford for his favorite video game. He said it had been years since he played. "When Michael Vick got in trouble, I stopped playing," Crawford said. "I haven't played Madden since he went to jail."

The speedy Crawford is annually one of the game's best defensive outfielders and is particularly adept at taking away shallow line drives. Fenway's leftfield in front of the Green Monster is already small, so when I asked Crawford if he had advice for opposing hitters, Crawford said, "Hit it off that wall because I'm going to try to come in and take away all those little base hits."

• While watching batting practice with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pirates beat writer Colin Dunlap, third baseman Pedro Alvarez started crushing balls off palm trees beyond the fence of Pirate City's backfields. Describing that moment of home-run-hitting-palm-tree afforded the chance for what I thought was the perfect tweet because it gave a sense of distance (long), performance (good) and place (tropical) all in one sentence.

• Speaking of Twitter -- you can follow me at @SI_JoeLemire -- no tweet of mine received such a hearty response as detailing Giants starter Tim Lincecum's In-N-Out order. After striking out seven White Sox and allowing just one run over 5 1/3 innings, Lincecum told a small crowd of reporters that he had gained some 10 or 11 pounds since last offseason.

Asked what his food intake was, he told of having three double-doubles (explicitly not animal style), two orders of fries and one chocolate-strawberry shake, a staggering order for someone so slight but, as Lincecum noted, "My metabolism is through the roof." Inspired, I went for my own double-double as an after-dinner snack that night and told him about it the next day. Lincecum mentioned seeing critical fan reaction about how he wouldn't hold up if he kept eating like that, but he laughed it off and calmly explained that this wasn't a new dietary decision.

• Yet another reminder why this job will always be great: Questions about infield defense inspired engaging answers from several innovative baseball minds, particularly Rays manager Joe Maddon and Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, the latter of whom even acted out positioning possibilities on a practice field.

• It's Monday, so here's my own aggravating travel note: Despite checking into a direct flight 90 minutes before my departure -- and then having that flight delayed another 90 minutes -- Delta still managed to lose my bag despite having three hours to get it in order.

• The Angels might be the only team with no TVs in their spring clubhouse, so two Sundays ago a few players propped up their iPads to watch March Madness games.

• While watching a Phoenix-area high school baseball game with the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro, we saw a scorching foul line drive off a righthanded bat make direct contact at full speed and close proximity (maybe 15 feet) into the face of a high school-aged bat girl in the visiting dugout. It was particularly scary in that it happened just days after Braves minor league coach Luis Salazar suffered a similar fate in a pro spring training game and later lost his left eye as a result. But it reinforced the need for further investigation of safe dugout practices and whether taller screens might be needed.

• My spring travels ended with a roundtable-style conversation with the Twins' Jim Thome and the Rays' Evan Longoria on the set of new Pepsi Max commercial. One literal tabletop conversation would have been fascinating: Ricky Henderson, Rollie Fingers, Randy Johnson and Lou Piniella all ate lunch together.

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