For many, spring training crept past undetected, like the stealthy protagonist in the Metal Gear video game franchise.
What? It’s the regular season? These games count? The Biscuits have started? The Biscuits have started?!?
Fortunately, we’ve been keeping up. We even went to Port Charlotte and saw the Rays play a spring training game, cheering extra hard for the players that once wore Biscuits colors en route to international stardom in Major League Baseball. We scouted prospects and assessed the big league club. In short, we are excited about the 2012 baseball season.
The Rays do their spring training at the stadium that is home to their single A affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs. The stadium is nice enough, I guess, but ours in Montgomery (the Biscuits are the next level up, the double A affiliate) is much nicer. We hope to one day check out the stadium in Durham, where the players go from Montgomery when they get promoted.
We talked to season ticketholders for Stone Crabs games, who were jealously effusive about Montgomery’s level of support for our hometown Biscuits.
“Man, you guys really turn out to support that team,” one gentleman told us. “Here, we’re almost the only guys at the games.”
I felt proud of our team, and proud of our stadium with its river and train tracks and delicious veggie burgers and Big Mo.
As we noted in last year’s preview of the Biscuits, the talent level of the team is usually very high, due to the exceptional front office of the Tampa Bay Rays. The minor leagues are constantly stocked with top talent, much of which ends up at the major league level.
Many of our favorite players from last year are either in the pros or in AAA ball in Durham. A lot was made of Matt Moore’s promotion, success, and new contract with the big league club, but we are also fans of pitcher Chris Archer, who’ll start the year in North Carolina. Another favorite Biscuit, Stephen Vogt, also made the big league roster, so we’re excited to see how he does as a rookie in The Show.
So who will you see if you go to a Biscuits game this year? And, as importantly, can the Biscuits contend for a Southern League title? Well, to answer the last question first, probably so. Billy Gardner is back at the helm as the Biscuits manager and he is excellent at making the most of an unstable and unpredictable talent pool. It’s fun to watch him teach and coach, and true fans of baseball would do well to observe Gardner’s decision-making. It’s painful to simultaneously want the best for Gardner (a promotion and chance to manage in the big leagues), while hoping he’ll stay in Montgomery forever and provide some continuity for fans. Unfortunately for Gardner, he’s unlikely to be managing the Rays any time soon, because they’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball in Joe Maddon.
And who’ll Gardner be putting into the lineup? Hak-Ju Lee is certainly one to keep your eye on. The shortstop from South Korea seems taller than 6’2″, has a good arm and, when he’s clicking, is a potential double-hitting machine. He has good speed and seems especially focused. Kyeong Kang is another of our favorite players (maybe we have a thing for South Koreans), but he has good power and could be the best South Korean slugger since Hee-seop Choi. From a little closer to home, there’s also outfielder Emeel Salem, who is from Birmingham and was a standout at the University of Alabama. He’s got great speed and also some musical talent to fall back on if baseball doesn’t work out for him (let’s hope he can do both). Also, the Biscuits will have Brad Coon, meaning we hope to see at least someone in the stands with a sign featuring this image.
Pitching-wise, it’s unsurprising that the staff might be a little thinner than last year, with all the eye-popping talent being pulled up to higher levels. Frank de los Santos is back, and has a live arm. He always seemed to do poorly when we saw him pitch, but although he split time between starting and the bullpen, he does have good stuff and an aggressive approach. We’ll also have a pitcher named Kyle Lobstein, who joins Kevin Slowey, Edgar Junkball, and Jimmy Givenupruns in the Pitchers With Bad Names Club.
Sadly, the other pitcher we were looking forward to seeing won’t be a Biscuit this year. And he won’t be playing baseball. And he won’t be walking the streets as a free man. He’s in jail. Matt Bush looked pretty good for the Biscuits last year, hitting 95 on the speed gun coming out of the bullpen and showing clear signs of getting his life back together after being considered one of the biggest draft busts in history. You can go back to last season’s preview to read about all of the baggage Bush brought with him to Montgomery, but we were earnest in our cheering for him and hoped that one day he’d defeat his demons and follow in the footsteps of another incandescent talent struggling with addiction issues, Josh Hamilton.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Just a week before we saw the Rays in spring training, Bush, just 26 years old, allegedly was drunk driving an SUV he had stolen from a teammate and hit (and nearly killed) a 72-year-old motorcyclist. Oh, and he left the scene of the accident. Bush had a suspended license at the time and, when apprehended, allegedly had a blood alcohol level at twice the legal limit. The guy Bush hit, as of this writing, remains in the intensive care unit of a Fort Myers hospital suffering from hemorrhaging of the brain and a collapsed lung (among other injuries). If the guy dies, Bush could face murder charges, making the end of his baseball career the least of his troubles.
It’s sad that a guy who was selected in the draft ahead of Justin Verlander couldn’t get the help he needed to beat his addiction to alcohol. Or that he refused to accept treatment. Or that rehabilitation failed. Or whatever. Certainly the guy had a million chances due to his talent, which makes his behavior all the more indefensible. Good people who had less skill at throwing a baseball certainly were given less.
Still, the ancient rites of renewal continue. It is spring. Nothing is predetermined and everyone has a chance. The entire summer awaits.
See you at the ballpark.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.