I remember my first week at Stony Brook, an 18 year old kid freshly transplanted from his family, friends and life at home. I was in a new city, in a new state, in a different country and would be joining a completely new team. I had to live on my own for the first time in my life, and had to do all of that while earning good grades and playing baseball. I remember those first practices, thinking to myself “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” I remember feeling like I had no idea where anything was, the training room, the weight room, or my classes. I remember needing to ask Coach Nick or one of the Seniors what every single exercise on our card was. I remember fighting myself to try and just “be better” at all the drills Coach Pennucci hit us with during our daily infield work. It was a grind not only physically but mentally as well.
I arrived in Florida on Saturday and spent the afternoon and evening with my grandparents. We went out for Cuban food that night and I felt a very similar uneasiness in my stomach the whole night. I was excited, but I also had all these strange fears, doubts and questions floating around. I tried to just enjoy my last night before the season got underway but I certainly didn’t feel like myself. Sunday afternoon we went down to the Boca Beach Club for lunch with Uncle David and Suzanne (long time best friends of my grandparents). We had a great meal, and had our usual very interesting conversations that cover pretty well anything and everything, and watched the Team Canada vs Team Finland game on tv. As lunch drew to a close I felt all of that nervous energy reappearing as I knew I was leaving from lunch to drive to Port Charlotte. We said our goodbyes and I hit the road following my GPS. My grandparents who are normally incredibly trustworthy with their sense of direction recommended a different route than my GPS so I flipped around and took off up I-95. I took a long, boring, meandering route across the state that I managed to get lost on. Both their directions, the street sign and my gps said “stay on 80 west” which apparently actually meant “exit right TO STAY on 80 west.” Next thing I knew I was entirely too far north, not far enough west, and spending more time in the car with my windows down and country music blaring. It wasn’t all bad, I did enjoy the private concert I put on for myself.
I arrived in Port Charlotte around 4:30 and went directly to the stadium. I called my dad, and my grandparents/mom/sister to let them know I made it before taking a few pictures, tweeting that I had made it and then getting back in my car to drive up to Siesta Key. I had gotten an awesome offer from my uncle Allan, to let me stay at his place during the two weeks leading up to Spring Training since housing isn’t paid for or taken care of through the team. I made the 40 ish minute drive up and found the key, let myself in and threw my bags into one of the bedrooms. I’m here by myself, so I got to choose which room I wanted. Next I plugged in my PlayStation so I could play some NHL when I got back from dinner. I went and grabbed a quick bite to eat, picking the spot based on the music I heard playing inside this little joint on the water. I had a great dinner and headed back home to rest up for my first day at camp.
I arrived around noon for a 1pm workout, much later than I had wanted to show up, but I had to make an emergency pit stop on the way to the complex after realizing I’d forgotten a very important piece of “equipment.” I got to the gate, and asked the security person if I was in the right place, and sensing my nervousness he told me I wasn’t even in the right city. I semi laughed, nervous that maybe I’d managed to find the wrong place, but half confident it was a joke. He pointed me to the parking area for Minor League players, a little grassy area just outside the gates which enclose the Major League parking lot. I parked and carried my navy Padres bag into the clubhouse. I walked in and found the clubhouse manager and immediately recognized him from Bowling Green. He told me I had to get rid of the bag, so I unloaded it quickly into my temporary locker and then hid it atop the locker behind a stool. I got my Rays shorts, T-shirt and a velcro back hat (we get the fitted ones on our report date) and headed back to my locker. I sat in my locker as the guys filed in slowly exchanging handshakes, pats on the back, hugs and all the other athlete “bro” greetings we exchange with long lost teammates. I felt fairly invisible as the guys went about their reunion. I talked briefly with Ryne Stanek, a pitcher out of University of Arkansas who I had faced in Cape Cod. I also talked to Taylor Guerreri who I faced last year when he was pitching for Bowling Green. It was good to talk to a couple of guys who recognized me, and it made me feel a little bit more comfortable. Ryan Carpenter then came in and I got to talk to him, we were teammates for parts of two summers with Orleans in the Cape. When it finally was time to head out to the field we all walked over to Field 2 and across to the right field line. The guys began stretching and I was still in the middle of talking to the minor league coordinators and trying to figure out my position. We chatted for a few minutes, and I felt awful that I wasn’t in the beginning of the workout, but I soon jumped in.
We stretched, then did some conditioning and threw to get loose. As quickly as the day had started I was behind my mask and gear in the bullpen to catch a pair of pitchers. I did my best to just relax and give a good target and I felt like overall as a first impression I did a pretty good job. There were still some seriously sketchy attempts to block pitches in the dirt, but I worked both out of a traditional stance and off of one knee like Chris Robinson had been teaching me all winter. When the pens were over we broke into BP groups, and the catchers were the last group. We took 5 rounds of 5 swings, a pretty standard “dust off the cobwebs” type of batting practice session. My first round I was jumping out at the ball trying so hard to do EVERYTHING right that I couldn’t do ANYTHING right. I flared balls to foul territory, hit them up into the top of the cage and rolled over. I blamed the light, as I hadn’t hit outside in months, but I made sure to not get frustrated and just told myself to focus on seeing the ball. I took a “yellow light” (reference to Heads Up Baseball by Ken Ravizza, a book my dude Robert Grilli recommended to me this offseason) and made sure to refocus and get back to “green.” My next four rounds were awesome, I hit a couple balls out, hit the 410 sign in center field and dumped my normal amount of line drives into left field. I felt absolutely incredible in there, loose, free and just insanely happy to be there. We finished the day in the bullpen with Hoover the catching coordinator doing some defensive work. We did a whole bunch of barehand transfer drills to work on exchanging the ball high to give us the best chance to make good throws. We did some other little drills with the mini glove and were done about 20 minutes after the rest of the guys had gone inside. I got a little frustrated that some of the tips he gave me weren’t being applied right away, and that I needed reminders every other throw. I felt that same burning I felt at school that I just wanted it to happen, I wanted the changes to just be there, done right away. It was frustrating at the time, but Hoov told me after that it was all normal, and part of the transition, the same transition that got him to the Big Leagues. I walked away from Day 1 feeling great, I knew it was going to be a long working process defensively, but I liked the way he taught, and I felt like my hitting was great.
Day two was very similar to the first day except we had no bullpens to catch. We stretched, ran and then took BP before finishing up with defense in the bullpen. My hitting wasn’t as good as yesterday, but that could be attributed to a number of things not the least of which was that my body was tired from lifting earlier in the morning. Just like my freshman year at school I had to ask what everything was, what the routine was, the reps, the weights etc to try and just get through the workout. When I finished, I showered and changed back into my street clothes to get lunch, then came back for practice. At the end of the day we apparently (catchers) had to go in to do shoulder care work with the trainers. I had already showered and was about to leave when one of the trainers found me and told me to come in and get it done. I threw my sweaty gross workout stuff back on, did the 15 or 20 minutes worth of “pre-hab” then showered for the 3rd time before heading back home. I walked down the street to grab dinner a little while ago and have been down at the beach writing this.
I’m going to head back inside, watch some college basketball on TV and probably get on Skype at some point. I’m starting to figure out the who, what, where and when of being a Tampa Bay Ray, but it will no doubt be a process too. I’m enjoying it, and trying to learn as much as quickly as possible. I still can’t believe all of the interaction I’ve had with all the Rays fans, that has been one of the coolest parts of this whole deal. It has been awesome to know that there are so many people looking forward to following my blog, my season and my career with Tampa Bay. I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to interact with you the way that I have through the blog and through Twitter. I’ll always do my best to get back to everyone, but there are some things I’m not supposed to discuss on social media, and some that I really don’t have an answer for, but I LOVE talking baseball, so if you’ve ever got questions or comments always feel free to comment here or there.