Written by Don Drooker
Friday, 24 April 2015 00:00
Everyone you know probably considers themselves an expert at something, but Fantasy Baseball players are at the top of the food chain. Even though we play the game for money and bragging rights, the real truth is that we actually think we're smarter than MLB GM's and managers. After all, would you call up a $68.5 Million prospect to be a fifth outfielder and pinch-hitter? Or would you hesitate to make a trade because you believe that Gregor Blanco is an everyday player? Or would you take on $6 Million in salary to put Trevor Cahill in your rotation? Or would you pay a pitcher $10 Million to pitch for another team? Or, even in today's inflated salary environment, do you think Rick Porcello is a $22 Million pitcher? Or did you really think Joe Nathan and Brett Cecil would be closing by the All-Star break? The Old Duck participates in a 15-team Fantasy Baseball "experts" league where it is abundantly clear that each owner considers himself to be smarter than the other 14, but none of them would make those moves. It isn't arrogance, only knowledge gained from experience.
Avid baseball card collectors are no different in their approach to the hobby. After watching card manufacturers flail away at each other in the 80's and overproduce products in the 90's to the detriment of the industry, it's easy to criticize almost any product offering. Card enthusiasts are quick to complain about too few autograph cards but also aren't happy when the autographs are on stickers applied to the cards because they want the authenticity of "on-card" signatures. They also don't like redemption cards (when players have not yet had the opportunity to sign), but also whine when the better players aren't included in a product. It is the nature of the consumer to always want more for less and consider themselves smarter than the folks in charge.
In an attempt to remove myself from this category (even temporarily), I'm willing to admit that the people at The Topps Company are brilliant!
In 2001, Topps was celebrating the 50th anniversary of their entry into the baseball card business. They utilized the framework of their historical 1952 set to develop a new product. Topps Heritage came into the marketplace with current players pictured on cards that had the format of the iconic 1952 set. The detail of the set and the photography took collectors back to the time when packs were a nickel and included a stick of gum. The set was designed for card enthusiasts to build it completely by opening packs and sorting through the cards. It even had some of the quirks of the original, like short-printed cards, checklist cards and even bubble gum...even though the gum was enclosed in a plastic wrapper. To all of this, Topps also added some autograph and relic cards to make the set even more attractive. The real draw, however, was the 1952 look and the opportunity for kids of the 50's to build a new set of cards for the 2000's.
Topps Heritage has been a consistent top-selling product at a mid-range price (around $3 a pack) for over a decade. Each year, the cards mirror the old design of the appropriate Topps set with new players and this year's release (which just hit stores last month) uses the 1966 card as its platform. If you collected cards in the 50's and 60's, this is the product for you.
For 2015, Topps added a few more twists with short printed cards that have variations of throwback uniforms or an action image. They even tugged at old-timers' heartstrings by randomly adding a section of white on some of the card backs, emulating how they would have looked had a dusty piece of gum been sitting against the card...very cool!
The Old Duck purchases a few boxes each year and builds the set from scratch. Of course, some of the insert cards are in the packs and this time, game-used memorabilia cards of young stars Mike Trout and Bryce Harper both appeared. The coolest card, however, was a beautiful '66 replica card with an autograph from Marty Keough. You see, Keough was a Red Sox Outfielder in the late 1950's while I was learning about baseball at Fenway Park. Marty played 11 years in the big leagues and his brother Joe played for the Royals in the late 60's and early 70's. Adding to the family tradition, Marty's son Matt was a starting pitcher for the Athletics from the late 70's into the mid-80's. The best part of the story is that Marty is still in the game and last season at Chase Field, Hall of Fame baseball executive Roland Hemond was nice enough to introduce me to Marty, who was sitting in the scouts section behind home plate. Roland told Marty that I had seen him play at Fenway Park in the 1950's, at which point the 80-year-old Marty looked me up and down and said, "That's strange, you don't look familiar."
In honor of this year's release, let's look back at that beautiful 1966 set of 598 cards, which includes over 25 Hall of Famers. The card values are based on "Near Mint" (NM 7) condition.
> #1 Willie Mays, $265 - The "Say Hey Kid" was coming off a MVP season where he established a career high with 52 homers.
> #50 Mickey Mantle, $325 - "The Mick" had just started his career decline by hitting only .255 in an injury-plagued season in '65. He played three more years and never again hit .300 or slugged 25 home runs.
> #100 Sandy Koufax, $110 - '66 was the last season for this Hall of Famer at age 30. Talk about going out on top, how about a record of 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and the Cy Young Award?
> #126 Jim Palmer, $95 - The rookie card of the Orioles ace.
> #254 Fergie Jenkins, $70 - One of three Hall of Fame pitchers to have their rookie card in this set.
> #288 Don Sutton, $65 - The third of the rookie hurlers to make it to Cooperstown, this was season 1 of 23 in the Majors.
> #300 Roberto Clemente, $125 - In his prime at this point, he won the '66 MVP with a .317 AVG, 29 home runs, 119 RBI and a Gold Glove.
> #500 Hank Aaron, $160 - "Hammerin' Hank" was very much taken for granted while he played. Think about this - during a pitchers era in '66, he led the NL with 44 homers and 127 RBI but finished 8th in the MVP voting.
As with many Topps sets of the time, the high number run (#'s 523-598) was very scarce and has inflated the value of numerous cards for collectors. Some examples of expensive non-star players include...
> #540 Denny McLain, $65 - Two years before his 31-win season.
> #547 Horace Clark, $90 - The rookie card of the Yankees second baseman. His lifetime batting average was .256.
> #555 Ron Perranoski, $80 - Had six wins and six saves in '66.
> #591 Grant Jackson and Bart Shirley, $225 - This two-player rookie card is very difficult to find in nice condition.
There were many other memorable cards in this iconic set, including Bobby Murcer's rookie card and a Bob Uecker card long before he was Harry Doyle. In addition, there were team cards of each major league squad except for the Astros, who were going through a legal battle after changing their name from the Colt 45's. The complete 598-card set is valued at about $9,000 and if there's one in your garage, please let me know.
Last Updated on Thursday, 23 April 2015 23:02
The Littlefield Effect - 2015
Written by Don Drooker
Friday, 17 April 2015 00:00
John Littlefield is now 61 years of age, but his name still resonates with baseball card collectors and Rotisserie League Baseball team owners. He only spent two seasons in the major leagues but what wouldn't the rest of us give to always be known as a "former big league pitcher"?
The baseball card connection is easy to explain, as Littlefield played in the early 80's when the card industry exploded with new manufacturers. The Topps company had a virtual monopoly on baseball cards from 1956-1980 but in 1981, licenses were given to both Donruss and Fleer, and despite the competition, all three companies were guilty of less than acceptable quality control of their products. There were numerous examples all through the 1980's of mistakes, misprints, corrections and embarrassments. The most infamous incident involved the now legendary 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken card that was distributed with a picture of the player holding a bat that had an obscenity written on the bottom of the barrel. Fleer tried to correct the card quickly but never really got it right, producing a total of five different versions.
Littlefield's card legacy was early in the cycle, as his 1982 Fleer card was originally distributed with a reverse negative of the picture, turning the 27-year-old right-hander into a southpaw. Fleer corrected the card, thus making the original a very scarce item. Even today, the corrected version is a "common" card worth about a nickel, while the difficult-to-find "error" card will set you back about $45.
Littlefield's enduring legacy to Fantasy Baseball comes from the original 1984 "Rotisserie League Baseball" book that started this amazing hobby played by millions of fans. As the founding fathers of the game had actually started playing a form of the game in 1981, they shared many stories of the fun, camaraderie and strategy they had experienced in those early years. A segment of the book talked about "The Littlefield Effect", an interesting factor that impacted the value of players at their first few drafts. While the early 80's isn't really that long ago, it was long before the digital age of affordable PC's, the Internet and instant information. The Roto inventors decided that the best time to have the player draft was on the weekend following opening day in order to have reasonably valid information about the official MLB 25-man rosters. After all, stats were only published weekly in the USA Today and league standings were always at least a week behind the actual games.
The timing of the draft, however, led to 4-5 games being played prior to the auction/player selection and box scores were readily available in daily newspapers. Could a few games really have a major impact on the value of a player in a 162-game season? John Littlefield answered that question in 1981. In 1980, he had a very productive rookie campaign with the Cardinals, appearing in 52 games with a 3.14 ERA, five wins and nine saves. In December, the Cards made an 11-player trade with the Padres and Littlefield headed west. To say that the '81 Padres were terrible would be a compliment. In the strike-interrupted 110-game season, they went 41-69 and the entire team only hit 32 home runs. Ozzie Smith was the shortstop and despite leading the NL in at-bats, he hit .222 with no home runs and 22 RBI.
The Padres opened the year in San Francisco and Littlefield saved the 4-1, 12-inning win. The next day, he registered another save in a 4-2 victory. So, by the time the Rotisserie owners showed up for the draft, it seemed logical that the Padres had anointed him as their closer. With saves being one of only four statistical pitching categories in the standings, his auction price ended up being $34, equal to 13% of the total 23-player budget of the winning bidder. As you might guess, the remainder of the 1981 season was very forgettable for Littlefield, as he suffered two losses and a blown save later in April and was replaced as the closer by a pitcher named Gary Lucas. He pitched in 14 games at Triple-A Syracuse in 1982 with an ERA of 7.49 and his career was over at age 28.
For those of us who still play "old-school" Rotisserie Baseball and draft our teams on the Saturday following opening day, we also have memorable "effects" of our own. One of the classics was in 1994, when a Cubs outfielder named Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes hit three home runs on opening day. Even though he had never played more than 50 games in any major league season, his price on draft day was $22. He ended up with eight home runs for the season and never hit another one in his career.
This past weekend, we gathered for the 32nd annual draft of our original Rotisserie league from 1984 and the Littlefield effect was still floating around the room. Using projections from a highly-respected fantasy site, let's see how things played out at the table. As this is a keeper league, we'll assume that there could be an inflation factor of 20% added to the 4x4 projections.
> The most obvious example for 2015 is Jason Grilli, who inherited the Braves closer role when Craig Kimbrel was traded just before opening day. Despite being 38 years old and only accumulating one save in 2014, his new job and the three saves he got in the days before the draft got everyone's attention. Even with the closer job, his projection was $13, so he might have been worth $15 with inflation...final price at the table - $24. That turned out to be $7 more than Addison Reed, a 26-year-old closer with more than 100 saves over the last three seasons.
> The Cincinnati Reds had two Littlefield nominees. Fantasy players have always drooled over the skills of Joey Votto, but injuries have held him back. His projection was $24, so $30 would be pushing your luck. However, the night before the draft, he hit two homers, stole a base and had four RBI. His final price was $40. Todd Frazier was a similar story at the table. Due to his breakout season in 2014 and multi-position eligibility, he was surely going to be popular. $23 was the projection, so even $30 would have been a stretch, but after hitting three home runs the first week, his final price was $37.
> Jake Lamb, the D-Backs rookie third baseman, wasn't even projected to be worthy of a double-digit bid, but he had seven RBI in the first two games of the season. His final price was $15.
> Randall Grichuk is the fifth outfielder on the Cardinals depth chart. His projected value was only $1, but he hit a home run on Friday night. On Saturday, he was drafted for $8.
> The effect also can work in the opposite direction. Mat Latos is an established starting pitcher and had a projection of $10, but he allowed seven earned runs in less than an inning earlier in the week. Instead of $12-$14, his final price was $5.
> Some teams also took advantage of early box scores to pick up some stats. Jim Johnson's win got him rostered for $1 and then he added a save later in the day (Grilli was tired). Bartolo Colon's opening day win was worth $2, as was Jordan Lyles' victory for the Rockies. Chris Heston's spot-start win for the Giants got him drafted for $1 and the ultimate cherry-picking may have been getting J.J. Hoover's two opening week wins for $2.
> While "newbies" to the Roto game might think that we are dinosaurs, don't forget that the timing also allows us to know who has the job on opening day. And the teams that were influenced by box scores may have to deal with the consequences as the seasons rolls on.
The good news for all of us is that whenever you hold your draft, it's your favorite day of the year.
Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 23:36
Written by Don Drooker
Friday, 10 April 2015 00:00
How would you like to be invited to participate in the most unique Fantasy Baseball league in the industry? Looking back to 2002, the Old Duck was thrilled to be part of the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL), the vision of Ron Shandler and the first industry keeper league. Some of the most respected pundits and players of the game were kind enough to invite three "challengers" to be included as part of the 12-team group. As one of these home-league players, I was nervous and excited to sit down at the draft table that November and test my skills against the best.
As we enter our 13th season, it has been a great ride for this lifetime baseball fan. We've expanded to 15 teams and the camaraderie established over the years has led to genuine friendships with a great group of guys. And, to my surprise, the Quacker has turned out to be a decent player with championships in 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
The XFL is a 5x5 keeper league (with OBP instead of BA) that has an auction budget of $260 for 23 players. We conduct the draft only a month after the baseball season ends and no research (or computers) are allowed at the table. Utilizing just MLB depth charts handed out prior to the first player being nominated, it is a test of your player-pool knowledge and prognostication. There is a significantly high inflation factor because many of the players on the keeper lists have salaries much lower than their projected values. Here's the roster of Donald's Dux following the draft...
C - Miguel Montero $14 (D)
C - Devin Mesoraco $6 (K)
1B - Anthony Rizzo $18 (K)
3B - Chase Headley $3 (D)
CI - Jose Abreu $4 (K)
2B - Chase Utley $6 (D)
SS - Starlin Castro $16 (K)
MI - Nick Franklin $1 (D)
OF - Yasiel Puig $7 (K)
OF - Andrew McCutchen $19 (K)
OF - Carlos Gomez $20 (K)
OF - Ben Revere $20 (K)
OF - Michael Brantley $12 (K)
U - Colby Rasmus $1 (D)
P - Tanner Roark $12 (K)
P - Zach Britton $10 (K)
P - Jacob deGrom $10 (K)
P - Cole Hamels $26 (D)
P - Francisco Liriano $17 (D)
P - Steve Cishek $11 (D)
P - Addison Reed $9 (D)
P - Ervin Santana $11 (D)
P - Kyle Lohse $1 (D)
To lend some insight into the keeper salaries, players drafted in the auction have their salary increase $5 each season. So, for example, Mesoraco was drafted for $1 the previous year. Any player who qualifies as a rookie has his salary increase only $3 each season. So, because the Dux drafted Puig in 2013 before he appeared in an actual major league game, he is entering his 3rd season on the roster. The league plays the season with 40-man rosters (23 active each week), so at the end of March there is a supplemental, on-line, snake draft to fill the remaining slots. These legal supplements can have a huge influence on the success of your team because so much can happen between November and March. For the teams who drafted (or kept) Wilin Rosario, Mike Minor, Aaron Hicks, Zack Wheeler, Hunter Pence, Yu Darvish, Jurickson Profar, Marcus Stroman, Josh Hamilton and others, the first few rounds of this supplemental phase is critical to their team's ability to contend.
As the reward for finishing 2nd in 2014, the Dux had the 1st pick in this supplemental phase. Of course, that also means 28 additional players would be chosen before our 2nd pick at the end of Round 2. As always, it becomes a lesson in strategy as to the utilization of scarce resources from a pool where over 350 players were already rostered. Looking at the Dux roster, there weren't any glaring weaknesses because all the players were still in the major leagues. The minor issues were Franklin starting the year on the DL and Roark losing his spot in the rotation. The priorities easily became crystal clear. Take the best "Dynasty" player at #1, get a starting pitcher to replace Roark, and add a middle infielder to fill in for Franklin.
Now, a word about prospects. Due to deep rosters, teams are not shy when it comes to rostering young players low in the Minors and holding them until they're ready. This is one of the key elements to a "dynasty" format and the owners in this league know everything about projectable minor leaguers, college players and even an occasional high-school phenom. In any given year, you could take a top-20 prospect list from your favorite publication or website and about 18 of them are already on one of the XFL rosters. The real gems in the 1st round of the supplemental draft are players who have rookie status and a major league job like Jose Abreu, who I selected with the first pick in 2014.
Teams have very difficult choices in the initial rounds, as they need to balance filling holes on their roster with also acquiring some long-term talent. This year, as we gathered at our computers on March 31st, the wheels were turning for 15 separate owners and here are the results...
> 1.01 Yoan Moncada - During the off-season, it seemed like this pick might be Yasmany Tomas, but the Red Sox gave us 63 million reasons to change our mind. Maybe my team name should be the Havana Dux.
> 1.02 Jose Peraza - The Braves 2B of the future and the future could be later this season.
> 1.03 Daniel Norris - One of only two MLB.com top 20 prospects available, he could be in the Blue Jays rotation to start the season and replaces Minor on this squad.
> 1.04 Hector Olivera - Another $60 million Cuban player, he'll be somewhere in the Dodgers infield soon.
> 1.05 Yasmany Tomas - Has enormous offensive potential and will be more comfortable when the D-Backs figure out what position he'll play...but they also thought Pete O'Brien was a catcher.
> 1.06 Nathan Eovaldi - Taken by the team who lost Wheeler, his power stuff in undeniable and the Yankees will win their share of games.
> 1.07 Steven Souza - Probably the highest upside of the available OF's, he'll start for the Rays.
> 1.08 Carlos Martinez - Named the 5th starter for the Cardinals just in time, he has the best stuff of the available SP's.
> 1.09 Curtis Granderson - The best veteran OF on the board and the Mets brought in the fences...again!
> 1.10 Jimmy Nelson - The Brewers traded Yovani Gallardo to make room for him, he'll replace Stroman on this roster.
> 1.11 Stephen Vogt - Will qualify at Catcher early in the season for the A's and this team has a question mark with Matt Wieters.
> 1.12 Brett Cecil - This team only had one closer and, for the moment, he's the guy for the Blue Jays.
> 1.13 Santiago Casilla - This squad's closers are LaTroy Hawkins and Neftali Feliz, so the Giants bullpen guy is a smart choice.
> 1.14 - Kennys Vargas - Can slip into the Utility spot on this roster in place of Denard Span and might bat cleanup for the Twins.
> 1.15 Luis Valbuena - The starting 3B for the Astros, he qualifies at multiple positions and is the perfect pick for a team in this league with salary cap issues.
> 2.01 J.P. Crawford - The days of Jimmy Rollins are over for the Phillies and this youngster is on the horizon.
> 2.02 Michael Saunders - The next best available OF, he gets to hit in the Blue Jays lineup...and ballpark.
> 2.03 Kendall Graveman - Could be in the A's rotation this year.
> 2.04 Ryan Howard - Home runs are scarce and even if the Phillies find a trade partner, he'll get AB's somewhere.
> 2.05 Odubel Herrera - A Rule 5 pick, he'll be the Phillies starting centerfielder on opening day.
> 2.06 Joakim Soria - To tell you how the experts view the Tigers bullpen, this setup guy went a round earlier than closer Joe Nathan.
> 2.07 Kyle Schwarber - Another of the Cubs high-level prospects, he might not stay at Catcher but his bat will play.
> 2.08 Jung Ho Kang - Tough to project coming over from the Korean League but the Pirates made a significant investment in this power-hitting shortstop.
> 2.09 James Loney - Always undervalued in Fantasy, he'll play every day at first base for the Rays.
> 2.10 Kevin Kiermaier - In an OF tier with Seth Smith, Matt Joyce and Jon Jay, this Rays youngster might have some upside.
> 2.11 Tyler Clippard - He'll close for the A's to start the season and this team already owned Sean Doolittle...can you say "handcuff"?
> 2.12 Aaron Judge - This Yankee prospect looks like a Giancarlo Stanton clone and was impressive in the Arizona Fall League.
> 2.13 Eric Young Jr. - Will steal some bases for the Braves and he slots right in for the injured Coco Crisp on this team.
> 2.14 Devon Travis - Looks like this rookie will start the year as the Blue Jays second baseman.
The Dux now had two consecutive picks and looking back at the original strategy, the decision came down to a SP or MI. We opted for Brett Anderson, who will win games for the Dodgers if (big if) he's healthy. There were still lots of choices at middle infield, but we went with the Cubs' Arismendy Alcantara for two reasons...1) with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant being sent down, he should get AB's the first few weeks as our fill-in for Franklin and 2) he also qualifies at OF, giving the Dux position flexibility.
A plethora of quality players went off the board in Rounds 3 and 4, including Bobby Parnell, Luke Gregerson, Travis Snider, Juan Lagares, Mike Leake, David Freese, Nori Aoki and others. On the prospect side, Tyler Glasnow, Jose Berrios, Brandon Drury, Nomar Mazara and Ramiel Tapia all found XFL homes.
By the time the Dux chose again at 4.15 and 5.01, backups at 3B and SS were the priorities and we selected the left side of the Giants infield by taking Brandon Crawford and Casey McGehee.
These five picks covered most of the issues in our original strategic plan, so the remainder of the rounds were for bench strength, gambles and prospects...
> 6.15 Francisco Cervelli - In a two-catcher league, you need a backup.
> 7.01 Jace Peterson - Only holding the spot for Peraza, but could get some SB's in the interim.
> 8.15 Tyler Kolek - A prospect pitcher who is years away.
> 9.01 Andre Ethier - Simply bench strength, but if the Dodgers ever find a trade partner, he could be an everyday player again.
> 10.15 A.J. Cole - More minor league pitching, but if you have enough, maybe one of them comes through eventually.
> 11.01 Dominic Leone - Danny Farquhar was taken in Round 8 and would probably be the next closer in Seattle, but this 23-year-old has amazing numbers.
> 12.15 Yonder Alonso - A backup 1B who will get playing time in a much better Padres lineup.
> 13.01 Willy Adames - As someone said at the NBA Draft, this guy might be "two years away from being two years away", but a 19-year-old is what you look for at this point.
> 14.15 Colin Moran - Another long shot, but the Astros have given up on Matt Dominguez and Luis Valbuena is only a temporary fix.
The 38th, 39th and 40th spots on the roster were filled by three supplemental picks from previous years who are still in the minor leagues...Jorge Alfaro, Albert Almora and Julio Urias.
Of course, a few days after the draft, Santana was suspended and Leone got sent down, so pitching depth will be an issue in April.
How will the Dux fare? Our stat website projects a highly competitive league with six teams having 85+ points. The Dux are in the group, so as Marlon Brando once said (sort of), "We could be a contendah."
More information and the league history can be found at fantasyxperts.com
Last Updated on Friday, 10 April 2015 07:00
Written by Don Drooker
Friday, 03 April 2015 00:00
In 1978, there was a movie titled "Same Time Next Year" starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. It wasn't a classic film but was certainly entertaining, which is confirmed by its 7.2 rating on imdb.com. The plot was about two people, both married to others, who meet by chance at a romantic inn and end up sharing a night together. The next morning, they are wondering how this could have happened but decide to an agreement. They will meet each year on the same weekend at the same place and renew their relationship. Originally a stage play, the story takes the audience through the years with the same couple in the same room. The episodes take us from the early 1950's to the mid 1970's, as the changes in the world and their lives impact their relationship.
As I sat behind home plate at Surprise Stadium for 25+ games this March, the title of that movie popped out of my aging grey matter and wrapped itself around this wonderful annual experience. The girl I love each year is named Spring...it just so happens that her last name is Training. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Of course, it was Sonnet 43, so she probably had a Dennis Eckersley jersey.
> The weather in Arizona this time of year is absolutely beautiful. Azure blue skies and emerald green grass greet you every day at the ballpark.
> The ballpark is the most comfortable and fan-friendly of all the Cactus League facilities. Even though it opened in 2003, the newer parks with all the whistles and bells can't compare with the sightlines and intimacy of this gem. It has a single concourse, allowing easy access for all fans. The concessions are on the concourse, so you don't miss any game action while feeding your appetite or quenching your thirst. There are small upper-decks above first base and third base that hang out over the lower seats and add another viewing perspective to the game. And, a local group of over 500 volunteers called the Sundancers are always there to assist you with everything from parking to charity raffles to wheelchair access for disabled fans to being at the top of every aisle helping fans find their seat.
> What isn't apparent to most fans is that the ballpark has a second name...Billy Parker Field. When Billy Parker made his major league debut with a game-winning home run for the Angels on September 8, 1971, you probably could have completed the census of Surprise by yourself over a weekend. After his baseball career ended, Billy worked with youth programs for the city and was much beloved for his volunteerism before he passed away in 2003. Today, he would be proud to see the thousands of Little League players who attend youth day at the ballpark every March. The city's current population is over 115,000.
> One of the first things you see when entering the left field gate for a game is a small tent hosted by Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins and his charity foundation. Almost every day in March, you will find great ballplayers from the past signing autographs in exchange for a donation to the foundation. This Spring, you would have seen Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Bert Campanaris, Willie Wilson, Mudcat Grant and many others greeting fans and talking baseball with them.
> Speaking of autographs, these games obviously offer fans greater access to ballplayers and many hope to get signatures from their heroes. Some players sign a limited amount, some don't sign at all, but the nicest memory is the generosity of Josh Hamilton during his time with the Rangers. Typically, the regulars come out of a Spring Training game around the 5th inning and head down the foul line toward the clubhouse. Fans congregate in the area hoping that players might stop and sign, but most just take a circuitous route to avoid the inconvenience. For the five years he spent with the club, Josh stopped every day and signed autographs for as long as he could, even standing in foul territory while the game proceeded just to accommodate the fans. We've all had someone in our life who has battled addiction and can clearly understand how difficult it can be to overcome. This is a guy we should all root for because he understands what the game is all about.
> The National Anthem is a traditional moment at every baseball game and we're privileged to have talented people perform at the Stadium each day during March. At least a half dozen times each Spring, however, we're treated to a very special moment when Jesse McGuire gives us his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the trumpet. He has played the Anthem in front of three U.S. Presidents and at the 2001 World Series, but this time of year, he is our special guest. No matter your background or political persuasion, you are guaranteed to feel chills and treasure the moment. Then, as the home team takes the field, John Fogerty's "Centerfield" pipes in over the loudspeakers and we're ready to "Play Ball".
> The other people in the ballpark also make the experience memorable. For me, it never gets old to engage long-time friends and new acquaintances in baseball conversation. My closest friend and his beautiful wife have had seats in the first row behind the 3rd base dugout since the ballpark opened. Sometimes I go down and join them for a couple of innings but even when we're at a distance we're still close. Each day, when he arrives at the park, we catch each other's eye and say "hi" by flashing baseball signs to each other. My season seats are right behind home plate and even though they are about eight rows up from the field, they are on the railing above the tunnel used by visiting teams. The result is that there is no one in front of me to block the view...the best seats in the house! "Duke" is my wingman for about two-thirds of the games and we talk baseball for hours each day before reaching our pitch count and heading home for a nap (me) or "honey do's" (him). For the other 8-10 games, the adjacent seat is occupied by golfing buddies, out-of-town guests or an occasional pretty girl who hasn't figured out how old I am. Right across the aisle is another dear friend who makes an 11,000 mile round trip from the south coast of England each March to watch baseball. This year, he's staying a few days longer and checking off an item on his bucket list by joining the Duke and I for the D'Backs and Giants on opening night at Chase Field. This same section is also where the scouts sit with their scorebooks and radar guns. This allows the opportunity to visit with really smart guys like Deric McKamey, Kimball Crossley and Jason Grey while also playing the recognition game by spotting former players like former Cy Young Award winner Pete Vukovich.
> As most of the seats around mine are not season tickets, each day also brings new opportunities to talk baseball. There are always lots of Royals and Rangers fans in for a long weekend or extended visit. Just last week, the row behind us was filled with a group of ladies who came all the way from Kansas City to root for their team after last year's magical season. We talked baseball for the whole afternoon and pledged to see each other again next year. Of course, each visiting team is also represented by folks with jerseys from the Giants, Dodgers, Angels and others. Unlike pro football, there is never any animosity regarding loyalty. Everyone in the park is there for a good time enjoying the national pastime.
> Cactus League facilities have standard food menus and a few more upscale items, but this ballpark has two kiosks on the concourse called the Diamond Grill. They only have one item, a freshly grilled Italian Sausage on a soft bun with grilled onions and peppers. When the e-mail invitations are sent in February to my once-a-year guests, they seem more excited about the prospect of consuming this culinary delicacy than they are about the ballgame itself.
> As a Fantasy player, the games themselves are always exciting, interesting and informational. You can read all the scouting reports you want on the Internet, but watching Yordano Ventura hit 100 mph on the radar gun last March was a different experience. And, as opposed to the average fan, we're never disappointed when the regulars are replaced by prospects that we can see up close and personal.
> There is also the occasional sad moment. Last March, when Salvador Perez hit that screaming line drive that felled Aroldis Chapman, it was a surreal experience. Even with 7,000 people in the stands, there was total silence. And just to help keep our perspective on the non-statistical aspect of the sport, here's what happened in a game last week - The opposing team brought in a minor-league pitcher in the 7th inning. As soon as the hurler approached the mound, a man with a very expensive-looking camera came running down to the first row and asked if he could use an empty seat. Then he started taking pictures of the young pitcher and it became clear that he was the boy's father. Unfortunately, the home team proceeded to get six hits and five runs off the youngster in only one-third of an inning. With each line drive, the dad seemed to slump just a little lower in his seat and he eventually walked away with his head down. If you can't relate to that, put down your stat sheet and go to a ballpark.
The Old Duck has only been in love a few times over the years, but the relationship with this girl I call Spring is the most enduring. She is beautiful, loyal, consistent and always in a good mood. I will miss her very much over the next 11 months, but knowing that she'll be there "same time next year" makes it easier to bear.