Ever wonder what it's like to sit in a Major League dugout during a game? I always have. You can certainly see a lot from the press box, but you're not privy to the sights and sounds of all that goes on inside the dugout. That's why I asked Padres manager Bud Black this week if I could sit in the dugout for Thursday's Cactus League opener against the Mariners. He actually agreed to it. Some two and half hours later, the game was over, and Seattle won, 7-1. These are my observations from the day.
-- Corey Brock
Alex Dickerson couldn't believe his eyes. The lineup card, posted early Thursday for the Padres' first game of the spring, didn't just have his name on it, but had him starting in left field and batting sixth. But that wasn't all.
"If you would have showed this to me when I was 5, I would never have believed it," Dickerson said.
For good reason, as Dickerson found himself in the unusual position of not just playing for his hometown team (Padres) but playing against his former hometown team (Mariners).
Dickerson, who is from Poway, Calif., lived in Tacoma, Wash., just outside Seattle, for three years (1995-97) when his father was stationed at McChord Air Force Base. He went to games in the Kingdome and followed that magical Mariners' run in 1995 closely.
After moving to San Diego, Dickerson became a Padres fan. His mother even scored tickets to one of the World Series games against the Yankees in 1998.
"We were about three rows from the top of the ballpark," Dickerson said. "I'm not even sure I could see the field."
Dickerson's awe over his spring debut wore off quickly enough, though. He went 0-for-3, grounding into a double play. Dickerson also lost a fly ball in the sun. He wasn't wearing sunglasses at the time, which was by design.
"I have trouble with depth perception when I'm wearing sunglasses," Dickerson explained. "So I think we are going to try some flip-down glasses."
For all of the pitches Eric Stults has thrown during a professional career that began in 2002, there is still something about that first outing of spring that always seems to get to the left-hander.
"The first time you're back on the mound, there's some jitters," Stults admitted.
Stults started Thursday's game and immediately had trouble getting ahead of hitters. His command, his calling card, was amiss. Stults would allow three runs on three hits in two innings, walking one.
But this was merely a starting point for Stults, who will work on some things on the side to get better in time for his next outing. The 34-year-old isn't adverse to hard work.
Stults grew up on a 140-acre farm in rural Indiana -- the town of Argos, if you're interested -- where his father was a grain farmer who specialized in corn and soybeans. Stults was on a tractor by the time he was 7, and not just for a joyride, either.
"I was probably on there more than my mom knew," he said, smiling.
Once he finished pitching Thursday, Stults retreated to the back row of the dugout to confer with another soft-tossing lefty, former Padres great Randy Jones, who in 1976 won the National League Cy Young Award. Jones is a guest instructor in camp.
It wasn't long before the affable Jones had Stults in stitches.
"He [Jones] can relate to me, we have a similar style. I think it's tough for guys like us in the spring to get a feel for pitches," Stults said. "I think he said that when he got behind hitters here, he would just throw slower … 'Here comes a 72-mph fastball.' That's probably what we were laughing about."
Ever try yoga while holding a bat? That's essentially what Xavier Nady did the first five innings Thursday, doing whatever he could to stretch and get his body loose for his two at-bats.
Oddly enough, the last time Nady was a designated hitter was in June 2010 as a member of the Cubs. He played against the Mariners that day, too.
The modern amenities of a big league ballpark offer any number of ways to stay loose between at-bats: a stationary bike, weights, hitting in the cage, the list goes on.
But Nady quickly discovered that the third-base dugout at the Peoria Sports Complex doesn't offer such luxuries. So the 35-year-old, in camp on a non-roster deal, did all he could to prepare himself, twisting his body into a pretzel, dropping into deep lunges.
"You try to stay moving around so you can stay loose," Nady said. "You have a hard time sitting still since you're still in the game. It's fine. Wherever Buddy has me, it's fine with me. I'm just excited to have the opportunity to still go out and play."
There are a handful of players here in camp who can do what Nady does: play some first base, play the outfield and provide a bat off the bench. None, however, have done what he has during an 11-year Major League career that, oddly enough, began in San Diego in 2000.
"His experience, his versatility and his talent is something we're going to look long and hard at," Black said of Nady, who went 1-for-2 with a single. "He's an interesting guy for us."
They're interesting to Black and his staff, the players who project to be in the starting lineup, the players like Nady who are on the bubble and, of course, the scores of Minor League players who are in camp, the ones who had to stay around with hopes of getting in the game.
That time typically approaches in the fifth and sixth innings, when the dugouts that were once filled with players, 60 in the case of the Padres, begin to empty. This is when the veteran players call it a day -- it's obvious, as the exodus of players walking down the right-field line and out of the ballpark is hard to miss.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think it was Taco Tuesday at the Salty Senorita, located a long foul ball beyond the outfield and across the parking lot.
This is when San Diego's lineup card begins resemble that of a football team -- Nos. 73, 82, 68, 70 and 64, among others, scramble to get loose for a few innings and, if they're lucky, a few at-bats. Jerry Coleman, the Padres' longtime Hall of Fame broadcaster, who passed away last month at the age of 89, used to say on the air "We don't even know who these guys are."
But Black, the rest of the coaches and the front office, sitting behind home plate, certainly do. While the games here don't count, there's constant evaluation going on. Outfielder Rico Noel gets into the game in the fifth inning, but first he has to excuse himself and squeeze past the Sonic Drive-In mascot (the shake, if you care) on the top step of the dugout just to get to the field.
Later, Noel lines a ball down the left-field line, one of five Padres hits in a 7-1 loss. Noel, known for his speed, was thinking triple out of the box. But he settled for a stand-up double.
"I almost fell," he said, smiling.
The eighth inning on Thursday belonged to pitcher Blaine Boyer, a non-roster invitee in camp. But the moment really belonged to his family -- his wife, Ginsey, and especially his young sons, Levi and Benaiah, ages 3 and 2.
When Boyer, 32, essentially retired from the game in 2012, he thought he would be comfortable with his role as Mr. Mom. But during his time away from the game, his friend and former teammate, pitcher Paul Byrd, convinced him otherwise.
"He said, 'You don't want to wake up when you're 55 and wonder if you had more left in the tank, but then have to sit on that knowing that you never went back,'" Boyer said. "And another thing that kept sticking in my mind was I wanted my boys to see me play."
So Boyer worked his way back, and found the curveball that eluded him for eight years after rotator cuff and labrum surgery in 2006. He pitched in the Royals' system last year and then headed to Japan to keep his dream alive.
On Thursday, Boyer allowed a leadoff walk in the eighth inning before retiring the next three hitters he faced. He struck out Chris Jones on a curveball, the pitch that eluded him for so long. In the stands, Levi and Benaiah proudly cheered.
"I feel like I have a new lease on my baseball life," Boyer said.
In all, Black used 24 players in the game, including six pitchers. One player who didn't get into the game was Minor League infielder Stephen Carmon, who isn't in big league camp and was brought over just for the day to give the team a little infield depth if they needed it.
The 24-year-old Carmon, wearing jersey No. 87, didn't seem to mind his quiet afternoon in the dugout.
"I talked with Carlos Quentin and some of the other older guys," Carmon said. "You can really learn a lot from them, because they've been around for a long time. If you just hang out in there, you can learn a lot."
Like which flavor of sunflower seeds tastes the best, apparently.
"They had a bunch of different kinds in there," Carmon said. "I must have gone through a couple of packs."
Not a bad way to spend the afternoon, sitting in a big league dugout.
"It was great," Carmon said. "And the Ranch sunflower seeds were the best."