Click, Clack… shuffle, scrape, they eased their way through the tunnel, their metal cleats ringing off the concrete walkway. The blue sky beckoned them at the end of the tunnel, like a bright light to freedom. A soft tug on the cap to shield the eyes from the midday sun and the players made their way out the tunnel to the ball field.
The excitement danced in their eyes with the reflection of the green grass, blue sky and towering twenty-foot outfield walls. “Aaaahh… a real ball park! This is what it’s all about! Who wants to play catch?” Off they ran onto the field like a bunch of kids. In fact, they were kids… Javy Perez, Adam Smith, Matthew Dalrymble, Pat Williams, Josh Fisher, Jeremy Murray, Justin Rollins, Colin Corrigan, Jake Whiteaker, Carmen Romano, Colton Fredericks, Jake Wagner, Sean Parker and Gary Detwiler. The 13-year-old Green Valley Wildcats club team, chosen to shag fly balls from some of the greatest hitters in the game at the 2002 Big League Challenge in Las Vegas, Nevada. As far as they were concerned, they were the luckiest boys in the world. I have to agree.
Even during the practice rounds the electricity of being in the midst of Troy Glaus, Shawn Green, Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Phil Nevin, Richie Sexson, Rafael Palmeiro, Luis Gonzales and Home Run King Barry Bonds was a dream come true, let alone having the opportunity to catch one of the momentous blasts off these major league hitters! Not to mention the opportunity to rub elbows, stand in their shadow and sneak an autograph or two.
The players made their way into Cashman Field for their practice rounds by pairs. Troy Glaus and Phil Nevin kicked off the day and set the mood for the approachability to these players. Both Troy and Phil went out of their way to make themselves accessible to the young audience. They actively sought out children and took the time to have their photos taken, signed autographs and chatted nonchalantly with just about every person that approached them. This same atmosphere held true for each player that emerged onto the crowded sidelines of the field. From the moment they first appeared, until they had done their duty and dipped their heads to enter the tunnel to the clubhouse, each of them freely granted their time for interviews, or just general discussion, with who ever approached them.
Their grace among the throngs of people gathering around the hitting cage was nothing in comparison to their grace inside the cage. Once coupled with their dance partner of choice, whether a 34″ Louisville Slugger, a 33″ Rawlings or some other masterfully sculpted wooden bat, they put on a show like no other. From towering, majestic blasts that seemed to carry for miles to laser like shots that were visible for mere seconds before disappearing like a tracer over the 20′ wall. The apparent effortless swings were a treat to watch for any connoisseur of the game.
While Barry Bonds elected not to hit during the practice rounds, that left many wondering as to who might take the limelight. Early on it was Troy Glaus of the Anaheim Angels. Swinging a 34 1/2″ and 34 ounce bat, he started somewhat slow but really got his swing in a groove midway through his third round in the cage. From that point on he literally stole the show from his practice partner Phil Nevin, who had a strong outing in the beginning but slowed once Glaus began pounding the ball out with regularity. Glaus and Nevin each had spurts where they knocked 3 out in successive swings. Edge to Glaus.
Next to take their cuts was Luis Gonzales and Jim Thome. Both players looked strong with Gonzales hitting the long ball almost immediately. He appeared to have been working on his swing during the off-season and looked ready for Spring Training already. Luis blasted six homeruns in his first twenty swings and rarely looked out of time or rhythm. Thome had the biggest ‘inning’ of all the players, knocking out five in his second round appearance. He was strong and consistent early but appeared to tire toward the later rounds. Edge to Gonzales.
Next up were the angular Richie Sexson and Todd Helton. Sexson never looked comfortable with his pitcher and didn’t really hit with any consistent power. I am sure that part of that was the pitching, as Sexson repeatedly had to reach for balls that were much too low in the zone for his 6′ 7″ frame. Even so, he hit a few tremendous blasts into the Southern Nevada skyline…, some which may still be traveling!!! Helton, on the other hand, was very powerful. His bat speed looked incredible even though he confessed he was using a much heavier bat than normally used in games. “I’m not as big as some of these guys so I need a little more mass generated at impact. I get that with a little heavier bat.” Todd also confided that he has no allegiance to any particular bat and that he often changes bats during games, sometimes four to five times in one game. “It’s all in how I feel at the time, and how the bat feels to me given the situation.” Edge to Helton.
The Defending champion, Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers, looked fit and ready to repeat. When asked if he had been working on his hitting in the off-season he nodded, “I took a month or two off, but started back pretty strong in January. Mostly hitting off a tee and my “Swingaway”, but occasionally I took balls from the pitching machine.” When asked if he did any work or had any drills that assisted him in developing his timing in the off-season he quipped, “There is nothing for timing! You get that off the pitcher in spring training and early in the season.” (Perhaps we should introduce him to our XLR8 balls!) Palmeiro swung the bat very well. He didn’t seem to tire later in the rounds and hit some tremendous towering blasts over the right field wall.
Last to swing was Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He looked strong and fit. Although the off-season had him recovering from a slightly sore shoulder, it definitely did not appear to affect his swing! He was fantastic! Extremely quick and explosive to the ball, one could easily have mistaken this February day as mid-June. The ball exploded off his bat and if the practice round was any indication, he could easily walk off as the champion in 2002. He looked that good. Calm and casually relaxed, yet confident and powerful, his sweet swing was a joy to watch. He looked in great rhythm with his lower body and literally launched a few missiles over the right field wall at Cashman. Shawn swings a 34/32 bat during the season and brought his own batch of bats to the field on this day. Apparently, although it is billed as a “fun” event, the player’s competitive juices still flow and Shawn wanted every edge by using his own bats. I asked Shawn about his calmness and he revealed that he had been attending Yoga classes for the past three years. The inner peace that he projected combined with the awesome display of power would lead any young player to the nearest Yoga class to sign up. It has me convinced, going into tomorrow’s final round I am picking Shawn Green to lead the class of All-stars in this pre-season extravaganza in the Nevada desert.
A slight chill in the morning had the player’s dawning warm-up jackets as they gathered around the cage for the early practice rounds. A fairly strong wind blew in from left field giving the edge to the 6 left-handers in the competition. Only Troy Glaus and Richie Sexson bat from the right side as Phil Nevin was an alternate.
Shawn Green continued to look good even in the cold air, hitting towering drives over the right field wall with regularity. I noticed he was using a slight “Paul O’Neill” type of kick during his BP and asked him about it. “I actually like to try different things during BP, I experiment to see what feels good. In a game situation I don’t change anything. There isn’t enough time to be experimenting during games. But, it’s something I like to do in BP rounds.”
Barry Bonds made his first appearance in the cage and immediately launched a few over the wall. Maybe he doesn’t need a day of practice to get ready, after all.. he is the Home Run King. Luis Gonzales also looked good in the morning practice session.
The first match-up was between my early favorite Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jim Thome from the Cleveland Indians. In their pre-match swings Shawn looked a little out of time while Thome immediately hit a few out and walked out of the batter’s box with a very confident look. Shawn was up first in the 5-inning quarterfinal match and was able to get one home run out, but did not look comfortable. The player’s are followed every inch of the way by cameras, sometimes inches from their face, as they walk from location to location. 989 Sports was gathering footage for the 2003 game featuring these player’s. That may have taken Shawn out of his game, as he was unable to do much in the contest.
Thome was on fire right from the start. He scored in every “inning” (the only player all day to do so) and easily advanced to the semifinal round with an 11-2 win over Shawn Green. Thome was very sharp with a smooth, compact swing that was right on time with his pitcher. He clouted moon shot after moon shot into the breezy sky and they carried well over the huge wall in right.
The next quarterfinal match pitted Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers against Todd Helton from the Colorado Rockies. Todd brought his old college coach from The University of Tennessee to pitch to him, emphasizing the importance of the role the pitcher plays in these competitions. It didn’t help Todd though; he looked way out of synch and never really got good solid contact on the ball. His only Home Runs came in his last inning of play when he blasted two beautiful shots over the wall in right field. It was too little too late for Todd as Raffy was not spectacular, but he was consistent. Rafael scored in three of the five innings and went on to defeat Todd 5-2 to move into the semifinal round.
The most entertaining round came between Troy Glaus, the 6’5″ third baseman for the Anaheim Angels, and the crowd favorite Barry Bonds, Home Run champion for the San Francisco Giants. With a strong wind blowing in from left field, it looked like Barry would have an easy time advancing to the semifinal round to face Jim Thome. Barry did not disappoint! His very first swing was a mammoth 440-foot shot over the hill in right field for a quick 1-0 lead. Troy Glaus answered with a drive that sliced through the wind and just made it over the wall in left field. After the first frame it was 1-1. Barry didn’t score in his second at bat and Troy capitalized with two more shots that seemed to defy the odds, blasting right through the wind. He was stroking the ball very well and making very solid contact, just as he did in practice the day before. He led 3-1 after two innings. Barry scored another in his half of the third to close the gap to 3-2. Troy added another to make it 4-2. With two outs in his half of the third inning, Troy put on a show… THE Show of the day, he hit 5 straight homeruns into the wind. One of which registered 440 feet to tie Bonds’ longest shot of the day, against the wind! He narrowly missed his sixth in a row as the wind finally beat him, knocking the ball down just enough to catch the top of the wall in left and fall back into the field of play. Troy crushed Barry 10-3 to move into the semifinal. What a display of hitting. He hit everything right on the button and had a great rhythm at the plate. It was one of the highlights of the day.
The last quarterfinal was between Luis Gonzales of the World Series Champion Arizona Diamondbacks and 6’7″ Richie Sexson from the Milwaukee Brewers. Luis took an early 2-0 lead and was never really challenged. Again, the pitching for Richie just didn’t seem to fit him. He never got comfortable and Luis beat him without much offensive output of his own, 4-1.
The first semifinal match was between the amazing Troy Glaus, who knocked off the biggest hitter in the game, and Jim Thome. Thome’s big run total against Shawn Green seemed to give him the edge as Troy Glaus would have to hit into the stiff wind again.
Troy jumped out in front with three bombs in the first frame, putting tremendous pressure on Thome to keep pace. Jim was able to notch a run in his half of the second to get closer but Troy answered right back and had a commanding 4-1 lead. Troy held a 5-2 lead as Jim Thome stepped up in the bottom half of the last inning. Thome crushed a 442-foot blast, the longest of the day. It seemed to travel forever! That made it 5-3 and with Thome’s impressive performance in the first round, a shaky lead at best. Jim couldn’t score after that blast though and the 8th seeded Troy Glaus was in the Championship round! Afterward Troy confided to ESPN announcer Harold Reynolds “I was a little nervous after watching Thome hit that monster shot. Fortunately I was able to hang on and advance to the Finals.”
The second semi pitted Luis Gonzales against the defending Big League Challenge Champion, Rafael Palmeiro. In the warm ups before the contest, Luis did not look in time at all. In fact he appeared to glare at his pitcher after a poor sequence in which everything he hit was a soft pop or slow grounder. He looked like he was forcing his swing and dropping his back shoulder early in the swing trying to create loft to elevate the ball into the wind. Raffy, on the other hand, looked strong in the practice. He drove some deep shots in the right-center field area, one of the deepest portions of the park. Once the contest started, neither player scored in their first at-bat. Each hitting soft pops and looking tired at the plate. In the second, Raffy continued to his soft pop ups for two outs and then unloaded on a 385-foot bomb to take a 1-0 lead. He crushed another shot that just hit the top of the wall for the third out. Gonzo tied it 1-1 with a 416 foot blast in his half of the second. Neither player scored in the third and Raffy also went scoreless in his half of the fourth. In Gonzales’ half of the fourth he hit a towering drive into the wind that just nipped the front of the wall in left field and fell into the field of play for his third out. He slumped his shoulders and looked up as if to as “what do I have to do here?” In the fifth and final inning of regulation Rafael again went 1-2-3 and out with only one of his hits with any authority. Luis immediately launched another long, high fly ball that looked like it would win the semifinal. But, it too fell just short… scraping the wall on the way down. He ended with two grounders and the semifinal went into extra innings. Palmeiro’s first swing was a smoking line drive that didn’t have the height and he followed with two soft pops to go scoreless. Gonzales stepped up and ended the excitement with his first swing, a 415 foot blast that left no doubt about who would be facing Troy Glaus in the final.
In the interview with ESPN’s Harold Reynolds following the tense 2-1 overtime win, Harold asked Gonzales if he preferred to be in the position of “last-up” in these competitions. “Not really, I prefer to hit first in these situations. Somebody like Raffy can put a bunch out in a hurry and really put you in a hole. Neither of us were swinging that well this round and I was fortunate.”
The final round had Troy Glaus, the #8 seed in the 8-man tournament, against the #2 seed Luis Gonzales in a seven-inning contest. Even though he admitted preferring to go first, Luis chose to bat last in the Finals. Troy jumped out in front again with his very first swing. Again hitting into a stiff breeze, he belted a shot over the wall for a 1-0 lead. He hit another rising rope that just missed getting over the wall, slamming into the top of the wall for the third out.
Gonzales popped out, then hit the same rising line drive into right field that also hit the top of the wall and fell back into play for the 2nd out, and grounded out. 1-0 Glaus at the end of one.
In the 2nd Troy popped out, hit a liner into the left field corner that the wind pushed down and grounded out. Luis stepped up and hit a rocket line drive that cleared the fence to tie the game 1-1, then grounded out for his first out. His next swing produced a 410-foot bomb to break the tie, which he followed with another bomb that the wind pushed foul and a pop up that went out of play. 2-1 Gonzales after two innings of play.
In the third, Troy popped out and then hit a towering blast into the wind that just fell short. His third swing was a monster that the wind had no chance of deterring and the game was tied 2-2. Gonzales answered with a 390 foot shot in his half of the third to maintain a one run lead, 3-2.
Neither player scored in the fourth, although Gonzales hit one off the top of the wall and had another very hard shot that never got high enough. Troy opened the 5th with a 397-foot drive and followed it with a searing line drive that made it two in a row and gave him a 4-3 lead. He finished the inning with another blast that just stayed inside the foul pole down the left field line to take a 5-3 lead. Gonzales couldn’t answer. Though he smoked three straight line drives into right field, none had any height and he trailed by two after five innings.
Like a shark smelling blood, Troy jumped on the first pitch but hit it to the deepest portion of the ballpark. The center field wall is 433 feet away and virtually impossible to reach in the windy conditions, his drive fell softly into the grass for the first out. Troy just snuck one over the wall in left on his second swing, using body English all the way, for a 6-3 lead in the final! Gonzales hit a sharp line drive that was being pushed toward the foul pole by the wind, but just did stay fair to close the gap to 6-4. He lined out and had two pop outs to close the inning.
In the final inning of regulation Troy could not add to his lead, hitting one monster shot to left field that went foul. Troy held a 6-4 advantage over Luis going into Gonzales’ last at-bat. Gonzo immediately crushed a curling line drive that stayed fair and edged him closer to Troy, 6-5. He grounded out for his first out then hit a 412-foot drive to tie the game at 6-6!! He lined out for his second out and then hit a towering drive to right field that just didn’t have enough to get out. The end of regulation had the game tied at 6 apiece.
In the first inning of overtime Troy hit a soft pop up for an out, hit another tremendous blast into the cavernous center field for out number two, then just barely got one far enough in the wind to sneak over the wall for a 7-6 lead. Apparently that sparked him with life, as his next shot was a huge blast to the scoreboard, 412 feet away, for a two run lead.
Gonzales, again down by two home runs in his last at bat tried to answer the impressive showing by Troy Glaus. He hit a sharp line drive for out number one, and then hit a monster blast into deep right-center field that just bounced off the top of the wall, out number two. His final swing produced a weak grounder for the third out. Glaus was the Champion!!!
Troy proudly accepted the $10,000 charity check to the Major League Baseball Players Trust for Children. He was beaming, but humble in victory. Troy not only defeated the top two seeds in the tournament, Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzales, but he did a heckuva job against Mother Nature as well. It was quite a performance and a pleasure to watch. We look forward to the coming season and wish all the participants the best of luck.
THE CATCHER’S VIEW
The one thing I saw that impressed me more than anything else about these Superstar hitters, is that each of them had unbelievable balance. After every swing they finished with perfect balance. Even in this situation where each hit required nearly a 100% effort. They stayed balanced in their Pre-Swing, as they loaded and trapped their weight, during the mighty swings themselves and then on follow through, always balanced. It was fun to watch.
Also, another point that I picked up on … and mind you I was pretty busy tracking the ball myself so it was difficult to divert my attention, but certain things did stand out, such as.. to a player they all waited for THEIR pitch. How many times have you heard a coach tell a young hitter “wait for your pitch?” Well, there is a reason these guys hit as many home runs as they do each year, they generally wait for their pitch. In fact, if you look back into the record books, all of the great hitters are also leaders in walks. They simply waited for THEIR pitch.
The last thing that impacted me was that Barry Bonds, without question, has the shortest, most compact and powerful swing. At least among the players that were at the Big League Challenge. It was short, quick and powerful. It was neat being back there and I hope these little tid-bits can help. – Mike Martin
Mike is a former professional player who now owns and operates the Las Vegas Baseball Academy.