A good showing in spring training helped Tommy Medica leap from the minors to the big leagues.
Photo by David Alton Dodd
Thomas Anthony Medica stood in the clubhouse, belly full of breakfast, dressing out as he had done every morning since camp opened. In an hour, there would be a brief meeting as there always was before the workouts, then the morning stretch on Practice Field 1 before the players split into squads, with some taking batting practice on one of the two practice fields used by the big club, others working on fielding or playing catch. The squads would then rotate in and out of activities as assigned on the bulletin board in the clubhouse, next to the starting lineup for the exhibition game. Medica wasn’t penciled in for the starting lineup that afternoon, an exhibition game that would be against the Dodgers in Glendale, Arizona.
Starting training camp as one of 61 players trying to make an impression in 2014, the Padres coaching staff and front office were in the midst of whittling down the roster to what would ultimately be 25 Major League Baseball players by March 30th, and with 46 left in camp, Medica had made the first few cuts to the roster. Medica is six feet, three inches tall, weighs around 200 pounds. Solid, except for an arm and a shoulder that couldn’t hold up to the rigors of playing catcher — the position he was drafted to play in 2010 out of Santa Clara University. He knows that catching probably isn’t in his future.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve probably caught five games in the last five years. I would say I’m most comfortable back there, but I really haven’t been back there enough. Being at first base for the last five years, I feel like that’s becoming my position,” Medica said.
The problem with Medica being more comfortable at first base is that the position is blocked at the moment on the big club.
Yonder Alonso is better defensively, and although Medica’s bat seems major-league ready, Alonso is a proven bat at that level. To Medica’s credit, he was called up from AA San Antonio in 2013 when Yonder got hurt and Medica filled in marvelously. But Yonder isn’t going anywhere, so Medica is a player without a position, and the Padres are trying him in left field.
“That was the first time I played the outfield in probably about eight years, and I hadn’t been back out there until last year, so it’s still a learning process. We’ve been working out there, I’ve been trying to get better with reads, but it is a new position, so it’s anything you can do to get better at it,” Medica said.
But the outfield is also crowded for the Padres. Carlos Quentin, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, and Seth Smith are already signed to substantial contracts and are certain to make the 25-man roster, with Kyle Blanks and Alexi Amarista waiting in the wings. That makes Medica a player on the outside looking in, but since his bat has been so good, he’s making the Padres coaches and front offices give him a hard look.
Medica knows the position he’s put the club in. “It’s always a good thing to make it difficult on them. They’ve given me an opportunity. They knew I was going to be able to hit the ball, so they want to give me some time in the outfield and some time at first base. There are a lot of good, talented guys in camp, so anytime you can make it difficult on them, that’s always a good thing,” he said.
Of course, there is the reality that Medica could start the season in the minors. And, what the players won’t dwell on, the difference between $25,000 per year and almost a half-million dollars, the latter being the minimum paid to players on the major-league roster. No one mentions that part of it. Medica said, “They want to put the guys out there that will give them the best chance to win, and if I’m not one of them, that’s just because they have the right guys in camp; it has nothing to do with what I did. If I’m in AAA I’ll be working at first and getting my reps in left, anything I can do to get better to help the team.”
The minor leagues also have spring training in Peoria, playing exhibition games against other teams from the league and practicing on fields 3, 4, 5, and 6. All of these fields are full-sized diamonds, as good as any minor-league field you would find. If Medica doesn’t make the bigs, then they’ll eventually assign him to minor-league camp. But his first major-league camp was quite the experience for him. “This is my first big-league spring training. I think it’s great being here, the amount of coaching we have, along with the coaches we have — a lot of intelligent guys who know what they’re doing and have a lot of years in the big leagues. They know what you need to do to compete at the big-league level and they’re going to make sure you’re there,” Medica said.
Medica got into that game late at Glendale, spelling Kyle Blanks in left field. He managed a single in two at-bats and scored a run. There is no way he knows how much of a contribution it was in order to make the big club. The coaches and front office play those cards close to the vest. Meanwhile, he’s there, in that nice big clubhouse, waiting and working. And he’s enjoying the Peoria experience like he’s never enjoyed it before.
Peoria is just another city located in a mostly hot and mostly dry mesa that surrounds Phoenix, Arizona, as though it is one in a litter of puppies suckling a large bitch. This place isn’t otherwise remarkable — there are as many shopping malls and restaurants and freeways as there are in many cities — except that a lot of baseball is played here from late February through March every year. Half of all Major League Baseball teams host spring training and then exhibition games against other teams in Arizona, the other half in Florida. These practice leagues are known as the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League, respectively.
Seats at the main stadium in Peoria aren’t as cheap as you might think, from $7 to $28 premium seats...
Photo by David Alton Dodd
…but fans can watch the action on the practice fields for free.
Photo by David Alton Dodd
In the Cactus League, the teams are in the greater Phoenix area, with the San Diego Padres sharing the Peoria Sports Complex with the Seattle Mariners since 1994. The broadly sprawling complex is hidden from the nearest main thoroughfare behind a large shopping mall. It offers 12 full-size practice fields in addition to the main stadium. The Padres and Mariners have separate training facilities, clubhouses, and offices, each a nearly congruent wing of the 11,000 capacity main stadium centerpiece, all set on 145 acres of desert, complete with cacti and rocks and other features that would occur naturally on the terrain if the land was left alone. In and around the complex, such adornments are carefully transplanted to accommodate the location of buildings and ball fields and pedestrian traffic.
Padres spring training isn’t just the exhibition games played in the Cactus League, those games are simply a part of a greater whole in terms of the experience in a major-league camp. There are exercises in activities that build character and promote competition. Basketball, baseball-skills competitions, and other more nebulous diversions from an actual sport are mandatory and designed to focus on team-building for the players.
“The number-one priority is to prepare our players for the regular season. Baseball is, and always will be, the number-one priority in spring training for the Padres, or any team that I’m associated with, first and foremost. With that said, there are things that we do — myself, our coaching staff — to promote camaraderie, esprit de corps, and team-building through the course of the spring trainings that we’ve been here,” said Padres manager Bud Black.
When the players are practicing, fans may enter an area adjacent to the training fields and watch for free, and sometimes if a player has the time and the inclination he’ll sign autographs over the chain-link fences. And the minor-league teams have their own clubhouse, using four of the six full practice fields assigned to the Padres, then playing exhibition games against the minor-league teams affiliated with their major-league clubs. Fans can watch those games for free as well.
The big draw is the main stadium, Peoria Stadium, and it isn’t cheap. If you want to sit in the grass in the outfield, it starts at $7, and if you’re looking for premium seating, expect to pay up to $28 per seat. But if you want to see some baseball for free, it’s there for you on the backfields in the small bleachers. It’s rarely crowded back there.
John Conniff writes for MadFriars.com and FoxSports San Diego, covering the minor leagues with a focus on the Padres’ farm system, and spends time in Peoria every spring. John knows his way around minor-league ballparks and minor-league camps, especially those in the Peoria Sports Complex.
“Minor-league spring training is really two parts. The morning, with easily over 150 players working on four different fields, multiple pitching mounds and batting cages doing a variety of drills, all with the entire Padres minor-league coaching staff. After a lunch break, the teams split up with either the AAA/AA team or Low-A/High-A team, some playing at home with the others going on the road. As with the major-league camp, most of the rosters are relatively set based on performances from the year before, with the more intense competitions being at the lower levels where there are less [statistical] numbers to go on,” said Conniff.
What you get, for free, is an opportunity to watch the future of the Padres playing hard, players in hopes of making the big club someday. And for a month, you also get to watch invitees in the big-league camp on the cusp of making the club or else being turned back. Some are very young men given the opportunity to show what they can bring, while veterans such as Xavier Nady — who was drafted by the Padres in the second round of the 2000 draft — tries to prove that they still have something left. Nady is 35 years old.
But on the backfields, it’s a young man’s game, as Conniff relates, with so many players trying to impress coaches and managers, pressing for a spot higher on the chain. “Oh yeah, and they run between each and every station. Remember, these are guys still trying to get one of the coveted major-league roster spots, and the last impression any of them want to leave at this point in their career is that they don’t want it,” he said.
Hidden in those practice fields are the gems, the diamonds in the roughs of those backfield diamonds. You could find the next Mickey Mantle, perhaps, or else the next Roger Repoz. You never know what you’ll find back there. Prospects and suspects, all mixed together, it’s up to you to sort through it much like Conniff sorted through this spring.
“Most of the top players that will be in the Padres’ minor-league system, guys like Matt Wisler and Austin Hedges, spent the majority of the spring in the big-league camp. The time that some of the established younger stars spent with the major-league players gave some of the few players that are on the bubble a chance to prove themselves to coaches. Cody Decker, who is trying to impress the Padres into letting him play behind the plate on a semi-regular basis in AAA El Paso, is a good example of a player that has looked particularly good and may have convinced the brass that he can play catcher by getting a lot of reps,” Conniff reported.
But watching the players at the lowest levels can be exciting as well. They won’t make the big leagues out of minor-league camp, but a few certainly will go up a level, and their talent is worth watching. Conniff has spent plenty of time watching TinCaps games in Indiana, talking with scouts and evaluating talent that might not be seen in San Diego for years to come.
“On the lower levels, the most exciting team may be in Low-A Fort Wayne this summer. Infielders Dustin Peterson and Indiana native Josh VanMeter will get some attention, but keep an eye on a left-handed hitting six-foot-three Dominican shortstop named Franchy Cordero. He is a long way from playing at Petco Park at only 20, but he has all the tools and can make all the plays,” Conniff observed.
Or else, bring a lunch, find the bleachers in one of the fields you see the boys playing ball, and enjoy the afternoon without analyzing anything. Bring sunscreen and plenty of water, because it can get hot in Peoria in March. But you can’t beat free baseball.
Knowing he has a job
Third baseman Chase Headley has served his time in Peoria for several years now, and in fact, he is now the most vested of the Padres players in terms of time with the club. He was drafted by the Padres in 2005 and found his way into the big leagues just two years later. This year could be his last one in San Diego, as he’s destined for free agency at the end of the season. While there have been talks about extending his contract, the two sides are reportedly far apart enough to drive a fleet of semi-trucks through the gap. Compounding all of this, Headley pulled a calf muscle early in the spring and was nursing that injury in camp.
“It’s really irrelevant,” Headley answered when asked to compare this spring sesssion with others. “Whether this is my second or seventh spring training, it really doesn’t affect the way I prepare myself. I’m really just trying to get healthy right now and trying to get enough work in so I can be ready for the start of the season.”
Getting healthy was the most important thing on his mind, and Headley was encouraged. “It’s going really well. I was anywhere from 80 to 95 percent yesterday, bounced back today, and we’ll run again tomorrow, and we’re about a week from being on the field. But we’re just trying to be careful because calves can be a little tricky,” he said.
Carlos Quentin has had multiple surgeries on his right knee throughout his career, only twice being able to play 130 games or more in a 162-game season. This year will be his third in a Padres uniform, and the coaching staff is asking him to back off on his spring-training regimen in order to try and stay healthy in the regular season.
“I don’t like putting numbers on things like that,” Quentin said concerning how many games he estimated being able to play this season. He works as hard if not harder than any player on the field when it comes to conditioning and slowing him down might be of concern, so in late February, even Quentin didn’t know how he would handle the adjustment.
“I’ve had to learn how to work most efficiently for my situation right now. It’s more difficult for me to try to tone it down, to try to do a little less and have it be more quality. So I can try and look at that as the challenge. Before, I used to think of it as being lazy or being complacent. It’s going to be my challenge to be productive in that sense,” he said.
This is Jedd Gyorko’s second season coming into camp as a big leaguer. Originally drafted as a third baseman, the Padres moved him over to second base in the beginning of his rookie season, and Gyorko excelled there. He comes into spring training knowing he has a job, which makes a big difference.
“The circumstances are obviously a little bit different coming into this year, whereas last year I had to be ready from day one and go out and impress the coaches and prove to them that I was ready to make this team. This year the goal is to be ready on opening day. I understand what my role is on the team and what’s kind of expected from me, so I’ll take it a little easier the beginning of spring,” said Gyorko.
The idea of opening spring training and going through the process is to arrive at opening day in peak form. “You want to be as sharp as you can every day,” Gyorko said. “You don’t have to go out there and you don’t have to take 500 swings a day. You don’t have to feel like you’re putting on a show for the coaches all of the time. Last year, it seemed like I was here for months. You’re battling and trying to make the team, so when we finally left spring, I took a big breath and wanted to relax, whereas this year I feel like I’m getting stronger.”
The expectations for the players that have been in camp before and have set roles on the club might be slightly different, but what they don’t have to worry about is whether or not they make the team. They’re in, so through the conditioning and exercise the goals are to get into playing shape while staying healthy. The priority in breaking spring training is to hit the ground running in the beginning of the regular season.
Fun and games...and Vegemite
The six weeks or so of spring training feels longer than just a month and a half to most of the players, who arrive as early as six in the morning and leave as late as six in the evening, and it quickly becomes a grind. Peoria sometimes gets hot after the sun rises, and the athletes work through the dry heat of the desert. There is a monotony to the routine — work and breakfast, work and lunch, work and a game, then sometimes more work.
“You go to bed early,” said Gyorko. “The mornings come pretty quick and you’re getting up at six o’clock in the morning and you want to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep. Just being out here in Arizona, you make sure you drink a lot of fluids, and make sure you take care of your body. That’s the main thing in spring training, to make sure you leave camp healthy.”
There can also be a mental grind to spring training, and manager Bud Black has been through plenty of camps as a player, a coach, and now a manager. The mental grind is combatted with team-building exercises that serve both as a diversion from the routine and as a way to promote team spirit.
“Just like any organization, any management team, any leadership group...you ask General Motors, you ask IBM, you ask any company — any large company, small company — there are team-building exercises to bring the best out of your organization and your people. And that’s what we try to do here in our setting. We do a lot of different things to bring everybody together. We have different cultures, we have people from different ethnic backgrounds. So some of the things we do to bring everybody together, the team-unity aspect, I think is very important for a major-league team, for any professional sports team. So, with that said, a lot of things we’ve done over the years have tried to build that spirit and that camaraderie,” Bud said.
The side-games vary. Two portable basketball hoops were assembled on a paved lot just outside of the club house, and players would practice basketball between working out and playing baseball. Basketball isn’t baseball, but athletes are athletes, and some of the baseball players in the Padres organization were excellent basketball players at one time. Will Venable starred in the sport in college at Princeton, being the second athlete ever to earn first-team all-Ivy League honors in both baseball and basketball. Jedd Gyorko was all-conference in basketball at University High School in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“It was more just for fun,” Jedd said of his high school basketball experience. “It was just something that kept me in shape and I enjoyed playing, and that was the extent of it. I never saw myself as playing basketball any further than high school, my main goal was just baseball.”
The main portable hoop was set up and ball racks were distributed around the makeshift court, and the competition was mirrored after the NBA’s 3-point contest. The players and coaches and even members of the front office were divided up into teams of four, and as time allowed, they competed on various days and scores were logged. Bragging rights were at stake.
“There’s a lot of pressures on players,” Bud explained. “Players work very hard from the time they walk through those doors early in the morning until the time the game is over. There are some things we do that let them relax and put smiles on their faces — things outside of the norm of their day that bring to them a little excitement and some fun.”
Conversely, there is punishment when you don’t perform well, whether it’s blowing through a sign from the base coaches, not getting a bunt down properly, or whatever faux pas that happens as you’re ramping up towards the regular season. The punishment in the Padres training camp is unique, and quite creative. Vegemite. Try some Vegemite sometime. Unless you’re Australian there is no worse punishment in the world.
Black started this early on, “on the third day I was the manager of the Padres in spring of 2007. We had a pitcher by the name of Adrian Burnside, he’s from Australia, a left-handed relief pitcher who was in camp with us. I happened to be sitting in my meeting with the players in the morning, and I looked into his locker, and I saw this Vegemite on a shelf. I’d heard about Vegemite, obviously, an Australian spread. So I pulled it down, I said, ‘Adrian, is it alright if I have a little of this?’ He goes, ‘Sure,’ so I grabbed a tongue depressor, dug into the Vegemite, ate it, and to be honest with you I really didn’t like the taste of it. And I got the idea that was going to become part of our spring training, as a deterrent to not missing signs, doing the things fundamentally, or anything we felt as a coaching staff or players themselves felt was a mess-up or a screw-up, as a discipline measure. It was and is good fun. There’s a Vegemite repercussion if you do something stupid,” Bud said.
Could it backfire? Could players start liking the dark brown spread made from leftover brewer’s yeast. Not likely, Bud says. “Justin Huber was here, bullpen catcher Ben Risinger was here, Josh Spence was here, and they all like it.”
All are Australians. But the Americans? “No. It’s just not good.”
So close you can taste it
“Last year in big league camp I think I was in over my head a little bit,” said pitcher Kevin Quackenbush.
Drafted in the eighth round in 2011, Kevin Quackenbush, at 6´4˝, has the size on the mound to deliver what Padres general manager Josh Byrnes termed as a “deceptive” four-seam fastball. What that means is that the pitch doesn’t act like something you think you recognize as a hitter, which works in the favor of the pitcher, with the ball usually arriving before the pitcher can pick up the velocity. But when he was drafted, many scouts didn’t see Quackenbush as major-league material.
His secondary pitches — because having only a deceptive fastball isn’t enough in the big leagues — were seen as weak and perhaps beyond further development according to seasoned scouts who watch a lot of prospects and suspects both in college and at the minor-league level. Quackenbush attended the University of South Florida, a school that has turned out several notable major-league players, such as former first-round draft pick by the Padres, Derrek Lee and Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa. Quackenbush would obviously love to follow in those footsteps.
“I try to look at everybody the same way,” Quackenbush answered when asked to compare major-league hitters to the minor-league players he’s been used to seeing. “With big-league hitters, you know who they are and what they are capable of doing. They have a little bit better judgment of the strike zone and they don’t chase many pitches at all. You can see how they’re working when you’re on the mound and how they’re adjusting to every pitch that you throw.”
In just three seasons in the minors, Quackenbush has worked his way up to AAA rapidly, quickly getting the hang of throwing to better and more experienced hitters at each level. He’s excelled to the point where he’s on the cusp of breaking into the major leagues. This camp, he found himself competing admirably with the veteran relievers on the roster.
“Last year in big-league camp I think I was in over my head a little bit,” said Quackenbush. “I got a little nervous and balls were rising and stuff. This year I’m doing a lot better, staying within myself, not trying to do too much. Things are going pretty well so far. I hope I can keep it going.”
Quackenbush has improved his secondary pitches. His curve ball has turned into a plus pitch and he’s developed a split-finger fastball that’s devastating to hitters when he has it working right. “I think both my fastball and my splitter have been an improvement from last year to this year. And obviously, I’m going to need that going forward, to get something off of my fastball.”
Going forward, it’s obvious that Quackenbush is close to making the big club, but there’s always the chance that he’ll have to start the season back in AAA. “It would be a dream come true to make the club out of camp, but if I do happen to go down to AAA, then I’ll work my butt off down there to try and get back up. Either way, I’m going to try and pitch the same; it’s still the same game, so I’m going to try and do exactly what I’m capable of doing,” he said.
When Quackenbush first arrived in AAA Tucson after being promoted from AA San Antonio, there was a big learning curve for him. In the AAA Pacific Coast League, unlike the AA Texas League, most games are played either at altitude or in dry desert heat. This affects how a pitch moves, especially breaking balls. At altitude, the atmosphere is thin, and the rotation of the ball doesn’t take, much as a bowling ball is reluctant to curve despite its rotation if the lanes are oily. And in the heat of the desert, there is less humidity in the air, so the rotation of the ball has less resistance and can’t do its tricks. Pitchers know this and sometimes it can get into their heads.
“Honestly, I let that affect me a little bit when I first went up there,” Quackenbush admitted about his initial Pacific Coast League experience. “I realized that I can’t really think about that, because it will affect the way I throw the ball. Just execute my pitches and if it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, then okay, I have the next pitch.”
For the most part, Quackenbush was hitting his spots in the dry air of Arizona during spring training. Whether that adds up to starting on the big-league roster, only the Padres front office knows. Regardless of where Quackenbush starts the month of April, his arm promises to be part of the big-league Padres eventually. He might even have stuff good enough to be the next Trevor Hoffman. He had that devastating change-up, and Quackenbush has a splitter that drops as though you rolled it off of a table. The better he rolls that ball, the closer he is to tasting Major League Baseball. And then, there’s that closer mentality, the wackiness of Huston Street, the intensity of Trevor Hoffman, and the concentration of Mariano Rivera.
For Quackenbush, it amounts to bravery: “Be fearless. Everything’s on the line. It’s fun and exciting, but at the same time you have to keep it under control and have ice in your veins. I try not to let the situation affect me and keep it calm, cool, and collected and make my pitches.”
Leave the driving to us
You can book a round-trip flight out of Lindbergh Field and into Sky Harbor Airport and then back for around $300 dollars if you plan ahead. Once in Phoenix, you can rent a car and drive out to Peoria. Maybe that’s a half-hour one way after your hour or so on the plane, and maybe you pay around $350 for a one-week rental. Hotel rates vary, so you can tack on that money according to your tastes in motel rooms. Or, you can do what John Geary of San Marcos did, and hitch a trailer to your Jeep and drive out, camp at Lake Pleasant for $25 per night, fish in the morning, and drive down to Peoria in the afternoon to take in some ball.
Geary combined vacation activities with his nephew Jason and Jason’s father, Dave. After the game they consumed a few beers at the local Tilted Kilt. Several chain restaurants could fit the bill if you’re not too picky; Peoria is loaded with them. Other than the camping fees and the game-day tickets and whatever was tossed into the pot to buy booze and snacks, gasoline was the only other purchase required for Geary and company.
If you really want to get to Peoria on the cheap, Greyhound can get you there and back for around $100. That trip is neither for the faint of heart nor for the easily bored. The first experience to be loathed is being practically strip-searched before boarding the bus in San Diego at the terminal near 12th and Imperial. Any other terminal along the way, feel free to carry in a running chainsaw, but you had better not have an aerosol can of hair spray, let alone a pocket knife, when going through security at your departure point from America’s Finest City.
Be prepared. You’re going to be on that bus for at least eight hours. Take some snacks unless you wish to trust your fate to sketchy truck stops and glorified liquor stores, stores that won’t sell you any liquor because Greyhound has some sort of invisible power over them to halt such purchases. Greyhound should not only let you drink liquor on the bus, but they should encourage it. It would make enduring any trip on those buses that much more easy. And a note to any would-be traveler: Take the red-eye trip when you can, so long as the lout in the seat behind you doesn’t snore too loud, you can sleep on the trip and there won’t be many fellow passengers crowding you.
First there’s a quick stop in El Cajon, then a longer one in El Centro after enduring a couple of monotonous hours on Interstate 8 through the desert. The trip goes quickly to Calexico, that quaint border town across from Mexicali, which is like a cleaner version of San Ysidro. Then it’s Yuma, Arizona, where the Padres used to play before heading to Peoria in 1994. There in Yuma, you’re likely to get a half-hour for eats before reaching Gila Bend, then to Chandler, and finally on to Phoenix proper.
Once in Phoenix, you don’t have to rent a car if you’re on a budget. The bus system in the greater Phoenix area is acceptable, although you’ll spend more time on those buses than you probably want to. Valley Metro is what they call it. For $20 they’ll let you ride all week, but it’ll take two or three buses to get from either Sky Harbor Airport or the Greyhound Bus Depot over to Peoria, not to mention over two hours of travel time. And they frown at drinking alcoholic beverages on those buses as well.
While Peoria and Phoenix in general are filled with mundane chain restaurants and strip malls and the like, there are a few notable places that are local and noteworthy. The players have found their own versions of diversions along the way. “Watch a lot of movies, play some video games, read books,” said Kevin Quackenbush about his downtime in Peoria.
He does have a favorite restaurant there. “I like Desert Ridge Sandbar,” he said. “I’m a big taco guy. The tacos are really good there.” You get three tacos for between $12 and $14, depending on the type of taco, with a nice discount on Taco Tuesday.”
Chase Headley brings his family to Peoria every year, and they do a lot of cooking at their temporary home. But Headley likes to go out and especially enjoys being with his family since most of the exhibition games are played in the early afternoon. “This is the one time of the year where we have just about every evening off, and it’s fun to be able to spend that extra time with them, because during the season, obviously, we’re on the road.”
Eating out, Headley enjoys a local steakhouse. “We usually do a lot of sushi, but my wife’s pregnant, so sushi’s not really desirable for her. Arrowhead Grill is just down the road, a little steakhouse that we like. There are a couple of other places over in Scottsdale.”
If you don’t mind paying between $30 and $80, then you can’t go wrong with the local steakhouses in the greater Phoenix area. But if you’re on a budget, then there are alternatives to be found.
“We’ve been going to Yard House quite a bit,” Medica said. Yard House is one in a chain of restaurants across the U.S.; there’s one in the Gaslamp Quarter. “We’ve been living in Glendale, so Yard House, Texas Roadhouse [another of a chain] is another good place, and Pita Jungle is my healthy alternative.”
Those places are a third of the price you’ll pay in the Phoenix area in comparison to local steakhouses that aren’t part of a chain. That’s a matter of quality versus value and your palate and pocketbook can decide that argument.
But there are places that few, if any, of the ballplayers have heard of. The Stand, in Phoenix, is a great place to get an old-fashioned burger (nice and crispy around the edges) for around $5, excellent fries ($2.25), and delicious hand-made shakes ($4), and it’s much easier on the pocketbook than are the steakhouses around town. The Stand doesn’t offer brew. If you want to sample the local craft-beer scene, try the Phoenix Ale Brewery, where you can try a flight of samplers for $5. The brews are unfiltered and quite interesting. There is a swell place in North Phoenix called Sushi Station, which features a conveyor from which you can choose your plate and be charged according to the color (around $1.50 to $5 per plate.)
Best laid plans
The Padres finished spring training with a record of 11 wins against 13 losses, and 6 ties that don’t count for anything in the Cactus League. The records mean little — certainly a team of athletes wants to win whatever game in which they participate — and there are no awards to be won here. It’s simply training. The competition for a spot on the major-league roster is more important than competition against the opponent.
Quackenbush was turned out to AAA El Paso with just a couple of games left in exhibition play. He’ll get some more time to mature as a pitcher in the Pacific Coast League, but he looks like a good candidate to be called up if another reliever finds himself on the disabled list or otherwise falters in his performance. “I think in Kevin’s case he had to go back to AAA; he wasn’t quite ready, but he’s got a good arm. And I hope he pitches well in AAA to prove that he belongs in the major leagues,” manager Bud Black said.
Most on the club got through spring training unscathed. Headley’s calf healed nicely and he was in the starting lineup on opening day. Carlos Quentin was encouraged early on about how his reduced activities in spring training were leading to a healthy regular season. “I think it’s been a plus,” Quentin said. “One of my knees is acting up a little bit, but all of my other ailments I’ve had, I feel really good, I feel like that’s coming back. Last spring I was banged up and waiting and waiting, but this year I get a little nick and then two days later I feel like it’s recovering.”
It turns out that Quentin’s knee wasn’t simply acting up a bit. He dove for a ball in the outfield during an exhibition game and rammed that knee into the turf, causing a severe bone bruise. His disappointment was obvious, as was his resolve to get off of the disabled list and play baseball. “I usually try to avoid diving head first to avoid injury. That’s where it started, the root of the pain. My initial concerns were that the knee was about to go, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So, we just have to let it heal up and look forward to being a baseball player out there.”
Quentin’s knee injury created another opening on the roster for an outfield spot. With Alexi Amarista slated to fill more of a back-up infielder’s role on the club, the last spot came down to a choice between Kyle Blanks and Medica. Impressed with Medica’s bat, the Padres sent Blanks down to AAA El Paso and chose Medica to back up in left field.
Is Medica thrilled to make the team? “Yeah, definitely,” he said, smiling wide. “They told me that if I could work in the outfield and get more comfortable out there as well as first base, then there was a much better chance of making the team. But if I were to go to AAA it wouldn’t have been life or death to me.”
As to where the Padres will wind up in 2014, a consensus of local baseball media folks hovers somewhere around 80 wins in 162 contests. Some optimistically think that 90 wins is a realistic goal while others figure the Padres would be lucky to win 70. But it’s probably safe to assume that almost no one picked Tommy Medica, a guy who had never played a single game even at the AAA level, to make the club. But he did.