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Life down Blue Jay way

Tom Verducci dishes on his experience in Dunedin

Posted: Tuesday March 8, 2005 1:30PM; Updated: Tuesday March 8, 2005 7:11PM
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Tom Verducci
Our intrepid reporter (center) gets caught in a rundown.
Al Tielemans/SI

I never referred to myself in the third person, asked to renegotiate, called out Alex Rodriguez or was summoned to testify at a Congressional hearing. I was, in every other way, a major-league baseball player. Embedded in the Toronto Blue Jays camp for five days, wearing uniform No. 2, I discovered what spring training and the major-league life are like in a completely unfiltered, uncensored way. My account of baseball and the Jays from an extremely rare first-person perspective appears in Sports Illustrated this week.

As an enterprising journalist, I also managed to score the first sit-down interview with myself about the experience. Here is my Q&A:

Q: Why the Blue Jays?

A: I immediately ruled out high-profile teams, such as the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, etc. I didn't want to create or be a part of any extracurricular buzz, and I know how even the smallest news and developments get amplified with those kind of teams. I wanted the baseball experience, not the PR experience. Moreover, the saturation of coverage of those teams and the plethora of veteran players make them known quantities. I wanted something fresh.

The Blue Jays would have a low-key camp, I knew, but also a cool vibe about them. They are a young team coming off a last-place finish, but have enough talent to be interesting. I liked the idea of being with a club still finding its identity. As it turned out, I could not have picked a better team.

Q: How did the players treat you?

A: Great. I saw GM J.P. Ricciardi the day before camp and he said, "Nervous?'' I told him no, I wasn't concerned about how I did, but I was anxious about what the players would think about having a writer among them. Would they be resentful? Wary? Disinterested?

"Don't worry,'' he said. "We've got a great bunch of guys here.''

He was right. They treated me every bit as they would a teammate. To a man, they were classy and professional. Ricciardi has built this team with an eye for "empty stadium'' players -- guys who would show up for a game if there were nobody in the stands, no cameras and no money on the line, and play hard to win. The club's two best players, pitcher Roy Halladay and centerfielder Vernon Wells, set a quiet, hard-working tone. There are no oversized egos, no entourages, no cliques.

Q: Were you sore?

A: No. Workouts, starting with optional early hitting and ending with indoor conditioning, usually ran from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. "You're bouncing around way too good out there,'' hitting coach Mike Barnett told me during baserunning drills.

But taking more than 100 swings a day does tax muscles that don't normally get that much use. For instance, I worked so hard at getting better extension through the ball that the back of my left shoulder grew fatigued. Barnett usually chases a hitter out of the cage about every 30 swings on the theory fatigue begins to set in and the hitter begins practicing bad habits. Hitters can -- and do -- take more rounds after taking such breaks.

"Young players just want to go, go, go,'' roving instructor Merv Rettenmund said. "In the minor leagues sometimes we have to lock the cages to keep them out.''

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