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I WAS A TORONTO BLUE JAY
Tom Verducci
March 14, 2005
In five days as a major leaguer, the author saw the splendors of baseball-- and its hard reality -- from the best perspective: inside the game
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March 14, 2005

I Was A Toronto Blue Jay

In five days as a major leaguer, the author saw the splendors of baseball-- and its hard reality -- from the best perspective: inside the game

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Rain pounds Dunedin again. We repeat our Day 1 schedule: soft toss, tracking pitches from the pitchers, dead-arm BP. I'm amazed at the consistent dead-solid contact that players make in BP. Everyone looks like a star, including 24-year-old Alex Rios, a 6'5" outfielder and 1999 first-round pick who mysteriously hit only one home run in 426 at bats last year for the Jays. He added 15 pounds over the winter, though, and the ball is jumping off his bat.

"He's going to have a big year," Rettenmund says of a guy who is so quiet that I don't think I hear him say more than two words in five days.

I ask Rettenmund to tell me the difference between a decent hitter and a great one.

"Effort," he says. "The great ones do it easily. There's less movement, better balance. Look at Vernon."

Wells appears to swing casually, but the ball rockets off his bat. He is a fully formed version of Gross: the son of a football player (CFL), he played multiple sports in high school (baseball and football) and was drafted in the first round (1997). He has decided this year, in keeping with Toronto's newfound aggressive approach to baserunning, that he will be a 30-30 player, though his career high in steals is nine. He says it the way you would tick off items on a shopping list. Consider it done.

"Vernon's amazing," Catalanotto says. "Twenty minutes before a game, you start feeling a little nervousness, the butterflies. It's normal. But Vernon will be there not even in his spikes yet, just kicking back. It's like he's going to play a game in the backyard. He makes it look so easy."

I, on the other hand, am one of those hitters whose effort is too visible. I am working at hitting the ball because I lack that sweet, professional flow that actually takes thousands upon thousands of swings to groove. I stick around for extra hitting against a modern pitching machine that delivers the ball out of a video screen so that it appears to be thrown by a two-dimensional life-sized pitcher.

When I am done I tell the machine's operator, "I saw this machine in Winter Haven two years ago."

"Oh, you used to be with the Indians?" he asks.

"Uh, no. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."

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