Leader Blues

Monday, April 12, 2010

SPORTS >> Bus makes bid to grab the fanfare from Travs

Leader sports editor

I backed my car out of the driveway and turned directly into the clouds of green pollen blowing down my street.

Feeling a little like Lawrence of Arabia squinting into a sandstorm, I motored off not to fight the Turkish but to check up on some Travelers.

It was a Tuesday night. My destination was Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. My mission was to learn what I could about this year’s Arkansas Travelers, who were holding their first workout under the lights in their home ballpark before motoring off to Midland, Texas, for Thursday’s Texas League season opener.

It was my first chance to get a look at the 2010 team, generously assembled during spring training by the Los Angeles Angels and shipped from Arizona to North Little Rock for the latest, Class AA Texas League season.

In the hour set aside for media availability at Dickey-Stephens, I spoke to exactly zero players. Apparently “media availability” means “team meeting” because that’s what the players and manager Bobby Magallanes spent most of the time doing.

I stood with the other media wallflowers on the warning track near the home dugout, waiting for someone, anyone, to talk to. I told a few colleagues that “workout,” when translated from the ancient Sanskrit, actually means “no players.”

Yes, I like that joke so much I used it in two paragraphs. So sue me.

The fans, who had taken advantage of the free admission to watch the practice, sat scattered through the stands, checking their watches and wearing a collective expression that said, “What did we come here for?”

Hopefully, that look won’t be seen much once the home schedule begins.

Eventually, Magallanes and the players arrived a fashionable half-hour late for the 7 p.m. workout, like a prom date sashaying down the stairs. The players promptly began stretching and warming up before moving on to the batting cage, the bullpen and the basepaths.

Magallanes warmed up a little himself, jumping up and down in the third base coaches box, where he hopes to spend a lot of time directing Travelers rallies this summer, and waving runners toward home. Then he grabbed a glove and played a little catch at second base.

Magallanes practices a form of the running game favored by the parent Angels and their manager Mike Scioscia. That has led to a lot of putouts at third and a lot of stolen bases — in fact Arkansas led the league in both categories in 2007.

I used the warmup time to bore in on Magallanes and grill him with some hard questions.

“Tell me about the makeup of this year’s team,” I demanded.

“Looks like your hitting roster might be suited to this ballpark,” I said intuitively.

“Your opening-night pitcher, Tim Kiely, looks like a fun-loving guy,” I shrewdly observed.

Under such hard questioning Magallanes buckled and told me he was really optimistic about the season, his hitters would find the gaps in the outfield and his staff would keep opposing batters off balance.

Also, ominously, he promised the team would continue to run the bases aggressively.

Okay, it was the usual preseason hoo-hah, which took something of a hit when Midland pounded Arkansas 11-1 in the season opener at Midland on Thursday.

But it’s a long year, 140 games, so it remains to be seen if the one-sided loss will be an anomaly or the norm. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to wait and see if streaks, slumps, injuries or promotions help or hurt the Travelers and their opponents in an eight-team league where you can win a championship with a losing record, as Arkansas did in 2008.

I did learn a few neat things Tuesday night.

For example, the Travelers have a really cool team bus. While Ryan Mount was pounding a few batting practice home runs to right field, Arkansas sportscaster of the year Phil Elson took a few of us media members to the parking lot for a tour.

The cab looks more like that of a semi truck while the passenger area is a comfortable barracks of double-decker beds, foldaway tables and flatscreen TVs. A bearded guy I didn’t know lay on one of the bunks reading a paper and watching a CSI spinoff as we toured.

“He comes with the bus,” Elson said.

Elson, and Magallanes, are proud parents of beautiful children who are under a year old. Which means both men were looking forward to the long bus rides as a chance to catch up on their sleep.

The rest of us are just looking forward to seeing the bus pull into the home parking lot so we can watch some baseball.