Notes: Elia goes back in time
Mariners coach remembers his first Spring Training camp
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was 48 years ago when a 21-year-old rookie infielder from Philadelphia reported to his first Spring Training, ready to start making a name for himself in the game."I signed in '59 with the Phillies and reported to camp in '60," Lee Elia recalled. "I reported to Kissimmee, Fla., and naturally, most of us pronounced the name of the city wrong. We called it KISS-immee and were quickly corrected by the native people." By any name, Kissimmee was in another league compared to what professional baseball players are accustomed to these days. The Mariners' complex here consists of 6 1/2 practice fields, a spacious clubhouse, video room, weight room, trainer's room, lunch room, media work room, office space on two levels, and a 10,000 seat stadium nearby. Most of the big league players stay in apartments or condos during Spring Training. The Minor Leaguers are in local hotels, usually two to a room. "It's marvelous the way the game has elevated itself," said the Mariners 70-year-old former manager (Cubs and Phillies) and currently a special assistant to manager John McLaren. "It sure was different back then." On Saturday, Elia took a little trip back in time, to where it all began for him. "There was one field and one facility for something like 130 kids," he recalled. "The first camp I went to was for Class A, B, C and D players. I had received a bonus when I signed and when I got to camp, I discovered that everybody there was the best from where they came from. I got three at-bats all spring and didn't get a hit." He winced, and then grinned. "I began to wonder if I was going to make any ballclub. I guess that since they signed you, they had to let you play at least one year, so I was assigned to Class-D Elmira, New York of the Penn League." The month-long training camp remains etched in his mind. "There were so many kids that we worked out in waves -- one starting at 7 in the morning and the other at 10," Elia said. "We had six guys in my room. As Spring Training went on and they started cutting players, the rooms started being eliminated. "The number of people in the room stayed the same." That was a problem. "We learned to lock everything up before we went to the park," Elia said. "The guy that had been released would go back to the room and take pretty much what he wanted. He didn't take any money, because there was no money, but guys would come back and their shoes would be gone." The "meals" provided to the players during camp were less than filling. "We got orange juice, soup and crackers for lunch," Elia recalled. "We were on our own for breakfast and dinner. We used to send guys out on mission to find all-you-could-eat places. That's how we existed." Ah, the good old days. Elia can laugh about them now, and as difficult the living conditions might have been, he said there was no complaining.
"It was grueling and we went home tired, but we were all trying to make a living," he said.The players these days still run and throw every day in camp. And practice the fundamentals. The biggest difference, Elia said, is the current-day players report to camp in tip-top shape. "Back then, we used Spring Training to get into shape," he said. "Guys would have to work regular jobs during the offseason and some would come to camp pretty heavy. The Phillies had this one running drill when you would run around the outfield for about half-an-hour, hugging the fence all the way. "A coach would hit each one of us a ball and if we missed it, you'd just let it lie there until someone picked it up. You kept running. If you got sick, you would pull off to the side, throw up, and continue to run.
"That was not a real sophisticated drill."But more times than not, the players who made it through the entire camp were in good shape when the regular season started. "You know," Elia said. "I really don't miss those days." He laughed, grabbed a fungo and sauntered onto one of the well-manicured fields. Hurler claimed: The Mariners claimed right-hander Anderson Garcia from the Phillies on Saturday and added him to the 40-man roster. Garcia was scheduled to arrive in Arizona on Saturday night and will begin workouts Sunday or Monday. "I don't know that much about him, but I do know [pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre] saw him briefly when both were with the Yankees [in 2001]," McLaren said. "He's supposed to have a good arm and is someone we want to take a look at and see if we can develop him." Garcia, 26, was originally signed by the Yankees and made his Major League debut last season with the Phillies, appearing in one game. He has spent parts of seven seasons in the Minors with the Yankees, Mets, Phillies and Orioles. Impressed: McLaren spent most of Saturday morning in the covered bullpen area watching the pitchers go through their workout. "All of these guys look like Cy Young winners right now. I mean that in a positive way, that they all look real good," McLaren said. "We're excited by what we have and what we have coming up, as well." Phillippe Aumont, the Mariners' first-round Draft choice last June, already has opened some eyes. "I'd never seen him throw, but when I saw him the other day, I was excited," McLaren said. "After we drafted him, I had a friend who had scouted him call me. He told me that out of the whole Draft, this kid had a higher ceiling than anybody. He wasn't as polished as the kid from Vanderbilt, but as far as upside, this kid hadn't thrown a lot, he's a big strong kid, he's athletic and he loved him." And what was so impressive? "He threw about seven pitches down around the ankle area with movement," McLaren said. "Everything moved. He's got that natural movement and you can't teach that. His ball was nose-diving in the strike zone, and hitters don't like that. He's got that intimidating figure out on the mound. He's huge. His legs are like a speed skater's."