All was going reasonably well here in Peoria, Ariz., Saturday, in what has been the Valley of the Rain Turning to Showers, when Bud Selig stopped by the press box, diverting attention from the matter at hand: a typically flawed Cactus League game the Mariners eventually won from the San Diego Padres, 7-1.
The baseball commissioner normally wouldn't have enough charisma to draw one's attention from a bowl of oatmeal. But many of the Peoria scribes represent Japan and other countries, and The Commish was pitching terms such as "internationalization," baseball's first known 20-letter wordone with more syllables than some players utter all season.
After the reporters had gotten all Selig would give, which was pretty much nothing, I asked him about security issues pertaining to the M's upcoming two-dayer in Japan. Minutes earlier, the national pastime's commander in chief had been filling tape recorders with talk of baseball's worldwide popularity, which he believes will grow. But when asked about security and the Japan trip, he answered (with a laugh that, when Bud does it, doesn't seem to mean "funny: ha-ha"): "Don't give me anything else to worry about."
Hearing this, I wished someone could get Colin Powell on the phone: "Quick, Mr. Secretary, do something about North Korea, because Bud Selig's got enough to worry about!"
The commissioner evidently isn't that worried, because when I asked if he plans to be in Tokyo for the games March 25 and 26, he answered (even though I bear little resemblance to his sometime nemesis Pete Rose): "You bet!"
There was much besides confidence about nuclear-weapons crises to attend to the first weekend of Cactus League play. Bob Melvin's team is lively and versatile. The Sunday game also featured a favorable outcome: Seattle 13, Padres 2, with a Bret Boone line drive over the wall in left and an Ichiro triple to right during a bat-around fourth inning. True: Scores mean little when every inning is an experiment and lineups aren't what you'll see during the regular season. But a few observations seem valid.
Ken Cloude, the forgotten man of Mariner-organization pitching, looked like a craftsman during his two Saturday innings relieving Jamie Moyer, himself looking fittingly crafty after giving up a run on a couple of cheap singles. Cloude got at least two easy outs with sucker change-ups, pitches the oft-injured right-hander has been perfecting, as Dan Wilson later said in the locker room. Wilson, sitting out a few weeks with a strained muscle, yielded catching duties to Ben Davis Saturday, but the M's first-stringer has fielded Cloude for several weeks and likes what he's seeing. Same with Davis, who said Cloude had "all four of his pitches going for him and was keeping it down."
Would that the same could be said for Freddy Garcia and Kazuhiro Sasaki, who took the M's through the first four innings Sunday and occasionally appeared to have strike zones suitable for Shaquille O'Neal. Each ultimately settled down. M's pitching was stingy after the team started inauspiciously Friday in split-squad games that had football scores for final tallies.
Cloude in middle relief would give pitching coach Bryan Price the kind of option Melvin will have with position players, as once and present M's utility player John Mabry demonstrated Saturday with a solo home run to right. Others already prompting team optimism include the two guys who may offset the apparent civic tragedy of losing Lou Piniella to Tampa Bay. Randy Winn, the M's "compensation" from Tampa Bay, led off Saturday with a walk, stole second on a blown pickoff, and scored on Jeff Cirillo's seeing-eye single. Cirillo no longer is the sorehead we remember when Piniella was always pissed off at him last year. (Piniella seemed to feel the same way about Cirillo predecessor David Bell. Was it a third-baseman thing with Lou?)
Sunday also gave the fans a glimpse of what can be expected from Greg Colbrunn. The utility infielder started at first, slapping a line double into the right-field gap to score the game's first two runs. Edgar Martinez (hitting a mere .733 during five practice games prior to sitting out Sunday) later would say that "hitting is contagious" as far as he's concerned, and he expects to benefit personally from what he foresees as a better team batting average courtesy of Cirillo, Mabry, Colbrunn, and others.
Positive thoughts, of course, abound during spring training. Even so, the fans seemed somewhat subdued compared with what some of us remember from past Cactus League campaigns. Clumps of empty seats were conspicuous, and there wasn't much partisan bluster. Perhaps it had to do with the unavoidable notion that there are a few other things going on in the world, and, smile as they may, baseball fans have at least as much to worry about as Bud Selig does.