While most of the Yankees’ Spring Training focus in Tampa, Fla., is on Steinbrenner Field and what is happening at the ballpark on Dale Mabry, an equal amount of intrigue is developing just five minutes away.
Walk out of Steinbrenner Field, make a right on Dale Mabry. Go two blocks and look left across the street and you will see what is known as the Yankees Player Development Complex on Himes Avenue, the next street over. That is where there is more action for a fan of prospects than anywhere in March.
If you are someone looking to get a glimpse of shortstop Jorge Mateo, pitcher Ian Clarkin or young sluggers Dermis Garcia or Juan DeLeon, the complex on Himes Avenue is where you want to be in less than 10 days. Best of all, there is no charge for watching any of this. Park in the field just north of the complex, bring a folding chair or sit in the bleachers. Sun screen is recommended – there is little shade – but not much more as the action unfolds.
For the first few days, there is an array of workouts. You may come in contact with the families or girlfriends of various prospects, who will point out who their respective son, cousin, nephew or acquaintance is. All players will be wearing dark-blue Yankees tops with white numbers. but no names, so ask someone sitting or standing near you to identify a certain player. They won’t mind if they know.
There are four fields, so there are plenty of opportunities to watch play, instruction, workouts, drills and the rest as camp gets going. Bring water or whatever food you want. There are no concessions as a rule.
The Yankees minor-leaguers are divided into groups by class in Spring Training, starting with Triple-A (Scranton) and going down to the two Gulf Coast League teams, Yankees 1 and Yankees 2, who will actually call these fields home for their season later in the summer.
Certain top prospects, such as Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Rob Refsnyder, given invitations to big-league camp, will be with the Yankees for a few weeks before reporting back to Himes. The same goes for pitchers who are close to the majors like Jacob Lindgren. So, especially in the beginning, you may have to go to Steinbrenner Field to see these players. They certainly will get into at least a few Grapefruit League games.
Just as the Yankees play Grapefruit League games, the minor-leaguers, starting right around March 10, play a schedule of contests as well. All the games feature teams training nearby, the Phillies (Clearwater), Blue Jays (Dunedin) and Pirates (Bradenton), to a major degree. Games are usually at 1 p.m., but at times start earlier.
Once the games begin, there still is always action to see at the Himes complex, There are both home and away games on the schedule. Usually the Triple-A and Double-A groups play together at home or away, with the High-A and Low-A groups doing the opposite on a given day.
While there is a list of which player is with what group, there are always switches. For example, say Al Perique’s Double-A group is traveling to the Phillies complex in nearby Clearwater, and the Yankees brass wants to see what a player like Mateo would do in a game against more-advanced competition. For that day, Mateo would play in a Double-A group game. At what other time can such evaluations of progress be made so easily?
Between the start of camp and when the teams head north, these groups often change from day to day. There also os a break or two during the game schedule, giving all of the prospects a Camp Day to work on fundamentals and improvement.
Rehabbing major-league players sometimes show up in these games as well. Some are looking to throw a few innings or get a few extra at-bats. This is not uncommon and a bonus for fans when it happens. Many such players have stopped by and done just that.
In fact, players can be “called up” for an hour or so by the Yankees to play in a major-league Grapefruit League game. Back in 2007, Shelley Duncan was in a Triple-A game at Himes when a call came the Yankees needed a pinch-hitter in their game at Steinbrenner Field vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. Duncan was taken out of the Triple-A game, pinch hit vs. the Cards, then returned to Himes. The uniqueness of baseball in Florida in March.
Duncan, by the way. made his debut with the Yankees that year, hitting .257 (19-for-74) with seven homers ad 17 RBIs in 34 games.
For a fan of prospects, the action on Himes might be baseball’s best value.