February 2011

Training Camp Day 4: We must be getting close

AardsmaWatching.jpgInjured closer David Aardsma sits with his crutches watching teammates throw in the bullpen Thursday. Aardsma hopes to be done with the crutches sometime soon and begin throwing in about two more weeks. (Photo by Greg Johns). 

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The parade of incoming position players continued Thursday as Milton Bradley, Franklin Gutierrez, Adam Kennedy, Jack Cust and others arrived on scene in advance of Friday’s official reporting day for the full camp.

The only players not to be seen yet are Ichiro Suzuki, Josh Wilson and non-roster infielder Luis Rodriguez.

Ichiro always times his arrival shortly before his physical exam on reporting day, so no worries there.

As for the newcomers, Cust took his first unofficial batting practice and immediately displayed the power that will be welcomed at the designated hitter position.

And Gutierrez? He’s sporting a mohawk, just like Felix Hernandez. Apparently there’s some question of whose came first, so we’ll try to sort out that raging controversy as camp gets underway.

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THE ARMS RACE CONTINUES

Talked to former Red Sox reliever Manny Delcarmen a couple times in the last few days and have this story on him on the website today. Delcarmen is one of several interesting new non-roster invitees competing in the bullpen, along with Chris Ray, Justin Miller, Denny Bautista, Fabio Castro, Charlie Haeger, Royce Ring and Chris Smith.

These are all guys with Major League experience and Delcarmen was a well-regarded middle reliever in Boston until he ran into some forearm problems last year.

Wedge says the whole group of pitching prospects has been impressive to him thus far.

“I think we have a fantastic collection of non-roster guys in here, really good arms with some experience,” he said. “Then you look at some of the younger pitches we have and their size and stuff. It’s pretty impressive.”

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THE KING RETURNS TO THE HILL

Fifteen pitchers took their second bullpen sessions of camp on Thursday, including Felix Hernandez. The reigning Cy Young winner isn’t busting out his best stuff yet, as should be expected.

The last thing the Mariners want is for Hernandez to push too hard, too soon.

“I’ve had a lot of veterans that really understand the length of Spring Training and their arm and where their readiness needs to be,” Wedge said. “We’re fine with him. We’re going to give him time with the bullpens. We’re not in any rush. We don’t need him going out there in late February and really dialing it up. We can hold off on that a bit.”

Training Camp Day 3: More good stuff on the mound

Bedard.JPGErik Bedard throws during his 10-minute bullpen session Wednesday in Peoria, Ariz. (Photo by Greg Johns)

Other than some clouds rolling in for the first time since camp opened, all was perfect in Peoria from a Mariners perspective Wednesday. Heck, even the clouds didn’t mask another day in the upper 70s, though it’s supposed to cool a bit tomorrow.

On the field, things continued progressing nicely on Day 3 as both Erik Bedard and Michael Pineda again looked sharp in their second bullpen sessions of the week.

Bedard seems to be throwing extremely well and, yes, I know everyone has heard this all before. And it won’t mean a thing unless he can stay healthy and do it during the regular season.

But these are the necessary first steps in that direction and manager Eric Wedge was among those who continue to be impressed.

Pineda is the other looming figure in the bullpen, for obvious reasons. The young man is huge, he throws hard and he appears to have very good command. The Mariners will keep their fingers crossed, but both Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis acknowledged that it’s hard to miss Pineda at this point.

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THE TROOPS KEEP ARRIVING

Yusmeiro Petit arrived after clearing up his visa issues in Venezuela, so all 33 pitchers are now in camp. Petit was dealing with his physical today and didn’t throw, but presumably he’ll join in the fun Thursday.

Wedge said the schedule calls for three more days of bullpen sessions, then the pitchers will take a break for a day or two before beginning live batting practice once the full squad is in.

Position players continued trickling in, with Chone Figgins the newest arrival on Wednesday. Everyone is due for physicals on Friday and the first full workout will be Saturday.

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KNOCK ON WOOD

Wedge said everyone has remained healthy through three days, which is always welcome news. Of course, that doesn’t include closer David Aardsma, who remains on crutches. He was able to put about 30 percent of his weight on his recovering hip on Wednesday and says he can begin walking without the aids when he gets to about 60 percent.

Wedge also said the first intrasquad game will be Feb. 25, so we’ve got nine more days until the first live action. Then the Mariners face San Diego in the annual charity game on Feb. 27 and we’re off and running.

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FLOATS LIKE A BUTTERFLY …

I enjoyed talking this morning with knuckleballer Charlie Haeger and you can read that story here. It’s always amazing to me how the knuckler works. In his bullpen session today, Haeger was throwing to a Minor League catcher who got called in to help keep the big leaguers fresh and his first four pitches totally handcuffed the poor kid.

Not sure how much chance Haeger has of cracking the rotation, but if the Mariners need a spot starter/long reliever he could be in the mix. Just another story to watch in the coming weeks.

Here’s a photo I got showing Haeger’s grip, where he rests the finger tips of his two fingers on the ball. I don’t know which is more amazing, the way he floats that thing or the fact I actually got a decent picture of it in focus, given my limited photography skills!

HaegerKnuckle2.jpg Charlie Haeger throws his knuckleball during Wednesday’s workout. (Photo by Greg Johns)

Spring Training Day 2: Felix makes his entry

FelixDrills.jpgMariners pitchers and catchers hit the field for their second day of work on Tuesday and again were greeted by gorgeous blue skies and 80-degree weather. Better yet? The first sight of Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Their reigning Cy Young Award winner was one of 14 pitchers to throw 10-minute bullpen sessions in front of new skipper Eric Wedge and his staff, as well as some interested onlookers.

How’d he look?

“Like Felix,’ Wedge said. “He’s a special pitcher with special ability. He looked good. The first couple times you just let them get their feet under them and let them get their work in. For me it’s a little different because this is the first time seeing most of these guys throw live. But I’m not quick to judge. Just give them time to get into it.”

The Mariners have split the pitching staff in two, with each group throwing bullpens on alternate days this week. Tuesday’s first group was Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Luke French, Jamey Wright and Brandon League.

They were followed by Justin Miller, Chris Ray, Cesar Jimenez and David Pauley. The final group consisted of Chris Smith, Royce Ring, Tom Wilhelmsen, Jose Flores and Chris Seddon.

Flores, the Rule 5 draft pick out of the Indians organization, is a solidly built 6-3, 215-pounder who throws hard. At 21, it’ll be interesting to see if he can make the jump from Class A to stick with the club this year.

Of the other newcomers who threw Tuesday, Ring jumped out … not because of his size at a generously listed 6-foot, but because of his extreme sidearm delivery. At 30, he’s bounced among four organizations in the past six years as a lefty specialist, something the Mariners didn’t really have last year. 

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NO GROUNDHOGS YET

While Spring Training drills are notoriously repetitive, Wedge said there should be no mistaking the importance of the Pitchers Fielding Practice drills and bullpen work being done early in camp.

“You just have to understand that repetition is necessary,” he said. “You practice something over and over and over to master it. And that’s what we’re going to do. It shouldn’t be tedious because you’re up there running through your PFP or whatever work you’re doing.

“It’s your job to get better and be the best you can be with it because ultimately it’s going to come into play in game time.”

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VISA OR MASTERCARD?

Pitcher Yusmeiro Petit, the one pitcher not in camp thus far, is expected to join the club on Wednesday after clearing his visa issue getting out of Venezuela.

Once he’s in, the Mariners will have 33 pitchers in camp, though only 31 are taking part in full workouts. Closer David Aardsma is still about two weeks from beginning to throw. Setup man Shawn Kelley, on the mend from partial Tommy John surgery, is already playing catch every other day and said he’ll soon be moving up to long toss as he proceeds toward an expected June return.

One man missing for the next two days will be GM Jack Zduriencik, who has flown back to Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of life-long friend Chuck Tanner.

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JUNIOR’S RETURN

The story of the day, of course, was the announcement that Ken Griffey Jr. will be returning to the club as a special consultant. What exactly that details is still being ironed out, with the key thing being that Griffey wants to remain involved with the franchise going forward.

Team president Chuck Armstrong told me via e-mail tonight how important that is for everyone involved with the organization.

“It’s not an overstatement to say he helped save baseball in Seattle and made Safeco Field possible,” Armstrong said. “Having him back home in the Mariner family feels right. He started in our organization and had hsi best career seasons with us. This is where Ken belongs.”

You can also read my full story on Griffey Jr’s return here. I’ll also have a story on former Orioles closer Chris Ray and his bid to win a late-inning relief role later tonight on the website. And don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter at GregJohnsMLB.

Felix Hernandez photo above taken by Charlie Riedel/Associated Press.

Griffey returning to Mariners as special consultant

Ken Griffey Jr., the greatest player in Mariners history, will rejoin the club this season as a special consultant.

GriffeyMug.jpgThe Mariners announced Tuesday morning that Griffey will work with the team at various points throughout Spring Training and the regular season as well as visiting most of Seattle’s Minor League affiliates.

“I’m looking forward to staying very involved with the Mariners, working with the players throughout the organization, staying involved with the community and assisting in other areas of the organization,” Griffey said in a statement. “It’s an exciting time and I’m appreciative of the opportunity.”

Griffey retired last season after 22 years in the Major Leagues, including 13 with Seattle.

This is good news for Mariners fans who wondered if Junior would retain any link to Seattle after leaving the team abruptly last June 2, when he simply released a statement through the club after he’d already begun driving home to Florida.

“Ken has been steadfast in his desire to continue his relationship with the Mariners since his return to Seattle in 2009,” Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. “We have designed a position that will allow Ken to continue to helpl the franchise succeed on and off the field by consulting with a variety of departments here at the Mariners.”

The club says Griffey will be involved in Major League Baseball Operations and player development as well as its Minor League system, marketing, broadcasting and community relations.

He’s expected to join the club for part of Spring Training in Peoria, Ariz., and then make several trips to Seattle as well as visiting the Mariners’ Minor League affiliates through the season.

 

Spring Training Day 1: Bedard, Pineda lead the way

MarinersStretchPeoria.jpgMariners pitchers and catchers stretch out before taking the field for first time Monday in Peoria, Ariz. (Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP)

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13 days until first Spring Training game.

46 days until Opening Day in Oakland.

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It was a picture-perfect day in Peoria as the Mariners hit their practice diamonds for the first time under manager Eric Wedge. You can’t ask for much more than blue skies and 80 degrees in mid-February.

Plenty of optimism to go around as well on Day 1 as Erik Bedard and Michael Pineda — two pitchers who could play significant roles if the Mariners are to surprise people this season — were in the first group of five pitchers to throw bullpen sessions.

Pineda, all 6-foot-5, 250 pounds of him, looked massive on the mound. Long, powerful legs and an imposing 22-year-old throwing hard. He’s going to be interesting to watch for everybody.

“Oh, he’s big,” Wedge said of his first impression. “I remember J.R. Richard. He was a big guy. I’d met [Pineda] a few times and talked to him in street clothes, but he looked even bigger in uniform. Then he gets up on top of that mound and he looks like he can reach out and touch you. He looked good. I liked it.”

Bedard worked much slower, a veteran move for a guy coming off shoulder problems who knows he’s not going to win or lose his job in the first bullpen session of spring. But Bedard also threw well, including some nice curve balls, which is not something everyone unveils in their first session.

You can read my full story on Bedard’s return here.

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ALMOST A FULL DECK

The only pitcher missing among the 33 expected in camp was non-roster invitee Yusmeiro Petit, who had visa problems and is still in Venezula. He’s expected later this week.

Closer David Aardsma and setup man Shawn Kelley also sat out as expected. Aardsma remains on crutches, though he hopes to begin putting weight on his surgically-repaired hip on Wednesday. Kelley isn’t expected back until about June as he recovers from partial Tommy John surgery.

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THE WEDGE RULES

The new skipper informed the team of a couple expectations at their first team meeting Monday. No cell phones in the clubhouse, no earrings on the field, be on time.

And, no, the mustached-man doesn’t have a rule against facial hair.

“I don’t get caught up in how they look,” he said. “It’s more about how they play and act.”

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THE KING WEIGHS IN

Felix Hernandez throws his first bullpen on Tuesday and is eager to get started. The Cy Young winner seems very relaxed and ready this spring, taking on a visibly bigger leadership role in the clubhouse and in dealing with the media.

He talked with Bedard over the offseason about staying with Seattle and says the veteran lefty has become one of his best friends on the team.

“When he’s healthy, we’re going to be good. Me and him together and all those other guys, we can be good,” Hernandez said.

Felix is also thrilled that his older brother, Moises, is joining the team’s Minor League camp next month.

“He’s so happy because he didn’t play last year in the States,” Felix said. “He said he’s going to do the best he can just to get to Double-A or Triple-A. And he’s having a baby in about two weeks.”

Hernandez said he works out frequently with his brother, who missed last year with a shoulder injury, starting when they were youngsters growing up in Venezuela.

“We were 13-14 years old and we broke everything in my Mom’s house,” he said. “There were a lot of foul balls, a lot of lights knocked out …”

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That’s all from today. We’re off to a busy start. If you missed it earlier, I talked with Josh Lueke about his difficult past as he tries to keep moving forward. Lueke has an excellent chance to earn a bullpen spot this Spring. You can read that story here.

And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow me at GregJohnsMLB for all the latest.

 

Lots of new faces as Mariners begin introductions

The Mariners are having their first team meeting with pitchers and catchers this morning and will hit the field shortly to begin workouts.

It’s always interesting to see the first day of camp, when old teammates exchange greetings and newcomers begin feeling their way into the group like new kids on the first day of school.

“You always look forward to this day throughout the offseason,” said catcher Adam Moore. “The time is here. Now we’re going to get after it, get to work and turn it around from last year. That’s the No. 1 goal, to turn it around and do things a little different around here.”

The first group to throw today will be Erik Bedard, Doug Fister, Garrett Olson, Michael Pineda and Nate Robertson.

They’ll be followed by Denny Bautista, Dan Cortes, Manny Delcarmen, Charlie Haeger, Josh Lueke and Mauricio Robles and the final group will be Blake Beavan, Fabio Castro, Yoervis Medina, Edward Paredes and Chaz Roe.

The other half of the Mariners staff — including Felix Hernandez — will throw their first bullpens Tuesday and the groups will then alternate days the rest of the week.

Moore, one of five catchers in camp, hasn’t worked with a lot of these pitchers. Of the 33 pitchers in camp, 19 have never pitched for Seattle in the Major Leagues and a dozen haven’t even been in Mariners camp before.

But that’s part of the annual process of baseball.

“It’s the same every year,” Moore said. “You want to come in here, meet the guys, work with the guys you haven’t caught before in bullpen sessions, understand what they’re trying to do and just go from there.”

Reliever Manny Delcarmen, who spent the first 5 1/2 seasons of his Major League career with his hometown Red Sox, was among those feeling his way through a new situation.

“I know [David] Pauley and [David] Aardsma and Chris Smith from Boston, so it’s always easier when you know somebody,” Delcarmen said. “This is a fresh start and it’s all the way on the West Coast, so it’s a little different. I’ve been in Fort Myers [Florida] the last 10 years and now I’m in Arizona, so it’s a little change, but I’m definitely excited about it.”

Thoughts from Peoria on pitchers-catchers report day

Not surprisingly on the day when Mariners pitchers and catchers reported to work, most of the talk Sunday in Peoria focused on, you guessed it, pitching. But there are a few position players in camp early and all seem eager to put last year in the rearview mirror.

SmoakJustin.jpgAs first baseman Justin Smoak said: “There’s probably not a team out there that wants to get started sooner than we do to get last year behind us.”

Fair enough. I think everyone from fans to media to the Peanut Man are more than willing to forget about last season. So let’s focus on the here and now with some initial observations on Sunday’s activities from Mariners camp:

  • The earliest arrivals among the position players are all guys who could play critical roles in this coming season. Smoak, the 24-year-old first baseman, might be the biggest key of all to how this season unfolds given the Mariners’ need for a big bag bat in the middle of the order.
  • He was working with Dustin Ackley and, yes, watching the Justin and Dustin Show could be the highlight of this season if these young guys start coming through. Those two youngsters were hanging out with veteran shortstop Jack Wilson, a gym rat of a ballplayer who would be a good influence on his teammates as well as a nice help for the Mariners if he bounces back to health and plays the way he did in Pittsburgh before his trade to Seattle two years ago.
  • Wilson said he’s feeling great and has been working at his home outside Los Angeles with new infielder Brendan Ryan, who he called after Ryan was acquired by trade from St. Louis and was pleasantly surprised when he saw they shared the same area code.

    Turns out Ryan lives about 25 miles away, so the two have been working together on double-play situations in Wilson’s backyard diamond, taking ground balls from Wilson’s brother and another friend.

    Ironically, Ryan might eventually wind up competing with Wilson for the shortstop duties once Ackley arrives at second base, but that hasn’t stopped their budding friendship.

  • New manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis have an unmistakable bond after 10 years together in the Indians’ organization. When Willis walked by after taking his physical, Wedge asked how he’d done. Willis yelled over his shoulder that he felt so good he was thinking of moving his locker out into the player’s clubhouse, which evoked a loud snort from Wedge.
  • “He’s good for one of those every day,” said Wedge.
  • Willis, 50, spent nine seasons in the Major Leagues as a reliever and was part of the World Series champion Twins bullpen in ’91.

  • Closer David Aardsma was in a good mood Sunday as he talked with teammates and reporters in the clubhouse, but it’s hard to believe a guy still on crutches as camp starts will be ready to contribute any time soon. Aardsma acknowledged that he might not be ready for the first month or so of the regular season, but that it’s more important he be fully healthy for the bulk of the year and the rest of his career.
  • No argument there, though it’ll be interesting to see who steps up in that role. Brandon League had six saves last season while Aardsma was out, giving him eight in his seven-year Major League career.

    Chris Ray, a non-roster invitee, has 61 career saves … but only two since undergoing Tommy John surgery while with the Orioles in ’07.

    The other candidate mentioned by Willis is former Red Sox setup man Manny Delcarmen, who saved three games in six seasons in Boston.

  • Fox Sport’s Ken Rosenthal reported Sunday morning that the Mariners are interested in right-hander Chad Durbin, a 33-year-old veteran who would add another option to the bullpen mix. But Durbin hasn’t been a closer either with four saves in 11 seasons and the Mariners provided no inkling that there was anything to the Durbin rumors Sunday evening.
  • Clearly, though, Jack Zduriencik’s plan is to bring in as many options as possible on no-risk Minor League deals and see who sticks, which will make for an interesting camp. I still think hard-throwing Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke could develop into the best late-inning options, but Willis wants to  lower expectations on those youngsters as well as rookie starter Michael Pineda at this point, which is wise.

    Aardsma two weeks away from starting to throw

    As pitchers and catchers reported to Mariners Spring Training on Sunday, one of the biggest questions revolved around closer David Aardsma as he rehabs from offseason hip surgery.

    AardsmaDavidMug.jpgLeaning on what he called wrist-level “Tucker crutches” after the character frrom “There’s Something About Mary,” Aardsma said he’s about two weeks from being able to put weight on his recovering left hip.

    At that point, he’ll begin light throwing and then be ready to “really get after it” in another two weeks with more strenuous throwing.

    But the 29-year-old veteran says he’s not going to push his return too fast and acknowledged he might not be ready at all in the first month of the regular season as he recovers from the labrum surgery.

    “I’d like to be, but I want to make sure I’m healthy the rest of my career rather than get a couple outings under my belt in April,” he said. “I need to play this right because I want to be here a long time.”

    Aardsma believes the Mariners bullpen is in good hands.

    “We have strong competition for these spots and it’s going to be interesting to watch,” he said. “I’ve played with a lot of these guys and known a lot of these guys for a long time.

    “I played with Charlie Haeger. I played with Manny Delcarmen, Chris Smith. It’s actually kind of crazy. In Boston, our bullpen at one time we had David Pauley, Chris Smith, Manny Delcarmen and me out of seven guys. It’s like, alright, bring us all back together.”

    Aardsma likes the collection of pitching talent accumulated by GM Jack Zduriencik over the offseason, even without any big free-agent signings.

    “Chris Ray was lights out when he was healthy with Baltimore,” he said. “[Nate] Robertson, these guys have had success. It’s amazing they’ve brought all these guys in on Minor League deals. It’s like, dang, how did they pull all that off?”

    But the Mariners would also like to get Aardsma into that mix. He’ll join the fray as soon as he can, but it appears it will be at least a month before he begins throwing hard and probably two full months before he’s even close to thinking about returning.

     

    And so, the sun rises in Peoria …

    Awoke to a strange sensation this morning … the sun streaming through the window at the Peoria condo that I’ll call home for the next seven weeks.

    SunArizonaAM.jpgI left the gray Seattle winter weather behind on Friday and, yes, am more than ready to set up shop and enjoy the 80 degree temperatures expected this weekend in Arizona.

    Mariners pitchers and catchers report tomorrow and then hit the field for the first time under Eric Wedge’s watch on Monday morning. I’ll keep you up to date on everything that’s happening throughout Spring Training on Mariners.com, this Mariners Musings blog and at my Twitter account (@GregJohnsMLB).

    Reporting day means players taking physicals, so that will be the chance for the Mariners to see how David Aardsma is progressing from his hip surgery and how the rest of the crew is looking heading into camp.

    In other news while I was traveling yesterday, Milton Bradley’s attorney released a statement saying the Mariners outfielder won’t face criminal charges on the verbal assault case he was arrested for last month. You can read that full story by clicking here.

    Bradley and his wife still need to attend a hearing at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and charges could still be filed in the future if more problems arise, but for now that incident appears largely put to rest.

    What condition Bradley arrives in and how he works with Wedge will be among the many storylines to watch at the upcoming camp.

    One other item that popped up Friday that’s certainly worth mentioning. Ben Badler of Baseball America was the first to report the Mariners signed 17-year-old Dominican outfielder Gaby Guerrero to a $400,000 contract.

    The significance there? Guerrero is the nephew of Vladimir Guerrero. And while there are obviously no guarantees young Gaby ever reaches the Major Leagues, let alone follows his uncle’s large footsteps, he apparently has good size and skills on display already.

    Thanks to a heads up from MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo and his excellent blog covering the Minor Leagues, the draft and anything to do with prospects, here’s a quick scouting reporting from Dominican Prospect League:

    “Gaby is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds with an XL frame much like his uncle Vladimir Guerrero. The resemblance is noticeable from a distance and his tools have certain similarities. He has arm strength, ability to put the ball in play and power potential. Gaby’s swing can be long and loopy at times but he creates leverage and power through the zone with loop.”

    The DPL website even provided a quick video clip of young Guerrero, which doesn’t show a lot, but does offer a glimpse of his size and swing.

    Edgar to be elected into Latino Hall of Fame

    Edgar Martinez hasn’t yet earned a bid to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but the former Mariners designated hitter is being inducted into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in a ceremony Saturday in the Dominican Republic.

    Martinez is part of the second class inducted into the Latino Baseball’s Hall, joined by Fernando Valenzuela, Luis Tiant, Dennis Martinez, Manny Sanguillen, Rico Carty and Andres Galarraga.

    Pretty good company there, no doubt.

    Alex Rodriguez is also being honored at the event as the youngest player in Major League history to hit 600 home runs. Roberto Alomar is also being recognized for hsi induction to Cooperstown, while George Steinbrenner’s family is being given the Tommy Lasorda Award.

    The Latino Hall of Fame is located in Casa de Campo in La Romana.

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