(I posted this earlier on the Triumphant Red Sox Blog but thought it would fit over here, too.
It's a warm Tuesday in Fort Myers. All eyes (and cameras) are on Daisuke Matsuzaka as the new multi-billion-yen pitcher arrives at the Red Sox' training complex for the first time. The frenzied media capture his every move, his every gesture. Here's Daisuke, Nike duffel in hand, walking from his black Cadillac to the clubhouse. Here's Daisuke talking to some of the staff. Daisuke stretching his arm. Daisuke stretching his hammy. Daisuke running, throwing, smiling, laughing. It's The Daisuke Show, the 26-year-old righty and an audience of a hundred or so of his closest media buddies.
Wait a minute, there is one picture that shows someone else. Clearly, there is some mistake. That guy isn't famous. No one recognizes him. Is he a player? He looks about 16. A clubhouse boy, maybe? The guy who sweeps the sunflower shells out of the dugout after everyone is gone?
No, it's Matsuzaka's unlikely co-star in the spectacle, catcher George Kottaras, who according to the Boston Globe's Gordon Edes was tapped with no notice or fanfare to play catch with the newcomer. Timing is everything, and today Kottaras is the guy who walks into a Hollywood coffee shop and gets discovered by a television director looking for just the right face. The guy who stops at the convenience store on the way home to pick up a gallon of milk and, hey, while he's there, buys a lottery quick-pick that comes up a winner the next day. The guy who, in too much of a rush coming out of the hotel elevator, bumps into the woman of his dreams.
Yesterday, Kottaras had been working all morning on catching drills with Gary Tuck, the new Sox bullpen coach, when Edward "Pookie" Jackson, one of the Sox clubhouse men, stuck in his head and said Matsuzaka was looking for someone to play catch with.
"'OK,' I said," Kottaras said. "'It doesn't matter. I'll do it.'"
Way to play it cool, George.
They stretched, Matsuzaka did some light jogging and twists, and then he grabbed a ball and trotted 20 yards or so from Kottaras. Originally, that was supposed to be the media's cue to depart; Matsuzaka had conveyed to the Sox that he wanted his first game of catch to be private. But, evidently, he relented, because for the next 10 minutes or so, a ball passed back and forth between the two rookies — the catcher making the big league minimum, the pitcher with a $103 million price tag hanging from his sleeve. Kottaras said the sound of whirring cameras never stopped.
And that is the beauty of spring training. The superstar works alongside the guy with "upside" (translation: the hope that great potential will someday be fulfilled). It hardly matters that the gulf between them is millions of dollars, the difference between every media member knowing your name versus having to ask the security guy who that skinny dark-haired kid with the glove is. At spring training, none of that matters. They're just two players, less than three years apart in age, having a catch. Maybe later, they'll throw back a couple beers together.
The photographers don't get that. To them, there is The Next Big Thing and then there's the guy who got into the picture by accident. But to those of us who go to spring training to see the players, all the players, the chance to check out the young unknowns is almost as big a deal as the chance to see Daisuke's gyroball. It's the younger guys who will be signing autographs, posing for pictures with school kids who are thrilled to meet a real-life professional ballplayer. It's the younger guys who we'll remember five years down the road when we're flipping through an old scorebook saying, Remember when we saw so-and-so in his first major league camp and now he's an all-star? Or even, Remember so-and-so who had so much promise? I wonder if he's still in baseball.
Maybe Kottaras will become the target of the cameras, a franchise player, someone whose jersey is popular at the souvenir stands. But if not, he has had something most young prospects will never enjoy: a moment in the spotlight. No matter where his career goes from here, I'm sure he'll look back on this experience and smile.