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You never know who’s in a spring game


There was Atlanta’s Jason Heyward on Thursday afternoon, believed to be the best prospect in baseball, effortlessly tracking a fly ball as it sliced down the right field line.

Earlier this spring we got to see Pedro Alvarez, the top prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, hitting balls in the gap and fielding grounders at third.

We also got to see Tony Sanchez, the Pirates’ first-round pick in June, sprint around the bases after hitting his first big-league home run out of Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium.

Try telling him spring stats don’t go on the back of a bubble gum card.

Such is the beauty of spring training.

Who knows what we’ve seen this spring at McKechnie Field, which hosts its final big-league game of the year Monday when the Pirates play the Houston Astros.

There are no-brainers such as Heyward and Alvarez, who will probably crack major league rosters this summer. And there are guys such as Sanchez, who may not be far behind them.

But what I’m dying to find out is how many of the guys with high numbers are going to blossom in the big leagues.

There was a day when Mariano Rivera, an undrafted free agent, was just another wide-eyed kid doing mop-up duty in the Grapefruit League.

He wasn’t a can’t-miss, blue-chipper bonus baby. He wasn’t a prospect worth ditching work for.

No, he was another name nobody knew, and another reason to stream toward the exits.

That’s how it is for a spring training game — fans, understandably, want to see their favorite stars in an intimate setting.

It’s sort of like getting a chance to see Bruce Springsteen play a show inside a 50-seat club, far removed from the trappings and distractions of a stadium.

And it’s great, watching guys like Roy Halladay or Carl Crawford or Joe Mauer play in a cozy ballpark big enough to hold just 5,000 people. Maybe they’ll sign your baseball and chat you up for a few minutes.

The interesting stuff happens, however, when the famous faces depart. You may grimace when No. 97 takes Crawford’s place in left or No. 77 takes Halladay’s spot on top the mound.

But the best part is you never know who you’re seeing. What makes baseball so different than other sports is you get to chart a player’s trajectory, from his early days in the Gulf Coast League to playing in a World Series game on Fox.

Everybody starts somewhere in baseball. To wit, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, who’s been making scouts and journalists drool since his days at San Diego State, will be reporting for duty in Double-A Harrisburg when the Nationals begin the 2010 season.

No one jumps off the draft board and into an All-Star game. It begins in the spring. It begins with a Single-A club like the Marauders, who start their first season in Bradenton in less than two weeks.

There’s no shame in cheering on the stars and the can’t-miss kids during spring, and no shame wanting to be a fingertip from a guy you spend all summer watching on television.

But next time the unknowns take over a Grapefruit League game, pay close attention.

You never really know who you may be watching.