According to Coconino Panthers baseball players, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels really is a larger-than-life slugger and pitcher.
According to Panthers manager Daniel Vander Valk, Angels first-year skipper Joe Maddon really is one of the game's best in the dugout.
Take Coconino's word for it. They got to meet Maddon, watch players during a spring training workout and spend time with Tony La Russa, who also recently joined the Angels as a special advisor.
“We watched them hit on the field, they did PFPs, like bunt situations with the pitchers, first and third," Panthers senior outfielder Jordan Lucero said during practice Thursday at Coconino. "And then the outfielders, Mike Trout and all those guys were doing their stuff. The pitchers went and hit first, and we got to see that. We were really close, we got to be right there in front of the dugout watching them hit. It was cool, a great experience."
For the most part, Vander Valk spent time leaning by the dugout, as managers do, talking to the Maddon the Mad Scientist, who has one of the most interesting prospects to experiment with in the bigs in Ohtani.
Maddon had helped bring the Chicago Cubs an elusive World Series pennant in 2016, breaking the 108-year championship drought. Now, he can help bring up Ohtani, a hitter who will also serve as a starting pitcher once he returns to full health.
As soon as Vander Valk and the team got out to the parking lot, he texted his wife and told her about the experience.
“It was just neat because I would say some things that I noticed about a hitter, and he was just like, ‘Yea, you are right.’ Or he would say something, say, ‘Watch for this,’ or, ‘Notice how these couple of guys are doing the same thing?’ And so for me it was just cool how he was analyzing each and every guy," Vander Valk said.
Vander Valk said what also stood out about the legendary skipper was that he seemingly knew the names of everyone involved with the Angels organization, from the coaches and players in the minors to the players and assistants he works with more closely.
Vander Valk said his players took notice to the team's effort in drills.
"For a lot of them, they said they were watching the infielders do some work and one of the things that Tony mentioned to them was just how they do everything at game speed," Vander Valk said, snapping his fingers quickly. "They talk about how all the reps are just crisp and at game speed, nothing is at slow feed or slow throw."
During a few practices before the meeting with the Angels, Coconino had been talking about picking up the pace at practices.
"To hear Tony say that to our kids, it was like, 'Hmm, we told you,'" Vander Valk said.
According to Vander Valk, Panthers assistant coach Jeff Johnson's father has tight ties with La Russa.
“He was like, ‘Just come on down on the field,’ and next thing you know, we are standing by the dugout, leaning on the rail, watching the guys do some stuff. And then Tony comes out and hangs with us for two hours or so and talks to us about hitting," Vander Valk said.
Some Angels threw balls to the Panthers during the session over the weekend, as the Panthers were at a preseason tourney of their own in the Valley and made the stop at the Angels spring training facility.
Afterward, some young kids with their parents in the parking lot mistook the Panthers players as Angels. So a few of the Panthers still handed the kids their balls from the practice.
"They were like, 'Can we get your autograph?' So these little kids got autographs from our kids at a pro game, so that was neat," Vander Valk said. "Like I said, some of our players were willing to give up a ball they had just gotten from the pros to these little kids."
During that special moment in that parking lot, the Coconino Panthers were the players who were larger than life.
Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.
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