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Friday, Aug. 26, 2016

DeWitt adjusting to life in Florida

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Blake DeWitt
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- It doesn't get much better than this! The sky was a high blue with scattered fluffy white clouds.

The temperature was 75 degrees and the breeze was light and refreshing. The manicured grass was that shade of green you seem to see only on television during a PGA event.

There were no raucous crowds - just a few baseball fans milling around Vero Beach's Dodgertown, a baseball paradise. There were some players taking grounders on a baseball field with no outfield.

Others were jogging in an outfield with no infield. No tough workouts. Hey, it was Palm Sunday morning.

Now, how to find one particular player?

This could be tough. Could that be him just inside the batting cage building (four indoor cages)?

Just then he laughed. Yes, that's him.

As the players head from the batting cage, a man with two large notebooks filled with baseball cards cries out for an autograph.

That fan was quickly joined by six others, and the young Dodger patiently signed each card, ending the session with a "Blake DeWitt" signature on the back of a 10-year-old's T-shirt.

"You're getting good at that," I said.

He glanced up from the final signing and seemed pleased to see familiar faces from home.

But, there was no time to talk. He was leaving to play a New York Mets minor League team in Port St. Lucie, about 30 miles from Dodgertown.

The field at Port St. Lucie wasn't the first opportunity to see Blake play.

Our youngest son Jake is the same age. They've been teammates and/or opponents in baseball, basketball, football and soccer since they were 6. But watching Blake play this time would be something quite special.

The Mets' facility was not unlike the Sikeston complex. Four fields side by side with a small building in the middle. At the top of this building was an observation deck for the ever-watchful coaching staff.

Two games were played at once, each field filled with major league hopefuls. Blake's team would be a little overmatched on this day, facing a squad of Mets that was older and more experienced. We didn't care. Neither did Blake.

As the game began, we noticed Blake was batting third - a good sign! That spot in the order is reserved for the best hitter.

After two quick outs, Blake takes his place in the lefthanded batter's box. A 93 miles-per-hour fastball heads his way, and he strokes it cleanly into centerfield for a single. Two infield singles and a walk bring him in to score.

His first fielding play isn't as pretty…a routine grounder turned into an error by a wild throw to first.

Blake's second at bat wasn't productive, but it was memorable. The Met righthander fired in a fastball at 92 miles-per-hour, and the Sikeston native rifles it right back at the pitcher at what seemed to be 150 mph.

The missile thuds off his thigh and he throws Blake out, but he's out of the game, too.

In the field, Blake winced in pain. He would leave that game soon, and miss the next day's game as well with a rib injury suffered in a Saturday practice drill.

"He'll be fine. He's a good hitter learning a new position," stated Terry Collins, the head of the Dodgers minor league system. "He's a tough kid, too. He showed that by playing with those (injured) ribs."

That evening provided an opportunity to chat with Blake, one of the Dodgers' prized prospects, but not at Dodgertown Hotel, an unassuming one-story motel from the 1960s that is closed to all but players and coaches during Spring training.

Where do you go to show a professional baseball player a good time on a pleasant Florida evening? Wendy's.

The quiet restaurant was relaxing -- great for talking baseball. Blake had only been here for two weeks, but he seemed comfortable, settled, and happy in his first Spring training.

"It's been what I expected," said DeWitt. "I came in a week early to help me get into a routine. That's been the toughest adjustment. Getting into a routine, and learning to maintain your body. The trainers helped me set up a workout plan. I've learned you have to eat. Sometimes, especially after a night game, you just don't feel like eating. You have to keep up weight…keep up your strength."

After being drafted last Spring, DeWitt reported to the Ogden Raptors weighing in at 175 pounds. He played a 76-game season and was named the team's offensive MVP, but he was worn down.

Knowing a 142-game season awaits, he worked hard in the weight room and added about 20 pounds of muscle. Where he'll be playing next season has yet to be determined.

"I hope I get to stay right here," he said, referring to the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers. "If not, I'll probably be going to the Class A team in Columbus (Georgia). I'll find out April 4th when camp breaks."

And what about the life of a professional player? It must be pretty glamorous, huh?

"We (the minor leaguers) all have to stay at the (Dodgertown) hotel. There are some suites with two bedrooms, and there are six guys in there. I'm glad I'm not in one of those. My room has one bathroom and four beds, but one of the guys must have quit, so I only have two roommates. It is tough having only one closet, though. There's a dining room like a restaurant there (in the motel), but the food is served like a cafeteria. It's pretty good. Lots of steak, chicken. Lots of carbs."

What about the big guys…the major leaguers?

"They don't live at Dodgertown. They've all got condos or something. They don't eat with us much. They get $120 a day in meal money, and the team expects them to spend it."

What about the wild night life of pro athletes?

"Usually, I'm pretty tired after supper. Sometimes I'm lifting or getting (medical) treatments. We might watch a little TV. We've gone out to see a couple of movies. They have like a game room set up, but I'm not into that much. I'm usually back in the room by 9, 9:30."

Are the Dodgers taking care to protect their players?

"The medical staff…wow. Dr. Frank Jobe (world famous orthopedist) was here checking out the players. They must have 15 trainers just on the minor league side. Full medical exams. I just had a two-hour eye exam. My vision's 20-20, but the doctor's going to give me contact lenses to use just when I bat. He said it'll give me 20-10. Every little bit helps."

Is the team giving the young players any advice on issues like investments, steroids, or overly friendly female fans?

"The coaches haven't said a word about steroids. Never," stated DeWitt. "We used to bring in some people to talk about investment, but most of these guys have agents and they (the agents) got mad. About women, well, what can you say. They're grown men. Just be careful."

DeWitt understands that baseball is a tough sport. It might not need the strength and speed of football, or the athleticism of basketball, but no sport demands you to master so many difficult skills.

"It's what makes it a great game," he added. "Body, mind, skills. You've got to work them all."