- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Mike Leake was summoned into a meeting with Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price, and in keeping with the proper chain of command, it was Price who delivered the news. "We've got good news," Price said. "You're going to be the No. 1 [starter] in Louisville," Price said.
There was a pause.
"Or," Price said, "you have the option of being the No. 5 starter" in the big leagues.
Leake said on Saturday that he isn't sure whether he responded with words -- he might've blurted out "No. 5 starter" -- because his mind went blank. A year ago, Leake was pitching for Arizona State. Although he made a half-dozen starts in the Arizona Fall League in 2009, he had pitched himself into Cincinnati's rotation with a strong spring despite not throwing a pitch in the minor leagues.
He called his father, Chris. "Are you serious?" his dad asked.
Early in spring training, Price had mentioned to Leake that nobody had told the young pitcher he couldn't make the big league roster. Leake took his words at face value. He just went about the business of making each start count, of working from start to start, batter to batter, pitch to pitch. That is why Leake's journey is perfect for Opening Day.
All batting averages and ERAs are pristine, and in these last hours before Josh Beckett throws the first pitch of the season, anything feels possible. The Yankees could win back-to-back titles. The Braves could challenge the Phillies in the NL East. The Rays could win the AL East. The Padres may surprise some folks who have overlooked them, as Kyle Blanks said over the phone on Saturday. The Diamondbacks don't have Brandon Webb, but they do have an improved lineup; they could surprise. The Dodgers could win the NL West, in spite of the divorce proceedings that have hampered the work of the front office.
This is Opening Day. This is spring. This is hope in baseball. A pitcher who wasn't expected to be part of the Reds' rotation when spring training started will spend the first days of the season in the brightest and largest ballparks in the world, waiting for his turn.
• Long ago, Bob Feller hurled a no-hitter on Opening Day.
• There is unrivaled anticipation for Sunday night's game Yankees-Red Sox, as Michael Silverman writes.
• Red Sox manager Terry Francona hopes the Yankees aren't as good.
• The Diamondbacks are ready to win in 2010, writes Nick Piecoro.
• Larry Stone tries to guess which team will have a Mariners-like turnaround in 2010.
• The Cubs' new owner is breaking tradition, writes Paul Sullivan.
And on the other hand ...
• The heat is on Fredi Gonzalez, writes Greg Stoda, because of some off-beat expectations.
• Here is the list of endangered skippers as we hit Opening Day, from Bill Madden.
Art of catching
"This title may be misleading ... I'm not going to tell you how to wear your uniform. However, I am going to tell you, as goofy as this may sound, it matters how you present yourself on the baseball field.
"Let's start at the beginning. If you're taking the time to read this, I'm assuming you have aspirations of advancing levels. Maybe it's from Little League to pony, high school to college, or from the minors to the big leagues. If this is true, you have to accept that every time you step between the white lines, you're being evaluated by people who may give you your next playing opportunity.
"Some of these coaches, scouts, etc. will get to see you play only once or twice. And during these couple of brief encounters, they're going to make a judgment on not only your playing ability but also what type of person you are (your intangibles).
"Now we both know this is impossible. It's impossible for them accurately assess what type of person you are by watching you play in one game, right? Yes, you're right, but I'm here to tell you it doesn't matter. They're gonna make that decision. Period.
"And the way they're going to grade your intangibles is by how hard you run out ground balls, how you handle adversity (are you a helmet thrower?), how well you communicate, your general vibe and yep ... how you wear your uniform.
"As I said, I'm not here to tell you how to wear your uniform, and I'm certainly no Ralph Lauren. But just pay attention. If you have absolutely no clue, ask your girlfriend or your mom. Look, there's a million different ways to wear a uniform 'the right way.' But use some common sense. If you're a bit on the chubby side, you may want to stay away from the skin-tight-high, sock-low waisted look. If you're long of body -- short of leg, do something that'll make your legs look longer. If you really are a gangster, maybe it's not such a good idea to present that persona on the field. Simple stuff like that.
"The fact is, your appearance is probably the first thing scouts are going to notice. Recognize this and make sure your look accurately represents the player you are or want to be.
"'You never get a second chance to make a first impression.' -- Oscar Wilde"
Dings and dents
1. The news on Jeff Francis is good, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said over the phone on Saturday. Although the lefty is starting the year on the disabled list, the Rockies' medical staff has determined that he has a mild strain, and the team doesn't think Francis has a major problem. For now, Greg Smith takes Francis' spot in the rotation.
On the other hand, the Rockies do not know when closer Huston Street will be back; his status is something of a mystery. "We'll use this opportunity to get other people some good experience," O'Dowd said.
The Rockies' GM needs to shop for rings, writes Mark Kiszla.
7. A Twins pitcher is starting the season on the DL.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Oakland Athletics surprised Jack Cust by designating him for assignment. Here's the rationale: Because Cust is making $2.75 million, the Athletics can presume he will clear waivers and be outrighted to the minors -- unless he rejects the outright assignment and asks for his release, which is highly unlikely given his salary. Cust and Eric Chavez are essentially slated to do the same type of thing, serving as left-handed-hitting DH options for Bob Geren, and by making this move, the Athletics buy more time to devote more at-bats to Chavez and get a read on what he is capable of. If Chavez struggles early, Oakland can summon Cust down the road.
3. The Orioles designated an infielder for assignment, writes Dan Connolly.
4. Jenrry Mejia made the Mets' Opening Day roster.
The battle for jobs
1. The Nationals named their fifth starter, Zach Berman writes.
2. The Rays' hustle in a meaningless game pleased their manager, writes Marc Topkin. We don't know yet whether they'll win or lose this season, but it feels as if they're on a mission.
• The White Sox had a bad record in spring training, but manager Ozzie Guillen says the team still accomplished what it needed to accomplish.
• The future is cloudy for some White Sox veterans, writes Dave van Dyck.
• The closer issue is still a hot topic in the Twins' clubhouse, writes Tom Powers.
• The Brewers are still shaping their legacy, writes Gary D'Amato.
• The Tigers still look like a third-place team to Lynn Henning.
• The Yankees can be better this season, writes Joel Sherman.
• The Astros are re-energized this spring with a winning vibe, writes Bernardo Fallas.
• The Dodgers' clubhouse got a makeover, writes Baxter Holmes.
• The Indians hope to retool with the AL Central's lowest payroll, writes Paul Hoynes.
• The Brewers' catchers could provide offense.
• The Brewers have a dynamic duo of hitters, Tom Haudricourt writes.
• The D-backs' dynamic duo sizzles, writes Dan Bickley.
• Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik works to keep the trust, writes Geoff Baker.
• Ichiro is different from the common perception, writes Steve Kelley.
• A Dodgers super scout discovered yet another player.
• The Red Sox are built to last.
• Big things are forecast for the Dodgers and Angels, writes Jeff Miller.
• Phillies manager Charlie Manuel thrives with loyalty and persistence, writes Andy Martino.
• The Pirates' upcoming season appears pivotal, writes Dejan Kovacevic.
• Prospects will pave the way for success for the Pirates, writes Rob Biertempfel.
• The Pirates should stop living in the '60s, writes Gene Collier.
• Baseball has a new language.
• Don Zimmer, a baseball lifer, is still going strong.
• An old pro sat down with Paul Daugherty and told him what he has learned in his years in the big leagues.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Mike Leake hasn't really played any minor league baseball, and from all indications, he may never have to. That's because the young hurler out of Arizona State has been one of the big surprises of spring. Buster Olney goes through many storylines.