GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Reds play their inaugural Cactus League game next Friday against their camp co-tenant, the Indians. Manager Dusty Baker is already cautioning his Grapefruit League veterans to pack a lot of chill pills: hitters, to keep from getting big heads; pitchers, to ignore those big ERAs. "This is a hitters' league," Baker warned. "The pitchers are going to have to be patient with their breaking balls, which don't break as well in the dry air. And the batted ball carries. We're going to see some high averages and ERAs."
As a player, Baker trained in both places, in Florida with the Braves and the Dodgers, and here later in his career with the Giants and the A's. So he knows how the Arizona heat and dryness play havoc with statistics. As a manager, he has to filter everything through those factors. "It makes it a little tougher to judge pitchers," Baker said. "It's just easier to hit here. The fields are bigger because of the way balls carry, but that just opens up more gaps. "And the infields get hard quick. You can't keep watering them. Sometimes you feel like you're playing on the freeway. The balls also feel slicker.
"You've got to take all that into consideration when you're evaluating players."A snapshot from Spring Training 2009 validates Baker's perception: Fourteen of the top 16 preseason averages (15-plus at-bats) were compiled in the Cactus League -- as were the top nine ERAs (10-plus innings). "It does make hitters feel a little better than maybe they should about themselves -- but there's nothing wrong with taking a good feeling into the season," Baker said with a grin. As a former outfielder still with a hitter's mindset, Baker can appreciate the therapeutic effect of taking swings in the Arizona sauna. And again as a manager, he embraces the close-knit Cactus League's biggest advantage over the sprawling Grapefruit League: the relative proximity of camps. Even with the D-backs and Rockies spending a final March in Tucson, there are 13 other teams within a radius of 50 miles. "So you get to practice much more on fundamentals," Baker said, explaining: "On away-game days in Florida, most days you have to get going early and spend a lot of time on the road. Here, you have the luxury of having full workouts at your complex even on days you play on the road. Big difference."