With his first spring training homer, James Wood made a young fan’s year

With his first spring training homer, James Wood made a young fan’s year

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The teenager was sitting in the grass beyond the right field fence with his best friend when he heard the crack of the bat. Then he saw the ball in the air. Forget that piece of pretzel in his hand — he dropped it in the grass and made a beeline for the back of the lawn.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, no way,” Michael Hecker said.

There were others with the same goal, hoping the ball off the bat of Washington Nationals prospect James Wood would land at their feet. They would reach down and grab it. They would hold it up in jubilation. Maybe in the dream, they would hold the remains of their broken pretzel with the wrapper in the other hand — like Hecker.

“That home run just made my year — and it’s only February,” Hecker said.

Hecker and his best friend, Jayden Vazquez, both 15, came to the ballpark Saturday to watch the Nationals and Houston Astros work out. Hecker is a Mets fan — he’s originally from New York — but his family moved to nearby Boynton Beach, Fla., a few years ago. He wore a Jose Altuve jersey Saturday strictly so he could get an autograph. They didn’t even know there was a game Saturday night, but once they did, they paid $28 to sit on the lawn.

Spring training gives fans a chance to get an up-close-and-personal look at players they admire. They stand along the fences with pens and baseballs, yelling players’ names as they walk from one field to another. Before games, they huddle down the foul line or by the dugout with baseball cards.

But it wasn’t until Saturday that Hecker saw Wood and learned who he was.

From last year: The outsize world of James Wood

That home run — seeing as it came in spring training — probably meant little to Wood. The 21-year-old has slugged 41 in his minor league career. He’s trying to make it to the majors, where he hopes there will be plenty more. After the game, Wood said he didn’t know where the ball landed. Asked what’s next, he replied: “Another game tomorrow.”

For Hecker, that baseball was worth much more.

“It means everything to me,” he said. “I mean, that’s awesome. I’ve never gotten a home run at a baseball game before. … That’s like an achievement for me.”

Less than an hour after the game, Hecker and Vazquez sat on a curb in the parking lot. Every few seconds, they would peek into the Nationals’ facility to see if Wood was coming their way.

“Likely he’ll go out the other side, but you never know,” Vazquez said.

“I got the ball in my pocket just in case he comes,” Hecker said.

A few minutes later, Hecker and Vazquez would head home. Wood never did come out, but he already had made their night a few hours earlier.

On Sunday, Wood picked up where he left off with a two-run blast in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins. The homer came on a sweeper by lefty Devin Smeltzer and hit the batter’s eye in center field at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.

Lewin Díaz followed with a two-run homer in the sixth inning that propelled the Nationals to a 6-3 victory. Díaz, a first baseman on a minor league contract, is trying to make the roster after spending his first three major league seasons with Miami.

Meanwhile, Wood continued to make a strong impression.

“It’s good to see the kid get off like that early in camp,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He does everything really the right way, even when you watch him play defense. … I love watching him play. He’s going to be special.”

MacKenzie Gore started Sunday’s game; over two innings, he threw an efficient 26 pitches with 21 strikes. The left-hander, who turned 25 on Saturday, allowed one run while striking out four. His fastball was lively up in the strike zone, and he threw his curveball often — when he was ahead in the count and, perhaps more notably, when he was behind.

“I thought it was good,” Gore said of his spring debut. “We continued to work on what we’ve been doing all season to the beginning of the spring. I liked how we stuck to the plan.”

Right-hander Trevor Williams greeted his teammates and coaches with hugs after reporting to camp Sunday. He had an excused absence: the birth of his fifth child, a second daughter named Monica. Williams said he doesn’t feel as though he’s behind.

He faced live hitters Friday in San Diego, even though they were high-schoolers. Martinez said Williams probably will throw a live bullpen session Tuesday, then throw a side bullpen. After that, he should be ready to pitch in a game.

“I feel like the only thing I was missing was the lights, the stadium,” Williams said. “I feel like my body is where it needs to be. My brain is catching up now that I’m here. My mind will be in season mode hopefully here soon.”

Williams enters camp as the Nationals’ fifth starter, but nothing is guaranteed after his performance of a season ago. He lost velocity and struggled with command during the second half of 2023, in part because of his workload. In all, the 31-year-old had a 5.55 ERA in 30 starts, but he’ll have every opportunity to earn the job again.

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