SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The bleachers in the back fields here were hot to the touch this week, meaning it's nearly time to go.
To Los Angeles. To Denver. To Cincinnati. To New York.
Baseball's regular season (North American edition) is coming and Kendrys Morales awaited his second at-bat in a minor-league game on Field R4 in what they call the clover section of the Colorado Rockies' sprawling facility.
From above, the four fields together look like a clover. From field level, given all the numbers in the 70s and 80s, they look like a football game.
Morales skipped in place in the on-deck area and peered through the chain-link fence.
"Long," he said thickly. "Unbelievable."
He'd waited 22 months for at-bats like these over the past week, for real swings against real pitchers that would lead to a real season, and now he could not hide his impatience. He did not play first base. When he reached on a hit, as he did twice, he did not run the bases. A reedy elastic kid ran for him.
Some 200 yards away, the Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks played in the big ballpark. From the clover section, Morales could hear the national anthem play, so close that teammate Mike Trout, rehabbing a sore shoulder, felt obliged to stop and place his batting helmet over his heart. The crowd cheered and the music played and Kendrys Morales, almost within reach of it all, skipped in place.
"Unbelievable," he said.
His joyful leap into the arms of teammates resulted in a fractured ankle, which required two surgeries a year apart. He has been in some form of recovery since, on and off of crutches, in and out of rehab, to and from hopefulness. He has been part of the Los Angeles Angels, but not. Nearby, but not in. He remains so in some ways.
As his teammates stretched along the right-field line just after noon, Morales sat on the bench. A trainer sat opposite him and all but emptied a roll of athletic tape on his left ankle.
Jered Weaver, who'd pitch the minor-league game for the Angels, grinned and asked, "How many at-bats today? 10?"
"One," he said.
They laughed. He hadn't come all this way for one.
Morales took four. He singled twice, flew out to the warning track in dead-center field and hit a nubber in front of the plate that required he stomp – heavy-legged and somewhat flat-footed – to first base. In four earlier major-league exhibition games, Morales had been eight for 13.
Those two years later, he looks a lot like the Morales before he was carried from the field that late Saturday afternoon; from the left side, his left foot pointed to third base, his right foot to the dugout, his stance open, the left elbow high, his hands twitchy on the bat. The swing is smooth and effortless, the way it was when he was fifth in the 2009 MVP vote and headed toward more of the same in 2010.
"There's days," he said, "I feel better than others, but that's normal."
For the moment, he pointed out, "I feel great."
The way it's being drawn in the manager's office, Morales will DH and bat fourth – behind Albert Pujols – in the Angels' batting order most of the time, particularly against right-handed pitching.
It is, to use a tortured parallel, a leap of faith for manager Mike Scioscia, who will attempt to protect Pujols and Arte Moreno's $240-million investment, along with the Angels' intention to slug with some of the American League's better offenses, with Morales.
In that way, there are few more pivotal players in the league than Morales. If you'd argue Alex Rodriguez or Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder, anyone really, consider that none of them has just lost 1,000 plate appearances from his prime, had his ankle lashed in place (twice), then been handed a bat and asked to force fastballs to Pujols.
For if not Morales, then whom?
The Angels scored their fewest runs in the Scioscia era and nearly 200 runs fewer than the Texas Rangers in 2011. So they spent for Pujols, and even that won't work if Angels' cleanup hitters (primarily Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells in '11) post the seventh-worst OPS in baseball again.
So, on a field surrounded by tens of people – many of them family – Morales pulled four at-bats closer to retaking his career, and pushed four at-bats farther from that devastating day two Mays ago.
So quiet one could hear Weaver curse an uncooperative curveball not eight feet out of his own hand, or appreciate Morales' determined footfalls along the first-base line, Morales got a little nearer.
So quiet one could hear a nearly real game from across a parking lot or two, Morales could hardly wait to hit, and barreled three more balls.
"It's just a matter of feeling comfortable at home plate," he said later. "The rest will come."
He then excused himself, ending a conversation the way he probably has ended every other conversation for many, many months.
"I gotta go ice," he said.
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