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TEMPE, Arizona -- It's always something special when you walk into a ballpark for the first time any year, even if it is just an exhibition game.

And thus it was for my first game of 2006, and the Cubs cooperated by defeating the Angels 7-6, despite blowing a 4-0 first-inning lead.

It was warm today in the Valley, though not hot, about 76 degrees, with the sun peeking in and out of clouds (yeah, I know, feel real sorry for me). The game was sold out and even given that, the scalpers that lined 48th Street near the stadium weren't getting many takers for their tickets. The park filled up slowly, but eventually all the seats were filled, including the mostly empty row I was in behind first base (I never could figure out why people show up so late to a game; maybe it's a West Coast thing -- the crowd seemed pretty evenly matched between Angels and Cubs fans).

About the game -- Rich Hill was singularly unimpressive, and given the current uncertainty about Mark Prior's status, this isn't good news. He was given a four-run first inning lead off Jeff Weaver (more on him anon), but coughed it up and more in Angel innings one and two; he looked just like the same two-pitch, can't-get-the-ball-over-the-plate Rich Hill I saw the second half of last year.

Todd Wellemeyer was obviously being showcased again; his boxscore line shows two scoreless innings, but he wasn't throwing strikes that well, either. There was a lone radar gunman behind the plate (not on the grassy knoll in the outfield, no, sorry) tracking Wellemeyer; we can only hope he impressed enough to be dealt.

Meanwhile, the Cubs were teeing off on Weaver; five straight hits by Jacque Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Todd Walker, Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno produced four runs, and also waves of derisive comments from a bunch of blue-T-shirted guys (shirts said "Boiler", a nod to their beer bellies, or so they claimed) who were also wearing Dodger caps and boasted they were "displaced Dodger fans". They also took some time out to remind Angel manager Mike Scioscia of his heroics for the '88 Dodgers. And to drink. And drink some more. They weren't rowdy, just having fun.

Also in my row was a family of four young kids, all under the age of about seven -- who somehow managed to last till the middle of the ninth inning, despite a couple of them falling asleep in the dad's lap. Real troopers, those, and all dressed up in what appeared to be several hundred dollars' worth of Angel gear.

I hate to report to you that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (the Human Air Raid Siren) was also heard, all the way across the park from me; he was yelping on the lawn, and I spotted him signing autographs -- sheesh, what is WRONG with people? This guy's been a moocher for years and years, and doesn't pay a dime for his various trips... and if you think he's funny or cute, try sitting next to him for an hour while he's screaming in your ear and won't stop.

OK, I'm done.

Actually, after Hill, the rest of the staff settled down and allowed only four hits and one run the rest of the way, and guys like Randy Wells and Les Walrond are going to be Triple-A roster filler anyway. Scott Williamson finished up effectively for his first save of the spring.

Tempe Diablo Stadium supposedly had a huge facelift over the winter, but apart from a large staircase to a new entrance behind the plate, and some new seats, it didn't seem all that much different. They do have an expanded food patio with many grilled food choices, something I've complained long and loud that they don't have at Ho Ho Kam Park (reason: a bad concession contract, something that is supposed to be changed after this year).

Spring training scoring is always fun. The PA announcer at Tempe Diablo is pretty good about keeping up, though he did call Williamson "Scott Wilkinson" twice, finally correcting himself by saying it's "pronounced Williamson". Yeah, and spelled that way, too. I note in the game thread that some boxscores had Neifi Perez batting in two spots in the batting order. Let me assure you this didn't happen; Juan Pierre led off in CF. Frankly, I was less than impressed with his vaunted speed -- he couldn't run down some deep fly balls, although this ballpark does have a huge CF, and he hit into a DP in the 2nd which wasn't even close.

More lineup follies: the Angels put in someone wearing #49 named "Morris" to play 3B in the 9th, who wasn't listed anywhere in their program, either on the roster or non-roster list; and I note he didn't appear in the boxscore, either.

Doesn't matter. It's back-to-the-ballpark time, the best time of year.

Rich Hill pitching in the first inning on Thursday at Tempe - photo by Al

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