I have very vague memories of putting on the catching gear once in 1978. I was the best player on a terrible team and the coach thought it was worth a try. I’m guessing it didn’t go well because I don’t remember doing it a second time.
The first day of Ponce de Leon Spring Training 2019 was, however, quite a different experience. In our pre-game meeting, I mentioned to Rick Knapp that I’d like to try catching. Camp is a little short on both pitchers and catchers this year, so we only had one player who identified as a catcher. We all figured this meant several of us needed to put on the gear to ensure that he didn’t have to catch every inning and didn’t exhaust himself.
Chandler and I tried to convince all of the Team M players and anyone else we met, to come down for spring training. It’s always a lot of fun and I always get better as a result. Having coaches who coached in the majors and minors gives you access to so much knowledge if you just keep your ears open.
One example was related several times by our left fielder in the first game, Tom Sharkey. With a runner on third, I had been playing close to the bag, foolishly thinking that the catcher might be able to throw a back-pick. From Tom’s perspective, he had a great angle in to the batter, with no obstructions. Then, for no apparent reason, I moved off third base and right into his line of sight. When the ball was hit, it bounced right into my glove for an easy play at first. He thought it was my genius in positioning. Of course, it was not. Knappy saw where I was playing and moved me off the bag, into the perfect position.
It didn’t make a difference in that game, which we lost 3-1. In Ponce, if you hold the other team to 3 runs, you ought to win! Most of us were hitless, so we didn’t have many runners to drive in. In my first at bat, I walked and sprinted out of the box, just out of habit. When I got to first, I was waved to keep going. The ball had gone past the catcher and he lollygagged after it. So, I got a two-base walk. I advanced on Rick Powers sacrifice to the right side and scored when Tom hit a nice line drive to left.
I caught with Evan Katz on the mound in the third and fourth innings. It was a great experience. As a catcher, you’re involved in every play. I loved that about pitching in softball. Warming Evan up down in the bullpen, I was nervous. A few of his low pitches skipped right past me. That didn’t prove to be a problem in the game. I did let a few by early, when no one was on – and I think I did let one go with a runner on. While I didn’t get a chance to throw anyone out, when the bases were loaded, they hit a grounder to Evan which he tosses to me and I forwarded it to Chandler over the head of the batter. That got us out of the inning.
Our bats were far more lively in the second game. We scored the max (3) in the first two innings, giving us a cushion to work with.
I started the game catching, with Richard Brouillette on the mound. Rich brought his son, Michael down. Mike’s only 30 and is our one declared catcher. Rich told me he only throws fastballs and to just put my glove where I wanted it. He usually hit it, with occasional variations that worked out for us anyway. We were facing one of their better hitters and he’d battled, pushing the fastballs foul. With his quick swing and the fact that Rich had only thrown heat so far, I waggled three fingers down to call for a changeup, in case he might see it and throw it. He did and we got a nice infield fly out of it. Unfortunately, in Ponce, there are no routine flyballs, so it dropped just out of reach of the second baseman. Nonetheless, it worked and gave him confidence in that changeup. We’ll probably see that again this week.
Rich wears number 4 and we joked after that game that he lived up to his number by pitching 4 innings. With the shortage of pitchers, they extended the number of innings that they could throw to 4 for the starter, with a maximum of 7 innings a day.
I’ve been playing third the last few years and headed over there after my three innings behind the plate. I was hitless on the day, though I had a great drive to center that Craig Tasens ran under. It was frustrating to hit the ball so well finally, but watching him catch that on the run was a true joy. I love seeing a good play, even if it’s the other team.
Evan was bringing the heat again in the second game. The strike zone wasn’t always to his liking and our lead had narrowed to 7-4. After we got the first out, Evan walked a batter and Craig Tasens reached first on catcher’s interference. The ball had been dribbling down the third base line and I wondered why Craig hadn’t left the box. So I scooped it up and they called the play dead.
So, with runners on first and second, our reliable catcher from last year, Shaun Quill, stepped into the batter’s box. Somehow, his line drive moved in slow motion into my glove. It had me moving toward second, surprising the lead runner, who assumed (like everyone else) that the ball was going through and he was going to score. I realized after a step that I was way faster than him and throwing was a risk. So, I ran him down – nearly back to second – to close out the game.
After the game, I was told that it changed the week and that it made Evan’s night. Finishing the day 1-1 beats the heck out of losing two. We also woke up our bats and played some good defense. We’ve got a coach that has taken his team to the championship 4 times in a row, so I like our odds.
My batting stats aren’t good, but I understand how it can affect catchers. I was tired when I stepping into the box a few times. So, 0-4 with a walk and a run scored. I think taking second on that walk counts as a steal.
On defense, 5 innings catching and two double plays (one at third, one catching). There was a nice throw to the plate that made for an easy out in the second game. Two passed balls, since the ones with no one on don’t count.
Our afternoon game stated very competitively, with us edging to a 3-2 lead that we extended to 4-2. Our pitching and defense got very solid after that and our hitting didn’t stop. So we ended up cruising to a 13-2 win.
My first at bat, I just failed to back away from the plate and took a soft pitch to my back leg. (Update on the following Monday: still bruised.)
Our coach, Rick Knapp, had rearranged our lineup from alphabetical to on be a little more strategic. So, I was hitting 4th. I’m sure it wasn’t that I had shown power, as all three guys hitting on front of me hit the ball just as hard, but I’ll take it. The lineup rolls continually after this game, so the leadoff hitter won’t be leading off the game after this.
Craig Tasens led off with a hit, and stole second easily. Jonathan Taylor singled to send Craig to third. When JT stole second they threw to second but Craig was caught flat-footed and didn’t advance. A passed ball while Shaun Quill was batting bright him on anyway. Shaun singled to plate JT. I was watching the first pitch to give Shaun a chance to steal, but it just kept coming further inside and hit me. I missed seeing Shaun break for third, so we didn’t double steal. I did go on the next pitch, though. When Shaun scored on Ed Confino’s single, we’d made our limit of three for the inning.
We turned to Richard Toikka for the third inning. It’s not often that you send out a 73-year-old pitcher, but Richard posted his first shutout inning of the week. After our morning game, Rick was talking to all of us, working on some tips for JT about pitching. Balance is such a key in pitching and Rick was focusing on the alignment of a pitcher’s hips in that balance and movement. It also applies in batting, so this lesson would be repeated in various ways throughout the week. As I mentioned last year, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks. The progress of specific players from how they played before lunch on this firsy day and how they played by the end of the week is truly due to great instruction.
My next at bat came with runners on 2nd and 3rd. My fly ball landed inches inside the left field line and stopped. That pushed in the third run that inning.
In the fourth, Russ Ryan began showing the power that would make him so critical to our success during the week. His double drove in two runs and he scored to give us another max inning.
Chandler Fox led off the 5th with a strikeout on which the ball skipped past the catcher, allowing him to reach first safely. He scored to tack on another run. My final at bat came when we were already up by a lot. As such, no need to take a pitch to let Shaun steal. I hit a solid line drive to shallow center that made the play at second close.
So, 3-5 on the day, with a double, 2 RBI and a run scored. I did overthrow first (Chandler Fox is tall, but not THAT tall!), but dutifully covered second to get the next out.
We’re 2-0 with wins of 5-4 and 13-2. I know at least one other team is 2-0, but I like our chances!
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If that’s what’s holding someone back from playing baseball, I think they’re a fool.
Back in the late 1970s, I was a reasonably good rec league baseball player at 12 years old. The next season, I was eligible to play in “F Major” rather than “F Minor” (the rec league). I chose not to try out for F Major because I preferred being a big fish in a small pond. So, I got to be among the very best players in F Minor, hitting over .500 and usually stealing both second and third when I got on. I hit just one double. Unfortunately, I now realize that not only did I have no idea what I was doing, none of my coaches did either. Don’t get me wrong, the dads who coached put a lot of effort into it. The wealth of knowledge instantly available today on hitting, pitching and all aspects of the game simply dwarfs what a guy could learn from a book borrowed from the library and read after a long day at work.
I’d likely have learned considerably more with the coaches in the higher league, and against better competition. So, sometimes I wish that I’d tried out and then done the same in high school. Instead, my 8th grade school on the school team didn’t know me and put me down at the end of the bench, ending my fledgling baseball career early.
Because of the lack of any real instruction, I’ve always been something of a blank canvas when it comes to hitting. In my softball career, I found Dusty Baker’s book You Can Teach Hitting and it took me from a pathetic hitter to reasonably good. It made such an impression on my teammates that I had to loan the book out and recommend it to others. When I started playing baseball again, I tried a few books, but they were too broad and only corrected a few flaws in my swing. Then, I figured out that if my wife could hire a personal trainer, I could hire a hitting coach. Baseball is, especially in contrast to softball, pretty good exercise. It’s even better if you do it a couple of days a week.
So, I hired Luke Skinner and Coach Luke revolutionized my hitting stroke.
The first day of games in spring training, I was a little nervous. Not like I was when I started Ponce, but I made sure my goals for the week were modest. I wanted to make sure I was better than a .250 hitter and contributed. I wanted to learn things. I’m like a sponge for coaches. I absorb it all. Sometimes, it sticks and I play really well as a result.
The day started out with my first venture into a ‘real’ locker room. I had my own locker, with my name on it, just like in the big leagues. Some guys could say, “Oh, I haven’t had one since college” or “Ours in high school were almost as nice”, but I had no experience with it. The smile on my face when I saw the locker, however humble, with my name on it, was huge. Sure, I paid my $1000 for it, but it felt as good as if I’d signed a minor league contract.
Changing into my uniform, I went out and stretched with the group. In my first season in Ponce, I was always surprised at the end of games when I’d shake hands with the other team and realize they were all older than me. Spring training was reassuring this way as well, allowing me to stretch out in the midst of men who averaged about 62 years old. When Steve Liddle gathered us ‘round to discuss the schedule and put us in the right frame of mind for a week of baseball, I was giddy. We ran as a group to the centerfield fence and drifted back into lines for group stretching. Jogging along in the group, you could scrape away 30 or 40 years and imagine it was the real thing.
In our first game, I was perfect, slapping out 3 hits, though it was a losing effort. I added on a couple in the afternoon game to finish the day 5 for 6. Joe Facenda hit the ball just as hard, but right at people, so he carried a golden sombrero for the day, 0 for 6. Joe’s tenacious and completely agreed when we asserted that the hits would start falling the next day. Other than that first day, Joe was dependable, banging out hits and driving in runs. All it took was patience.
As we got to the middle of the week, Chandler Fox noticed that both he and I were way ahead of the ball. He was having some challenges with a temptation for high pitches. The strike zone was pretty big all week, and he told me they were calling those as strikes on him. So, he struggled for a few days. Jeff worked with him in the cage and we talked about patience. Sure enough, by the end of the week, Chandler was waiting, waiting, waiting and the hits started dropping. If we’d had another week, he’d have been in a groove.
One of the really cool things we did in the cage during soft toss was that Jeff would hold two balls and toss them both at once. He’d call out “low” or “high” and you had to hit that ball. It’s a great drill that I felt really got me to focus on the ball. You’ve got the distraction of the second ball, so it forces you to mentally block that out and to keep your head down. In a season, there are probably a hundred such learning opportunities, but all we had was a week. I think it has made a difference for me anyway.
So, I met with Coach Luke at one of the local baseball fields, in the cage. We did some soft toss and he examined my swing and worked on it. By random chance, I set up a little wider and wasn’t stepping before I swung. Turns out this really worked well for me – he commented on how it steadied my stance and how much he liked it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was like too many other things about my swing – random and subject to change. Because he liked it, and then because it has really worked for me, it’s permanent.
One of the things he had me do to enhance my bat speed was to tuck my shoulder and hip back, making me twist more when I swung. That may not have been what he was really trying to get me to do, but turning my hip and shoulder has cranked my bat speed up 100%. I don’t remember if our playoff game for Ponce last summer was a few days after that session or a few weeks, but when we did a little soft toss in the batting cage before the game, I could see the difference. It wasn’t just that I was smashing the ball, but the way Bill Murray and some of the other guys reacted to my swing. It was disbelief. I may be an old dog, but I sure can learn new tricks.
Our 2017 season started this past Sunday and I hoped the lessons from last year and the habits from spring training stuck with me.
In my first at-bat, bases were loaded with two outs. He missed the strike zone with his first two pitches, so standing there at 2-0, I knew he had to groove one. It was a good pitch and I hit it hard down the third base line. Unfortunately, the third baseman was holding the runner on and perfectly positioned to scoop it up and end the inning.
In my next at bat, I was facing a “junk ball” left-handed pitcher. Nothing hard, but a mix of curveballs and change-ups. He’d mentioned earlier in the day that he threw 3 complete games in three days down at spring training. Nothing strenuous, except his move to first. Jerry let us know that he was always in or near the strike zone, so we shouldn’t give up on something that looked like it wouldn’t be a strike. I resolved to simply go up swinging. Last time I’d done that against a curveball pitcher, I looked ridiculous, swinging at three pitches I had no chance of hitting. But, sure enough, he was in the strike zone. The first pitch came inside and I fouled it toward my back foot. The second one was probably a curve that just didn’t curve. It ended up in the middle of the plate and I made solid contact, driving it toward the gap in left centerfield. The centerfielder got his glove up, stopping it from bouncing to the fence despite not catching it. It steamed around first and was prudently called back.
Now, I’d seen his move to first and it’s a good one. He did get called for a balk during the game, though there was much discussion about whether it should have been called. I was coaching third at the time as Casey led off first. I watched him wind up and swore that Casey absolutely picked the right time to move, since we all thought he was throwing home. He wasn’t and tossed to first. The umpire called it a balk, so Casey was awarded second.
Lefties are tough to steal on because they’re looking right at you and some of them very good moves. Since he doesn’t throw many fastballs, I took off on that first pitch, sliding safely into second. I scored on single two batters later.
Talking to one of the former Team M players on Wednesday night, I was talking about the lack of coaching I’d had as a kid. He told me that when he coached his son’s team, he was in about the same boat, but that he thought, “you can’t teach hitting, either you have it or you don’t”. I countering with the change in my swing and how Coach Luke made such a difference. When I’ve played on co-ed softball teams down on the Mall, I’ve always coached the less experienced players. I know it make a difference. It’s why my teams are always better at the end of the season than the beginning. Most people have no idea how to hit a ball and with just a couple of simple changes, you can turn them from spinning tops into actual hitters. Even skilled hitters can use help. More than one serious pull hitters has been able to change things up just by learning about closing their stance to punch the ball to the right side.
During the Wednesday afternoon game in spring training, when we were having a giant inning, I closed my stance so much that I almost had my back to the pitcher. He was tossing slow and soft, so with the closed stance and a delayed swing, I was able to punch the ball easily to right. It may just have been padding my batting average, but I did end the week with a 13 for 24 count, adding 3 walks to the card for a .542 batting average and an 1.134 OPS. (No extra base hits because my one potential extra base hit came with the final run on third base – the ball rolled to the fence in left field, but who knows whether I’d have made it past second?)
The final time I came to bat on Sunday, carrying a 1 for 3 day, I was hoping for pitches to hit. After flailing at a ball that was a good foot outside, I heard the umpire say, quietly, “That’s a strike.” I looked at him, and he said, “You swung at it.” Ah, yes, fool that I am, I did. I thought he was telling me it would have been a strike anyway, but he wasn’t. The second pitch bounced next to the inside corner of the plate, so I was able to maintain a modicum of plate discipline. Then, one right down the pipe brought out my loud grunt and a solid swing. It was a bold sound. The left fielder, unbeknownst to me, backed up. That one I’d hit into the gap made him cautious. Not seeing that, but knowing I’d hit it too high, I was dissatisfied. Nonetheless, the ball dropped in front of him (off his glove after he ran in) and I was safe. I bolted on the first pitch again, but didn’t draw a throw. When I later scored on a ground out, I almost got thrown at out the plate for not running all out. Safe by a couple of steps, but foolish on my part to make a play possible.
So, I started the season 2 for 4, with two stolen bases and a pair of runs. Spring training and the coaching of the last year seems to be paying off. Team M won handily after some early back-and-forth. The final score was 15-6.
Fred’s game report:
Nicely done last Sunday – especially once we woke up after the 6th inning… We scored 10 in the 7th and 8th (due to time constraints, we only played 8) – and held them scoreless after the 5th. With 2 down in the 7th and one on, they threw away an easy grounder to second – and we took advantage and batted around and put up 6. Nicely done.
Aside from the first inning when they matched the 3 we put up, our defense was pretty sound – including a SportsCenter highlight of Jerry snaring a hot grounder then firing to second (from his knees, I believe) and then on to first for a double play. Very nicely done. And, of course, overall defensively, kudos go to Tom for handling the plate duties well all 9 – much obliged!
At the plate, we hit a solid .350 with Andrew going 3:3 including a double, 3 runs and 2 BB; Jerry 2:3 , 3 runs and a HBP; Dave 2:4 and 2 runs; Tom 2:5 and 2 runs; Mark 1:2, a run and 2 BB; Casey 1:3, 2 runs and 2 BB; Ed 1:4; Bill 1:4 (a double), a run and a BB; and I was 1:4 and a run.