Evening it up

Steve Liddle, who runs the camp, but is the bench coach for the Tigers during the season, always says that you see things at Ponce that you never see anywhere else. Our umpire in the second game (played in the stadium at Terry Park) got to see something he’d never seen. Teams are limited to 3 runs an inning in our spring training, but he’d never umpired an entire inning without recording a single out.

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Steve Liddle laying some wisdom down on the Ponce players as he gives the schedule for the day. Coaches Rick Knapp and both Stan and Stu Cliburn in the background.
The fortunate thing for us is that while we continued to max out every inning, we slowed the bleeding by only allowing a single run in the third and one other along the way. So, our margin of victory was quite pleasant.

My patience with my productivity at the plate paid off. I’ve shrugged the lack of hits off because I knew I was contributing defensively and in those not-in-the-stats kind of ways that players giving 100% do. After a walk in the second, it was nice to come up with runners in scoring position in later innings and… ground a couple of single through the infield. I think that I’ve been thinking a bit too much about hitting the other way, but those happened to work. I’m going to go back to just hitting the ball hard and seeing what happens.

As noted previously, we have a father-son combo on our team. Rich has pitched well for us and gotten the chance to pitch to his son, Mike, a couple of times now. If you think back to all those times having a catch with your Dad and son, could you be any happier than having the chance to be a battery mate with them? Fred Jaffke and his son, Andrew, did that one our team a couple of years ago and it was great to see. Today, Rich and Mike achieved a different milestone, both cranking the ball deep for extra base hits.

Dan Bechard took over for me behind the plate after Rich and I couldn’t stop the max-score innings early on. Dan hasn’t caught in about 5 years and worried that doing so again wasn’t a good idea. He was completely wrong. With Dan’s fans in the stands, he moved behind home plate and called a game that basically shut the opposition down. It’s like falling off a horse – once you do it, you never forget how.

I noticed long ago in team sports that are very “recreational”, it matters far more how much players improve than whether your good players play well. So, when I play coed softball down on the Mall, I’m always working with the folks who don’t play particularly well. Typically, no one has ever taught them anything about playing.

Now, this isn’t meant to ride “Big Game” Al Ferlo down, but last year, he struggled. Rick Knapp likes to joke that Al is the only playing who’s ever missed every pitch in a batting cage session. Well, that was last year. In today’s afternoon game, Al’s improvement really shone through. In his first at bat, he singled to drive in the third run. His second time at the plate resulted in another single. While at bat in his third plate appearance, he missed a pitch and turned to the bench to complain that “it’s not my bat”. None of us were quick enough on the uptake to realize Al had grabbed the wrong bat when he went up. Either Al or those of us on the bench should have called time and gotten the right bat into his hands. He ended the game 2 for 3 because he didn’t take his own bat up the third time.

We faced poor Joe Facenda, whose batting average I devastated last year (he hit it to me for an hour on every play I was on the field for, regardless of what position I was playing). Well, Joe came up to bat and was thinking about shading another step to my left off third. I didn’t move because it was too late, but he hit it right there. It was close enough that I stopped it, but too far for me to make a decent throw to first. So, perhaps Joe has broken the curse now, but perhaps not….

I believe I finished 3 for 4 on the day, with two walks and a few runs. There were likely some RBIs in there, but I’ll want to check the scoresheet on those. Better offensive day for a day when I struggled a bit behind the plate. With the win in the afternoon game, we moved to 2-2 for the week. It sound like there are 4 teams in the middle at 2-2, with one at 3-1 and the other at 1-3. So, we’re on track to challenge for the championship again.

Old dogs, new tricks

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.

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One of many Joe Facenda hits

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.

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Line drive by Chandler Fox

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.

Nice guys, and hitting line drives at 78

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Hard line drives popped off 78-year-old Dave Wheeler’s bat every day

“You don’t steal bases at 78.”

Dave Wheeler didn’t wink at me then, but by the end of the week, he would. The first game with a new team is always a chance to get to know each other. I love coaching first base when I play because you get to talk to every batter. I talk to them while they’re batting, when they reach first (safely or not, as a post-mortem) and while they’re on base. I go through the whole litany of the situation: outs, runners ahead of them, what they should do on a line drive or popup, and (since baseball allows stealing) any tips on what the pitcher and catcher are doing to prevent a steal. I do this for everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time you’ve ever been on base or if you’ve been doing it longer than I’ve been alive. So, I kidded Dave Wheeler that he should steal on the first pitch. He didn’t know I was kidding. That would come.

I love baseball. It requires thought and action. Simple changes in how you do something can result in huge performance differences or no difference at all. It’s a slow game, except when it’s not. There’s complexity and simplicity. Importantly, as we now know, you can play when you’re old, just as you could when you were young.

When I played softball with the Humble Flies, one of my teammates, Pat Race, would always clap his hands and shout encouragement to the rest of the team. I joined in. I found, over the years, we seemed to play better as a team when Pat and I did this. If nothing else, I enjoyed it a lot more. Pat moved on, but I kept doing it. I don’t know how much of it came from encouraging my Boy Scouts over the years and how much was due to those games with Pat.

When I play softball with the company team down on the Mall, I am relentlessly positive, always pointing out when my teammates do something right, even if they might not see it in the results. A line drive caught by the shortstop from a player who usually grounds out to the pitcher is huge! Someone who makes a good stop, but not the throw, on a really difficult play deserves praise. As anyone who plays on that team, or who played on our MSU alumni team back in the day knows, I don’t just do this for my teammates. If someone on the other team excels, I let them know. I do it right away.

In Ponce de Leon league play, an umpire told everyone how much he liked me because, even when I struck out, I was happy. It was a darn good pitch and I let the pitcher know it right away. He smiled and I smiled as I shook my head walking back to the dugout.

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Fred bangs out another hit!

Our Ponce de Leon manager, Fred Jaffke, said to me while we were down at spring training, “Dave, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times. Don’t tell them they did a good job DURING the game. Do it after.” I have a terrible memory. I tell them when it happens both because it just comes right out and because I’m not sure I’ll remember it after the game.

So, at the end of the week banquet, they give out Kangaroo Court fines. Typically, in baseball, you get fined by your teammates in the Kangaroo Court for not showing enough effort or making a boneheaded play. Any money collected in fines goes to charity. In our spring training, there are always more interesting things to assess fines for than just that. One guy was fined for calling for his “two-strike bat” during an at-bat. He’d gone up with one bat and, once he got a second strike, he called over to the bench to get his other bat. Another guy got fined for attempting to call “time out” while running the bases (more on that later!)

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Jeff Smith and I

Each team’s manager announces a few Kangaroo Court infractions at the banquet. Our manager was current Minnesota Twins first base coach, Jeff Smith. Smitty was a catcher in the Twins system, with his route to the majors blocked by A.J. Pierzynski. He’s managed 11 seasons in the minors and is now in his first season in the majors, as a coach. We all just called him Jeff, and he’s the nicest, most positive guy on the field. Smiles and encouraging words abound, so we fit in well together. However, at the banquet, I got called out for a Kangaroo Court fine for… being too nice!

Spring Training for Old Men

With the dawning of the new year, baseball season will soon be upon us. While major league pitchers and catchers don’t report for 30 days, the old men who play baseball will report in a mere 14 days. Yes, that’s right, spring training for Ponce de Leon is just two weeks away.

I’m very excited because it means I get to play baseball every day for a week, but I’d bet you’re thinking, “that’s got to be expensive!” After all, the Twins fantasy camp is $4,395 (7-14 January) and the Red Sox fantasy camp is $5,199 (15-22 January). Both of those are held in Fort Myers, but our spring training is a fraction of the cost. First-timers like me pay just $995, while it’s just another $150 for returning players – $1,145. Since I’m mainly interested in playing baseball, not necessarily spending time with former Red Sox or Twins players or attending team-planned social events, I think this is a better fit. There are number of things I’ve done to prepare for this….

An even better bat

In preparation, I contacted my friends at Phoenix Bats to get a couple of new bats for the trip. Just over a year ago, I had them take the standard F110 bat that I’d used in 2015 (and written about…) and create a slightly different design. As I noted when I wrote about that bat, I’d had some issues when taking extended batting practice. My hands have become seriously dry over the past few years (despite everything I try!) and this resulted in some blood blisters and painful pinching of my lower palm.

So, in the fall of 2015, I ordered a few ‘extra bats’ that they had on clearance, to try out different designs. One just flared down at the handle rather than having a knob. While the particular bat wasn’t quite what I wanted, I loved that handle. So, Phoenix Bats created a new design for me (PH2M 34) which has that flare rather than a knob. It’s also a half-inch longer and a half-ounce heavier than my F110 (34 instead of 33.5 inches, both with -2.5 drop weight). As much as the original F110 helped, my custom designed bat seemed to help even more. A few more hits and a little better distance.

At our spring training, Wednesday is “Wood Bat Day”, when everyone is going to use wood bats. Well, for me, every day will be wood bat day because I really do hit better with a wood bat. The folks at Phoenix Bats agree with me that wood bats are better.

Conditioning

In preparation for spring training, I was reminded that I need to do some running and throwing. Nothing would be worse than pulling a muscle or being in agony for the entire week by not preparing myself.

Fortunately, we got a new puppy this summer, and Hudson loves to run. Hudson is, like his predecessor, Henry, is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Henry was not much of a runner. As he got older, Henry would never run more than about 20 yards and I could run faster than he could. Hudson runs like a cheetah, his long body fully extending on every stride. Running a quarter mile at full speed doesn’t put him out of breath, though I can tell he’s being kind to me and not running quite full speed. Nonetheless, it’s been pretty good preparation. My endurance has gone way up and I’m hoping it’s helped with my top speed. This fall, my weight had ballooned to about 223 pounds and I was thrown out stealing by ten steps once. I’m back down to my playing weight of 212 pounds and hoping I can get under 210 before we get to Florida.

I do need to get out the ball to start throwing, though, and hope to get two trips to the batting cage (at The Strike Zone) before we head down. I’ve had some training sessions with a local coach, but not sure I’ll be able to coordinate any time with him.

Learning the schedule

Ponce de Leon has players reporting on Sunday, with an opening dinner to get our team assignments and learn the details of the week. I’ve both been told that it’s required (by the staff) and that some players just drop in for their team assignments. I’m all in for getting to know folks right away – and get a chance to know the coaches. From what I understand, the coaches have a variety of experiences playing and coaching at various levels of the professional system. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to research and write about some of them in this process. Fred Jaffke tells me they have many interesting stories, usually passed on during the late afternoon post-game relaxation (out in left field with one of the coolers).

Monday morning, I’ll check in around 8am and have the first chance to sit at my very own locker! Terry Park was the spring training home at various times to the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, and Minnesota Twins (though Twins minor leaguers only). The last major league use was by the Royals in 1987, with the one-year visit by Twins minor leaguers in 1990 being the last professional use. I was not even a high-school baseball player, so having a locker that was fit for a pro (even if it was almost 30 years ago) could be a real step up. I’ll surely post a photo.

Mornings will start with stretching, which is a must for old men. I got on that bandwagon early. I had a stretching routine even back when I was in middle school. With the number of daily aches and pains one has after they turn 40, everyone should approach it with enthusiasm. To keep my knees and ankles in order, I’ve been using braces for decades. There aren’t any specific problems with those joints, but I know my recovery time increases significantly if I don’t wear them.

We’re to get some fielding and batting practice with the coaches, so I think this ought to make a big difference in my abilities. Back when I was a kid, I had already been shunted to the end of the bench in the 8th grade. I don’t know if Mr. Paul, our coach, was good at instruction, but I don’t remember getting a lot of attention. I know that my other coaches before that were mostly just someone’s Dad. I don’t remember any of them knowing much about the game. So, I’ve bought a lot of books and watched a lot of videos over the years. I finally hired a hitting coach last year, and the difference in my bat speed was incredible. I expect getting some other perspectives can only help.

We’re playing two six-inning games a day, so there should be plenty of plate appearances and plenty of opportunities in the field.

When we finish around 4:30pm, I expect we’ll all be more than ready to pop open a few cold ones in the post-game bull session.

Am I ready?

At 51, I think I’ll still be on the younger side of the team, but it might just put me in the middle. Is my conditioning going to be enough? I sure hope so. The two new bats should arrive before we head south and I’ll pick up a few more backup uniform pieces, so that equipment shouldn’t be a problem. Having gotten over facing live pitching again a few years ago, I think I’m mentally ready. While Terry Park does have a grandstand, I don’t know if there will be anyone in the stands, so don’t expect any ‘pressure’ from playing in front of a crowd.

Any way I look at it, though, it’s exciting. 9 games on good fields, with real coaching, and all the trappings of being at spring training. Who wouldn’t love it?