On Tuesday, we started the day against JR’s (John Russell) team. His teams are always good teams. I was going to list ways in which they’re usually good, but it’s in almost every aspect. Only a few players are good at most things, but each player he has can boast of one above average skill. That’s true of most of the players down here. One might wonder how someone who’s around 80 can compete with players 20-30 years younger. If you hit the ball hard or throw strikes or can play catcher, you don’t have to move fast or have another skill.
Every year at our spring training, we have a day on which we do “specialties” and the professional coaches do some skill training for the players. Most years, we haven’t had a catching session because the turnout would be pretty low. This year, they had one before the morning game, run by Stan Clyburn. Since I know I’m going to be catching a lot and probably not pitching at all, I had to miss Rick Knapp’s pitching session. One of the best aspects of coming to Ponce Spring Training is that these pro coaches add so much knowledge to the team – they give great instruction and they learn our quirks over the years. It’s what they do when they’re with their minor and major league clubs, so it should be no surprise. I’ve never heard of that kind of skill work when teams go to a tournament – you just play.
In our games, we always have run limits in all the innings except the last one. This avoids destroying the arms of the pitchers. When you have at least 58 innings you need to cover with pitchers and you start the week with only 4 pitchers, having those innings end mercifully is quite important. Each of our four pitchers has to pitch every day in order to cover 14 innings.
The games on Tuesday bounced back and forth. Holding a team scoreless for an inning is probably a bigger deal here than anywhere else. 3-run innings are not rare, but scoreless ones are. The game against JR got rough in Fred Jaffke’s second inning on the mound. His control started to deteriorate and I should have gone out on the mound to give him a chance to reset. Pitching can be a finicky thing and Fred will do fine in his next outing.
Sonny Hill kept racking up the RBIs. The hitters in front of him have done a good job of getting on base and it’s paid off. Not everyone runs fast or throws strikes, but they have a talent. Sonny’s is driving runs in.
We managed to squeeze out the morning win with some shutdown innings from Glenn Strachan. It’s been a delight catching for Glenn as his location is very good and the velocity exceeds the rest of the pitching staff. Sometimes, we get the pitch we watn, where we want it and they still hit it, but more often than not, we’re getting weak contact or swings and misses. Those misses are increasing as the week goes on.
Jerry Spitz started the second game and we weren’t great in the field behind him. The estimates of the number of outs we gave them with errors in the first innings were around 7-8 outs. That makes it hard to win. Jerry did get into an argument with the umpire when an opposing player stepped into the plate to avoid a curveball that hit him… over the plate. Jerry turned in 3 innings with the lead passing back and forth between the teams, with one or the other being one run up.
A late add to our team was Rick Kramer. He’s a little speedster and used to be a “vacuum cleaner” in the outfield. There might be a step lost that prevents him from getting to all the balls he used to, but he does well. His bat speed is exceptional and he’s been scooting around the bases for us, scoring critical runs. When the second game went into extra innings and Rick started the inning on second base, I knew we had that run.
In the extra innings, Glenn felt that his hand was doing well enough (recovering from a line drive off it last week) that he took his turn at bat. Mitch Orcutt was pitching the late innings and kept right on going in extra innings. Mitch sometimes comes inside and, sure enough, he hit Glenn on the first pitch. I went up next and got hit on the hand on the second or third pitch. It’s the hazard of pitching inside and, for me, the hazard of crowding the plate. As a result, we took the lead.
On a bloop that landed at the edge of the grass and bounced to Bill Murray, the opposing team’s runner on 2nd tried to score. Bill made a nice throw, which I caught a few feet up the line to beat the runner by a large margin. Those extra innings are a jumble in my head of what happened when and how.
With the heart of their lineup coming up in the bottom of the 9th, Glenn shut them down and I caught strike three to end the game. Hard-fought and nicely won.
“All right, so who are my catchers? Joe, I know I’ve got you.”
Silence. No one raises their hand, despite two others having been assigned to the team with the thought that they are catchers.
“I’d like to catch a little.”
So, at the end of the first day, I’ve caught nearly as many innings in one game as I caught last year. I think I caught nine innings last year – never more than three in a day. Today, I caught 8 innings. The last four in both games. It was awesome.
So, I’m down at Ponce de Leon Spring Training, playing at historic Terry Park Sports Complex down here in Fort Myers. At the end of January every year, the Ponce de Leon league from the Washington DC area hosts a balanced tournament and training week. Six professional coaches to coach the 6 teams (including Darrin Garner, who is taking a week away from pre-training with the Arizona Diamondbacks to coach my team). Steve Liddle (former bench coach with the Twins and Tigers) runs the camp for us. They divide all the players into relatively equal teams (with provisions for who wants to play together) and we play 8 games over 5 days (2 Monday, Tuesday and Thursday). There are trainers in the clubhouse to handle preventative care and injuries. Everyone gets a locker and can have the clubbie do their laundry. It’s a far different experience from Roy Hobbs or other tournaments, and also far different from fantasy camps. It’s all about playing baseball – learning a little and playing even games – rather than focusing on retired ballplayers or only on winning.
I thought I was coming in here to be a utility player – catch a few, pitch a few and play everywhere in the field. When it was revealed that two of the guys that the league thinks are catchers only did so because their teams needed it, I was both scared and excited. I’d been doing a hundred or more weighted while walking my dog every morning and trying to find a moment to do additional reps (without weight) all day to get over 200 squats. That preparation has paid off.
I picked up a Catcher’s Notebook from Always Grind to use and evaluate whether I can have my youth catchers use them when I coach. So, once I settled with Joe Bauer that we’d split the innings, I went to each of our 4 pitchers and took notes on their pitching repertoire and preferences. I had thought I’d try something like this when I was going to catch in a tournament for a team last fall (canceled by the hurricane down here) but having the structure of the notebook is much better. I’m still a newby here and wouldn’t have guessed what to be thinking. After a day, I’m pretty sure that it will also be a good thing for 12-year-olds to do. They may not have a grasp of all the nuances, but it gets them thinking critically about how the game went, how they performed well and what they need to work on.
The first game of the day was a little brutal. We ended up giving up 3 runs in four different innings (3 run limit in all but the final inning) but I got to work with three of our four pitchers. Glenn Strachan is a tournament pitcher that was allocated to our roster to give us an ace. He locates his pitches extremely well and gets the hitters to hit it where we want it. Being that we’re all old men, that sometimes still doesn’t result in an out. Bill Murray (no, not that one!) came in and pitched a couple of innings and some of his pitches are honestly unhittable. That should work out well this week as long as he’s around the strike zone. Fellow Michigan State alum and Washington Nationals grounds crew member, Fred Jaffke, finished the game out. With a final score in the morning game of 12-4, we were hanging our heads a little.
In the second game, Jerry Spitz started the game with Joe behind the plate. After 3 innings, Glenn and I cam in as a battery. We all managed to keep the game close and when we held them scoreless in the top of the 7th (we’re playing 7 inning games), we eked out a 1-run victory to set us even at 1-1. There was far more timely hitting in this game and, in particular, Sonny Hill banged a hard line drive up the middle that brought in 3 runs while the centerfielder chased it down
I had a reasonably good day at the plate, going 1 for 2 in the first game with one of the 4 RBIs and 1 for 3 in the second game with one RBI. Behind the dish, my blocking was very good and my receiving was good enough. I did have two runners steal – one when I bobbled the pitch and another when my throw was a little off-line. The hard throws in the warmup when “coming down” should help deter much thievery. I did field a few balls near home that resulted in outs and ran down a runner who tried to steal home on a walk. I’m very happy with how I played behind the dish.
We feel like we escaped by getting a split on Monday, and will come back hard on Tuesday to make our drive for the championship.
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.