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?

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It’s not the bat, or is it?

Anyone who ever watched me play softball would have to wonder how I managed to get two home runs in my Humble Flies career. They’d know it wasn’t due to some hidden power that burst occasionally. I can’t remember either of them, but assume they must have involved right fielders falling down or breaking a leg as my ball skipped past them. I could occasionally hit the ball to the right-center gap or along the right field line in a such a way that I could make a double or triple out of good placement, but I never had any power,

As one of the youngest guys playing Ponce de Leon baseball, I really want to take advantage of my speed while I have it. My softball experience tells me that 20 years of playing will erode my speed in comparison to my peers. So, having occasionally hit the ball hard using my off-the-shelf Louisville Slugger, I thought I might try a different bat for better power.

Since that visit to Cooperstown didn’t finish with me carrying new lumber, I had to look elsewhere for a better bat. Phoenix Bats has a broad variety of bat designs to meet every preference. There are 20 distinct designs and you can make many customizations to those. I’ve been a contact hitter most of my life, but I always wanted to be a gap hitter. Wouldn’t you know it, Phoenix makes a bat for just those kind of hitters. The F110 is billed as the Contact-to-Gap hitter’s bat.

The F110 comes in a variety of lengths and typically has a -2.5 drop weight, which means 2.5 ounces less than the length in inches. My first bat was -3 drop weight, giving me a 31-ounce bat that was 34 inches long. Since my softball playing days were marked by punches to right field and my stance always had me deep in the box, I wanted to stick with a 34 inch bat. Of course, when I played softball, 34 inch bats could weight just about anything you wanted. I typically used a 28 ounce bat, to keep some bat speed while also having some pop. As noted above, my experience was that there was no pop at all. So, I kept the length, added weight and played last year with a 31-ounce, 34-inch bat. Feeling that my timing was suited to 31 ounces, I decided that I’d keep the weight and adjust the length. So, my F110 is 31 ounces and 33.5 inches. You can vary the length and the drop weight on your bat.

Another thing that distinguished the F110 from other bat is the handle diameter. Measuring 31/32nds of an inch, it’s more suited to bigger hands and more capable against the inside pitch. Hopefully, the durability cited holds true, since I’d like to use this bat for a long time. With that thicker handle, one expects it will be less prone to breakage. I like the feel of the thicker handle, but am wondering about the knob….

Of late, in reading about hitting, I probably understood for the first time that my grip was simply wrong. I never meant to, but somewhere along the way, I started gripping my bat with something akin to a death grip. That is, of course, the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. As Crash Davis tells Nuke Laloosh about the baseball when pitching, you should handle it like an egg. Tensing your arm and hand muscles to squeeze the bat is counter-productive. Holding the bat gently is key. Adam LaRoche is so good at this – and embraces the trend of ‘no-knob’ bats – that his bat can come right out of his hands on the follow through. My first time in the batting cage this year, I developed a blister on hand about a quarter of the way up the palm. I’m having some issues with excessive dryness and chapping on my left hand and little blood blisters formed right along the line of chapped skin. I had felt my skin ‘bunching’ with each batting practice swing and the heel pressed against the knob. It healed up after a few days, though. The F110 has a medium flared knob, while LaRoche’s bats have none.

So, I wonder about the knob.

The barrel of the F110 is 2.5 inches. My softball bats probably were never close to that broad. When you get into the power hitting bats from Phoenix Bats, you can select ones that are even broader, but 2.5 is a pretty good starting size. Those power hitter’s bats have to be even heavier than mine. Any increase is size, though it come with an attendant increase in weight, is also going to give you a bigger sweet spot. The bigger the sweet spot, the more forgiving your contact can be, and the more power you can impart with perfect contact.

They also offer your choice of three types of wood: Rock Maple, Yellow Birch and Northern White Ash. Maple is the strongest, with Ash having the most flexibility. Maple will give you the most pop and the best protection inside. Ash has a bigger sweet spot and is more forgiving off the end of the bat. Birch is somewhere in the middle, giving better action on mishits all over, but not as much pop anywhere. I chose Maple, since I was tortured inside last year and want some pop.

Now, you have to wondering, how did all this play out in the game?

In my first at-bat, the pitcher had been wild, with pitches sailing over heads and going wide. So, I stood like a stone wall and watched the first pitch. Best pitch he’d thrown in a long time. He threw the next over my head, then followed with one I thought missed the inside corner. So, with two strikes, I flailed wildly at strike three, a little high near the top of the strike zone. I could have been holding a broomstick for all the difference it made.


Of note, Andrew Cline has been showing his prowess with the glove. In the fall, he played in the outfield with me a lot. He is far faster than I am, so his Willie Mays act won accolades and made everyone look forward to the spring. Fred chose Andrew to start in center for the first two games. He’s been batting atop the lineup, but not seeing pitches he can hit. With our team, you can pretty much play any position after the first inning. People flow in and out, with no one sitting the bench two consecutive innings.

So, he took third one inning and a line drive destined for left field shot in between him and the line about knee height. He dove to snag it and threw the shocked runner from second out – while Andrew was nearly on his back. That would have been our ‘web gem’, except he took shortstop later in the game.

The bases were loaded and our lead had dwindled to two runs. The ball was popped into shallow left field. It was one of those perfect Texas Leaguers – moreso because in Ponce, there are nearly no quick fielders – but Andrew didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to have a play on the ball. Racing back, he caught the ball over his shoulder – more Willie Mays than he’d ever needed in the fall – recording the third out and saving two runs.

The rookie has more than proven his worth.


Last year, as I noted, I was nervous at bat for half the season. Chris Valtin, who helped me get onto the team, said to me, “It’s all in the mental approach. Get your head in the right place and everything else flows from there.” Since that advice was mirrored in The Louisville Slugger® Complete Book of Hitting Faults and Fixes : How to Detect and Correct the 50 Most Common Mistakes at the Plate, you know it’s true. I started going to the plate thinking I was going to get a hit. They started coming. In the fall, my confidence was far higher and the pitching was spot-on – faster, but more accurate. So, I regularly collected a pair of hits each week.

Nonetheless, I wanted a ‘professional’ bat. Is it better for me because of the facets laid out above about handle size, weight, length, sweet spot and knob? Or is it better because I think it’s better? Or does it make no difference at all?

Men were on first and second when I came up. Having been burned by watching when I love being an aggressive hitter, I went up to swing. When that pitch came off the sweet spot on my F110 (visible on the cherry finish I had them put on the barrel), I didn’t feel it in the slightest. When you hit the ball just right, it’s like… nothing. The ball sailed into the GAP between the left fielder and center fielder. I rounded first crisply, having seen the left fielder’s back and downstretched glove fail to stop the ball. I cruised into second, having hit my first ball to the warning track since about 1997 (once, in softball batting practice).

Was it the bat? Was it the mental approach? Was it the grip? Was it just one of those lucky things?

Could have been anything, but I’m going to keep using the bat, stick that approach and remind myself to use the grip, the stance, and everything. I’m just glad to help the team and, hopefully, everything will work out.

My totals for the day: 1 for 2, with a HBP and one RBI.

Final score: 11-9 victory, after a wide early lead

Season stats: .600 (3/5) batting average, .800 SLG, 1.467 OPS, 1 HBP, 1 2B, 1 SB, 1 R, 1 RBI

Opening day jitters

I was nervous. After all, it was opening day. I’d had rookie jitters through half of my first season, so I expected to be a little nervous before this game. It was probably fortunate that I didn’t start, so I could get into the rhythm of the game and put those jitters aside. When I strode to the plate with two outs and two men on, I was carrying my brand-new Phoenix bat. Standing in the box, I made a conscious decision to simply watch the first pitch. There were no jitters. I’d seen 85 mile-an-hour fastballs over the winter in the batting cage near my house. The pitcher’s grey hairs and steady pace gave me confidence. On his second pitch, my timing was all 85 mph and I ended up in my follow through before it crossed the plate, even with an attempt to slow my swing. 0 and 2 isn’t always the easiest count to hit in. I steeled myself and watching the release of the ball with great anticipation….


When I strode to the plate for the first time in Ponce de Leon baseball last year, I’d had 34 years between singles. Way back in 8th grade, I’d been inserted late in a game we were losing badly, and beat out a groundball, then, foolishly, tried to advance on the overthrow. I wasn’t that fast then, so I was out and felt like an idiot. 25 years of men’s league softball and countless seasons of coed beer league ball later, I punched a ball off the glove of a first baseman who couldn’t find the handle to it for the putout. Standing on first base, playing on a high school baseball field for the first time, I was ecstatic.

Through half of the season, though, when standing at the plate, I would literally be shaking in my boots. I worried that if I didn’t play well, I’d lose my spot on the team. My wife kept reassuring me that I was better than guys who seemed to average 15 years older than me. I knew I was faster, so every time that I got on first base, I was looking to steal second. That worked, helping my confidence. I even stole third once. Heck, I stole second in a playoff game, diving head first and arm’s length into right field to avoid the tag (the throw beat me, but the stretch was simply too far for him.) By those playoff games, I was no longer shaking at bat, but still worried about earning my keep.

In the fall, our team doesn’t play in the league, but instead uses our field to play more relaxed pick-up games with invitations extending to sons, friends of sons, and men not yet old enough for our league. So, the pitching is a bit faster, though without much movement (at the request of the team manager, since it’s supposed to be live batting practice.) While last year’s regular season was a struggle for me at bat, relying on walks to get on base early in the season before starting to hit a bit, the fall was a break out. 2 or 3 hits every game and time to shine in the outfield. It also allowed me to bring Andrew Cline up from the Humble Flies as a rookie to follow me onto the team.

In the off-season, I bought myself a new bat. My original Louisville Slugger was nice, but I wanted something more. When we went to Cooperstown in August (on our way to Saratoga for horse racing), I went into a few stores selling bats. All had strict prohibitions on swinging the bat. So, I picked up bats, considered how they felt and passed. If I couldn’t swing it, I didn’t want to buy it.

In the winter months, the anticipation was too much. One day, I saw an ad for Phoenix Bats, and decided to follow it to see what they had. I always thought that the only variables in bats were the length and the weight. I was quite wrong. I’ll go into detail on this in a future post, but suffice it to say that I was quite pleased with the variety of offerings. I ordered my bat and it arrived well in advance of Opening Day.

Our team prefers to use wood bats, but not every team wants to, and the league doesn’t force anyone to. Since our opening day opponents chose not to limit themselves to wood bats, we were free to use whatever we wanted. Nonetheless, I’ve found I hit better with wood, so I took my brand new Phoenix Bat to the plate.


That pitch came in and my internal clock was not quite running at 85 miles an hour, but it was running fast, so I swung a little early hitting it on the end of the bat and driving it down the left field line. There were runners on, so rounding first base, I knew I was headed back. I jumped on the base and proudly shouted,  “Wood bat!”

After another hit, I was dancing off second, taking a big lead in expectation of scoring on any hit. As I headed to third on a shallow hit in the outfield, Bill waved me home. I didn’t think it was drawing a throw, but I was hustling anyway. I was surprised when the catcher stepped on the plate, but I crossed a few steps before the ball arrived. So, with a few hits strung together with two outs, we tallied three runs.

My totals for the day: 2 for 3, with a stolen base and a run.

Final score: 11-2 victory

Season stats: .667 batting average, 1.333 OPS, 1 SB, 1 R