Gene told Fred he was going. Fred told Glenn that Gene was going. I set up outside. It was a perfect pitch – just outside and a bit above the waist. I stepped forward and grabbed it. (They tell me my foot was on the plate and the batter would’ve hit me with a swing.) Solid catch. Smooth transfer. Good throw. Gene’s just too darn fast.
On Wednesday, our nine-inning game was the “wood bat game” of the week. That doesn’t affect me as a hitter because I’m always swinging lumber from Phoenix Bats. It does affect a lot of other players, changing those long drives into shallow fly balls. Having a single game on Wednesday and letting it be a wood game should allow everyone a little recovery time. After all, the average age this week is 66.
Gene Lee is probably the fastest runner down here at Ponce de Leon spring training. He always goes on the first pitch and doesn’t care if everyone knows it because… it’s next to impossible to throw him out with arms that were in their prime 30-40 years ago. Once he’s on second, he’s in scoring position and he’s always going to try to score. Here’s video from his first scoring attempt, which Steve Liddle asked me to share. Joe Bauer behind the dish.
I’m curious about the consensus, since my opinion is biased. He did this again, later in the game, while I was catching (after the steal in the first paragraph) and it was … so cool! I know I didn’t get him, since the throw was just up the line. I don’t know if it hit him or if I reached the glove out to stop it. One conspiracy theory has Gene grabbing my arm to prevent me from catching it, but if he did, I didn’t notice! Sadly, I don’t seem to have that video.
Over the fall, I spread the word in Asheville about this week of spring training. It worked and I got Joel Huggins to sign up. While Joel hasn’t been able to break the logjam at first (what team that’s over 50 doesn’t have 7 first basemen?), he’s done well in the outfield. Unfortunately, during the outfield specialty sessions on Tuesday, Joel had a fly ball hit his throwing hand before hitting his glove. So, he’s got a badly bruised (if not broken) ring finger on his throwing hand. In batting practice, he said that every time he made contact, it stung so much, he saw stars. There was a play in right field in which he charged the shallow fly ball and it worked out for us – while the ball dropped, Fred was able to scoot back from second and get the runner from second at home. That gave us a runner on first with 1 out and we escaped the inning with a well-timed double-play. When I later made a mistake, Joel reminded me how I needed to let it slide and that everything would work out.
Adrian Rosati started the game on the mound for Stu Clyburn’s team and despite rarely topping 37 mph, he really frustrated us. You don’t need to throw hard down here. You just need to throw strikes. He walked me and I got the first of my two steals on the day. (Yes, my legs are reminding me that catchers shouldn’t steal, especially mid-week.) The score teetered back and forth a little, settling to 7-6 in the late innings, when there is no run limit.
Doug Milman has been a godsend for us in the field. He and John Gardner have split innings at shortstop and I believe there might only have been one error there. Their fielding and throwing has been awesome. We don’t always end up with the out at first, but that’s Ponce baseball for ya. One time during this game, Doug was out in centerfield and he looked out of position to me. I waved him in the direction I wanted, but I didn’t need to. Doug coaches baseball and he moves like a gazelle. So, where he lines up in the outfield is guided by experience and understanding of the game, aided by his ability to get to most anything.
With Gene’s speed, we knew we were at risk once he reached base. As noted above, he stole second despite our best efforts. So, when the next batter hit the ball, Gene got on his horse and motored around third.
I lined myself up in front of home plate, giving him a path to the plate and I saw that look in his eye. The ball was coming in and I thought we had him… but the ball was just behind him and he was safe. I tagged him after I picked up the ball, then threw to second to try preventing the extra base. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that out. It was such a thrilling play, I enjoyed it despite the outcome. I love this game!
The score finished at 9-6 because we just couldn’t find a run late in the game.
I think I’m 6 for 16, with a few RBIs and two steals. I’ll have to look at the score sheets today to get a better handle. It doesn’t matter much how I hit if I can be consistent behind the plate. This week has been huge in getting comfortable back there and I know I’ll be able to handle catching regularly now. Also, it doesn’t matter because this is so much fun regardless of the outcome.
“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.
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.
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.
Our afternoon game was also very close and very exciting. They had a fireballer on the mound to start the game, so we struggled. When I came up for the first time, I got knocked down by a pitch. It was right at me, and I feel to the ground to avoid it. Bad luck for me, it hit my bat anyway. I hung in there fouling off a few pitches and taking a few balls. I struck out though, stranding Shaun after his RBI double.
Going into the top of the last inning, I was up first with our team ahead 5-3. The first pitch was inside, just under my chin. I joked with the catcher, asking if they didn’t like me. The next pitch was low and away. A 2-0 count is a hitter’s count. He needs to throw a strike and will often give you a pitch that ends up easy to hit. It wasn’t. Our grazed my belt. The umpire asked if it hit me. I told him it grazed me and he asked if I wanted to take it. I hesitated.
In our morning game, we’d had the same umpire. His strike zone was very big. Gigantic even. Shaun got called out on a pitch up at eye level. Every close play was an out. Nonetheless, I liked this umpire. He appreciated that I only use a wood bat and he’d chat with me.
I knew that if I didn’t take first base on this “hit by pitch”, I might not get on base. I knew that the count would be 3-0 if I stayed at bat. He’d have to throw me a strike.
I looked at the umpire and said “I paid to hit”. I wanted a chance to hit the ball, so I stepped back into the box. The next pitch was low and away again, so I took my walk.
Ed Confino was hitting behind me and he’s been gracious enough to let first pitches go by so that I could steal. Before my at bat, he’d said to me, “I might swing at the first pitch.” I told him, “I might run anyway, let’s not worry about it.” I took off and he hit the ball. They did get him at first, but had no chance at the double play.
I was dancing off second, thinking about stealing. I didn’t think the odds were good. He wad throwing hard and the catcher was good. I just got s good secondary lead and was able to advance when a ball scooted past the catcher.
On the next pitch, it was a grounder to third. He scooped the ball and we stared at each other. As soon as he threw to first, broke for home.
Earlier in the game, I’d seen someone tumble as a means of sliding, and commented on how odd the slides had been all week.
The throw was coming in hot. The catcher was in the right spot. I knew that I should drop to the ground and slide. I didn’t. I stretched with my last step as something like a slide. I’m told it was “poetic” and that I should give classes – for comedy’s sake!
I was safe!
We didn’t manage another run, so lead 6-3 headed into the bottom of the final inning.
JT was pitching, throwing hard and throwing some curve balls to catch them off balance. The first batter managed to hit one of those curve balls. So he was on first with his team down 3 runs. He wasn’t going to steal when needing 3 runs and wasn’t fleet of foot anyway.
Steve Liddle, who runs the camp and will be back coaching in the majors again with the Tigers, often says that he sees things in Ponce he’s never seen in baseball. This was one of them.
On the third strike, Russ Ryan fired to first. The runner was way off, having taken a big secondary lead. Turning to go back, he fell down. Strikeout, throw out.
JT got the next batter out and we notched our fourth victory, 6-3.
I’m now 6 for 9, with a double, a walk, one hit-by-pitch, multiple steals with some runs and RBIs. I’ll have to find the exact numbers….
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.