Finally. The Super Bowl is history, golf season is under way and… pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training.
Always an exciting time for baseball fans and teams. New faces will appear this spring as hopefuls to turn a franchise into a contender or a contender into a champion. A Bryce Harper, Yu Darvish and Mike Trout — and many we have yet to hear about.
I enjoy reading the various newspapers from big league cities to get the advance reports on what fans can hope to expect. For example, Boston is faced with trying to make the media and their fans forget the somewhat embarrassing collapse and clubhouse behavior of last September. Speaking from personal experience, the behavior issue was way overstated as a reason and the on-field performance was one pitch or one hit from being overlooked. These days that one pitch or hit can lead to a World Series, as it did for the Cardinals.
Detroit’s expectations will be to get to the World Series and maybe win it. They will be the choice to win the AL Central handily, but they still have to catch the ball and get the last six outs of the game. Those are two areas we have found out are most important in baseball. For example, the fly ball over Nelson Cruz’s head and the failure to put the Cardinals away when they had a chance was responsible for Texas not winning the World Series.
I’m not going to evaluate every team here, but every camp you visit in February and March will be full of optimism. As my former manager, Whitey Herzog, would say, “We’re just two players from winning a World Series: Ruth and Koufax.” That’s true for a lot of teams.
I’m looking forward to going to Spring Training camp in Fort Myers and helping my friend and neighbor Bob McClure. Mac is the new pitching coach for the Red Sox. He’s a lefty with 19 years of experience in the majors. We think a lot alike. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and with my 25 years experience will share some ideas that worked or didn’t work for us.
I was flattered when I was contacted by Ben Cherington, the new Red Sox GM, to see if I had interest in passing on some of my ideas to their pitchers. I have always been a little puzzled that in over 25 years as an announcer, I had only two pitchers solicit advice from me. Billy Connors, Yankee pitching coach in 1995, had me spend a little time with Andy Pettitte. Not any instruction — just giving him a little preview of what it would be like to pitch in the majors. Roy Smith, a righthander that had a brief stint with the Twins when I was announcing their games in the late 80s always wanted to talk pitching with me.
I remember one of my first pitching coaches, Eddie Lopat, former Yankee lefty, telling me, “Kid, if you don’t suffer any serious arm injury, you’re going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time.” I asked why. He said, “Because you’re curious about how to improve.”
That is one thing I know helped me so much during my career. I asked Warren Spahn to look at my motion one evening in Minnesota when we were playing the Braves in an exhibition game. I’ll never forget his parting words, “Kid, when the game is tied in the 7th inning, the game is just starting for a starting pitcher.” My how times have changed!
And I asked Whitey Ford as we both warmed up in the bullpens in Minnesota one night in the early ’60s, “Whitey, do you mind showing me how you grip your fastball to get that kind of movement?” He could have told me to not bother him. (We were about to face each other in the game!) He showed me, and I gripped my fastball like that for the rest of my career.
Or the night I was about to face the Milwaukee Brewers in the early ’70s, and my former teammate Kenny Sanders was watching me warm up. He laughed and said, “You’re not going out there to pitch with that stuff are you ?” I stopped throwing and shouted at him, “Hey Half-Ear” — good old fashioned clubhouse humor: that was Kenny’s affectionate nickname because he lost part of his ear lobe in a collision at home plate — “How do you grip your slider?” He had a good one in his day. He showed me how he moved his thumb up along the side of the ball and not underneath like most pitchers did. I tried it. it felt good. I pitched eight effective innings that night using his slider grip and we won. I called him right after the game and thanked him…all part of being in the “Pitchers Union.”
They seem to find a way every few years to legislate against us: smaller strike zone, lighter bats to allow more bat speed, smaller parks and the DH. So we have to try to stick together and beat the system. I don’t think I have definite answers, nor do I think any coach does, but the object is to present a pitcher with a number of ideas that might help him become a better pitcher.
I enjoyed doing that as Pete Rose’s pitching coach in the mid-’80s, passing along things I learned from Johnny Sain and Spahnie and Lopat, hoping they would help pitchers. Tom Browning won 20 games that year as a rookie pitcher, the first pitcher to do it since Bob Grim of the Yankees did it in the mid-’50s. Very satisfying for us retired pitchers to be able to do that.
I look forward to having Mac as my boss and seeing if any of these old school ideas are still relevant in today’s game. I think they are, beacuse they’re really not old school. They are sound fundamental principles that have existed since Abner Doubleday or whoever you think created the game.
There is nothing so sweet as the smell of a ballpark in the spring and the sound of the ball hitting the bat or the “thwack” of the ball hitting the glove as pitchers begin to play catch and go thru the boring but necessary fielding drills. That is the first rite of spring: pitchers’ fielding practice. Can’t wait to see it.
Hope your team has an exciting season that holds your interest right through September…