“You do realize it’s a spring training game, right? Like, it’s a meaningless game. Half the players aren’t really trying. They’re just working on stuff, their pitches, throwing strikes, watching the baseball. That kind of stuff.”
“Yeah. I know. But they’re all meaningless games, when you think about it.”
* * *
Here are the privileges of having a press pass in the Mets’ spring training complex: A press pass allows you to stand places other people aren’t allowed to stand. For example: You can stand on the warning track in foul territory during morning warmups, while people without press passes have to stand behind the fence, a full five feet farther back. With a press pass, you can stand in and near the dugout before games. You can stand behind the chain link backstop during minor league practices, even past 11 a.m. after security asks everyone else standing there to go stand elsewhere. You can stand and watch one minor league game while a second minor league game and a high school game are played behind you on the adjacent fields, and realize the impossibility of ducking with anything resembling grace when caught in a crossfire of foul popups and “heads up heads up” warnings. You can stand in the major league clubhouse and stare at the floor and pretend to look at things on the wall. Sometimes, you can stand and listen as one person answers a series of questions as everyone else stands in each others’ personal space. You can stand anywhere in Digital Domain Park during the games, and, depending on whether you have sunglasses on, more than a few people may ask you for directions to their seats.
You, with a press pass, can also sit in places other people aren’t always allowed to sit. You can sit in the air-conditioned media room where there is free soda. You can sit in the conference room and listen to the manager’s post-game press conference. You can sit on the top of the scattered picnic tables, and security persons are less inclined to ask you not to do so. You can sit just about anywhere in the stadium during the major league games. You can sit in section 203, row L, seat 15, provided it’s unoccupied, but if that seat wins free KFC giftcard in a scoreboard promotion, you don’t get the giftcard because it’s not actually your seat. This will be made clear by several people, even if you have no intention of trying to claim the KFC giftcard. You can both sit and stand on the Arrigo Dodge Chrysler Jeep Palm Beach Party Zone along the right field line, but — full disclosure – “Party Zone” appears to be a misnomer. You can sit on the berm behind right field, on bladeless grass that seems to have no dirt beneath it, only older yellowed grass no matter how far you dig with your fingers, and watch the five-year-olds play catch with their mothers with found baseballs. Only most mothers are informed about their participation in the game of catch mid-flight, so it’s really more watching five-year-olds peg their mothers with baseballs.
* * *
One A.M., Mike Nickeas, to his fellow catchers on his way to catch R.A. Dickey’s bullpen session: “I eat knuckleballs for breakfast!”
* * *
Let’s say you’re driving your car in the left lane of a two lane highway. There’s another car traveling six lengths ahead of you. Their brake lights don’t work, but you don’t know this. A deer jumps in front of the no-brake-lights car. The driver slams on his breaks trying to pull up into a dead stop. How quickly do you notice his changing speed? How quickly can you notice? Can you stop just as short, or are you going to have to veer onto the shoulder or cut into another lane?
Johan Santana kicks the dirt around in front of the pitcher’s plate, sweeping his foot side to side. He steps onto the top of the mound, shoulders perpendicular to the plate, standing all the way to his right, his left toe just making contact with the farthest right corner of the white rectangle, hands together, squinting for the catcher’s sign as he attacks a piece of gum. He shifts his hips side to side in a methodical and silly shake. A step to the side as he flicks his glove towards his target, his left foot rotates parallel with the white rectangle, right leg comes up with the knee bent 90 degrees. Then a blur of arms coming up and legs going out and hips rotating with a torque that pushes the tenuous holders of bones and muscles to their limits and, as in Santana’s case in September 2010, sometimes beyond. The right leg comes down and as the left points straight behind and the arm comes across and the ball jets towards the plate. Same thing. Every time.
Only not really. Santana is a changeup artist. Basically he’s a really good at lying with his body. You can see the difference between Santana’s fastball and changeup if you ignore the flight of the baseball and concentrate on his pitching hand all the way through his motion. I think. But even then it’s hard to tell, and I imagine hard to hit a major league pitch if you’re not paying attention to the ball. I watched Santana pitch a Spring Training game from the walkway of Digital Domain Park, right behind home plate, and I could just see it. Sometimes Santana flicks the ball with two fingers, generating tremendous speed and a dramatic backspin that creates a lifting force on the baseball as it cuts through the air. And sometimes Santana chokes the ball in his hand, muffling both speed and backspin on release, sending a nearly identical looking pitch that never quite makes it to the plate. The difference is maybe visible from close up – ignore the ball as it moves to the plate, and see that his fist looks to open up on changeups and stays clenched on fastballs.
But the motion before the moment of release is identical for both pitches. The slot and speed of Santana’s arm are always the same, just the grip changes. And that’s the trick – on those good Santana changeups, the batter has to ignore the delivery, the decades of ingrained pattern recognition that scream to the hitter, before the ball even leaves the hand, that this particular arm speed and particular arm slot and particular motion mean a fastball arriving at this particular coordinate across the plane of home plate. And, once the baseball actually leaves Santana’s hand, the batter has about one-fourth of a second to identify the spin of the ball and see if it’s going to curve or stay true. But in the case of Santana’s changeup, the spin betrays nothing but fastball.
Also the batter is trying to hit the pitch with a wooden bat, while applying some serious torque of his own.
Double-also, the pitcher and catcher get to plan out the pitch beforehand, either via hand signals or by the catcher actually walking out to the mound. Sometimes the dugout even gets involved, someone relying the manager’s or pitching coach’s pitch order. Meanwhile the batter has to just stand there, readjust his batting gloves, spit, and dig at the dirt . . . then react in the 400 milliseconds it takes a pitch to reach home plate. Baseball is comically unfair to the hitter, really.
And baseball has been even more unfair to batters facing Johan Santana. Because for the batter facing Johan Santana, somewhere in that sequence of windup and pitch, this batter has to notice that the car traveling ahead of him is, in fact, slamming on its brakes without any warning from the brake lights. He’s gotta see the Santana changeup, recognize a difference in arm speed, or the delivery, or something. When Santana’s on, it’s impossible because there isn’t any difference. Those panic swings and bats flying into the stands on Santana changeups are the brakes being slammed and steering wheels being pulled towards the shoulder just a little too late. And those smoother, way-out-in-front whiffs on Santana’s changeups, that deceptive grace is really the mark of the badly, badly fooled – those hitters rammed full speed into the car in front of them, never noticing that anything had slowed down.
Santana was still shaking off dust from 18 months rehabbing when I saw him pitch in Florida. His control was off, his fastballs would have been belt-high strikes to batters eight-feet-tall, his sliders reached the plate on a hop or two, and he spent most of his time between pitches building little sandcastles with his cleats in the mound dirt. The Tigers knocked him around for five runs over about 60-something pitches. After the game, Santana explained to reporters that he was landing on his heel with his striding leg, pulling the ball across his body and cutting his fastball without meaning to do so. He made a hand gesture to demonstrate pulling the ball across his body. He also said he had trouble with the mound, which explained the sandcastles. He used the word “adjustment” 354 times and “working on pitches” 137 times. Maybe. I didn’t really keep track, but he used those terms a lot.
Santana was healthy, if not quite a humming machine. But one or two changeups just stopped time, just for a moment, Santana deceiving so perfectly with his rebuild arm. He screamed fastball while keeping the ball on a string, pulling it back at the last moment, brakes being slammed and cars driving off the road. Just enough to remind you that this pitcher, this pitcher here was once the best at what he did.
* * *
“You know, you’re running pretty intense for what’s supposed to be 75% effort,” says the coach.
“Yeah,” says Daniel Murphy, “I struggle with that.”
* * *
If you walk outside in the Mets’ complex at Port St. Lucie around 9:45 in the morning and close your eyes, you can hear the rain of a hundred baseballs. It sounds like gentle drizzle on a tin roof, tightly wrapped cork and string and hide hitting leather, the soft sounds building together, hundreds of baseballs flying back and forth across five baseball fields, skinny teenagers joking in Spanish in the distance and bearded men wordlessly warming their arms, making loose circles with their shoulders between throws. A steady patter.
My family, we used to go to Lake George for a week in the late summer. We’d stay at one of the smaller man-made lakes nearby in a cabin with a tin roof. It would rain at least one night during the week. The sound of rain hitting the metal overhead, at first dripping through the evergreens and then building into a rattling crescendo, it would wake up the night. Kicking off sheets damp all week from August humidity, suddenly the saturated air lifted and I remembered what a cool breath felt like as the rain drummed the night back to sleep.
The gloves and the baseballs and hundreds of arms loosening in the sun, that’s what it sounds like. Hundreds of baseballs in the air. Back and forth.
* * *
There are 63 player lockers in the Mets’ clubhouse in Port St. Lucie. Six are designated for catchers, 18 for position players, 25 for pitchers, five for equipment managers, and nine seem to be empty all the time. There are 26 along the far wall split by the door to the dugout, 11 facing the far wall back-to-back with 14 facing the near wall, and then 12 along the near wall. They’re not actual lockers. They don’t have doors and there are no locks, so they’re more like open closets. Almost everything is painted a shade of blue. David Wright, Johan Santana, and Jason Bay get use of two closets each, as do the players whose neighbors have been demoted to minor league camp. Pipes are exposed overhead. There are no locker/closets in the middle of the room; instead tables used for eating breakfast waffles soaked in maple syrup, finishing crosswords, and playing seemingly complex card games that require a wooden board and pegs. The entire area is carpeted in dark aqua blue, with navy and robin’s egg spots. Televisions hang from the ceiling, tuned always to SNY’s morning infomercials or college basketball.
Shopping carts, Mets Blue and Mets Orange, filled with baseballs, bats, and bags, line the near left wall, “Thank You” molded into their plastic push-handles. Printed schedules outlining the day’s activities and lineup are pinned to bulletin boards, one by the coffee table and one near the hallway that leads outside. Saturday’s schedule, across the top in 12 point font, said:
Winning Way → Great from Good
1. They want to accomplish more.
2. They refuse to be satisfied.
3. They are very disciplined.
4. They refuse to be ordinary.
the work is never over.
* * *
So I guess what I’m saying is there’s a reason we have brake lights on our cars.
* * *
This is a cliche in itself, but . . . if you ask a major league baseball player a question about his profession, 90% of the time the answer will be a series of strung-together cliches. One Day At A Time. Play To Win The Game. Both Teams Played Hard. There Are No Excuses. We Win And Lose As A Team. I Don’t Worry About My Personal Numbers, Just The Performance Of The Team. No injury ever causes any admitted physical pain, ever hurts, or affects a player’s performance. There are no distractions. We are all horses pulling our weight up the hill, oblivious to all things beyond the scope of our blinders.
Listen to any postgame on-field/court interview: The perspiring athlete listens for the key words in the interviewer’s questions that will trigger an automated response about himself, his teammate, or the great game played by the opponent. Ditto for any clubhouse media scrum or most (but not all) ex-players providing in-game commentary on television.
My operating assumption has been that these cliches and platitudes are the results of some serious media conditioning. That the sports news cycle and media relation gears grind together, creating players capable of responding only in stock phrases, like a dining tourist armed only with a “French Made Easy” phrase book. And that a series of banal responses is the easiest way to make the questions stop. Or that answering questions thoughtfully requires effort, and pro athletes can’t spare or just don’t have the mental juice to answer thoughtfully. Show up, spit out some cliches, play the game, spit out some more cliches, go home, do it all again the next day. Athletes learn and are coached over time that this is the only way you answer questions.
I’m not sure about that assumption anymore. First, the whole thing has a silly conspiracy theory feel to it. Who, exactly, is spending all this time teaching these guys to talk like this all the time? And why do rookies and MiLBers answer questions with cliches, too? Haven’t they presumably been spared the conditioning?
So here’s an alternate proposition: What if cliche spouting athletes are being honest. What if, to really succeed as an athlete, you have to buy into it. You have to buy into the cliches, find the deeper meaning behind the words and try to actually do it, embed it within yourself, let it become a part of you and your work. That these cliches became cliches because, though obvious, they’re also important. Maybe you have to step back from the knowing wink, just for a moment, and try to believe in the meaningless and totally lame words until they take on a real meaning. Because you’re competing against so many people, either to make the cut or win the game, for so long that you really do have to take it One Day At A Time and all that other stuff, just to stay sane and actually give it everything. That you really can’t pull your weight until you put on the blinders. And when a sweaty player is spouting platitude after platitude on television after a game, he or she is not being insincere or intentionally boring, but completely and totally honest. As honest as he or she can possibly be. Because deep down, he or she actually believes every word. And those words are fueling the competitive furnace.
* * *
Mike Nickeas, sweating profusely after catching R.A. Dickey’s morning bullpen session: “It’s like playing a friggin video game.”
* * *
So there’s this guy, and he’s sitting in a handicap-companion seat behind the home dugout in Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie, Florida. Although by all appearances he doesn’t appear to be companioning any handicapped persons. He is sitting back, arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles and toes on the ground. And he’s shouting at Adam Loewen.
“Hey Loewen! It’s go time!”
His arms are sun freckled, leathery, broken-in. His legs are equally worn and hairless. He’s wearing an off-white tee shirt, printed image of a Marlin on the back, faded denim shorts, and white canvas low-tops tightly tied with leather laces.
Adam Loewen picks up a weighted bat in the Mets’ on-deck circle.
“Now or never, Loewen!”
Rows away, a few white haired women in sunglasses and gold earrings turn in the directions of the shouting, hold their gaze momentarily, and, annoyed glares unacknowledged, turn back to the game. Adam Loewen shifts his weight forward and pivots on his back foot as he loosely swings the weighted bat.
Chris Bootcheck is pitching to Vinny Rottino. The Mets trail the Tigers 9-0 in the home ninth inning. Two players from the starting lineups, both career minor MiLBers, remain in the game. A number of Mets fans and a handful of players have already departed, though the crowds’ vocal majority of Tigers fans, remain in their seats.
Rottino singles. Loewen starts towards home plate.
“Come on, Loewen,” says this guy, still hollering. He sounds a little drunk from the sun and ethanol. “Come on Mets. Let’s start something.”