How to become a Minor League Reliever: Step 2 Survive Spring Training

Part of the 10 step guide to becoming a Double-A Reliever

Congrats on getting signed.  If you followed my steps to do so, you undoubtedly got a signing bonus that is a multiple of zero.  Sorry if you were looking for multiple zeros.

It’s May and Spring Training happens, well, in the spring, so you may ask yourself why is this step 2?  My steps are not meant to be chronological, though they may imply a particular time and place.  The steps are broad overarching concepts you will need to have nailed down in order to make it in this game.  Getting signed obviously gets your foot in the door and is the biggest step hence it being first.  In minor league baseball, there are 3 time periods throughout the year:  the season, the off season and spring training.  Though guys can get released at any point during the year, the majority of releases happen during spring training.  So I want you to be prepared to survive from the get-go.  There’s a saying that suggests as long as you have a jersey, you have a chance.  And if your goal is to be a Double-A reliever (and I would assume it has to be if you’re reading this) your chance is going to come in spring training.  The teams are set and rosters are made in the spring.  So sit back, take some notes, and enjoy the insider’s guide to surviving the spring.

There are 5 areas that will define your experience in Spring Training:

1. The Clubhouse
2. The Field
3. The Camp Lifestyle
4. Making a Roster
5. Breaking Camp

The Clubhouse

When you walk in to the spring training complex the first time you can’t look surprised.  So here’s what to expect.  Music playing.  Cards being slammed on the carpeted floors amidst yells of the superiority of that last unsuspecting trump being played.  Latin players will be shouting something you will be told is Spanish, but you figure is a complex series of sounds and chirping that in certain combinations cause laughter.  As you listen to the sounds filling your ears, you will hear a whip-like smack followed by a shriek.  As you wander around trying to find your locker keep your eyes open because the naked middle infielder who whipped another naked middle infielder with a wet towel is seconds away from being chased around the corner by the whippee, also naked.  If you walk unsuspectingly, there’s no more embarrassing an introduction to 200 of your new teammates than being the meat of a naked infielder sandwich.

Speaking of meat, while it’s critical to keep your eyes open, make sure to keep them above the waist.  I failed this miserably (and don’t want you to do the same) when my locker mate in 2006, my first spring training, extended his hand to introduce himself but I didn’t see it because I was mesmerized by the fact he was sitting on his *****.  He had tucked it underneath and was sitting on it on his stool.  Fascinating, but his business and not mine at all.  No one likes a pecker checker.

First impressions are big, but in the clubhouse they can be crucial.  “Clubhouse” is baseball-speak for social network.  Guys are described as “great clubhouse guys” or as being “an asset in the clubhouse”.  Your “clubhouse demeanor” will be discussed and if you don’t fit in in the clubhouse, it’s a knock on your projection.  It’s part of who you are as a baseball package, so don’t make light of it.

You are walking in to a combination of summer camp and a frat house.  The guys in this locker room have been roommates, teammates, and travel companions 24 hours a day for the summers.  They have eaten every meal together, showered together, gone to the bar together, and slept together.  They have their own routines, their own dialect, and their own jokes.  You have to work your way in slowly, but if you take one wrong step, you could become the butt of their dialect and jokes.

As much as you can, just follow the masses and don’t say too much.  But talk, don’t be creepy in your silence.  When you’re in the shower and guys are screaming and throwing soap suds and shampoo, just stay to yourself.  When someone turns your shower temperature to ice cold while you are washing your face with your eyes closed, it is a sign you are invited to begin joining in the escapades.  The coins in the drainage gutter are glued down, so don’t make the mistake of trying to pick them up, that will label you as cheap.  When you get hit with flying shampoo as you walk out of the shower to go towel off, just turn around and rinse off again.  Wait until the time is right to return the favor, choose your time and your target wisely.  And again, I can’t stress this enough, don’t get run over by the naked tag competitors.

Though clubhouse life revolves around the shower, locker talk is important as well.  Later on I will have steps specifically on “Learning the Lingo” and another on the Locker Room specifically, so I don’t want to steal my thunder this early.  Just know it’s important and stay tuned later on for more info.

The Field

When you are on the field in spring training, it means 1 of 3 things (listed in ascending order of likelihood):  you are pitching, you are doing PFP’s, or you are shagging. 

As a reliever, you will probably throw around 10 innings in spring training.  If you figure each half inning takes 15 minutes, all in all, you will spend 2.5 hours actually pitching.  You will, however, spend at least 30 consecutive days (no days off) at the field for approximately 6 hours.  That leaves 177.5 hours (just under 7.5 days) to do PFPs and shag.

The pitching part was covered in step 1, at this point either you throw gas, or you throw submarine-style, so either way, you’ve got that down, let’s move on to the PFPs.

“PFP” stands for pitchers fielding practice.  PFPs (estimated 77.5 hours during the course of camp) consist of a line of pitchers waiting to walk up onto the mound to fake their pitching motion and run over to a ball that has been rolled down the third base line by a pitching coach, pick it up, and throw the ball to a lucky veteran pitcher who is stationed at first base.  After completing your turn, you go back to the end of the line and repeat.  Once you have been through enough times that you are convinced playing in games is merely a drill to prepare you for PFPs, you will switch and rotate to another field where the bunts will be rolled down the first base line.  Repeat.  Even more stations will be set up to practice ground balls hit to second and first where you have to cover 4-1 and 3-1 respectively if you’re scoring at home (and kudos if you’re scoring while reading my blog).  There will, of course, be a “cup check” station where a pitching coach will hit skimming line-drive one-hoppers that reach you at exactly the same time as your fake pitching motion is at it’s release point.  You will have no time to react, but after your turn, while in line, you will have plenty of time to ponder exactly how hard you would have to throw for the ball to return to you so quickly.  Your next turn in line you can wonder how the batter was able to hit your Mach 7 fastball.

Prior to the start of spring training, I’d advise you begin joining every minor league player in cheering hardest during the World Series not for a team, but for so
lid PFP work.  You see, the first week of spring training for pitchers is a series of lectures from pitching coaches about how important PFPs can be.  Imagine the momentum and the voracity with which these lectures were given in the Spring of 2007 after the Tigers’ PFP performance in the 2006 World Series.  I had cold sweats and my feet started to ache in mere anticipation of the upcoming spring training during game 5 in 2006 as Verlander Bucknered the 5th of his team’s 5 PFPs into right field for the 7th and 8th unearned runs en route to losing the series.  So I don’t care who you root for in World Series to come (though I hope it’s the Royals), but please join me in rooting for sound PFP work, it’s in our best interest.

Shagging (estimated 100 hours during the course of camp) was made to sound really fun by Austin Powers, but the joy in shagging decreases in the Arizona sun as your likelihood for melanoma rises.  Shagging is the term for retrieving the balls batted by batters during batting practice.  It’s the pitchers’ collective job to pick up each ball that isn’t caught off the bat and throw it in to a “bucket” just behind second base.  You’ve probably seen it in spring training or if you’ve gone to a big league game early enough to watch BP.  As the sun beats down on you over the course of the 100 hours, your legs, hips and feet will begin to ache.  The best way to prepare for the hours of shagging in the spring is to spend the winter standing still in your front yard and then every 10 minutes, jog to the other side of the yard and throw a rock 150 feet.  Start out in 30 minute increments and work your way up to over an hour.  BP and game-day practice are another topic I will come back to later on in my 10 steps, so stay tuned for more in-depth advice to come.

The Camp Lifestyle

6:00 AM – Wake up, shower
6:30 AM – Walk from hotel to local buffet-style restaurant and sign in to get free breakfast
7:15 AM – Hop in a shuttle at the hotel and ride to the complex
7:30 AM – Arrive at complex
7:35 AM – Read day’s schedule on cork board
7:45 AM – Check the bathroom stalls to find more than 4 guys must have had the sausage patties too
7:55 AM – Find an open stall, use bathroom while reading Baseball America
8:05 AM – Read day’s schedule again because you forgot what it said
8:15 AM – Get dressed in team-issued gear, this way if a coach or someone sees you, they won’t think you just showed up
8:20 AM – Read day’s schedule to double check you don’t have early work
8:25 AM – Notice you are in a new work group on cork board and realize you have early work
8:30 AM – Go to gym to use foam roller on the knots in your legs from shagging
8:35 AM – Read day’s schedule again on your way back to clubhouse, this time for absolutely no reason
8:40 AM – Head out to field early for early work
9:00 AM – Form a line and go through same stretch routine you have been doing all spring
9:10 AM – Begin extra PFP work
9:30 AM – Meet with the entire camp for announcements
9:35 AM – Form a line and go through same stretch routine
9:45 AM – Tell a joke in your pitchers’ group while the position players talk baserunning
9:50 AM – Go through your throwing routine
10:00 AM – Work on cutoffs and relays with your assigned work group
10:30 AM – Shag
11:00 AM – Shag
11:15 AM – Shag
11:30 AM – Shag
11:45 AM – Walk to clubhouse to eat lunch
11:45 AM – Lift weights if necessary
1:00 PM – Walk to fields to either pitch or watch your teammates in a game
4:00 PM – Shower (see above for instructions)
4:30 PM – Catch a shuttle back to hotel
5:00 PM – Do nothing
5:30 PM – Figure out how many days until March Madness Starts today
6:00 PM – Walk from hotel to local buffet-style restaurant and sign in to get free dinner
7:00 PM – Watch Deal or No Deal
8:00 PM – If American Idol is on, stay up, if not go to sleep
9:00 PM – If still awake, go to sleep
10:00 PM – Curfew check, wake up and answer the door to prove you are in your room
10:15 PM – Tell your roommate to stop baby talking to his girlfriend so you can sleep

Repeat for 30 consecutive days with no variations.

Making a Roster

The toughest part of spring training is the inevitability of releases.  If you polled the players going in to spring training asking where they’ll start the year, you’d have 35 guys in the big leagues, 35 in AAA, 40 in AA, 40 in Hi A, and 60 in Low A.  There would be no one in extended spring training, and no one going home.  The fact of the matter is, 25 go to the bigs, 24 to AA and AAA and 25 to the A ball teams.  This year I went through the hardest day of my professional career because of this number crunch.  My best friend in baseball fell victim to the pinch of rosters and one day, just like that, he just wasn’t there.  In Arizona it’s sunny every day and thankfully that day was no exception because I did everything with sun glasses on.  When I got out to our stretch line, I cried because he should have been there but wasn’t.  I cried through our fundamental work and cried while shagging.  Every thing we did was the same as all the other days, except for he wasn’t there.  And because everything was the same it made it seem that much more different.

Part of being a professional is being able to perform regardless of what’s going on around you, and cuts in spring training will put this to the test.  It’s harder on the organization than it is on the players, no doubt, because they have to make the decisions and break the news to guys they’ve gotten to know for years.  They come off as the bad guys, but they feel it just the same.  For a player, this heads up will give you an idea of what’s to come, but the first time you are talking with your locker neighbor and he gets tapped on the shoulder by the “Grim Reaper” and gets taken upstairs to an office, your heart will sink.  It doesn’t matter what I say here, it’s an experience of emotion you won’t be ready for.  Just keep in mind, no one is dying, you just have to keep positive and go out and perform.  It’s part of our business and unfortunately it’s never more evident it’s a business than these days.

Breaking Camp

As Arizona heats up and the monotony becomes barely bearable, you will get the news you’ve been assigned to a full season affiliate.  After all the roster cuts and friends you’ve had to say goodbye to, it’s a good feeling to be going somewhere, but many times it’s not where you were hoping for.  Be glad you have a jersey and be glad you aren’t staying in Arizona for extended spring training.  As one of our staff members says, “It gets hot here in the summer.”  Pack your belongings and be ready for your 3AM shuttle to the airport tomorrow, you are ready to embark on a season full of excitement.  Congratulations, again, be glad you made it out of spring.

Soon to come:

Step 3.  Handle the Travel

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