Part of the 10 step guide to becoming a Double-A Reliever
- Step 1 — Get Signed
- Step 2 — Survive Spring Training
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
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.
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.
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
Today I hthrew in another minor league spring training game and it wasn not one of those days where it seemed easy to pitch. i felt like i was using balls that didn’t want to be caught and i had to pitch with those. some days it just doesn’t go the way you’d like and i wasn’t as sharp as normal. we are alsmost done with spring training and break camp her ein a few days. not exactly sure where i’m going yet, but i hope i get another outing before we break camp later this w
Today I threw for the “Bean Bags”. 28% of that makes no sense to me. Ha. I just made myself laugh writing that. If you didn’t chuckle, you should read my blog more frequently. It’s the best thing going right now on the Internet aside from that laughing baby on YouTube.
The Bean Bags is the name given to one of the teams that forms an extra group of players in our minor league camp. They play the Bomb Squad every day. Each day instead of having a group of players on the bench in a AAA, AA, or A-ball game, we create an extra game typically with younger players. So on Tuesday, I was living out a dream of pitching in the Bigs, by Friday, I’m getting work in for the Bags.
I was excited despite the surroundings being less sexy and there being no prospect of Wilbert Harrison serenading us after the win, it was still a blast to throw. Once the catcher starts giving signs, it’s still the same game wherever you’re standing. Some days pitching seems like the hardest thing in the world. Other
times it’s completely simple and reaffirms why you spend so much time
and effort playing baseball. I’m grateful today was one of those days for many reasons.
I threw in my first big league spring training game. 80% of that sentence is spectacular. 20% makes it slightly less spectacular, but still, quite exciting. “Spring Training.” It means so many great things to so many people. Many baseball fans see spring training as a symbol of the end of snow and more importantly the end of every sports station doing its best imitation of the NFL Network. For thousands of baseball fans, it means a vacation to a sunny location and a seemingly all-access pass to their favorite team’s games and practices. It means a baseball atmosphere that truly feels like a “pastime”.
It also means games with players you’ve never heard of, some of whom couldn’t even get a name on their jersey.
On Tuesday, I was one of those players.
During the regular season, our pastime can easily be clouded by high beer prices, busy parking lots, boo birds, player and managerial ejections, slammed bats, and helmets tossed. The relaxing 3 hour break from real life and immersion into an alternate world of keeping score by hand while listening to the familiar voice of your stadium’s PA announcer fade into the sunset is too often a pipe dream for baseball purists. In spring training, though, it is more evident than ever that the game is just that: a game. You won’t see bats broken over knees or managers kicking dirt and throwing bases. You probably won’t hear any “boos” and you many times will see fans cheering for players they like on the opposing team. That’s not to say bat breaking and managerial disputes don’t add to the drama and suspense that makes exciting baseball great, but if the post season is baseball on Red Bull, spring training is baseball on sun tea.
When I found out I would be “backing up” the Major League game, a rush of excitement and nerves flushed through my body. For 3 years I have been walking past the Big League locker room, batting cages, and stadium to get to the comparative dungeon of our Minor League camp (and may I add we are blessed with the nicest minor league spring training facility in all of baseball, but still…it’s not the bigs!). Simply the thought I would have the outside chance of pitching in the Major League game was riveting.
For those of you not familiar with the term “backing up” it refers to pitchers that come from the minor league camp to be a safety valve for the big league game. Each big leaguer has a throwing schedule that dictates how many innings he will throw. On a given day, for example, the starter may be expected to go 4-5 innings, a middle reliever will go 2-3 and then two late inning guys will go 1 inning. If all goes as planned, say the first two combine for 7 innings, then the late relievers will finish 8 and 9. What if it goes extras, though? Or what if the starter runs up his pitch count and doesn’t get out of the 3rd? This is where the minor league “backups” come in to play to eat up the remaining innings. If you are a casual fan, the backup will usually come in after the game is 3.5 hours old or is out of hand and you stand up and ask the rest of your party if they’ve had enough sun and want to head home. You may even point out that some guy who didn’t get a name on his jersey is pitching, it’s a nobody, so let’s head out. And you’d be right. It is a nobody. The outcome of the game doesn’t really matter. As long as everybody got their AB’s and IP’s and no one got hurt, it’s a successful spring training game.
When you were standing up to leave because nothing important was about to happen, my heart was racing and to me, seemingly the entire world was standing right before my eyes.
By Arizona standards, Tuesday was a slightly chilly night with a bit of a breeze. By my mid-western standards, it was a beautiful, glorious night! Though, I’m pretty sure even if it was 10 below with sleet this night would still have been amazing. As the national anthem played, I stood on the left field line with the rest of my bullpen teammates. I’m used to pitchers being taller than me, but these guys were all way taller than me. I’m pretty sure no one from the stands could see me amongst the trees and I’m certain I couldn’t see the flag down the line. They were all about the same height and all kinda looked alike. As Greinke warmed up for the first pitch, I introduced myself to the guys I hadn’t met yet. Everyone was extremely nice and accommodating, perhaps because I was blatantly the new guy evidenced by my constant ear to ear grin. The first few innings flew by and despite a small bump in the road, Zach was cruising. Given the inning breakdowns and the number of pitchers scheduled to throw, after the first 5 innings, I was afraid my chances of getting the all-important back-up inning were slimming.
When the 8th inning rolled around, Jamey Wright was in the game and throwing well. He had pitched the 7th without running up his pitch count too much, so he went out for the 8th. As he was facing the lead-off hitter, the bullpen phone rang. As it had all game, my heart jumped when the phone rang. For the first time, now, it was for good reason. Our bullpen coach hung up the phone and said, “Hayes, go ahead and start throwing, if he gets in trouble, you’re going in.”
I took my jacket off and walked over to the bullpen mound. I began throwing as I always do by having the catcher stand up for the first three throws and then have him squat down behind the plate. By my fourth throw, I was ready. In an effort to make my routine as normal as possible, I kept throwing. As I watched the inning unfold, the A’s managed a runner on first with one out through the first two batters, but both had worked long counts. Our catcher, John Buck went out to the mound and I hoped they were giving me more time to get loose and then bring me in. Little did they know adrenaline had gotten me ready well in advance, so no extra time was needed on my account.
When I left the clubhouse to go to the field hours prior, the MLB Network was on and was showing a replay of the 2007 home run derby. As I walked from my locker to the exit, I passed the TV and heard Chris Berman screaming “back, back, back” on a ball Matt Holliday crushed over the wall. Now a few hours later, with one out in the top of the 8th, Matt Holliday stepped to the plate with a runner at first. It appeared as though I was going to take my turn at getting him to keep the ball in the field of play. Let’s hope Berman has the night off.
I stared like a hawk at our manager, Trey Hillman, to see if he’d budge off his seat to bring me in to the game. To my excitement, he got up! I told the bullpen catcher, “2 more” and was going to get my final warm-ups in prior to entering the game. Matt Holliday!
Trey took a step to his right, picked something up off the ground and then sat back down. Sat back down! If he had so much as scratched his ear, I would have anticipated him making a call to the pen. A full-blown departure from the seat was enough to make my heart skip a beat. I think that bubble gum wrapper (or whatever it was) took a year off my life. Wright got Holliday to hit into a double play and I was told to stop throwing so Anthony Lerew could get ready to go in for the 9th.
Now, I have had a number of “dry humps” throughout my pitching career, but this one stands out as the ultimate. You can’t make this stuff up, but to prove it, here’s a video. As you can see, Buck is talking to Wright and just as he drops back, you can see Trey in the lower right hand corner of the video get up out of his seat and then.. well, you see what happens. I asked our b
ullpen coach if I had a chance to pitch in the 9th and he said no, I did my job by scaring the A’s into a double play. Somehow I hadn’t pictured my debut game being in the role of scarecrow.
By the way, I should clarify what a “dry hump” is. It’s a bullpen term. When I asked a fellow bullpen member how to describe it he asked to remain anonymous but aptly said, “It’s the term for getting all warmed up but not being able to go in.”
Lerew went in to throw the 9th and I was told I wouldn’t have a chance to pitch in the game anymore. I asked if I could just throw a little bit more in the bullpen to get some practice. The downside of backing up a MLB game is you’re a guy who is due to get a few innings in, but more than likely, you won’t get to throw. I hadn’t pitched for 3 days, so decided to keep throwing to a catcher as if I was pitching in a game. Another guy decided to do the same on the rubber behind me in the pen. After only a few pitches in the game, Lerew got 2 outs with a guy on first.
Out of the corner of my eye, much to my surprise and excitement again, I noticed Trey walking on to the field towards the pitcher. Sure enough, he pointed to his right arm, which was at hip level. My first thought was, “Huh? Interesting he always signals to the bullpen with such a low arm angle.” I turned around to find out who was throwing behind me to see who was going in to the game. But to my shock and amazement, it was a lefty! It seemed like it took 10 seconds to process, but in reality it was probably .10 seconds: I was going in the game!
I asked the bullpen coach if I was in the game, but he seemed as confused as I was and shook his head no. Lerew was essentially cruising; he didn’t need back-up. But sure enough, he was walking off the field.
I was going in the game. At least I hoped it was me they were waiting for.
Just in case, I threw another pitch and cautiously walked to the gate to enter the field. All signs pointed to me going in, but for some reason, I wasn’t certain enough. I completely expected to open the gate, my heart racing with excitement and anticipation, only to find everyone with their hands up in the air telling me to stop and turn around because I wasn’t supposed to enter. At this point, I would turn around and run back to the bullpen and make it clear to everyone in the stands why I was so confused and overly anxious: I didn’t even have a name on my jersey. And number 72 may be immortalized by Carton Fisk (ironically my favorite player growing up), but it’s not exactly commonplace amongst superstar pitchers.
In the minor leagues, all Royals players are required to pull their pants up and show at least 6″ of stirrup above the shoe tops. Since I was in T-Ball, for whatever reason, I’ve always worn my pants up at my knees. Even when I wasn’t required to, I always preferred it. In 2006, when I started with the Royals, it wasn’t a requirement and I was always the only guy to wear my pants with socks showing. It seems everyone else hates it. Manny Ramirez has done to baseball lower-half attire what Michael Jordan did in basketball. It is now “cool” to have baggy pants down to your shoes if not over them. I’m convinced there are some minor league guys who yearn for big league pants more than the big league paychecks.
This past season, I was talking with former Royals catcher Duke Wathan and he told me when he used to catch Dan Quisenberry, some hitters would say they lost the ball in his pants and socks. Our arm angle is quite unique and after releasing the ball, instead of the batter’s eye being the background, we actually assume the role. After googling pictures of how Quiz wore his jersey, I noticed his stirrups were so long, he had white socks showing, which gave the batter a white backdrop to pick up the white ball as it spun towards them. And he seemed to have some decent success throughout his career… So, do I stick with my roots, steer clear of vanity, and wear the pants up? Do I give in to the “big league style” and wear them down? If I wear them up, am I missing out on a tiny edge Quiz took advantage of for years? After a long internal debate, I came up with a solution: gray pants up on the road, white pants down at home. Best of both worlds.
This night was a home game and so, for the first time since I can remember, I ran onto a baseball field with my pants down by my shoes.
I had always pictured the gate opening up to a Major League field awaiting my arrival to be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I had always dreamed of what my thoughts would be for the half a minute I would have to myself as I jog across the outfield to the mound. Tonight, the gate opening was filled with confusion and my thoughts were of long pants and their feel on my ankles and how they looked. Regardless, I ended up on the mound without tripping over my pant legs or having to get sent back to the bullpen because it wasn’t my turn.
After my 8 warm up pitches, the PA announcer said my name. A group of probably 10 friends along with my beautiful wife, Tracy, and my brother-in-law erupted in applause (if you couldn’t tell, my wife proof reads these). The stands had been silent up until this point and clearly I had my own little fan club (even if it was only family and friends). Gregorio Petit stepped up to the plate and my first big league appearance was under way. The first pitch was a fastball that split the plate perfectly. Next pitch, fastball on the outer half of the plate, flied out to right.
2 pitches. My big league debut lasted only about 45 seconds, but I’ll gratefully and elatedly take it!
It’s hard to imagine how much fun 2 pitches could be. I don’t know how to describe it for you. As I was high-fiving the team and the coaching staff I was on cloud nine. We had won. And I realized I just played in my first game where they play “Going to Kansas City” after a win. I couldn’t help but sing “I might take a train, or I might take a plane, but if I have to walk, I’m goin just the same.” (And no, I didn’t have to look those lyrics up, I really do know the song…I blasted it in the car the entire day after the Royals called me and offered me my first contract) Obviously I hope there’s many more of those lyrics during my departure from a baseball field, but I’m so grateful to have been there for that moment and enjoyed it as much as possible. If only I had a memento or some sort of keepsake from the game…
Shane Costa caught the last out of the game and turned to the beer garden and chucked the ball into the stands. Usually on the last out of the game, the fielder brings the ball in and gives it to the pitcher. Add the fact it was my first ever big-league game and this offense is even more egregious. If I ever get a name on my jersey, maybe I’ll give Costa a hard time about it so he at least knows who’s giving him crap.
PS. If you’ve made it this far on the blog, you’re obviously enthralled by me and wanting more, so here’s a video some lady in the stands took of me and then sent my way.