In Spring Training of 2011 I wrote of the lost joy of pre-game “infield practice,” in which a team’s manager or coaches hit grounders and flies to their position players while barking out game situations. Then-manager Jim Riggleman of the Nationals had reintroduced the ritual (and gotten chastised by confused groundskeepers at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, who told him he was screwing up their field).
I’m not talking about shortstops standing behind screens at first base nor pitchers shagging fly balls during batting practice. This was one or two catchers, all the starting infielders and outfielders, and many of the reserves, on the field, twenty minutes before first pitch, chasing everything from pop-ups behind third to long drives into the right field corner. It was a mini-spring training.
Teams used to do this before almost every game. Earl Weaver thought it was the most important thing his club did, next to hitting three-run homers. And when done well, it achieved nearly the qualities of ballet. It gradually faded from the scene because some managers were concerned it gave away too much real-time information on the health of fielders and particularly the game-day strength of outfielders’ arms, and the players happily used this as an excuse to go and hide in the dugout the moment BP ends.
So imagine my joy when my old friend Robin Ventura came into Yankee Stadium for the first time as a manager last night, and at about 6:20 his Chicago White Sox were doing this under the guidance of another old friend, third base coach Joe McEwing (number 47), with back-up catcher Tyler Flowers to his left, and bullpen catcher Mark Salas.Before the joy of watching his team “take infield,” I had already had a long conversation with Ventura, who was probably the champion of dry-witted baseball figures during his time as a player. He was the one who spread the story that when Rickey Henderson joined the Mets in 1999, he asked first baseman John Olerud why he wore a helmet in the field (Olerud had suffered a brain aneurysm in college and benefited from the limited plastic protection). Ventura quoted Rickey as saying “A guy I played with in Toronto did that too.” The guy, of course, was the self-same John Olerud, with whom Henderson had been teammates six years before.
Henderson was many things, but he did not have a bad memory about players. The story was entirely apocryphal, but Ventura sold it so well that for years it was treated as gospel. And everybody kept Robin’s name out of it. When somebody finally confronted him about it he simply smiled. This was exactly the insurrectionist attitude that I thought would serve Ventura so well as a manager. When I reminded him of that he deadpanned “Yeah, but every day the writers still ask me if I’m afraid I’m going to lose control of the club.”
I took this long side trip into the persona of Robin Ventura for a reason. Take another look at that picture of the White Sox. I’ll ask you what Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn asked me as I marveled that his club was actually taking infield: “Do you notice if anything’s missing?”
There’s no baseball.
They were taking infield practice, for ten minutes or more, without any baseballs. It took me at least two minutes to even notice it, and another two to convince myself either my vision or my circulation hadn’t gone bad. No baseball. They were pantomiming it.
I shot a brief video:
At one point catcher Flowers came running right at me in pursuit of an imaginary foul ball. I thanked him for making sure it didn’t hit me.
Eddie Einhorn said his club calls it “Phantom Ball.” In the Negro Leagues in the ’30s, the teams used to entertain fans pre-game with a high speed version that including leaping catches and plays at the plate, which they called “Shadow Ball.” Under whatever name, it was a joy to behold, and the Sox insist it’s terrific for honing instincts and reducing the risk of injury because there’s no ball in use.
As I left the field Ventura asked me how I liked it and insisted it was Joe McEwing’s idea. “See?,” he added, still deadpan. “There’s a reason they keep asking me if I’m going to lose control of the club. I can’t even get them to use a baseball.”
Ventura might just win that division.
Update, 9:45 PM EDT: Ben Walker of the Associated Press, who loves “Infield” as much as I do, sent me an email mentioning that he asked Ventura and McEwing about this tonight and the skipper said they did this at least once under the guidance of coach Cookie Rojas when they were with the Mets – that would date to the 2000 season. This reminded me that Ventura told me last night “Every once in awhile we go all Cookie Rojas out there.”
DAYAN VICIEDO AND MONTY MONTGOMERY
He sure as shootin’ will if the Sox keep doing stuff like this. Three hours after Phantom Ball ended, Dayan Viciedo tore into a David Robertson pitch and all of a sudden a nice safe 3-1 Yankees’ ninth inning lead was a White Sox 4-3 victory.
Not long after, an ESPN researcher tweeted that it had been a long time since that had happened to the Yankees: that the last time a visiting team trailing by two or more went ahead on a home run in the 9th had been in 1972, when Bob Montgomery did it to them.
And a distant bell went off in my head.
I was at that game too, and boy was I cheesed off.
The Yankees trailed the third-place Red Sox by just a game-and-a-half when they met for a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 28, 1972, on day two of a five-game series that would probably decide which one of them might still challenge for the AL East Division crown. As an aside, for those of you who think the rivalry was always like it is now, the attendance for two Yankee-Sox games that night was 20,129.
I was one of them, and I happily watched my favorite, Mel Stottlemyre, hold the Sox to three hits and two runs until the ninth. The Yanks were up 5-2 when Stott got wild and walked Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli. Manager Ralph Houk brought in relief ace Sparky Lyle, and I got worried because Lyle had recorded his 20th save the night before, but had pitched 2-1/3 innings to do so.
Sure enough, Danny Cater (whom the Yankees had astutely traded to Boston for Lyle in one of the worst one-for-one trades in baseball history) singled to drive in a run and cut it to 5-3. Shortstop John Kennedy worked the count full but then struck out. This brought up Bob Montgomery, Boston’s third string catcher who had, to that point in the 1972 season, hit exactly no home runs and driven in exactly two. In fact, in the middle of his third big league season Montgomery had hit exactly three career homers (he would go on to a long career as a Boston back-up, be the last man to regularly bat without a batting helmet, and then become a beloved color commentator on the Red Sox tv broadcasts).
Montgomery promptly put Lyle’s pitch into the right field seats and, just like last night, a two-run Yankee lead had become a one-run visitor’s victory.
I was not happy. And this is not memory speaking. It took me five minutes to find my scorecard. The blasphemies directed at Manager Houk (“Lyle? 2 Days in a row…You are a fool!”) will not be illustrated here. The scorecard will:40 years is a long time between any two similar events.
Just how long is underscored by what’s on the page behind that scorecard. It lists the names and numbers of the pitchers of the American League teams. For the future 1972 World Champion Oakland A’s, there are only nine pitchers listed.
For those interested in the other stuff I’ll be appearing as a guest Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.
“‘Scuse me?” Harper deadpanned up from his seat in front of a locker in the visiting clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
The reporter tried again: “Are you going to remember that first RBI?”
“Did I get an RBI?” Harper’s act had reached its end and he smiled broadly. “Just kidding! Yeah.”
It had come in the 8th inning of a sloppy 10-8 Washington victory over the Yankees, off the prototypical AAA pitcher, Romulo Sanchez. But the single to right made the loudest sound of any ball connecting with any bat all day, and it was probably not coincidental that rightfielder Colin Curtis then bobbled it.
It’s not as if they’re going to put a plaque up to indicate it happened, although it was noteworthy that when Harper went into the game in the bottom of the 5th, as he jogged out to right, the other team’s crowd applauded loudly, as they did for his two plate appearances, as they did when he first emerged on the on-deck circle.
The first ribby also inspired remarkable perspective on comparative quickness. We will each have our own perspective on October 16, 1992. It was the day of the book party for Madonna’s $50 book of naked pictures of herself. The next day, Tom Glavine would four-hit Toronto to open the World Series. It was three weeks until Bill Clinton’s first presidential election. I had already been working at ESPN for ten months, Derek Jeter had already played 58 games in the minor leagues, and one of Harper’s current Washington teammates, Matt Stairs, had already played 13 games in the major leagues.
He was referring, of course, to the “30 to 40 at bats to get yourself ready,” during spring training – and not the seemingly lightning route that has put him in a major league camp at the age of 18 years and not even five months.
That route seems to challenge the expectation that Harper will have seen three Spring Trainings before he appears in a big league game that counts. It is noted that at this time in 2013 he will still be a young 20 year-old and that’s quick enough. Except the ball explodes off his bat and his adjustment to the outfield has already been such that he was as proud of starting a relay that nailed the Yankees’ Austin Romine at third base as he was of the RBI hit (shown to the left in what you’d say is a crappy photo, until you realize it was taken from the distant press box with an unaided iPhone).
Many newly-official men have looked like star big leaguers at 18. To go back to placing Harper’s birth in perspective, the ill-fated Yankee phenom Brien Taylor had already struck out 187 guys in his first 161 innings of pro pitching the day Harper was born. But it is hard to believe the Nats would arbitrarily slow down his pace through the minors to stick to an artificial deadline of 2013, because it isn’t just Harper’s physical game that’s so impressive.
His attitude is also already pretty well developed. Harper was asked by the small crowd of reporters around his cubicle what he thought of playing in a packed stadium festooned with Yankee self-promotion, and he admitted it was “awesome” to have shared a field with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia and all the rest. He said “awesome” twice and added Nick Swisher to the pantheon of impressiveness, which should make Swisher say funny things later on.
But then Harper was asked if he’d said hello to any of these Yankees (even Swisher, who was almost 12 when Harper was born). “No. I don’t really care to say hi to anybody over there. I stick over here.” I wondered if that was humility or competitiveness. “You try to beat ’em. That’s what I am. If we’re off the field? Hey, I’ll go and say hello. You can be my best friend off the field and I’ll hate you on the baseball field. That’s how I am…on the field, I want to kick the crap out of you.” (By the way, here’s Dave Sheinin’s version of this in The Washington Post, including the very relevant detail that Harper grew up around Las Vegas as a Yankee fan).
One game, one portentous spring training, one killer instinct, and one exhibition game RBI do not mean you should step directly into the majors at 18. But they do tend to support the idea that suggesting it is theoretically possible at 19 is not at all crazy.
A LITTLE PHOTO TOUR OF (MY) SPRING TRAINING OPENER:
Take a nice deep breath:
An almost-forgotten pre-game ritual: The visiting team taking infield (and outfield) practice. The catchers are Derek Norris and Jesus Flores, the coaches Jim Lett and John McLaren. When I asked Washington manager Jim Riggleman about this, he said there was nothing better for a team before a game. “But on the road, the groundskeepers look at you like you’re crazy! ‘Get off our field!'” It looked to both of us like none of the Tampa groundskeepers had been alive the last time a big league team taking infield on the road, which may have gone out with Earl Weaver:
Here’s the least likely sentence I’ve ever written: Nyjer Morgan has truly damaged the great tradition of The Washington Nationals franchise.
What you are going to see here will disturb you.
This is not the late Hunter S. Thompson, wearing a giant old Houston Astros’ batting helmet. Nobody took a look at this picture and said “Oh boy, the Gonzo Journalist sure looks vaguely like Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy when Boch was 22 years old.”
Harold Reynolds, whose
major task that year seems to have been trying to get that mustache to grow in. The correct answer is eight (Reynolds, the late Ivan Calderon, Darnell Coles, John Moses, Donnell Nixon, Edwin Nunez, Jim Presley, and Brian Snyder). There was also Rick Adair, now pitching coach of the Mariners, plus the Timbers’ manager ex-big leaguer Bill Plummer, who would skipper Seattle in 1992, pitcher Jeff Stottlemyre (whose brother and father have both pitched and coached in the majors) and catcher David Blume, now a scout for Toronto. With all that talent, it’s not surprising Wausau won 84 and lost just 48 and won their Division and the Playoffs. The full set of these A-ball players of 29 seasons ago can still be found in the $20-$30 range. and his original partner, Tom Collier). Sheets in which to display your cards? Mike’s idea. These minor league sets? Mike. Regular “card shows,” a slickly-produced professional looking magazine, a company that did nothing but buy the rights to, and print up, stacks of player photographs for autograph sessions? All Mike.
ens help us) and post an assortment later. As long ago as 1969, he was the first to make and sell new cards of old players. He challenged the Topps major league monopoly with his SSPC sets of 1975-78. He made the first reprints. He was the first collector to turn into a veritable card magnate (TCMA was, nominally, “The Card Memorabilia Associates”; in fact it was the initials of Mike
major task that year seems to have been trying to get that mustache to grow in. The correct answer is eight (Reynolds, the late Ivan Calderon, Darnell Coles, John Moses, Donnell Nixon, Edwin Nunez, Jim Presley, and Brian Snyder). There was also Rick Adair, now pitching coach of the Mariners, plus the Timbers’ manager ex-big leaguer Bill Plummer, who would skipper Seattle in 1992, pitcher Jeff Stottlemyre (whose brother and father have both pitched and coached in the majors) and catcher David Blume, now a scout for Toronto. With all that talent, it’s not surprising Wausau won 84 and lost just 48 and won their Division and the Playoffs. The full set of these A-ball players of 29 seasons ago can still be found in the $20-$30 range.
and his original partner, Tom Collier). Sheets in which to display your cards? Mike’s idea. These minor league sets? Mike. Regular “card shows,” a slickly-produced professional looking magazine, a company that did nothing but buy the rights to, and print up, stacks of player photographs for autograph sessions? All Mike.