Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Pitchers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity... - Charles Dickens

Two pitchers, both coincidentally named Collin McHugh, pitched today in Mets Spring Training. One, a fierce competitor with a feel for the strike-zone and confidence bursting with his every move. The other, a frenzy of thought and emotion, unable to locate effectively or consistently...nervous.

Things both of these pitchers had in common:
-Both pitching against the same hitters
-Both competing for a limited number of roster spots
-Same repertoire, same velocity, same situation

Collin "the thrower" threw the first of their three innings of work. From the bullpen to the mound every pitch was analyzed in the search for fixes to whatever didn't feel right. A lot didn't feel right. By game time, Collin was nervous that, on top of facing AA hitters for the first time, his stuff wasn't cooperating with him. Nerves led to getting behind hitters, a leadoff homerun, walk, and double in the first inning. Not good.

Collin "the pitcher" sat on the bench in between innings. Not once did he criticize or analyze the last inning. Not once did he wish he had done something different. He was too busy preparing to PITCH. As he took the mound, shoulders back and chest out, he wasn't worried about the hitters or the umpires or his parents in the stands (sorry guys). He was focused on doing what he does best...pitching. He threw 1st pitch strikes, breaking balls for strikes, and put away strikes. He struck out the side not throwing nasty pitches, but simply throwing strikes. Collin, happy with the second inning, decided a third was in order. More strikes. No runs. Easy, right?

The truth is, yes. It is easy, but only if we operate within what we do best. In order to be a great pitcher, I cannot pretend that I have the dirtiest pitches in all of baseball. To be a great pitcher I must be great at commanding my three average to slightly above average pitches. For two innings I did that today, for one I did not. It isn't perfect and it isn't what I hope to be all season long, but it is progress. Spring Training, while a breeding ground for competition, is also a forum for sharpening ourselves and preparation for the season ahead. Today, by getting better, I came that much closer to the Big Leagues. How do I spell progress? F-A-I-L. Everyone does it, everyone hates it, but those who learn from it are better for it. I know I am.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Life of a Minor Leaguer: Getting Called Into The Office

"See that fellow over there? He's 20 years old. In 10 years he has a chance to be a star. Now, that fellow over there, he's 20, too. In 10 years he has a chance to be 30." - Casey Stengel

Today was one of the hardest days of the year. Today was the day that, as baseball players, we realize our career mortality. 5 of my good friends/teammates were released from their minor league duties this morning before i had finished my morning coffee. One after another were called into the office (yes, just like high school) to receive their baseball death sentence. Each one emerged in classic baseball player bravado with their heads held high, chests out...and dreams unfulfilled. Not to say each one of those men didn't give their best every day in hopes of reaching the big leagues, but the truth remains, as Casey Stengel put it, not all of us get there. 

We grow up seeing our baseball heroes on the field all spring and summer long playing as if they were born to do it. After watching John Smoltz pitch as a kid I just knew that I, too, was born to play that beautiful game. Year after year I worked on my pitching so that I could get to the BIGS. Little league turned into middle school, high school turned into college, then I arrived at Pro ball with a sense of accomplishment and relief. "I Made It!!" I said. Then just as quickly as I got here, I'm on the chopping block again; earning my way from level to level. Still even as the competition increases, I hold onto the hope that there is a manager waiting to call me into his office to send me up. What I try not to think about, however, is that the same manager is capable and often obligated to call guys like me into the office and say "I'm sorry kid. It's over." 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Keep It Simple Stupid

Dwight: Michael says K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid. Best advice he ever gave me. Hurts my feelings every time. - Rainn Wilson (The Office)

It makes sense. The simpler things are the easier they are to achieve. So why is it that Baseball, a simple game in reality, can become the more complicated than my 2010 taxes? I spent the last 2 days researching how to file my taxes this year now that I am married. It took me about 10 google searches and 45 minutes. Simple. Now I am capable of doing something that has put thousands of people (see Al Capone) in jail for not doing correctly. Ironically, today I managed to make a game that 4 year olds play, a game that has been played by millions for over 100 years, miserably difficult.

I threw my first Live Batting Practice today. Simple. You take the ball and throw it across that plate for a strike. No pressure, no game situations, no real consequences, no problem, right? Wrong. I was in my head from the get-go. I was given 25 pitches to live hitters to get a feel for seeing batters before our first game. Overthrow, make adjustment. Off balance, make adjustment. Drop my elbow, make adjustment...I know all the fixes for all the mechanical things I could possibly do wrong. The problem is that when I turn around, i've already thrown 25 pitches and none of them were good because I was always making adjustments for the last one. Complicated. 

I can pitch, my wife told me so tonight. My pitching coach told me after I threw. My parents told me when I was 10. I know I can pitch. But my problem has always been out-thinking myself on the hill. The truth is that guys who simply know they can pitch and do so without thinking about why or how they're so good, succeed more often and consistently. I have to get past "figuring out how to throw correctly" and get to the point where I can "just pitch". We could all use a little of that in out lives. Keep it simple stupids and "just ______". 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Life of a Minor Leaguer: Locker Room Routines

I've come to the conclusion that the two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen.  ~Bob Lemon, 1981

Week one of Spring Training 2010 has come to an end and it hasn't taken long for me to remember all the oddities that a locker room full of 180 players contains. I've been really pleased with how things are running this year in the Mets organization. I'm healthy. I'm married. I'm a year older, and thus a year more acquainted with the ins and outs of pro baseball. I've learned how to pitch more efficiently, workout more intensely, and eat less terribly for myself. But there is one thing that I will never (prophetically speaking) get used to. What to do with my down time in the Locker Room.

We have to get to the field quite a while before we go outside to do our work, just in case there are announcements, early work, training room inquiries, etc. It's an inevitability. What is up to our discretion, however, is how to kill time. Some guys like to sit and chat. These conversations typically revolve around the weight and length of the fish they've caught...and the women they've been in the company of. Honestly, baseball players must be some of the best outdoorsmen in the universe based on the stories they re-tell. I, however, was voted least likely to survive a week alone in the wild. So my knowledge of the outdoors is limited to perfect tree planting technique (thanks Trees Atlanta). I, like my colleague in the picture below, prefer to spend my time in pursuit of academia...or reading. Right now I am slowly but surely working my way through Good To Great by Jim Collins, chronicling the rise to greatness of 11 companies as compared to the curse of mediocrity suffered by so many others. I really appreciate how this book relates to baseball and my career in particular. One point it highlights is taking whatever it is you can be the best in the world at and focusing your efforts on that goal. If you cannot be the best in the world at something, it should not be your main focus. For me: Command, Command, Command. I will never throw the ball harder than anyone in the world, but I am capable of having the best command. So that's my goal...have the best command in the world. Ambitious? yeah, but why not.

Jake Ruckle (top), Roy Merritt (left), Emary Frederick (right)

Others enjoy playing a rousing game of cards: Casino, 13, Poker, Uker, etc. These games get loud in all the different languages spoken around the locker room. We've got English (loud), Spanish (loudest), Quebec French, Dutch, and German. People start yelling and you just understand "he must of had a flush..."

All of us ballplayers adapt to the conditions we are faced with day in and day out, and while we may choose different activities and different energy levels one thing remains constant. Whatever your hobby, it's fun to have the guys around.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Life of a Minor Leaguer: Saying Goodbye

Don't tell me about the world.  Not today.  It's springtime and they're knocking baseball around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.  ~Pete Hamill

Part of being a ballplayer is picking up and leaving. You play 100+ games in 5 months, with the longest stretch in one place being roughly 7 days. Fans wait all year to see big market teams or big time players come into their home ballparks and play. 3 days later their gone. Professionally it's hard. Personally it's even harder. 

I got married this the girl of my dreams! We planned the wedding around baseball season so that we could delay the inevitable goodbye for as long as possible. 5 months and 2 days later, today was that dreaded day. Sitting in a Starbucks parking lot with Ashley watching the seconds roll by on my watch, my emotions were torn. I have spent the first 5 months of marriage enjoying every second that I get to spend with my wife, trying with everything I have to cherish and remember each moment because I know I will never get them back. However, since I threw my last pitch in early september, the itch to get back on the hill has been working it's way towards the surface. Every ballplayer faces it in pro ball. When we were kids, we played  in the spring, summer, and fall then took 2 weeks off for Christmas and were back playing catch before the snow had melted. Now we play every day for 6 months, then we are instructed not play for the other 6. It's hard to take away something so important to a person for half the year and tell them not to miss it, think about it, dream about it. You get so rusty, you start to think, "Have I forgotten how to pitch?" It's like all of a sudden someone took the game away from you and for 6 months you have to fight to get it back. Week after week things become more natural. You see a little getty up on your fastball, your breaking ball starts to bite again, day after day the soreness wears off. March 2, 3, 4...5th!! Report date arrives and you realize "Oh wait, I have to start saying goodbye again." Every few days I have to look the person I love in the face and tell her I'm not coming home tonight, then try to reassure her that everything will be fine and that i'll be home before she knows it. 

My wife is strong and independent, but even she gets teary knowing that she must share her husband with a game. But she knows she's married to a ballplayer, and she knows I mean it when I say, "I love you, and I'm gonna miss you...but damn I'm happy it's time to play ball again."