Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fenway Park: Futures at Fenway Game

It's not every day that you get to pitch a game at historic, Fenway Park. Actually, it's never for most people. Until the other day, I was "most people". I had never pitched in front of more than 9,000 people (Brooklyn opening day, 2009) in my life, and I assumed that pitching in a big league park was reserved for...well, big leaguers. Yet somehow, in the craziness of this season, I was given the opportunity to pitch the Futures at Fenway game.

Every year, two of the Boston Red Sox affiliates (usually AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket) play a game at Fenway Park as a treat for Red Sox nation to see their future Sox and for the players to get a taste of the Bigs. This year the B-Mets drew the game against Portland. Exciting! I realized that this game would be a good opportunity for Ashley to visit friends in Boston and to catch a game at Fenway, even if I wasn't going to be pitching. You see, I made the assumption that in a starting rotation stacked with 2 former Big League pitchers and 3 other top prospects, I would be at the end of the queue for this rare opportunity. Plans were set in place anyway. Ashley would be in Boston for that weekend, and I would be at Fenway. Again, exciting!

I tend to make declarations mid-season. Each year for the last 3 seasons I have looked myself in the eye and said "nobody will pitch better than you the second half of this season." It worked the first couple times I did it, so I figured why not do it again this year. Post all-star break this year I had actually thrown really well. Well enough to merit a start in Fenway? I assumed not.

Two weeks away from the big game, all the starters began to do the math in their heads. "If we are on a 5 man rotation then that would mean _____ would start". "If we decide to stick with a 6 man, then that would mean...McHugh?" Sure enough, the calendar was working in my favor. A week away, I waited for the coach to let me know I was in luck. The day grew closer and there was still no word from the coaching staff. So, casually, I walked into the coaches' office and said (in my best nonchalant voice) "So what does the rotation look like this week?" The pitching coach turned around in his chair and with a smirk on his face said that I had Saturday...I had Fenway.

We could talk about all the buildup to the game. The 8 hour bus ride from Bingo to Portland. The 2 hour bus ride from Portland to Boston, wherein our bus broke down a mile and a half from the park. The make-shift locker room that we shared with the opposing team. Walking around the park for a couple hours. But all of that pales in comparison to actually toeing the rubber at Historic Fenway Park. I don't consider myself a baseball historian by any means, but a student of the game? Absolutely. I know about Fenway. The oldest Major League stadium in the country. Pesky's pole. The Lone Red Seat. The Green Monster. I know about Fisk's homerun that he waived fair in the '75 series. Ted Williams going 6-8 on the last day of the season to ensure his .400 batting average. And, last but not least, "The Babe" pitching and hitting in his (pre-Yankees) uniform.

Roughly 25,000 strong, the stadium was filling quickly. As I began warming up on the same plot of ground as so many that had gone before me, I felt confident. If they could succeed here, why not me? It was, in fact, just like any other start this season. It was the 3rd time I had faced the Sea Dogs, each time pitching better than before. I was coming off one of my best starts of the year, and it was my turn. Taking a deep breath and relaxing my shoulders, I threw my first warm up pitch. Right down the middle. I was really there. I was really pitching at Fenway Park. The noise was no longer a factor. The mystique of past heroes died away. It was me and the catcher. Time to go to work.

6 innings later with a two run lead I exited the game. It wasn't a sense of relief, nor accomplishment, that I felt. For the first time in my baseball career, I felt like I belonged. I had thrown in a big league stadium, in front of a big league crowd and performed well. The ghosts of Fenway past seemed more like comrades. I felt closer to the Bigs than ever. It was short lived.

After chatting with my wife, dad, and a few friends, it was time to get on the bus...again. 2 more hours, another bus malfunction and we were back in Portland, ME. Afternoon game the next day, then another 8 hours on the bus back to good ole' Bingo. Life was the same on the outside. Yet, nothing could take away the confidence and assuredness that I got from toeing it up next to The Babe and succeeding.

I don't pretend to know what the future holds for me and my baseball career. I don't know if I will ever have the chance to pitch at Fenway again. But for a brief moment my wife, my father and I got a glimpse of where I could go. What I could do. We came face to face with the reality of why we put in all the work. It felt good, natural even. At the very least, it was a story I shared with those closest to me, and one that I will continue to share with my kids and grandkids. I think we forget, in the day to day grind, that we are building a life's worth of memories here. This was one that I will never forget.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's A Game Of Feel

It's a battle that every baseball player fights, and one that most of us have lost from time to time. Baseball, unlike football or basketball (but surprisingly similar to golf), is a game of feel. The way a ball leaves your fingers, or the way a bat feels clutched both firmly and loosely in your hands at the plate. The tenuous transfer of a ball from glove to bare hand. No matter how fast you can run a 60 yd. dash, how high your vertical is, or how many times you can bench 225 lbs., the "feel" of the game can be lost in the blink of an eye.

As professional baseball players, we are keenly aware of this struggle. All of us have seen someone get the "Yips". You know, when a guy can't seem to throw the ball 50 feet without airmailing it or skipping it 37 times. Or when a guy will literally swing at anything thrown within a mile radius of home plate. Everyday we set foot on the field there is a thought, crammed into the depths of our sub-conscious, that replays the phrase "I hope I haven't forgotten how to do this." It's a fragile thing, this baseball game. So in order to preserve our abilities we have adopted strict routines and absurd rituals (superstitions if you must) to shelter us from the harrowing reality that "feel" comes and goes.

Guys will go through the same stretching routine everyday. They will eat/drink the same concoction if it will get them closer to .300. Hitters will tighten their batting gloves exactly 5 times before heading up to the plate where they will execute the same practice swings before every pitch. Pitchers will pick up the rosin bag on their way counter clockwise around the mound, pat it twice and toss it to their right, clean the rubber and lick their fingers, all before delivering the first warm up pitch. These are just examples, but you get my drift. Personally, I have a few idiosyncrasies of my own. I will only turn gloveside when receiving a ball from the third baseman. I will wipe away the trail of dirt that my foot makes in front of the rubber after each pitch. I won't ever pick up the rosin bag...only touch it while it's resting on the ground. These started out as fidgets. After some success, though, they turned into superstitions. After enough time passed they turned into habits, which eventually bloom into routines.

Are baseball players superstitious? Yes. But more than anything, we are men of routine. It is our coping mechanism. Nothing is more important in the game of baseball than confidence. In a game so constructed around failure and the volatility of success, the ability to remain confident in the face of adversity is what sets players apart. I am sure that the most critical catalyst to confidence is a personalized and repeatable routine. For every routine that is visible on TV or on the field...Nomar's toe taps and glove tightening, Fidrych's antics on the rubber, Heath Bell sprinting in from the bullpen, Big Papi's spit and clap, Ichiro's Samuri-esque bat salute...there are countless more routines that go on behind closed doors. All of which serve to keep the "feel" of this fragile game firm within our grasp.

It's a funny thing how someone can lose it so quickly. How a hitter, after 500 at bats, can fall into an 0-40 slump. Or how a pitcher can throw so well for 4 innings and implode the following inning. Most of us have been playing this game since we were about 5 years old. Thousands upon thousands of throws, swings, grounders, pop flys. At some point you would think that muscle memory would take over, but there's a barrier to that...Us. I can go out and throw well 4 or 5 starts in a row, then in a mid-week bullpen throw a few pitches that "just don't feel right". After making a few small adjustments something else begins to feel a little askew. No worries, I can just make another adjustment and be fine. After 50 pitches I can make so many minor adjustments that I begin to feel lost in my mechanics. Focusing on when my hands are breaking, how high my leg is going, where my foot is landing. My muscles want to take over and do what they know how to do, but my mind won't let them. It's a slippery slope, and a self-induced one at that.

To eliminate the possibility of falling into that abyss, I have a bullpen routine. 32 pitches, good, bad, or indifferent. No more, no less. It's enough to feel comfortable on the mound again, but not enough to let me confuse myself. Hitters are the same way. Batting practice is 4 rounds with a certain amount of swings per round. If it's a bad round, it isn't enough to frustrate you too much. If all the rounds are bad then you just get to come back and do it all over again tomorrow. Setting limits on our routines protects us from ourselves, which in turn produces positive results more often. It's inevitable that "feel" will come and go. As ballplayers, we can only hope that our routines will see it stay longer than its gone.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Radar Guns

It's a conditioned response. The ball leaves the pitcher's hand striking the catcher's mitt, and before the echo of ball-hitting-mitt dies out heads all around the park turn and search for it. Perhaps it's hidden in the electronic maze of the scoreboard or camouflaged next to an advertisement. It might take you a minute or two to find it, but it's usually there. That damned radar gun.

Believe it or not, there was a time before the radar gun existed. Players, coaches, and fans alike would watch every pitch intently. The way it came out of the hand, the plane that it traveled along on its way home, the swing a hitter put on the ball, and the sound it made as it reached its destination. These were the only indicators of what kind of "stuff" a pitcher had. Whether it was 85 or 95 mph, a fastball was judged on its effectiveness and not only its velocity. Hitters would use terms like sneaky, deceptive, or just plain hard. I've heard coaches say that if they were playing in today's game they would never have gotten drafted. Their fastball never topped out as hard as most pitchers today, but they could pitch and get guys out. That mattered more.

I remember going to my first college showcase. Coming from a small high school where I was rarely, if ever, put on a gun, it was intimidating seeing 15 radar guns held high as I threw a bullpen session. Feeling like I threw well, I finished my bullpen expecting to talk to some of the big school coaches. No one budged. I then went over to look at a piece of paper that had been posted on a cork board near the locker room. It had 4 columns. Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Change-up and velocities for each. No fastball of mine topped 90 mph. Right then and there I realized my chances of playing SEC baseball were none. It was a bad feeling knowing that I had performed well in games, thrown all my pitches for strikes, and was probably heading to and NAIA or D2 school.

I made it through college, gained a couple mph, and was fortunate to get drafted (I like to think it was more on God and my ability to pitch and less on my 92 mph fastball). However, that was just the beginning of the radar gun circus. In pro ball, as I said earlier, there is a public gun at almost every park. It usually sits in plain sight for every Joe Schmo to see and judge. It's a shame, but if a guy goes out there now and throws his fastball 86 mph people snicker and use names like "poo baller" or the more polite, "crafty". I would be a hypocrite if I said that I never do that too. I can feel it in my bones. The pitch comes and my head, despite how hard I try to keep it still, turns to find the radar gun so that I can present my judgement of said pitcher. It's a disgusting habit. I'm trying to quit.

Don't let me trick you readers into believing that there is no value to having radar guns. They can be useful for many things. If a guy throws a cutter it can be effective to see the speed difference between that and the fastball since both stay on the same plane. Guns also serve, in some cases, to indicate injury or fatigue. Though not always, pitchers will sometimes drop velocity to protect their arms in nagging pain or in physical fatigue after a large workload. But the reliance on the radar gun as an indicator of future success makes the basest of assumptions and generalizes them out unfairly. For the slower throwing pitcher it creates a chasm over which he must leap to get to the major leagues. He must show "extra" ability to command and develop pitches because his fastball just won't cut it by itself. True statement, but incomplete. The fact is, even the flame thrower won't be able to make it on that pitch alone. He too must develop and learn how to pitch. This puts unreasonable pressure on him too. Simply because he has been given the ability to throw hard does not negate the fact that he must learn the nuances of pitching. Unfortunately, he usually must do so at higher levels, often exposing him to failure and waning confidence. You see it all the time.

More so than all of that, however, is the sheer annoyance of hearing "how hard was that one?" 85 times a game. I feel like we, as players especially, have lost the ability to watch a game the same way. We've forgotten how to appreciate a BP fastball in the mid 80's, or a mediocre fastball thrown to a good location on a downward plane. That's pitching, folks!

Ok, seeing this on a radar gun is kind of amazing, but let's get real. You're not going to see that very often. I vote that we fight our modern game instincts and our neck rotations, and watch one game without looking at the gun once. See if you find out anything new. It might surprise you.