Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Grass Is Green Under Your Feet, Too

As I watched the playoffs unfold in a most dramatic fashion the last few days, the reality of my station in life began to sink in. I was sitting on a couch halfway through a slice of pizza while these guys were playing for a championship. No less than 2 weeks ago I was there playing in the same league against the same guys, but from my TV the grass literally looked greener out there than when I stood on it.  I was (am) a major league pitcher just like these men on TV, but I felt a long way off and yearning for a taste of what they're having. The more that statement sank in, the more I felt compelled to talk about it in the wake of my month-long stint in the big leagues.

The moment the season ended, my own personal debriefing began. Looking at the ups and downs (as discussed in my last post) I started to draw out the significances buried in my 21.1 innings of major league work. We should all take a moment...me included...to recognize and confess the fact that I am an analyzer. Clearly, as this blog would give credence to. So I analyzed how each outing unfolded. How my mechanics changed. How my routine got more defined and more polished. How I felt about my thoughts and what I thought about my feelings. After roughy 20 minutes of this uber-analysis my mind felt like mush and my spirit wasn't exactly soaring. I cleaned out my locker and got everything in order to leave for the offseason, feeling more than a little sorry for myself and licking my proverbial wounds. We all said our goodbyes and exited towards our neck of the world, me towards Georgia. Then something happened. Something good and completely normal. Something that shook me from my stupor.

As we approached the taxi headed to the airport, a boy and his father headed us off. These people were the only thing between me and my offseason, so I was not in a hurry to stop and oblige. The boy wore an oversized Mets hat. The kind you wear because you can, not because it fits. He tore it off his head and held it out towards me in longing. His father, without saying a word, gave his son the consent and gave me a look that said "Sorry man, but can you?" Feeling obligated, I leaned down to the boy trying my best not to make too much eye contact in lieu of further conversation. But he caught my eyes. His big genuine smile and his eyes tracing every stroke of my pen as I signed the bill of his hat. In one month how could I have gotten so calloused? In that instant, my heart felt something it hadn't for over a month. There was joy. I put the cap back on the boy and smiled, thanking him for coming out. He and his father returned thanks and headed on their way. I wish that I could say an immediate weight was lifted and I haven't thought about giving up runs since then, but that would be an exaggeration. It still comes back to mind on occasion, but instead of dwelling on it I can step back and appreciate the simple fact that I was there. That perhaps even for a second, it doesn't matter to the little boy whether I pitched well or not. I was a major leaguer and that's all that mattered to him. Shouldn't that be the thing I focus on too?

I realized that I had spent so much time agonizing over my performances and perceived lack of success, that the truly great things has been neglected. I was in the big leagues. My childhood dream of pitching at Turner field had happened. I was a Met. The greatest city in the world had welcomed me in with open arms and embraced me as one of their own. People cheered for me, knew my name, even had the inclination to want my name on their caps. I had a jersey (multiple jerseys actually) with my name stitched in the back and a locker of my own to hold all the stuff they freely gave me. I was learning from some of the best players in the game and became so familiar with them that we called each other "bro". I struck out guys that I grew up watching. I hit against pitchers that grew up emulating. I was there. It really happened!

We could go over the way things went down on the field until we're blue in the face, but that won't change the experience that this last month offered me. Clearly there are things to work on, and clearly there is more work to be done to make the team again next year. But let's take a moment (something that doesn't happen often enough) and enjoy life for exactly what it is. A bunch of ups a downs, experiences and emotions, that make us who we are. I know that I am not only a better pitcher because of my experiences this last month, but a better man, husband and one-day father as well.

It's easy to look at life and say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Perhaps it even is. There might be better soil or climate, less predators or more cultivators. But often if you look down at the grass under your feet, not comparing it to any other, it's quite green too. It's soft, comfortable and meant to be enjoyed. Looking for greener pastures and more strikeouts isn't a bad thing, but don't forget that the grass you're standing on is someone else's greener pasture and being there is a very very good thing.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Process vs. The Product

Baseball is a performance based industry. Where you play, how long you play and how much you get paid to play are almost completely tied to your performance on the field. Notice that I didn't say "stats" are the most important thing. Stats can be a deciding factor in a player's career, but it's not the whole story. The game has been intimately tied to its stats for as long as it's been around. Hitting 400. 60+ home runs. 3000 hits. 300 wins. These benchmarks have been established to distinguish the good from the great. It's easy to look at the great players with their incredible statistical performances and be amazed. However, I have always been more interested in the process behind the numbers. Having talked to some players much smarter and wiser than myself, I've grown to realize that performance can be broken down into two categories...The Process & The Product.

We've all seen the product...both good and bad. In fact I've seen them both close up in my first few major league outings. 7 shutout innings with 9 K's and 2 hits. Good product. 4 innings, 5 runs, 3 HR, 2 BB, big fat "L". Poor product. It's easy to dig yourself when the product is one you want, but it's just as easy to beat yourself up when the product is underwhelming. The weird/frustrating thing is, both performances were given the same amount of effort while yielding drastically different results. Given the volatility of the product in this game, it seems more valuable to invest my brain power in the process over the product.

As a pitcher, once the ball leaves your hand, forces outside of your control begin to work on the ball. Wind, elevation, bat speed, length of the grass, catchers, fielders, throwers, umpires and official scorers. You become a fielder upon releasing the ball, but more often than not, the ball finds someone else. However, leading up to the time the ball leaves your hand you control almost everything. You control what you ate the day before. How much sleep you got that night and each of the 4 days leading up to it. How much time you devoted to the weight room, training room, and bullpen mounds. The focus on each throw you made playing catch all week.  Your routine the day of your start. Your balance on the rubber. Your release point...rinse and repeat.

After my outing in St. Louis, I was kicking myself over the 4 runs I gave up. I had put our team in a pretty deep hole against one of the toughest teams in the league. A product that I was not proud of nor in a hurry to repeat. Yet, one week later I did the same thing against the Nationals at home. I began to ask myself what the issue was. Why I had gone from such a good performance to two poor ones so quickly? The amount of effort I put into each one was the same (perhaps even more against the latter teams). My team was playing well around me defensively, but the product didn't meet my expectations. I began to question some of the veteran pitchers on how they deal with failure. What they told me will stick with me for a long time.

"Failure is something almost totally out of your hands. You have to look at each outing as a series of (around) 100 processes. If you go through your process each of the 100 times and feel good about everything leading up to your release, the product becomes secondary. And more often than not (which is all we can ask for in this game of averages) the product will go in your favor."

In my career thus far, that statement has been very true. The most successful times I've had over the last couple years have been when I simplify things. When I can focus on one pitch at a time and find one key in my mechanics that keeps me consistent. I remember an interview with Greg Maddux where he said the same thing. People always assumed he was a genius because of how he fooled hitters with below average velocity, but he was adamant that his secret was making one good pitch at a time. It seemed to work okay for him, right? From my brief experience in the Bigs, the ability to focus on the process is what separates a bunch of pitchers with very similar "stuff". The ones that can repeat the focus on each pitch tend to be the most consistent, and as a pitcher, that's the goal we're shooting for.

When things have gone well lately it's been a short and relatively simple process:
- Concentrate on chewing my gum (it calms the nerves and gives me some internal rhythm)
- Get your elbow up
- Throw it THROUGH the spot
- Repeat approx. 100 times

I know that I can't speak for all of the rookies on the team...or in the league for that matter, but I have a feeling that we are all on the same page. We're still learning. A lot. Everyday. It's a slippery slope and an easy one to get caught on when we begin to pay more attention to the product than the process. Getting caught on the emotional roller coaster with every performance is ultimately detrimental to our development. The more consistent we can be emotionally and physically, the better chances we have of performing well over the long haul. No matter what the product says, I know that I'm getting better each time out. I'm becoming more and more comfortable with my process before each outing. Before each pitch. And sooner rather than later, this game will begin to slow down. The product will start to match the process, creating a performance worthy of my expectations.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Buffalo to NYC to Buffalo

I'm coming off perhaps the best start of my career, my MLB debut. 7 shutout innings, 9 K's...I didn't throw up. Seriously though, stepping onto the hill at Citi Field was a thrill I can't seem to find the words to describe. Fun. Exciting. Nerve wracking. These encompass only a part of the emotions coursing through my veins that day. There were those weird butterfly stomach noises that seemed unending. The restless legs that took to the rhythm of whatever was playing over the clubhouse speakers...Then the clock began.

Every start I've had for the last 5 years has begun the same way. One hour before game time I begin my process of preparing physically and mentally for the outing ahead of me. Some treatment for my arm. Going over the scouting reports on opposing hitters. Putting on my uniform the same way each time. Pants. Jersey. Cleats. Chewing gum. Jacket. Towel. Down the stairs to the dugout. Out the the bullpen. And once that ball touches my fingertips, the world slows down to a crawl. My focus narrows and I feel the laces, searching around for one that is slightly more raised than the others. The first time I let the ball fly my body remembers what it's been doing since I was 10...pitching. Once that clock begins, whether at Citi field or the local sandlot, I become familiar. I become comfortable. August 23, 2012 was no exception. MLB debut or not, the clock overcame nerves just as it's done so many times through the years.

Now, my wife and I find ourselves back in AAA Buffalo. You may say that seems unfair. Perhaps you have some witty quip about how I should've just thrown better. But the truth of the matter is, there have been many times in my career where I was convinced it was all over, only to make it out on the other side no worse for the wear. This pit stop on our baseball journey (or life, as we call it) is just another checkpoint. For reference, I'll revisit a few of the more desperate (and now laughable) times through which we came to our current contentment...

Kingsport, TN. 2008. My rookie ball year. I had run up an ERA of over 5, my arm was hanging on by a thread, and I just didn't really know how to pitch. I got a start (one of only a handful that season) against the White Sox rookie ball team, Bristol. I don't remember my exact line, but I do remember (vividly) the despair that met me afterwards on the steps of my run down apartment. I sat and stared at my phone, trying to summon up the courage to call my wife (then girlfriend) and tell her that I was a failure. As I was losing the nerve, she called me. When she heard my dejected tone and asked what the matter was, I told her the bad news. I had thrown pretty poorly and was 100% convinced that the team wouldn't want me back come sunrise. Self pity turned to tears, which turned to anger, which made me tired...which led to sleep. Once I had woken up and realized the new day had not brought my release papers, I learned my first important lesson of pro ball: Don't be dramatic. It's just one outing.

Savannah, GA. 2010. Low A, SAL League. Having watched my best baseball friend, Mark Cohoon, throw 3 consecutive complete game shutouts giving up less hits in 27 innings than I had in one inning during my last start, I was losing my mind. There were 6 pitchers in the rotation, 4 of which were going to the All-Star game, and the next level soon after that. The other starter and I were vying for most mediocre season in the history of mediocre seasons. I knew that there was a strong chance that, unless I had the 2nd half of my life, I was destined to repeat the level. Meaning my career would go from a crawl to a...whatever is slower than a crawl. For the first time (and every year after) I looked at myself in the mirror and said to myself, "Nobody will have a better second half than you." I ended my first full-length season with a 3.33 ERA and 129 K's. I don't know if it was the best second half in the organization,  but it was good enough to make it to the next level.

Binghamton, NY. 2011. AA spot start. I threw 6 pretty good innings in a promotion I didn't deserve, and was left in limbo wondering if/when I would get sent back down. One start turned into a relief outing, which turned into a couple more sub-par starts, all culminating in what I had decided was my imminent retirement. Between the toll my career was taking on our marriage and the odds against ever making it out of AA, I had the farm director dialed into my phone ready to make the toughest call of my life. I don't know exactly what stopped me from going through with it. Maybe it was Ashley telling me it was the easy way out, despite how much she would have appreciated a stability baseball could not seem to provide. Maybe it was the hundreds of friends and family who were (and still are) dedicated to praying for wisdom for me. Or maybe it was the gut feeling that the journey just didn't seem over quite yet. For my wife, it was the realization that perceived success or failure in your life are far less important than who you're becoming along the way. Whatever the reason, I put the phone down and kept on keeping on. Ashley and I made the agreement soon after that we would ride this baseball thing out as long as we felt called to it - we shook on it. From that day, the calling has only gotten stronger and more focused. With a new lease on baseball, my High-A ERA of 6.31 narrowed into a AA ERA of 2.89. Most importantly, we started to have fun again.

There have been too many times in my life where, if I was a betting man, I wouldn't have bet on myself. But I just spent 3 of the best/craziest/most exhilarating days of my life pitching for the New York Mets. Which just goes to show you, betting against anyone in this game is the real gamble.

That being said, our trip from Buffalo to NYC to Buffalo is one met with excitement, not dread, pity or fear. We've learned that embracing the mystery of what's ahead makes the present, whether good or bad, just another part of the journey - not the determining factor of where we'll end up. So if and when we do happen to meet up again in Queens, know that it wasn't by accident or fate, but definitely on purpose.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Marriage Of The Traveling Suitcases

As my wife and I reached our All-Star break destination we sat down with our two suitcases. These two suitcases contained almost the entirety of our "in season" wardrobe. You see we've gotten progressively better at packing/traveling/living abroad as my career has gone on. We've narrowed it down this season to whatever we can fit in the back seat, trunk, and any potential nook and cranny of my compact car. It hasn't always been that way...let's take a journey back in time.

Year one: Kingsport, TN
Professional college kid. Age 20. Single. Youthful exuberance and youthful hygiene. I brought one bag of regular clothes (clothes that I could wear to and from the field) and one bag of baseball clothes/equipment. I never once unpacked my suitcase, deciding instead to house my insanely diverse selection of white v-neck tees and khaki shorts within a 5 foot perimeter of said (Samsonite) suitcase. Having 3 other recently freed Collegiate roommates, our apartment could best be described as unorganized chaos.
Amount of times laundry was done that season: don't ask, don't tell.

Year two: Brooklyn, NY
I'm a city boy. Proudly and unapologetically. New York was the ultimate metropolitan paradise for me. However, for my clothing, it was unapologetically difficult. New York, as some of you probably know, can be quite sweltering in the middle of the summer. But unlike Atlanta, it get's downright chilly at night in September. My lone suitcase multiplied (thanks to Chinatown's Adidas sector) into a duffle bag hanging off the suitcase running (late) through the JFK terminal. My wardrobe expanded, unfortunately that was just about the time the airlines redacted the right of free checked bags.
Amount of knock off Ray Bans I collected that season: 3
How many I still have: ugh...0

Year 3: Savannah, GA
This is where it gets complicated. Ashley and I had been married for roughly 6 months and collected roughly 300 sq. ft. (our storage space) of wedding gifts and KitchenAid gadgets. Being new to a full baseball season and so close to home, Ashley and I decided to take both of our cars (and mom's SUV) down there. We packed the vehicles to the brim with an Industrial sewing machine, waffle maker, dishes, mugs (which I lost), etc. The cracks in the master plan began when Ashley left before the season ended, leaving me to pack up the aforementioned compact car. I crammed everything I could into it, including the oddly shaped mop that I stuffed through the back window. Unfortunately, on the first turn I lost the mop to Interstate 16, never to be heard from again. Something had to give. My vote was for the food processor...no, the other food processor...the smaller one.
Amount of shirts that I sweat through moving out of the top floor apt: 3...and 2 pair of athletic shorts

Year 4: Port St. Lucie, Fl: Atlanta, GA: Binghamton, NY
Yikes. Where to start?
We did a better job of packing this time around. We narrowed it down to just the back seats (trunks, nooks, crannies, etc.) of our two small cars. Our wardrobe was easily pared down to summer clothes. The FL heat made that an easy decision. We were settled and it felt good. And just like that, baseball yanked the rug out from underneath us. With Ashley back home in Atlanta for some work stuff and me in FL playing ball, the Mets promoted me 1200 miles away to Binghamton, NY. I had about 8 hours to pack up my two bags and catch a flight, leaving little to no time to pack up the rest of our life down there. When Ashley was finally able to join me in NY, she first had to drive back to Port St. Lucie, pack up everything we had from an apartment that we no longer lived in, then haul it up the Eastern seaboard. Not exactly how we planned it before the season started. On top of all that, we added another teammate passenger on the way back home. It was cozy. It was crowded.
Amount of times the mantra "We need a bigger car" was repeated: Everyday

Year 5: Binghamton, NY: Buffalo, NY: Present
We did it. We're down to 2 bags. Granted, we just upgraded Ashley's clothes receptacle from a couple Target bags to a ballin' Samsonite with 4 WHEELS. Movin' on up! We've also absorbed a couple necessities along the way this season. Pillow top mattress cover, Polartec blanket, and a mountain of mail that we've collected from various residences. The good news is, however, that we finally have room to grow. Maybe not enough room to have a baby or a dog right now, but definitely enough margin for the other important things. I believe that's what they call progress. Good to know we're learning something new every year in this whole journey!
Amount of years it takes to get it right: We'll let you know when we get there

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Stay Back

This is my first post from a new level. AAA Buffalo to be exact. Thus far I have four starts under my belt. Three of which were mediocre (bordering on bad) and one that was pretty good (bordering on...well, pretty good). As I wrote last year upon my promotion to AA, there is always a learning curve. The goal is to shorten that curve as much as possible, and hopefully I'm moving in the right direction. 

People have asked me what the differences are between AA and AAA. There are the the obvious ones like stricter strike zones, more patient hitters and better post game spreads. However, there are other nuances of the level that make for a more interesting topic. 

My first three outings, as previously noted, were less than spectacular. I gave up something in the neighborhood of 11 runs in 14 innings, walking about a half dozen and plunking a couple to boot. Running through the gauntlet of "fixes" in my head, I couldn't seem to figure out where I was going wrong. After watching a few minutes of video, however, it was soon very apparent what was "off". My balance was bad. I was leaning forward towards home plate without gathering my momentum first. My arm wasn't catching up, the ball had no option but to be up in the zone and that ball got hit...hard. Once I learned what I was doing wrong it made it easy to fix. It was simple. Stay back.

AAA is filled with guys like me. Up and coming players. Players looking to make their mark. However, it's also filled with players who have tasted the big leagues. Some for a sip of coffee and others who have feasted up there for years. With that dichotomy brings an interesting mix of emotions. As younger players, we begin to realize that our dream of playing in the Big Leagues is closer than ever before. Literally one step away. The veteran guys also understand the proximity to the promised land. They've been there. They've tasted the milk and honey. Where once I was worried that I would never make it, now it's a struggle to...stay back. 

The temptation for everyone here is to rush. Rush our careers to the big leagues or rush our way out of the minor leagues. Look at it either way you want! Momentum, just as in pitching, is a huge factor in the make up of a minor leaguer. Coming up through the ranks you're trying to keep the momentum moving forward. Coming down from the Bigs the goal is to get the ball rolling once more. We push and push towards the Bigs like a track runner lunging toward the finish line. What I'm beginning to learn, however, is that lunging forward can often be counterproductive. After talking to coaches and staff up here, they all preach the same thing. Be consistent. Be you. Be patient. When we feel the need to push so hard, we often lose the focus that got us here in the first place. 

One of our veteran catchers said to me before my last start, "The thing that separates the great pitchers from the rest is their ability to focus one pitch at a time." That fact is especially true at this level. If we get too far ahead of ourselves and try to nose our way into the Big Leagues before it's our time, our focus isn't narrowed enough. Our scope is too broad, and the distractions hinder any momentum we might have or might be building. 

What makes my mechanics sound is the same thing that makes for a sound head and heart. Stay patient. Stay balanced. Stay back. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Age-Old Question

It's not everybody else's fault. How can I (we as a collective group of ballplayers) expect people to know how frustrating of a question it really is. It seems so straight forward. So simple. The truth is, however, it isn't simple at all.

"So, when do you think you're gonna get moved up?"

The problem with this question doesn't lie in the sentiment behind it. When most people ask, it comes out of pure (even encouraging) motives.  If the ultimate goal is to make it to the big leagues, then it would seem a logical assumption that we would have some sort of time table laid out for us. The unfortunate reality is that there is no said time table. It's not a video game where levels are passed once a certain amount of points are amassed. There are no shortcuts. There's no certainty that we will even make it. Therefore the question, asked out of a pure heart, brings to mind the reality of the odds against us. 

We hear rumblings. The tremors that shake through an organization can be heard and felt through a few different channels. First, and most reliable, is through the players themselves. We don't always hear that a guy is getting moved right away, but usually within a few hours the phone tree has made it's way to our clubhouse/cell phones. That's usually followed by some educated guesses of the trickle down effect caused by the move. Who's coming up? Who's going down? Did someone get cut? The second, and less reliable, is the internet. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs pontificate about moves all the time. People have adopted it as their job to make millions of assumptions and/or guesses, then claim internet dominance once one of them inevitably comes true. While fans can listen to the these claims and enjoy the drama of the minor league soap operas, the players cannot (for our own sanity) get caught up in it. If we gave validity to every claim that was made about our careers, most of us would cry ourselves to sleep at night from the brutality of people's words. The rest of us would be eternally bitter at our stagnate progress. Either way it ends up hindering our careers. 

What never happens (I use never because of the serious infrequency of it's happening) is that the administration/front office/coaching staff tells us what we should and can expect. It's hush-hush not out of spite, but out of self preservation. If the organization told every player what they thought would happen with each of their careers, it would be very hard to manage our expectations well. The nature of our job is volatile and to predict where a certain player will end up is next to impossible, even for the decision makers. Injuries, transactions, and personal development can't be divined. Careers can't be placed on train tracks. Honestly, it's more like a tight rope. You try to stay balanced and hope for the best. 

All of this to say, we don't know when we're getting moved up. We never will. Don't ask. Let me offer a different inquiry for you...

"You enjoying yourself? Good. Keep working hard."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ollie the Bat Dog

We played a 4 game set in New Hampshire last week. Winning 3 out of 4 was a nice feeling, but it wasn't the highlight of the trip. Seeing Roger Clemens at the field was a surprise as well, but still, not the most outstanding memory of Manchester, NH. After the first batter of the game popped up to center field, I saw something I will never forget...Ollie the bat dog.

It kind of shocked me as I saw the blonde canine trotting up to the plate. He sniffed the bat a little bit, as if to make sure it was up to MiLB regulations, then chomped down on the barrel just below the label. I suppose that he has been trained to feel the geometric weighted center of the bat so that it remains balanced in his mouth as he retrieves it. Ollie dropped the bat on queue at the trainer's feet, sat down facing home plate and waited for his treat. He was better at his job than most human bat boys. It was amazing! But i guess I shouldn't be too surprised at his bat retrieving prowess as he is the son of the Trenton Thunder's bat dog, Chase. I realize that I shouldn't be in favor of nepotism in the bat dog industry, but they're so darn cute. 

Anyway, seeing Ollie at work for the Fisher Cats made me think of what it would be like if all bat boys were replaced with bat dogs. I've compiled a list...

1) Slobber replaces pine tar as primary bat condiment. 
2) Batters not only compare ball marks on bats, but teeth marks too. 
3) Retrieving foul balls gets more entertaining, but now requires a game of tug-o-war upon completion.
4) Expect broken bats to be handled with much more care...and confusion. 
5) Umpires have to carry Doggy doo-doo bags for when nature calls. 
6) David sunflower seeds comes out with new line of salty shelled dog treats. 
7) Bring-your-dog-to-the-park day raises a whole new set of issues. Including canine jealousy. 
8) No longer have to worry about cats, squirrels, or any other varmints entering the field of play.
9) Dog Fashion designers have to team up with Majestic to make authentic on-field jerseys in dog sizes. 
10) Chatter from the dug out would get a little "ruff"er (I'm sorry).

That's just a few. If you've got some thoughts, let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Short Memory

It should have been just another day. Nothing was particularly special about it. For the last 5 years I have been throwing bullpens (defined as a session of throwing from the mound to a catcher in between starts) regularly. By regularly I mean once every 5 days during the season and about 10-12 during the offseason. Let's say 40 per year, for 5 years...that's a total of roughly 200 bullpens. It should be easy by now, right? Wrong.

I warmed up like I always do. Playing catch out to about 100 ft. and working my way back in, throwing change ups and sinkers as I work the ball down to my partner's knees. Once my arm felt warm (a term that is very relative in the Binghamton cold) I headed to the bullpen mound. There are always a couple relievers that like to throw a few pitches off the mound every day, so I let them go first. Sitting behind them and watching intently just in case I can pick up, I felt good. There was absolutely nothing special about this particular side session. It was now my turn to throw. I toed the rubber and began.

With the catcher up in front of home plate I threw a few fastballs away to get the feel of the decline. It's a different sensation than throwing on flat ground and at times it can be tough to get your timing correct when you add the slope. I didn't skip any up there nor throw any to the backstop, but I also didn't hit the mitt once. I motioned for the catcher to head back behind the dish. As always, he did as he was told. Now the week before, I was having trouble with throwing the ball to my glove side (in to a lefty, away from a righty), so my pitching coach decided a little visual tool might help my concentration and execution. He told the catcher to set up a tiny cone on the outside corner of the plate. The catcher, again, did as he was told. My goal was to throw the ball right above that cone and repeat the feel of doing it consistently. My first three or four pitches were close, but not quite where I wanted. I'm a perfectionist. I demand more of myself than most. The next couple pitches were even further off target. I pulled a fastball way outside and then left one right over the heart of the plate. The pendulum of adjustments were swinging to both extremes. I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise. I stepped off the rubber, took a deep breath and tried my best to regain concentration. Deciding that throwing glove side wasn't working I moved the catcher to the other side of the plate. He did as he was told. I threw a good sinker. It had depth. It was firm. It felt right. All I had to do was repeat that same pitch and build some muscle memory. I bounced the next one 55 feet. It hit the catcher in the chest and shot some dirt into his mask. He wiped down his face, looked at the ball to see if it had any scuffs and threw it back. Why was this so hard today?

I figured at the very least I could throw a few offspeed pitches to get a feel for the ball, then I would go back to the fastball. Change up...ball. Cutter...backstop. Curve...bounced. The catcher stood up and took his mask off. He motioned to me to calm down a bit. Tossing me the ball, I speared it with my glove in disgust. There were 5 more pitches in the my bullpen. I knew that with just 5 good strikes I could right my world and feel completely prepared for my next outing. It was time to concentrate. Time for the focus that got my where I am today. For goodness sake, I'm a professional athlete. This shouldn't be so hard.

As any reader could probably guess, the next 5 pitches were progressively worse. The last pitch skipped up to the already worn out catcher. He snagged it and tossed it back, thankful that the monstrosity of a bullpen was over.  Fuming and ready to make a scene, I caught the ball and proceeded to hurl it about 100 ft. over the fence. I shook my catcher's hand and walked away without a word. No one said anything. The other pitchers who were watching just stared, wide-eyed. I was usually the calm one. The one that doesn't get rattled. The "professor". Not so that day. I did my running and my workout and hoped that the memory of that side would quickly fade. It didn't.

I stewed over it for the next hour. Beating myself up over the lack of focus and poor execution. I would define it as sulking, but that would be an understatement. My pitching coach, the witness to the day's tragedy, saw me by my locker and came by for a word.

"We all have days like this, Mac. Don't beat yourself up about it. Gotta have short memory. Real Short."

Good advice from a man with years of experience with anxiety-ridden pitchers like myself. I took it to heart and acted as if it literally never happened. Easier said than done, but I was determined to leave it where I left it...100 ft. over the fence. 

Silver lining: I threw 6 innings two days later. I was sharp. The bad bullpen was far behind me and the road ahead was clear. For such a heady game, baseball is a sport where a short memory is an undervalued asset. Some days you learn from mistakes, take in a lesson and build on it for the next time around. Some days, however, you just need to throw out. They aren't you and they aren't productive. You just have to throw them out and start fresh the next day. 

The lesson for the day is to categorize which ones to learn from and which ones to toss over the fence. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How The Most Talented Prepare For Success: 3 Characteristics

I tweeted the other day to see if you guys had any questions that I could explore on the blog. This was the most interesting/challenging tweet I received...

It really got me thinking of my interactions and observations of some of the most talented players that I've had the pleasure of running into during my career. I was able to narrow the list of characteristics down to 3 main points of preparation. I'll explore each of these with an example from the most talented guys I've encountered.

1. The most talented prepare by asking questions first.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Mets pitcher, Miguel Batista. He talked to us for about 45 minutes about his journey through the major and minor leagues. The man has played for somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 major league teams for the last 17 years. He recounted his conversations with greats like Maddux, Glavine, Schilling, Johnson etc. I was intrigued most, not by the content of pitching knowledge, but at his ability to ask the important questions to the right people. Because of his willingness to learn and his humility, he was able to methodically pick the brains of multiple hall of famers, and thus improve his game dramatically. He said, "I am constantly learning that I don't know things." What a great way to live! Miguel realized that before he could prepare to be great, he needed to know what things to work on and the best way to work on them. It takes a level of humility that few leaders have these days but that should be prized by all. As the Boosterthon team teaches me every offseason, leaders are learners. That's a principle that crosses industries and cultures, and one I hope to develop all my life.

2. The most talented prepare in the same way every time regardless of context.

In college I would under prepare for tests in classes that I didn't care about. Art History, Introduction to Physics, Badminton. These classes didn't count toward my Major GPA, which is what counts toward grad school. I figured it didn't matter whether I got a B or an A...in truth it didn't. But it did have some negative effects on other studying habits. When it came to preparing for tests or presentations in classes that DID matter, I hadn't prepared myself to succeed. Because the context had changed, so did my stress level. I became anxious about how much I "should" study and whether it was gonna be enough or not. Had I prepared well in all of my classes regardless of context, I wouldn't be worried about the big tests as opposed to the small ones.

The perfect example of this in baseball is Johan Santana. I've seen him throw a handful of bullpens all in different contexts. I've seen him throw a rehab bullpen, a pre-game (minor league) bullpen, a pre-game (big league) bullpen, and a normal in-between-starts bullpen. One would think that a former Cy Young winner and perennial all star could afford to take it easy for a minor league or rehab game, but that isn't the case with Johan. If you didn't know what field he was playing on, who his audience was, or who was in the opposing line-up you would never be able to tell the difference in bullpen routines. He is an up-beat guy with a smile on his face at all times. But when he steps on that rubber to begin his bullpen there is a stoic resolve from pitch 1 to 35. I truly believe this consistency in preparation has enabled him to succeed in a plethora of different scenarios. Prepare like every meeting is a meeting with your biggest client. If you do, you'll never under deliver with the small clients and you won't stress when the big ones enter the room.

3. The most talented prepare ferociously everyday to improve their weaknesses.

Talent is one thing. Everyone has some level of talent in some area. Leaders are typically good at making the most of their talents. The most talented leaders, however, work ferociously to improve themselves in areas of weakness. It's much less fun to do things you're bad at, but unless you're comfortable with being bad at something forever, you must work hard at it.

Enter Mark Cohoon. Going into his second season of professional baseball he was already a good pitcher. His command was very good and his stuff was at least major league average. It could've been easy for him to rest on his talents, but he didn't. He realized that as a lefty he had a weapon that he didn't know how to use...the Pick Off Move. A coach told Mark that he could conceivably get 2-3 free outs per game if he could improve his pick off move. Knowing an extra inning per start could add up throughout a season, Mark decided he would work on improving his move. Everyday he would go out after practice was over and do 20-30 pick offs. It took him a maximum of 15 minutes, but his concentration and focus was ferocious. 15 minutes a day for a month and a half finally paid off. Cohoon now has one of the best pick off moves in baseball, not only giving him free outs, but effectively shutting down the opposing running game. He continues to practice his move everyday...but now he practices it as a strength.

"Good is the enemy of great" - Jim Collins

If you're content to be weak at certain things with no effort to change, "good" is as good as it gets. The most talented leaders know this and try ferociously to turn weaknesses into strengths everyday.

I hope this has been as helpful to you as it has been for me. Thanks for the great question, Chris!

What are some of the preparation characteristics you have seen in the most talented leaders in your field?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Minor League Spring Training Notes

It's been a few weeks since I've blogged and besides the SEO war I'm waging against myself, I feel bad for not keeping everybody updated on Spring Training. By everybody, I mean the thin slice of the Internet reading public that stumbles across this blog...this one goes out to you guys.

We've been weighed, measured, grouped, and fed...a lot. It kind of sounds like we're a bunch of cattle, but I can assure you we're not. Most of us are worth less per head. Thus far we have been separated into 4 groups (one for each of the full season clubs), and yours truly is in group 1 (the AAA group). At this point most of the minor league guys who started in major league camp are back with the rest of the Proletariat, meaning that the competition for jobs has truly begun. It's easy to get wrapped up in "who's going where", but the fact of the matter is that none of us has any clue.

This is a game based on performance and results will usually speak for themselves. Getting caught up in what the front office might do with players is for writers, reporters, and fans...not for us. I've seen players manage their expectations so poorly that when they inevitably get an assignment that they're not happy with it can ruin their season or worse yet, their career. Call me crazy, religious, or stupid if you want, but I am confident that God has my career figured out. He doesn't get surprised. He isn't hoping for a AAA rotation spot. In fact, the bible says He knows my needs before I have them. I'm confident that whatever results are produced on the field and whatever decisions are made off the field, my career is in His hands. My only job is to work hard, love the people around me, and trust. All of which I'm working on.

But I digress...

We've started playing games against people in different uniforms (VERY different in the case of the Marlins). We play basically two teams on a daily rotating basis. The defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and the recently rebranded Miami Marlins. By the end of Spring Training I should know every player in both organizations. What they like to hit, what they don't like. Where they play. What color their hair is. What they eat for lunch. I'll be a human scouting bureau.

I've had one outing thus far: 3 innings. 5 hits (calm down, they were all singles). 0 bb. 2 K's. 1 run. As I tweeted, Mark Cohoon and Dylan Owen ruined my grading curve and bumped me down to a B with their A+ performances. Jerks. My mindset is much better this Spring than in past years. I'm taking my own advice from a previous post and focusing on controlling only what is in my power to control. It's slowing the game down and narrowing my focus on every pitch. Sounds easy in theory. I'll let you know how it plays out in the reality of game-speed situations.

On a side note, I might be used as a sports consultant for an article in one of my favorite online publications, Bearings for Men. It's a southern take on all things manly. It's boss. I'll keep you posted on it's release. In the meantime, check my day-to-day nonsense on Twitter. It gets a laugh like a quarter of the time.

Any baseball, life, or ping pong related questions? I'll answer any and all.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Spring Training 2012 Update

We've been in STEP camp for a week at this point. To be clear, this is the mini camp that happens each year before the actual minor league spring training starts. Which is not to be confused with major league camp...but I digress.

Besides the endless repetitions of covering first base, fielding bunts, and picking off imaginary runners, we also get to have our offseason shortened by one week...yay.

I'm kidding. STEP camp is actually a great experience for us. We get a head start on our throwing and conditioning while getting to put in some face time with the new staff. It's a smaller group of guys which makes the one-on-one attention easier to come by. Added bonuses include meetings with "special guests" each morning. So far we've heard from pitching coordinator Ron Romanick, Catching coordinator Bob Natal, Miguel Batista, and Pitching guru Miguel Valdes. My personal favorite was the 45 minute wisdom session with Batista. He is a walking baseball encyclopedia in a 41 year old superhuman body. I found out that he is also a published author, trained tenor sax player, and he's played for 11 major league teams. Another cool experience was STEP camp dinner the other night. About 60 players and staff got together for a nice 5 course Italian dinner on the Mets' tab (I know, I thought they were low on cash too). It was a really nice time, mostly because Sandy Alderson was sitting directly across from me. We shared Calamari. We talked about baseball and Twitter. It was inspiring.

Paul DePodesta sat in on our pitching talk today and I resisted the urge to ask him about Jonah Hill playing him in Moneyball. Small victories, right?

I'm living in a condo over in the PGA village with 3 of my favorite teammates. Kai "the German" Gronauer, Mark "the Texan" Cohoon, and Cam "the New Yorker" Maron. We have established some ground rules for our place. First, we have family movie night every evening around 7:30. We are traveling the alphabet and hitting a movie from each letter. Just so you know, our TV on the ground is for cable and the one sitting on top of that one is for the movies. Didin't want you to get confused. Also, there are tons of cucarachas (spanish for vile sneaky bugs). We've bought some Raid. It's being handled.

Fist live BP was today. It went well...meaning I didn't hit anybody, give up any home runs, or get hurt. It's still early, but I threw strikes. Everybody keeps saying that's how you get people out. I'm still on the fence, though.

A note about the weather. It's been pretty close to perfect (knock on wood). No rain (knock on wood). Warm but not hot (knock on so so much wood).

Everybody on the minor league side will be here by next friday, and the games will start soon after that. Then we only have roughly 150+ games until the season's over. Oh how quickly the time flies. Ha!

This is the time of the year where every baseball player comes into camp with anticipation and a gleam in their eye. Three weeks from now is the time of year where every baseball player begs for just one meaningful game. Check back in, it's like clockwork.

I should have some more stuff to report on soon, but until then, I'll be wearing plenty of sunscreen. No need to worry.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spring Training 2012 Preview

This offseason, while shorter than usual due to my time in the AFL, has been busy. Like I said before, I've been working at Booster. When I'm not in the office you can find me in one of two other places...Georgia Tech's weight room or baseball field. The staff over there (yes, it's hard for me to say being a UGA fan) is unbelievable! They have hosted about 20 pro guys all offseason to use their facilities. Besides baseball, I have spent as much time as possible with my wife, friends, and family. It's been both busy and restful, if that's possible.

But enough about my "down time". Let's talk about Spring Training!

Most people, even baseball enthusiasts, have some confusion about what Spring Training is actually for or what it looks like day to day. Time to put your learning helmets on because we're gonna take a crash course on Mets Spring Training. Ready?

There is one facility that the Mets use for Spring Training. It's in Port St. Lucie, FL and has been for like 20+ years. Both the minor leaguers and the big leaguers train at the same facility. The Big Leaguers usually do their practice in the mornings then play games (or golf) in the afternoons. Us minor leaguers show up a little bit later (8-9 AM) and don't get out on the field until they are finished. Usually around 11:00 AM. Then we play our games in the late afternoon.

Yes "baseball fan", you were right, pitchers/catchers do report earlier than other position guys. Big League pitchers/catchers report Feb. 20. Big League position guys report a week later so that by the time they get there, the pitchers are ready to throw live batting practice to them. All STEP Campers (the mini camp between big league and minor league camp) report on Feb. 24. Minor League pitchers/catchers report March 6, with the position players following around the 11th.

The first week is devoted to pitchers and catchers getting back into the swing of things. We usually throw 2-3 bullpens before the position guys get there. Once they arrive, we throw our live batting practices to them. The goal of these live sessions are two-fold. First, it's for pitchers to get the feeling of throwing to hitters again. It sharpens your release point and gets your adrenaline flowing again. For hitters, this is usually the first live pitching most of them have seen in months. It's not very competitive, but it reminds us what games will look like.

Besides our 30-45 minutes of actual pitching per day, we do lots (and lots and lots) of drills. Come-backer ground balls. Covering first base. Pick-offs. Bunting. Backing up bases. Practicing and re-learning bunt plays. etc. etc. With over 150 guys in camp this can take hours. It's usually set up in stations that rotate every 30 minutes or so. Position guys do the same thing, but with their own set of fielding and hitting drills, and of course BP every day. After two weeks of drills and bullpens, we begin to play games. We start by playing intersquad games and work our way into playing other organizations. The Marlins and Cardinals share a complex in Jupiter, FL just down the road. We play one of those teams basically everyday. The AAA, AA, A+, and A teams will play each other and rotate between the complexes daily. Needless to say, we know the Miami and St. Louis organizations pretty well by the end of camp.

Now you might be wondering how we get organized with that many players in camp. Here is the mental/emotional pitfall for many Spring Trainers. After the first couple days of camp, the front office guys and coordinators split up everyone into 5 groups and post it (tryout style) in the locker room. One group for each full season team and one for the extended Spring Training group. They always follow up the posting with the phrase "Don't read anything into these groups. They are simply working groups for getting everybody their reps." They're not fooling any one. Everyone knows that there is a reason people are in the groups. Yes, things change over the course of a couple weeks with people getting moved around/released/hurt, but there is definitely a process by which people are sorted. Some guys take these groupings harder than others, especially the ones trying hard to make a full-season club. I was placed in the "extended Spring Training" group my first year and had to make the best of it. These groups will change right up until the last day of camp, when they let you know where you're going this season.

Now I know you're saying to yourself, "There's no way they let you know where you're going on the last day of camp, 3 days before you have to report to your affiliate." Yes, they do. It's not entirely their fault. Because of the volatility of the business and how players progress, they can't make final roster decisions until last minute. We get used to it. It's a trickle down process. If the big league team signs a guy, they have to send someone down to the minor league side. Then from there, Buffalo, Binghamton, PSL, Savannah, and Brooklyn have to make the necessary adjustments as the players come down the ladder. Not ideal, but c'est la vie.

Spring Training is one big chaotic wonderful experience. Getting to play games again, compete, and see all your teammates is something we all look forward to. Regardless of how monotonous it can be 3 weeks in, living in south FL in early Spring is hard to beat.

It's getting close, people! Get ready. You know we are.