Monday, February 18, 2008

How Does Baseball Heal Itself?

Buster Olney knocks one out of the park (but not off rookie pitcher Babe Ruth, pictured above in 1915 as a world champion Boston Red Sox):

The players stroll onto the field for the first workout of spring. The sun is out, the warmest sun they will ever feel. The grass is the brightest green they will ever see.

They will lie across that grass to stretch. A teammate will make fun of another's ugly haircut; all of them will laugh. After stretching, they will all take a slow jog around the field, and some old pitcher will whine about the journey, exaggerating how winded he is. The youngest pitchers will run with their shoulders back, not quite at the front of the pack -- they don't want to be viewed as trying to show up anybody -- but close enough to let the pitching coach know they are in great shape.

They separate to play catch, to loosen up, half of them aligned along a foul line, the other half in the field of play, first 50 feet apart, then 60, the distance between the throwing partners increasing, throw by throw, until they are about 120 feet apart. The distance between the older pitchers increases a little more slowly than it does between the youngsters, who are aching to cut loose; the veterans pace themselves.

Pitchers' fielding practice will begin. A coach will top a bounder toward the mound, and the pitcher at the front of the line -- invariably a veteran -- will catch, step and throw.

Somebody will fumble a grounder, pick it up and fire at an awkward angle to first. Take it easy, a coach will yell. Another pitcher will field a short-hop smoothly, with the ball making a satisfying whump when it buries itself in the pocket of his glove, and this will draw a couple of hoots from teammates. Twenty pitchers or so stand in a line behind the mound, waiting for their turn, and in the interim, some of them will chat about their offseasons.

Then they will take turns covering first base, reminding themselves of the art of taking a throw while hitting the bag with their right foot, and it will be clear within a couple of minutes who are the best athletes, who labor to move, who struggle a little bit with the hand-eye thing. If a veteran pitcher drops a throw, a friendly pitching coach will tease him; if a young player drops an easy throw, an older coach will bark, Let's go.

The drill will end, and then in prescheduled groups of four or five, they will head to the bullpen mounds. Catchers will stand 61 feet away, behind plates embedded in the dirt, the brownest dirt you could ever see, dirt that is carved easily by their cleats.

Maybe the baseballs will be left at the rubber for each of the pitchers, or maybe the pitching coach will flip them the balls, but either way, they will be the whitest baseballs you could ever see. And then a coach will glance at his watch, and let everybody know when they should begin this first 10-minute throwing session of spring. The pitchers will set a foot on the edge of the rubber and stride forward easily and toss the ball, if you call throwing a ball 80-85 mph tossing it.

The catchers, now crouching, will turn their wrists slightly and the baseballs will hit their gloves with a sound that is distinct to baseball, a sound that cannot be replicated, a cross between a crack of a whip and the slamming of a door. And that is how the healing will begin.