July 27, 2017

Rambling on About My Glory Days – Spring Training: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

March 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“Jack, you are like a son to me, but we have to send you down.” If I heard those words from manager Tommy Lasorda once, it seemed like I heard them a thousand times. I wanted to respond with, “Could you consider me a distant cousin or something instead, and keep me on the team?” Of course, that never happened; the disappointment would set in and it was off to Albuquerque, my annual destination with the Dodgers.

Spring training is like Christmas for youngsters. The preparation and anticipation are finally over and it is time to play ball after months away from the game. Spring training always starts out as the best time of year. Usually, the fans haven’t begun booing players yet and the media plays everything off as “You can’t put a lot of stock in spring training.” For the stars and those with guaranteed contracts, spring training remains the best of times the whole preseason. For the rest, ” non-bonus-babies, minor leaguers and unproven major league players like I usually was – things begin to change with each subsequent week.

Players, like me, who lived in the northern states, were especially excited to be heading to the warm destinations. All off-season players have lifted weights and eaten healthy to get in the best physical shape possible. They have read all the books on mental training and worked on developing the “eye of the tiger” for the long season ahead. Upon arriving at spring training every ballplayer’s spirits are sky-high, feeling that this is the year that everything will click and they will make the show. Workouts begin casually with players renewing friendships and with players easing into the skill work to prepare for the early spring training games. Teams’ training staffs try the cutting-edge, warm-up exercises and training equipment while creating a fun and intensive training program.

The first indication of a player’s status for the coming year comes with the team the player is assigned to for early spring games. Most players come into camp slotted to play at a certain level based on their season the previous season but, players are usually in the dark upon arrival as to what level they probably will be assigned. The best case scenario is to get off to a hot start to open a few eyes with coaches that may not have seen them play before.

Players, who were not high draft picks, were always in a little more precarious state of making a team, of course. At the big league camp, there are always a few highly touted young players who the media rally around early in camp to create some excitement. I was in this department a couple of years at spring training. There is usually competition at a couple of positions which can be pretty intense. Every once in a while a player would get a slight opportunity and make the most of it like Mark Langston did with us (Mariners — 1984). Mark was dominant in spring training, displayed the poise to handle the big league pressure and never looked back to the minor leagues again.
Things start to slowly change a couple of weeks into spring as the pressure to perform well mounts and when the big league team begins sending down players to the minor league camp. With each drop, players who have been practicing at a certain level, start falling back a level or two. The last week of spring training turns into the worst of times for many. Borderline players walk around the clubhouse praying they would not get the message that “the manager wants to see you in his office.”

“Jack, Mr. Balderson wants you to come to his office,” was the message I received from our manager near the end of 1986 spring training with the Mariners. My mind began racing 100 miles an hour — I had a 2 for 4 game that day with a couple of nice defensive plays – maybe, they want to talk long-term contract? Just finished up two respectable years with the Mariners – was I traded?  Was it worse than that?

My final thought was correct — released. Of course, being released was the worst of times and it was never good when it occurred the last week or two of spring training. Every team is trying to get down to roster numbers and it is very difficult trying to catch on when released at the end of spring training. Back to the minors – ” such is life in the professional sports world for most players.

Former major leaguer Jack Perconte is the author of The Making of a Hitter (http://jackperconte.com) and has a baseball instruction blog that can be found at www.baseballcoachingtips.net. He has recently published his second book Raising an Athlete: ” How to Instill Confidence, Build Skills and Inspire a Love of Sport

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