November 21, 2017

Talking About the Dynamics and Emotions of Spring Training With Jack Perconte

March 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The surface rituals of spring training are well known to fans, but camp presents unique challenges to players whether they’re established starters, prospects or trying to make sure they hold onto their big league jobs. Baseball instructor Jack Perconte, who now coaches players privately in Illinois, was in spring training most years in the ’80s, playing second base for teams from the Mariners to Dodgers to White Sox and Indians. Curious about the mentality players have in spring, I’ve asked him some questions about his experience in camp. Here’s the exchange:

Q: What changed about how you interacted with the other guys at spring training as your MLB career developed?

A: After the offseason, I was so excited about starting to play again and be around the guys and clubhouse, that interactions each year were the same fun. Of course, each year was somewhat different, depending on how many years I was with an organization. The longer with the same team, which for me was never too long at the major league level – the more I looked forward to seeing friends and the more comfortable I felt from day one. Of course, one of the cool things about spring was the opportunity to meet new players, too.

Also, it is different being a rookie or having some major league experience – as a young player I was in awe of some of the stars, but over time, you realize they are normal people. Once a player has “earned some respect” with major league experience, it is easier to mix in with the team, too.

Q: In later years, were you more settled in, less competitive, less anxious about your status?

A: Actually, for me, it was the opposite. First, it is important to realize that the mindset of an established major leaguer, which I never totally was, and a fringe one, is enormous for spring training, as alluded to above.

When coming up in the minors I felt like I was on an upward journey because of a previous, solid minor league season. Once at the top rung, in the big leagues, the more I felt like it was “What have you done for me lately,” and it was not about development any more but about winning and putting the best players out on the field. Therefore, the competition and anxiety was more intense, with the feeling that every day could make the difference.

Q: In the spring, did you concern yourself much with how other players were doing? Would you try to guess who would make the team and how much playing time they’d get during the season, or would you focus on your own preparation?

A: Yes, yes and yes – all of those as it is human nature, I believe, to analyze situations, secretly root your competition has a rough spring and mostly, focus on your own game. Once again, the established players do not have to root against their competition, those “lucky dogs.”

Q: The standard countdown for fans during offseason is marking off the days until “pitchers and catchers report.” But are pitchers and catchers really the only guys around at the very start of spring training, or is it commonplace for other players to show up at the same time, trying to get a head start? Even before February, a lot of players live in Arizona or Florida, so are they using team facilities during the offseason?

A: Personally, I showed up at the reporting date. Every player is different with those living nearby and under contract able to use the team’s facilities, I believe. Most players have worked out all winter, hitting, fielding, and throwing, so reporting early is mostly wanting to be around the guys again, or, for players who had a tough previous season – by showing up early they make the statement that they are ready to turn it around and give their all to do that.

Q: In the first week or two of training, do you already have a good sense of what the chemistry of your team will be: camaraderie, tensions, disputes, teamwork? Or does chemistry develop and change significantly as the season goes on and the ratio of wins and losses shifts?

A: Spring training rarely is much of an indicator of team chemistry from what I recall. Especially the first few weeks of spring training – those reveal little because those are the most carefree times, when guys are happy to be around each other, and there is no real pressure to produce, yet. Every team comes to spring training revitalized and optimistic so chemistry is usually not an issue, at first.

Each subsequent week of spring, pressure begins to build, so that gives a better indicator of how players and teams will begin to deal with adversity and that is when team chemistry grows, or dissipates. However, very little emphasis is generally put on winning in spring training, at least for most teams, so chemistry generally exists no matter what for all teams in the spring.

Having said that, so many other factors come into play like team leaders, coaching styles, and season expectations that chemistry is a season long occurrence. Chemistry is mostly dependent on winning in the regular season. Winning – or at the least, meeting the fan, media and front office expectations – is the straw that stirs the chemistry drink, for the most part and over the long haul. Chemistry is also a fragile thing, in that it only takes one malcontented player to disrupt that, but that is a story for another day.

Q: What are the major differences between training in Florida and training in Arizona?

A: Both locations were great, from my memories of them, especially after living through the Chicago winters. Besides the obvious climate differences and that big body of water, the excitement of spring training is electric and for players, mainly about the baseball, so both Arizona and Florida were heavenly that time of year.

Q: What’s your sense of how spring training has changed from your playing days to now? I suppose there’s more of a microscope on teams now, with all the Internet coverage and sports talk radio, cable sports stations, etc.

A: When I played, there was a saying and it seemed to hold true, that the “Pitchers are ahead of the hitters at the start of spring.” That doesn’t seem true anymore, as it almost seems like the opposite is true, especially with the light Arizona air. Players condition and hit so much more in the offseason now that they come more physically and mentally prepared that any pitcher advantage does not exist.

Yes, all the coverage certainly makes a difference these days. The good thing for fringe players is that they can create a buzz for themselves by getting off to a great spring, and that buzz sometimes leads to a greater opportunity for those players than would have been possible back in my day.

Arne Christensen runs 1995 Mariners and baseball history blog Misc. Baseball.

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