|05-04-2006, 06:48 AM||#1|
Lost: Pre-game Infield
This is posted today at CBS Sportsline:
One of the most striking things about this spring's World Baseball Classic didn't occur during the games, but just before some of them.
When batting practice was finished, 45 minutes or so before the first pitch, Team Japan would return to the field for a spirited session of infield practice.
The entire team went onto the field, two- and three-deep at every position. Infielders scooped up sharply hit ground balls and fired to first, to second, sometimes even to third while anticipating various game situations. Outfielders set themselves under fly balls before launching laser-like throws toward home plate.
The pace was crisp. The players were vocal, calling for balls and cheering each other on. The sessions were enthusiastic, instructive -- and sadly nostalgic.
The scene was striking because in today's Major League Baseball, pregame infield practice has gone the way of flannel uniforms and Ladies Day.
In the quiet hour leading up to game time, you have a better chance of spotting "Shoeless" Joe Jackson emerging from a cornfield than you have of seeing a real major leaguer taking pregame infield.
"It's something you can't help but take note of if you're running a major league club," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin says. "Korea and Japan are known for their fundamentals, and you can't help but notice and think that infield is a part of it."
Says San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean: "It used to be everybody took infield. Now you're lucky if you see it once a series. It's like pulling teeth."
Once a series? Sabean is being generous.
Scouts, who are paid to evaluate players and once gleaned nearly as much from watching infield as from watching the games, are particularly chagrined by the infield's disappearance.
"The only team I saw take it last year -- and do it right -- was Minnesota," one scout says. "And I only saw them do it once."
Another scout, when asked the last time he watched a club take pregame infield, cracked, "I can't remember the year."
Folks throughout the game lament the disappearance of taking infield, which once was a tool that gave the players a chance to loosen up, sharpen their skills, strengthen their arms, work on their timing with teammates and practice their accuracy on throws.
"I don't totally understand it," says New York Mets manager Willie Randolph, once a slick-fielding second baseman who was a six-time All-Star. "I miss it. I used to look forward to infield. If we didn't take it, I felt naked in the game.
"That was part of the routine to get ready for a game."
Many reasons are offered for the sudden evaporation of this once-integral part of pregame preparation. But nobody is able to pinpoint an exact moment when it suddenly became passť.
"It kind of just happened overnight," Sabean says. "It wasn't long ago even when one team usually took it."
And while club officials all around the game admit that they think it would be beneficial if teams started taking infield again, nobody is stepping up and ordering their club to do it.
"The players talk about getting their work in at 4, 4:30, getting ground balls in (during batting practice)," says Melvin, who this spring told Milwaukee's minor league affiliates that, sorry, even if the major leaguers no longer take infield, he still expects them to do it.
"I don't know if clubhouses are too nice now, and they don't want to leave them.
"When I was in the (Double-A) Eastern League, our home clubhouse was so bad you didn't want to be in there. Our lockers were two-by-fours with nails pounded in them and benches. We couldn't wait to get out of the clubhouse.
"Today, we've got a country-club atmosphere."
Says Randolph: "I think organizations -- managers and coaches -- have given into the pre-game stuff in general, and what players do to prepare themselves. And after awhile, (taking infield) became obsolete.
"Players do a lot of pregame stuff differently now."
Down the hall from Randolph's office a couple of hours before game-time, several New York Mets players were moving in and out of the indoor batting cage before their on-field session.
"You can hear guys cracking in the cage now," Randolph says. "We take infield, a lot of it, in spring training. Players do work differently now. Players in the outfield and infield are taking balls during batting practice now. Years ago, they didn't."
Even the most unskilled observer, though, easily can see that the ground balls and fly balls taken during BP are done so in a loose, casual manner. There is little concentration. Footwork often is sloppy. Throws are made without regard to proper mechanics.
Often, if a team does take infield following BP, these traits are carried over. And as Melvin says, if it's not done right, there's no sense in doing it. He still recalls one moment a few years ago when he looked out and saw a catcher taking ground balls at third base during one infield session and thinking, "What's the point?"
"There's something about just not wanting to go back onto the field after batting practice," Melvin says. "They're changing, they're eating. Every clubhouse has a dining room now. They all have TVs.
"Maybe infield is a lost art. Maybe not taking it is here to stay."
If that's true, it can only be to the detriment of those playing the game. Not to sound overly nostalgic and sentimental for the old days, but it's hard not to wonder whether the disappearance of infield is just one more example of a modern, instant-gratification society constantly on the lookout for short cuts, not wanting to put in the extra time to make sure a task is done properly right down to the last detail.
The fact Team USA was bounced embarrassingly early from the WBC certainly cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of a blue-collar work ethic. Other things factored in as well -- the players probably did not have enough time to prepare for the tournament or maybe they didn't have enough time together as a group to learn to play together, etc.
But it is also true that, fundamentally, Team USA -- for those three weeks, at least -- was not anywhere close to the level of Japan and Korea, a point manager Buck Martinez emphasized just hours before Mexico eliminated his team in March.
"What I would like to see in baseball is a return of infield," Martinez said that day. "We don't see outfielders throw because they don't throw enough during infield practice. All the great throwers of the '70s and '80s were throwing every day during infield. I think that is a routine that allows you to get better.
"I think we've gotten to a shortcut with saying, you know what, the travel is tough. The guys -- travel has never been easier. Step on a charter plane. You don't see your bags until you get to your hotel room and everything is convenient.
"I think some things that the Japanese and the Koreans do as a regular practice routine could benefit the major league baseball clubs."
Melvin well remembers those days of the '70s and '80s.
"We've been saying for 10 years that our outfielders can't throw," he says. "In 1977, when the All-Star Game was in Yankee Stadium, I was a minor-league player and I got a ticket to sit out in right field. I remember watching Dave Winfield, Ellis Valentine and Dave Parker throwing from deep right field, and it was a treat to watch."
Randolph was a member of the American League team for that 1977 All-Star Game. When he played, his teams failed to take pregame infield "maybe a handful of times a season. That's it. That was a prerequisite."
As Randolph says, today's travel schedule really isn't all that different than it was when he played in the 1970s and 1980s. So while today's players trot that out as an excuse, old-timers can knowingly say "Hogwash."
"If you took hitting away, guys would be upset," Melvin says. "There's so much emphasis on hitting."
Says Randolph: "I think we need to get back into infield, personally. But guys prepare the fields a little differently now, too. They need more time to get it ready.
"I think fundamentally, overall, in general, it would help everyone. Stretching arms out, hitting the cutoff man, working with your partner in the infield -- getting in sync with him, catchers getting rid of the ball at game speed intensity."
Instead, in that final hour before the first pitch, the field sits almost as quietly as it does at daybreak. Groundskeepers putter with the mound, chalk the base paths, rake the infield one more time and then ... nothing.
It leaves old-school baseball men like Melvin aching for even the days of pretend infield.
"Cal Ripken used to take phantom infield, going through all of the motions of fielding and throwing without the ball," Melvin recalls, smiling. "Even seeing that now would be fun."