To the public, spring training is as immutable as a Norman Rockwell cover: swaying palm trees; players leaning over the grandstand fence, chatting with elderly spectators; groups of pitchers jogging on the outfield warning track; pepper games.
To players, spring training is more complex and specialized. There are, for example, the arcane devices used in March and rarely, if ever, after: bazooka guns for pop-ups; fully enclosed wire-mesh batting cages; sand pits for sliding; pitching machines. The players also spend hours working on the game's intricacies, which they will practice only briefly, if at all, come April. In fact, some of these plays or their variations rarely occur during the season. But when they do, the players must instantaneously recall the lessons of spring and react instinctively. Bunting, now down the first-base line, now toward third, is the subject of lengthy drills. So are pickoffs, double-play tosses, relays, cutoffs and calling for pop-ups (always either "I got it" or "Lo tengo").
An onlooker might well wonder why some of the drills are conducted at all. How often does one see a pickoff play at third? All the time in spring training. And one wonders why some drills aren't undertaken more frequently. The play that most often seems to be messed up in games is the rundown. There are invariably too many fielders involved, too many throws and too many mistakes. "When it gets practiced in the spring, you see all kinds of instructors," says one veteran. "There's mass confusion. They should simplify it."
By contrast, a tricky spring-training drill that's generally well executed in the summer is that tantalizing race to the bag—grounder to first, pitcher covering. This is as it should be, because that play is the very symbol of spring training.
"It's a gathering time, like a class reunion," says Jim Kaat of the Phillies, one of baseball's best-fielding pitchers. "All of a sudden you're in the home room, with 19 or 20 pitchers standing around talking about what happened during the winter." It's also a doubly useful drill, as the Cardinals' Keith Hernandez, the National League's Gold Glove first baseman in 1978, observes. "It satisfies everyone. The pitchers get their running and fielding, and the first basemen get their grounders."
The drill takes longer than any other because of the number of players involved. All the pitchers—veterans, rookies, minor-leaguers up for a quick look—participate, along with three or four first basemen. A weathered coach bats out the grounders that set the play in motion.
"It's a more difficult drill for the pitcher than for us first basemen," says Chris Chambliss of the Yankees, "because none of them run it as often as each of us does. They're not as accustomed to the play. Besides, during a game they're thinking of getting the batter out, and I'm thinking of playing defense."
Games can turn on how fast a pitcher reacts. "I've learned to break for first on any ball hit to the right side of the infield," says Kaat. "When a hitter beats a pitcher, nine times out of 10 it's because the pitcher didn't get a jump." Kaat heads for a spot 10 to 15 feet down the line from the base. Then he turns sharply left and races parallel to the line, toward the base. If all goes well, he catches the first baseman's toss a couple of steps ahead of the base. Then he looks for first and touches it with his right foot to avoid colliding with the runner. "If you practice it enough," says Kaat, "you'll get your footwork down like a hurdler."
Of course, the play is not as simple as the neat 3-1 on your scorecard. For one thing, the throw doesn't always go from first baseman to pitcher. A bunt or a slowly topped grounder can be fielded by either player. If both go for the ball, the second baseman should cover first. But for some reason, he rarely participates in the spring-training drill.
Hernandez feels that first basemen make more mistakes on the play than pitchers. "Usually it's the throw—ahead, behind, low or high," he says. A good fielding pitcher, such as Phil Niekro of the Braves, never anticipates an accurate throw. "I look for the bad ones, because I know I can handle the good ones," he says. Niekro also doesn't panic about tagging first. Pitchers usually err when they look for the base before they have the ball.
The play looks simple enough when the ball is hit sharply and directly at the first baseman, who then flips an underhand throw, chest-high, to the pitcher a couple of steps before he reaches the bag. Things start getting complicated, both in practice and in games, when the ball is hit any distance to the first baseman's right. An underhand toss won't get the job done in such instances; the throw must then be sidearm or overhand. This situation is one of the few in which a righthanded first baseman has an advantage over a lefthander. True, the righthander must backhand the grounder, but after that all he has to do is straighten up and throw. The lefthander must field the ball and turn clockwise, back to the plate, before making his toss. "You're deep in the hole and you're probably off-balance," says Hernandez. "The pitcher's going full speed and you have to lead him just right."
To a perfectionist the solution seems simple—take the drill north. "Why not?" asks Niekro. "Most teams run the drill only as punishment, but it should be part of the season. It's one of the fundamentals of baseball."