IT IS STILL ALL about hope and October dreams. It is still perfectly groomed, perfectly verdant diamonds under glorious sunshine and infinite blue skies, ballplayers grazing on the outfield grass to the percussive sound track of early morning batting practice. It is a manager darting around in a golf cart, a Hall of Famer having a catch with a no-name on a back field, a veteran with a two o'clock tee time to make.
Spring training will never feel as quaint and accessible as it once did, but it still exudes a comforting timelessness with its rituals. Last Thursday in Mesa, Ariz., 50 blue-and-red-clad Cubs diehards watched attentively through a chain-link fence as pitchers broke into groups of six for drills: the pickoff play, the dash to cover home, the two-step lead off first base, the sprint from first to third. "If you can't do it right here, right now," Chicago manager Rick Renteria told his charges, "what makes you think you'll be able to do it in front of 40,000 people?"
Back to school—that was the prevailing theme as teams opened spring training. In Cubs camp Renteria began his first spring as the manager of the prospect-loaded team with a professorial vibe: There were open office hours and a handbook, The Cubs Way, distributed to every player. In Jupiter, Fla., the Cardinals began ridding themselves of the bitter aftertaste of their slipshod, error-filled performance in last October's World Series. Up the coast in Nationals camp first-year manager Matt Williams lived up to his nickname as a player—the Big Marine—by running things like Chesty Puller. Williams already had all 41 days of camp in Viera, scheduled to the minute, each one with its own purpose (Day 4 for the pitchers: practicing comebackers to the mound). Atop the first morning schedule read the words LEAD, FOLLOW, OR GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY.
This spring managers are sweating the small stuff more than usual, and for good reason. In a pitching dominated era—in 2013 runs per game (4.17) dropped to their lowest level since 1992—games are now won and lost by the slimmest of margins: Last year an alltime high 754 games were decided by a single run. "There was a day in the game when you were hoping for a walk and a two-run home run," says Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson, whose team scraped out a major-league-high 34 one-run wins last year. "But the game has changed, and doing the little things has more value now. Spring training is the time to work on those little things."
Cap Anson is credited as one of originators of spring training: In the mid-1880s he began taking his Chicago White Stockings to a resort in Arkansas where he had players stretch, toss medicine balls and sit in vats of cold water. The point, team owner Albert Spalding explained, was "to boil out all the alcoholic microbes which may have impregnated the systems of these men during the winter." But Orioles manager Ned Hanlon was the first to use spring training for something more than an extended hangover cure. Before the 1894 season he took his team to Macon, Ga., and for eight hours a day over two months he drilled his team in the hit-and-run, the squeeze play, basestealing and the art of hitting the ball into the dirt when the infield was playing deep, a practice that would become known as the Baltimore Chop. Hanlon's teams stood out—his O's won three straight National League pennants—and other managers began to model their teams after Baltimore. More than a hundred years before Moneyball, Hanlon had found baseball's first market inefficiency: good fundamentals.
Good fundamentals are again in woefully short supply. Bunting has become a lost art. ("You get a talented high school player," says Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, "but ask him to lay down a bunt, and he can't.") Less publicized is a general deterioration in outfielder throwing. "Throwing arms in the outfield have diminished more than anything," says one longtime scout. "Twenty years ago every team had a rightfielder with what we call rightfield arm—an accurate, strong arm that could make all the throws. In the game right now there aren't more than a dozen players with rightfield arms."
"There's no question about it, there's less development now in the game," says A's manager Bob Melvin. "In our market, for example, with the payroll equation coming into play, we value younger players, and we play them early, and as a result, the development part is certainly not there anymore."
"When we came up we were expected to know the game," says Royals manager Ned Yost. "I can count on one hand how many times a coach over the course of a season would say, 'You need to do this.' Nowadays, the coaching is extensive. It has to be extensive."
Experienced baseball men bemoaning the Death of Fundamentals—it sounds like a cliché, nostalgia for a time that never existed. But last October's World Series—remembered as much for its blunders as its brilliance—could make anyone wonder if this era will be remembered for bad baseball. The Red Sox and the Cardinals combined for 13 errors in six games, second in the wild-card era only to the 14 errors made two years earlier in the seven-game 2011 Series between the Rangers and the Cardinals. (And that doesn't include Nelson Cruz's Little League mistake of letting a triple by David Freese sail over his head during St. Louis's epic, Series-saving Game 6 ninth-inning rally.) One manager jokes that he should start every spring by showing video from the 2006 World Series, when Detroit's pitchers alone made five errors over five games—four on throws to first or third base—and literally threw away the Series to the Cardinals.
What in the name of Ned Hanlon is going on? Start with the influx of youth into the game. "If you look at how long a player spends in the minor leagues, that time has shrunk to where when you get to the major leagues, you're still learning and you're still growing," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
Adds a scout, "It goes beyond youth. It's an industrywide emphasis. Twenty years ago everyone took infield every day. [Now] they don't even take it in the minor leagues. I had a [minor league] manager tell me that he wanted his team to take infield every day, but he got a call from up top that it wasn't good for the players—it made them tired."
Rangers manager Ron Washington has another reason. "Players these days, with all the money, they don't listen as much to instruction," he says. "In my day if a coach told you to run through a wall, you ran through a wall. I tell a kid to run through a wall now, he tells me to kiss his ass."
WASHINGTON HAD the fundamentals of the game explained to him on a chalkboard. He was 18 years old in 1970, out of high school in New Orleans, when he enrolled in the Kansas City Royals' baseball academy, which brought undrafted and unscouted high school players together to learn the game in Sarasota, Fla. "We sat in the classroom, a coach stood in front of a chalkboard and explained the fundamentals of the game," says Washington. "We'd learn it on the chalkboard until we could do it to perfection on the field. I knew when a ball was put into play where every swinging d--- on the field needed to be depending on where the ball was hit. I walk into this clubhouse, and ask everyone where they're supposed to be, I'm quite sure there would be more than a few that don't know."
Washington has presided over Texas clubs loaded with All-Star sluggers, but his teams have always reflected his old-school mentality with its style of play: strong defense, aggressive baserunning, and—to the chagrin of his many critics—lots of bunts. (The Rangers lead the AL in sacrifices since Washington became manager in 2007.) Texas has won the second-most games in the AL over the last five years, but many sabermetric-minded analysts and fans say that's despite Washington's tactics, not because of them. Read one headline on a blog during the 2012 season: DEAR RON WASHINGTON, PLEASE STOP BUNTING.
The game has evolved since the days of the Royals' baseball academy: What was regarded as smart baseball then isn't necessarily regarded so now. Sacrifice bunting is now widely viewed as a poor play—sabermetricians abhor the idea of giving away an out, and that belief has slowly been embraced by many traditionalists. But some managers will tell you there are situations where the bunt still makes sense: for a base hit, particularly against the exaggerated defensive shifts that have become so prevalent, or on a well-timed squeeze play. It does seem counterintuitive that in a run-depressed era in which strikeouts are at an alltime high, sacrifice bunts last year were down to their lowest level in history—even in the postseason, when moving a runner could be the difference in a close game. (Last year 21 out of the 38 playoff games were decided by two runs or less.)
"There's a place in the game still for the bunt," says Padres manager Bud Black, who, like Melvin, is regarded as one of the game's most modern, progressive thinkers. "But you don't have the success rate of the bunt as you did a generation ago because guys aren't in the cage working on it anymore—they're working on hitting."
"Baseball's always been about doing the little things right—but it's about different little things now," says Melvin. "Teams are a lot more savvy about what it means to be efficient on the bases, not just stealing bases but going first to third. Defensively you always want to be fundamentally sound. We stress to our pitchers that you want to have a good pickoff move, you want to be quick to the plate, you have to do whatever you can to not allow guys to take extra bases."
These little things remain hard to quantify, even in this age of analytics, but player tracking technology will soon change that: Within a few years there will likely be cameras in every ballpark tracking every movement on the field, from how quickly a third baseman reacts to a 100-mph grounder to the route an outfielder takes to a fly ball to the speed of a base runner going first to third on a single.
"That's such a game changer," says one AL GM. "We're never going to take a guy who we think does the little things right over a 30 home run guy. But do good fundamentals make a difference over a 162-game season? Absolutely. You can joke about it being the next inefficiency in the game, but I guarantee that there are teams out there with a group of interns crunching numbers trying to quantify whether a player is fundamentally sound or not.
"We may or may not be one of them."
I WANT OUR team to be fundamentally sound, to do all the little things right to win a ball game," says Rick Renteria. "In other words I am on the same page with every manager who has walked the face of the earth. The hard part is the execution of that mission."
A protégé of Jim Leyland and Dick Williams, Renteria spent the last six years as a coach under Black in San Diego before being hired to replace the fired Dale Sveum in Chicago. He has an easy demeanor and a voice that would calm a pilot during an emergency landing. To turn around the Cubs—forget that 106-year championship drought; the team hasn't broken .500 since 2009—Renteria is demanding that every coach in the organization instruct with one voice. (That means adhering to the Cubs Way manual, which spells out everything from the proper way to touch second base to a players' code of conduct.) That will be critical to the development of stud prospects like shortstop Javier Baez (who is expected to begin the season at Triple A) and outfielder Jorge Soler (he could start at Double A) as well as such young cornerstone major leaguers as Anthony Rizzo, the 24-year-old first baseman who was a disappointment (.742 OPS) in his first full season in 2013, and Starlin Castro, the 23-year-old All-Star shortstop whose lapses in focus over the last two years have perplexed the organization.
Stop us if you've heard this before, but this spring feels like a new beginning for the Cubs. There's the new manager and a shiny new $84 million complex in Mesa with separate clubhouses for major and minor leaguers, a 120-seat theater, a two-story weight room and a 15,000-seat stadium, the largest in the Cactus League. But in other ways Cubs camp felt like all the others, with rookies hoping to break camp with the big league team, veterans making a comeback, players playing Ping-Pong early in the morning and shooting hoops outside the locker room after workouts.
And of course, there was the daily work—the heartbeat of the spring. One morning last week, before position players had reported, Renteria was presiding over another round of pitcher drills: pitchers fielding grounders, pitchers practicing pickoff plays, pitchers covering home, pitchers running the bases. The drills went on for two hours; it may sound unimaginable to watch such proceedings for five minutes, but a large crowd was on hand for the duration. With the azure sky above and the gray mountains in the distance, there was a strange beauty in the mundane ritual.
A Cubs pitcher approached second base at full speed, planted his left foot on the inside of the bag—precisely as his coaches and the handbook had instructed—and made the turn toward third with all the purpose and urgency of a man representing the go-ahead run with the NL Central title on the line in September. "O.K., Good," said Renteria. "Let's run it back. One more time."
Spring training is in full swing, and SI writers have reports as they go camp to camp. This week Tom Verducci also looks at the latest batch of contract extensions, and Ben Reiter analyzes the new-look Tigers. Go to SI.com/mlb