Book excerpt

Throwback

A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played

Jason Kendall and Lee Judge

St. Martin's Press

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PREGAME
EVERY BALLPLAYER needs to do two things: hustle and be prepared.
For me, being prepared meant getting to the ballpark at least six hours before a 7:05 game. Getting there early gave me a chance to look at video, read scouting reports, go over possible late-inning matchups, and create a game plan for my starting pitcher.
Getting there early also allowed me to avoid autograph seekers. Kids are different—every ballplayer I know makes time for kids. But the people who want you to sign an autograph at twelve thirty in the afternoon usually aren’t kids. They’re mostly adults wanting to get items signed. And many of them resell those items. Even when it is a kid, the experience can leave you bitter. You try to personalize a ball for a kid—put his name on it—and his dad tells you, “No thanks, just sign it”?
The dad wants to resell the ball.
You see the same guy every day, and every day he asks you to sign something. How many autographed baseballs does one guy need? Honestly, what can you get for a signed Jason Kendall card? One cent? Two cents? Ten? When the same guy asks you to sign something every day, players know he’s reselling those items and don’t feel bad about blowing the guy off. After a game you come out and sign twenty autographs, the twenty-first guy doesn’t get one and he calls you an asshole in front of your son. Really? Here’s the deal: I’m done signing because I’m trying to get my son to bed so he can go to school tomorrow.
That kind of thing ruins the experience for everyone.
I’m grumpy—everybody knows I’m grumpy. If I’ve got work to do at 12:30 to get ready for that night’s game and if it’s 12:25, I ain’t signing shit.
Early work
I got to the ballpark earlier than most, but all ballplayers are at the park early in the afternoon, getting ready for that night’s game. Fans don’t see everything we have to do to get ready for that 7:05 game. Players have work they do on their own, but teams also schedule early work for individuals or groups.
Early work means anything done before the team stretch and batting practice. We usually don’t do early work before a day game, but for a night game, there’s almost always something happening on the field by two or three in the afternoon.
Early work can be anything done on the field: extra batting practice, working on bunting, a middle infielder wants to clean up his double-play footwork, or the base stealers are listening to a coach go over the other team’s starting pitcher and his pickoff move. Early work can be scheduled by a coach, or a player might ask to work on something.
And some early work is eyewash.
Eyewash is anything done just because it looks good. The owner’s in town today? Let’s run the bases: let’s work on our secondary leads and going first to third. A coach who’s trying to protect his job might want everyone to see how hard he’s working and schedule early work for the players. That can actually be a negative: you’re twenty games out of first place, it’s August, and the players are dragging—do they really need extra time in the sun? If you don’t know how to run the bases by August, you’re already screwed.
If you’re a big league ballplayer, you should know what you have to do to get ready for a game. But whether it’s needed or not, somebody is doing early work almost every day. Players don’t just show up an hour before game time, throw on a uniform, and go.
It’s one thing to get to the big leagues—it’s another thing to stay. Someone is always trying to take your job. If you want to stick around, you better be prepared to play.
The ballpark
Part of being prepared to play is knowing the ballpark. Every ballpark has quirks, and players need to know what they are. In Boston, the Green Monster—the thirty-seven-foot-high left-field wall—changes the way you run the bases. The Monster is so close to the infield, taking the extra base on a ball off the wall may not be possible.
When you played the Twins in the Metrodome, you had to know you couldn’t take your eye off a fly ball: the roof was white. Take your eye off a pop fly and you may never see it again.
In Toronto, the warning track is a different color, but it’s made of the same stuff as the rest of the outfield: turf. In most parks, outfielders know they’re getting near a wall when they step off the grass and feel themselves running on dirt. An outfielder going back on a ball in Rogers Centre needs to know he won’t get the usual warning before he hits the wall.
If a bad throw gets past the first baseman in Oakland, there’s so much foul territory, a runner going down the first-base line can automatically turn for second base and should be thinking about getting all the way to third. In Kansas City, the same ball might hit a screen protecting a camera bay and come right back to the first baseman—the runner can’t advance at all.
In every park, players need to check the area behind home plate. How close is the backstop? Is it padded or brick? Can a runner on third automatically score on a wild pitch? Base runners need to know this stuff before they take off for home plate and then realize the ball is bouncing right back to the catcher.
Every ballpark is different, and ballplayers need to know how each park can change the game. If a player is unfamiliar with a park, before the game a coach will hit baseballs off all the surfaces that might come into play. That way the player can see how he needs to play each ball. You need to know all this stuff before the game starts. You don’t want to play a ball off the wall in front of forty thousand people and then realize you’re standing in the wrong place.
Conditions
Players also need to check the flags: Is the wind blowing in? That might mean a low-scoring game. A smart pitcher can use the conditions by letting a batter crush a ball—straight into the wind. Here it is, dude, hit it as hard as you want; with this wind howling, it ain’t going anywhere. If the wind’s blowing out, it might mean a high-scoring game. Then the pitcher really needs to keep the ball down. He doesn’t want a routine fly ball getting pushed out of the park by a strong breeze.
The inning can also make a difference. If it’s a night game—depending on where you are—the ball might fly better in the early innings. Once it gets cool, the ball won’t carry as well. A pitch that left the park at 6:15 might be a long out at 9:15. If it’s a day game, it might be the opposite; the ball might jump better in the later innings when it’s smoking hot.
Ballplayers also pay attention to the shadows. Vision is everything in this game, and if you can’t see the ball, it changes the way the game is played. If it’s a 1:10 start, the shadows will come into play late in the ball game. When there’s a shadow halfway between home and the mound, it’s hard to pick up the ball. Some people think you should throw more fastballs when visibility is tough, some people think you should throw more breaking stuff. But the main thing is to work quick. Once a pitcher has the shadows working in his favor, he needs to use them to get as many outs as possible.
If it’s a night game, especially a 6:05 start on a Saturday, the setting sun can be a problem in the early innings. In some parks, the first baseman can’t see a pickoff throw until the sun goes down. Colorado’s the worst. Early in the game, the pitcher needs to keep any pickoff attempt low; that way his first baseman won’t be blinded by the sun. If the sun is in the right fielder’s eyes for the first two innings, he’s not likely to come up with a great catch and throw on a sacrifice fly—the third-base coach and a runner on third need to know that. The runner might be able to score on a fly ball hit to right in the second inning and have to hold on the same fly ball an inning later.
Players need to know this stuff before the game starts.
Batting practice
Batting practice is a war zone. If the people on the field don’t pay attention, they can take a line drive to the head. These are grown men at the plate, and the ball is coming off the bat hot. When you’re standing at third base and the ball is traveling one hundred miles an hour, it doesn’t take long to get on you.
That’s why BP has to be planned out. A coach throws a pitch and the hitter swings. Another coach—standing off to the side of the batting cage—uses a fungo bat to hit a ball to an infielder. The coach hitting fungoes has to time it so that two balls aren’t heading toward the same infielder. Make a mistake and you can jack up a multimillion-dollar player. Sometimes another coach is on the other side of the batting cage hitting another fungo to a different infielder. Three or four balls can be in play at the same time, all headed to different parts of the field. It’s a rhythm. Break the rhythm—look in the wrong direction at the wrong time—and it’s easy to get drilled. If you watch BP, everyone on the field is paying attention.
If fans want to know what’s going on, they should, too.
Pay attention during batting practice: Take your eye off the hitter and watch the fielders. See who gets his work in and who’s goofing around. Does the second baseman flip the double-play ball to the shortstop at second base the same way he will in the game? Or is he playing around with behind-the-back flips? Is the left fielder approaching balls at game speed or is he just going through the motions?
Once a guy has his work in, he may stand around and joke with a teammate, but when it’s time to do his job, he needs to go about it the right way—work ethic is just as important for ballplayers as it is for everybody else. The guys who take this work seriously are the guys who stick around the game for a while. And they’re the same guys you want fielding the ball with the game on the line. The guys who goof around when they should be working may not have a long career.
Now look back at the hitter: if he’s taking his job seriously, he’s not up there playing home-run derby. Fans might like to see a guy hit ball after ball into the seats, but it’s not good batting practice. Every team has a batting-practice routine. They can vary some, but here’s an example:
FIRST ROUND:
The hitter lays down two bunts, one to first, one to third, then hits seven balls to the opposite field.
SECOND ROUND:
First swing: hit and run (the runner will force a middle infielder to cover second base, so right-handers hit a ground ball toward the hole at second, left-handers hit a ground ball toward the hole at short).
Second swing: move the runner over from second to third (the ball needs to be hit to the right side).
Third swing: get the runner in from third with the infield back (a fly ball to the outfield or a ground ball to short or second will do).
Fourth swing: get the runner in from third with the infield in (the ball needs to be hit in the air to the outfield).
Fifth swing: a suicide squeeze.
The last three swings: hit away.
THIRD ROUND:
Everyone in the hitting group takes five swings, then rotates through again and takes two more swings.
If a guy wants to load up and hit a long ball, it’s usually in that third round. But before that, line drives, hard grounders, and balls hit the other way should be the goal. Pay attention to who takes this work seriously, and you’ll have a better idea of who will come through when he faces the same situation in a game.
A good time to ask for autographs
If you want an autograph, try asking after batting practice. Ask as the team leaves the field, but like everybody else, we’re on a schedule. Different players have different routines, and it’s important to stick to those routines. You may read a newspaper and have a cup of coffee at the same time every day. It helps you function and gets you started on your day. The same thing applies to ballplayers: we’ve all got a routine that helps us function.
If it’s me, I was coming off BP at the same time every day. I had a routine: I left the field, headed back to the clubhouse, went over the scouting reports one more time, and took one last look at my notes. That was my job. At that point in the day, I was so mentally locked in I might not have signed for you. I was so locked in I might not have even noticed you.
Some guys sign autographs every day. Stopping on the way in from BP and signing autographs may be part of their routine. Position players, outfielders, pitchers—most of the time—they’ll sign; especially if a kid asks. Although when a ten-year-old asks you to sign a ball on the “sweet spot”—the narrow spot between the seams and the spot favored by autograph collectors—you figure an adult put him up to it. When that happens, we’ll ask the kid’s name and personalize the ball, just to make sure it can’t be resold.
Ballplayers want to do what they can for the fans, but walking over to sign one autograph might turn into signing ten. Sign ten and the eleventh person who wanted an autograph will be upset. The time it took to sign those ten autographs may mean a player comes up five swings short in the batting cage. It may mean he doesn’t have time to go over the scouting report one last time. I’ve had a routine from my first day in the big leagues all the way to my last game. I always got to the park early. If I got to the ballpark late, it was because of my kids. If I got off my routine—if I wasn’t stretching in the indoor batting cages before 6:01—I felt like I was going to have a bad game.
Have enough bad games and no one’s going to want your autograph.
The meeting at the plate
At this point in the pregame schedule, players have changed into game uniforms and are back on the field. They’ve had a chance to relax, take one last look at scouting reports, or watch video. They might be down in the indoor batting cages, taking a few more hacks.
The umpire and the managers—or whoever the manager sends out with the lineup card—meet at home plate and go over what’s in play and what isn’t. If the park had some off-season renovations, the umpire will point out those changes to the visiting team. The meeting at the plate is probably longer before the first game of each series, but before games two or three, the guys at the plate are probably making dinner plans or telling jokes.
The national anthem
Bottom line: the faster the better. I know singing the anthem is a pretty big thing for the singers—but hurry up. You want to get a big ovation? Get it done.
Put it this way: if you’re gonna be slow, you better be good.
I’ve heard thousands and thousands of national anthems, but my favorite took place in the minor leagues. I was playing High-A ball for the Pirates, and one of the coaches was Rocky Bridges. I’m standing next to Rocky, listening to the anthem, when he says, “Hey, kid, I hate this song. You know why? Every time they played this [bleeping] song, I had a bad game.” I don’t know what else I should have expected; Rocky had a personalized license plate that said O FOR 4.
Okay, song’s over—time to play ball.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge Having played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals, JASON KENDALL can boast three All-Star games and a broad national fan base. LEE JUDGE is a well-known writer at the Kansas City Star whose baseball blog gets 100,000 hits.