In the last week of spring training in one of my first years as a baseball beat writer, a manager said something about his team that wasn’t for publication. Now that it’s been 15 years or so, I don’t think he’ll mind if I share.
“This may be the worst pitching staff ever assembled,” he said, and we laughed. “I’m serious. We are going to get slaughtered.”
And they did.
But that was an exception to the general rule of spring training – you know, the whole rebirth/renewal theme, where every team starts fresh each year with high hopes regardless of how the previous season ended. It’s true; they do.
Just about every player and manager goes into spring training talking about how excited he is and how he believes his team has a real chance to compete if it stays healthy and does what it’s capable of and blah blah blah.
Regardless of whether he believes it entirely or is trying to convince himself or others that it’s true, there is excitement in virtually every player’s voice as he prepares for spring training, and then even more once they’re in Florida going through the first workouts.
That’s one thing that’s notably different about baseball spring training and other pro sports. Unlike an NFL or NBA training camp, most baseball players want to be there and don’t mind saying so. Baseball teams, with 6-7 weeks to train together in the February and March sunshine of Florida or Arizona, don’t generally work at a frenetic pace.
The crack of the bat and the comforting sound of the ball hitting leather, nearly constant during a spring training day. The dew on the perfectly manicured ball fields. The aroma of coffee colliding at 8 a.m. (or earlier) with the smells of pine tar, chewing tobacco and an occasional cigar. Later, the smell of brats and BBQ from grills beneath the stands.
Pretty girls behind the backstop, trying to get players’ attentions. Little kids with sunburned noses, shouting players’ names and asking pleeeeease for an autograph.
Tape-measure homers onto grass berms during batting practice. Acrobatic double-play ballets from middle infielders who still get a kick out of putting on a show during drills.
It’s special. All of it.
Even for a 15-year veteran player, or a cynical ink-stained wretch facing 12-14 hours a day of reporting, waiting, writing, Tweeting, blogging and waiting some more, all while consuming copious amounts of coffee, there is something undeniably good and rejuvenating about sunshine and preparing to play a game or chronicling those who are.
And players and reporters aren’t even the ones who enjoy it most.
The great broadcaster Harry Caray – Skip’s dad and Chip’s grandfather — put it this way: “It’s the fans that need spring training. You gotta get ‘em interested. Wake ‘em up and let ‘em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll.”
One more week and we begin to roll.
♣ Hanson ditches hitch: Next time you see Tommy Hanson pitch, you might not recognize him. Gone is the distinctive pause in his throwing motion, that unusual hitch in his delivery that might have – some say probably — contributed to injuries including the shoulder woes that wiped out much of the second half of his promising 2011 season.
“Some of the fatigue that he had, some of the back issues and shoulder issues, we wanted to see if we could make some adjustments and do some delivery work that would take that stress off,” said pitching coach Roger McDowell, who has worked with Hanson on the changes for about six weeks.
Hanson, a rangy 6-foot-6, has honed a more conventional throwing motion that better utilizes the driving power of his long legs instead of relying so much on the funky short-arm, whip-action mechanics he relied upon in the past.
“I like it a lot,” said McDowell, who was asked if he thinks the changes might also benefit Hanson’s overall performance. “That remains to be seen. But anytime you use your legs, for me it’s going to help, because those are the strongest muscles in our body.”
Hanson went 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and .190 opponents’ average in 17 starts before the All-Star break. Then the shoulder went from nagging to aching, and he was 1-3 with an 8.10 ERA and .313 opponents’ average in his first five starts after the break.
That was it for the year. He didn’t pitch again after Aug. 6. Hanson tried a few times to get back in the rotation, but each time the pain returned when he got back on the mound and ramped up the intensity of his throwing sessions.
With his new, more compact delivery, the California native might have a better chance to stay healthy. Meanwhile, he should be in better position to hold runners at first base. In the past two seasons, he’s allowed more steals (63) than any big league pitcher.
Still, baserunners darting seemingly at will weren’t the impetus for this change.
Hanson was diagnosed with a small undersurface rotator cuff tear in his pitching shoulder in late August, an injury that many veteran major league pitchers develop through normal wear and tear. Usually they can avoid surgery unless the tear worsens.
Only 25, Hanson wanted to take preventive measures this offseason to avoid serious damage. He started with a rigorous conditioning program immediately after the season ended, designed to strengthen the back and shoulder muscles.
He made decision to alter his pitching mechanics when he resumed his throwing program after Christmas.
Although Hanson and the Braves had discussed in the past couple of years the possibility of eventually making such a change, McDowell said the decision to do it now came from the pitcher when Hanson began throwing at Turner Field.
“It was Tommy’s idea,” McDowell said Friday during the second week of a two-week early pitching camp at the stadium, during which Hanson has continued his workouts. “He came in and wanted to make some adjustments and changes. I told him my ideas and thoughts, and collectively we came up with a plan, and hopefully it’ll work.”
So far everyone likes what they’ve seen from Hanson. McDowell, manager Fredi Gonzalez and bullpen catcher Alan Butts all remarked on how thoroughly Hanson has smoothed out his mechanics in a relatively short period.
“I like it a lot,” said Gonzalez, noting that other byproduct of Hanson’s new delivery. “He is going to be faster to the plate, which should help him hold runners better.”
Hanson allowed a National League-high 33 steals in 2010, and last year he had a majors-leading 30 steals allowed in 22 starts at the time when he went down with what turned out to be a season-ending injury.
“It’s kind of like killing two birds with one stone,” McDowell said of Hanson’s streamlined mechanics. “You can work on your delivery and hopefully that has a better result, as far as his times to the plate and getting his arm in a good position and getting him in a strong position to hold [runners].”
Hanson already threw plenty hard, in the low- to mid-90 mph range. Now that he’s using his legs more in his delivery, it could possibly get his velocity back up a tick or two. Most importantly, it might help him stay healthy for 34-35 starts the Braves need.
“I think that with all pitchers their strength is their core and their lower half,” said McDowell, a former successful major league reliever. “And to be able to utilize that part of their body, it has to take pressure off first and foremost the shoulder, but guys with lower-back issues … I don’t know how much it’ll help, but hopefully it’ll help some.”
A week ago, Hanson said he’s felt strong since he resumed throwing.
“The shoulder feels good, and I don’t feel like there’s going to be any restrictions or anything like that” at spring training, he said. “I feel like I’m going to be ready to go.”
Hanson has grown his red hair grow down to his shoulders this winter. Coupled with a full, untrimmed beard, the 230-pound pitcher has a mountain-man edge about him.
When it was remarked to McDowell that Hanson appears to be in great shape, McDowell smiled and said, “Yeah, and he looks like the Geico man,” referring to the caveman character in a popular series of insurance-company TV commercials.
♣ Braves ticket prices: For single-game ticket sales at Turner Field in 2012, the Braves have expanded their pricing scale to six different ranges according to factors such as to time of week, time of year and attractiveness of opponent.
For example, the highest range of prices, $13-$95, is for “A” games that include all Saturday dates during June, July and August, along with the April 13 home opener against Milwaukee and the entire June 11-13 series against the New York Yankees.
The least expensive range is $6-$70 for “F” games including all mid-week series in April, May and September — the months when kids are in school and attendance is traditionally lower at Turner Field during the week.
The Braves are also introducing what they’ve called “demand-based pricing” in the Outfield Pavilion sections. On the Braves pocket schedule it says of demand-based pricing: “Buy your tickets early to get the best price.”
The Braves haven’t officially announced single-game ticket prices or a beginning sale date. That announcement is expected in the next week.
♣ OK, we’ll close this with a tune from Thurston Moore, frontman of the legendary Sonic Youth, who had on a pretty terrific solo show last week at The Goat Farm in Atlanta. You can hear the tune by clicking here.
“THE SHAPE IS IN A TRANCE” by Thurston Moore
I’m not the one they called
but I showed up anyway
set off the critical alarm
tweaked to obey
no matter how they change it
the dream always looks the same
decoy machines are breaking
in protest to the game
the shape is in a trance
fixated on the fire
the shape will take its trance
to think it can go higher
reject his record
eject the lady’s master tape
it’s not that she won’t rewind
its her desire to take shape
abandoned bass amp blowing
love to starlight dream
boxes of blood plugged into
our awesome sick machine
– by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog