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SO YOU WANT TO BE A PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL PLAYER?

Perhaps every young man who’s put on a baseball uniform has had a dream to become a major league baseball player. It is the pinnacle of success in this great game and you couldn’t reproach anyone for having that dream.

We all need our dreams but this article is about reality, the experience of day in and day out baseball. There is a road young players must take to become major league ball players. And it is a long and difficult one.

Let’s look at what it takes to go through a minor league season. Many people don’t realize the demands placed on players in the minor leagues.

We are going to examine what players who have made it to high A Ball (specifically the Florida State League) experience.

After the excitement has worn off they come face to face with the real challenge of professional baseball- the daily mental and physical grind. Day after day in which the games eventually run seamlessly together. Most of the players are unprepared for the long hours and days of learning, practicing and playing; and failing.

These are players who were top dogs before. They were used to hitting .450 in high school or .400 in college. The pitchers blew the ball by everybody in high school. They all had .0-something ERA’s.

No more. Now the hitters only hit .270 and many pitchers get rocked. And there is little time to rest, to reflect, to relax. The days are endless and the grind goes on and on.

The hitters are facing top pitching prospects day in and day out. They’re hitting against 92 mph fastballs and devastating breaking pitches-with wood bats. What’s that old joke? “Dear Mom, having fun, hitting the ball really well.” A month later she gets another letter. “Dear Mom. They’re throwing curve balls-be home soon.”

The pitchers now have to face the best young hitters in the country. There are no easy outs and there are no easy games.

Every college had easy games on its schedule. There are no patsies in the Florida State League. Every team has its rosters filled with outstanding players.

In the Florida State League the players play 140 games, from April to September. Not counting the occasional rainout they get maybe ten Sundays off. People with real jobs don’t work that much. Many college players are unprepared for the rigors of a minor league season. They now play more games in one season than they did in two seasons in college. (High school players play maybe a 30 game schedule in the spring and then another 40 in the summer.)

And while these new minor leaguers are learning their craft they have to confront failure everyday. That can mentally wear a player down after awhile. It can be difficult to adjust.

And you can add the daily stress of each player trying to do his best, knowing that there is always someone behind him that could move up to take his place.

Whoever said, “Baseball is like life, you play it everyday” knew what he was talking about.

Remember our articles on developing mental toughness in your players? Now is when they are going to need it. Now is when they find out if they really love the game. Remember our article on what scouts look for and how important it is for a player to have a good attitude and make up?

Will their dreams of childhood be enough? Are the beautifully manicured fields, the irresistible baseball smells, the excitement of the games going to be enough to sustain them? For a successful few it will. There are only 750 major league players in the world.

I have unrestrained respect and admiration for a young man who wants to turn his baseball dream into his profession. Folks, it’s really hard.

A Day in the Life

Let’s look at a typical day in the life of the average minor leaguer. This report is from the perspective of the Vero Beach Dodgers, a long-standing asset in our community. Every organization has its own way of doing things but we will examine the Dodger way.

What immediately impressed me was the structure the Dodgers have set up for their players. They have a fixed procedure and things are done that way every day- no deviation from the routine. (Remember our article, The Power of a Routine?)

The following daily routine is performed at home games. Away games are not quite as exacting because of travel and available facilities.

The players arrive at pre-determined times on the field beginning at 1:35 PM every day. That means the early arrivals have to be in the locker room at least by 1PM.. Beginning at 1:35 each hitter gets 5 minutes of individual instruction. The Dodgers call this daily “Hitting Maintenance.”

A coach works with each player off the hitting Tee. They work on some area of their game that needs improvement.

One hitter may have a problem with balance, one may have a tendency to lean forward on outside pitches, and one may have trouble adjusting to hitting with the wood bat.

This instruction takes place in the batting cages. Those waiting their turns hit off tees into the nets, on their own. Every hitter has some area in which he can improve. These 5 minutes are devoted to that.

You can give quite a bit of meaningful instruction to one player in 5 minutes. It doesn’t’ sound like much time but on a daily basis it is quite a lot. It is a lot of time for the coaches too; to spend 5 minutes with each individual player. “Hitting Maintenance” takes about one and a half hours for all the players to get their turns.

Then at 3 PM everyone spends 15 minutes stretching. This is also a structured routine. They do it the same way every day. They have a strength and conditioning coach who guides them.

Next, comes the long toss routine. The position players pair off on one foul line and the pitchers on the other. The long toss routine is also very organized. Instead of counting the number of throws, the players are timed by the coaches. They use a stop watch. They begin throwing from 60 feet. They throw for 4 minutes. Then they back up to 90 feet and throw for 3 minutes. Then it is 120 feet for 3 more minutes.

They throw at less than maximum effort, putting a slight arc on the baseball. At all times they work on good throwing mechanics. (There aren’t many professional players with poor arm actions.)

At the end of 10 minutes the infielders come back in to 60 feet and throw to each other very briskly, moving their feet and getting the ball out of their gloves as quickly as possible.

The outfielders remain at 120 feet and throw to each other, one-hopping the ball. (This drill reinforces staying behind the ball and not letting the hand flop off to one side. If the hand doesn’t remain behind the ball and if they don’t have a 4-seam grip, the result will be a ball that does not travel on a straight line.)

The pitchers come in to 60 feet and do flat ground throwing. They don’t use catchers; they throw to each other. This is time when they work on the “feel” of their pitches. And they work on their mechanics. They throw this way every day: 5 fastballs from the windup, five breaking pitches and 5 change ups. Then they throw 15 more from the stretch. One pitcher in each pair acts as a catcher and they switch every 5 balls. The pitchers throw at about 50-60% of full velocity. They do this every day, even if they had pitched in a game the day before. They are always under the watchful eye of the pitching coach. He will make occasional suggestions as to their mechanics. The pitchers take longer than the position players so while they are completing their routine, the position players play pepper.

What impressed me as I watched their day was the positive way the coaches taught the game.

Think back to your school days and remember your best teachers. It was like that. Those coaches are highly motivated and dedicated to helping these players reach the next level.

And you know what? The coaches have to have a working knowledge of Spanish. I watched Manager John Shoemaker working with a Latin hitter in the batting cages. The player was having a hard time keeping both of his hands on the bat as he completed his swing. It was a bad habit that John was trying to help the hitter break. After every soft toss, Coach Shoemaker would say, “Dos manos, dos manos. Bueno” until the hitter got it right. Never Give In is NGI in any language.

Next, at about 3:45 they perform their outfield-infield drill, every day. (I’ve used those two words a lot; every day.) The reason the Dodgers do this (another buzz word) is “ball maintenance.” They want their position players to stay involved in the physical and mental “flow” of the defensive game. Coach Shoemaker calls it “taking care of the ball.”

They want them handling the baseball as they would in games. (We have been telling you how important catch and throw is.)This drill is done at “game pace” and it is fun to watch. Starting with the left fielder they hit fungoes to each outfielder so they can get all the plays they will have to make in a game. Every other day they practice their “double relays”, 4 times, once deep down both foul lines and deep into each gap.

Then as they take their infield, the pitchers take up backup positions in foul territory at third base and behind the plate. They begin their infield drill with “infield in” and progress to “one and cover”, double plays long backhands and slow rollers. It is similar to most pre-game infield drills but on some days they may do a little more work on one aspect or another.

I noticed that the players worked very hard on fielding technique, throwing accuracy and velocity. Everyone hustled and game speed was observed at all times.

After outfield-infield the coaches put the players through 15 minutes of some fundamental such as lead-offs or 1st and 3rd base running, double plays or run downs.

At about 4:30 the portable batting cage is rolled out and they take batting practice. They break into three groups with the catchers hitting first. That way the catchers can go down to the bullpens with the scheduled pitchers.

In the first hitting round they do situational hitting. With a runner on first: 2 bunts, 1 hit and run, 1 hit behind the runner and one “get in” from third base. The hitter then gets 5 swings to hit to the opposite field. The hitter then becomes the base runner. The Dodger situational hitting drill is similar to the one we teach. They hit several more rounds with a decreasing number of pitched balls.

When the outfielders are not hitting they are in the outfield “breaking” on every batted ball. This is not just “shagging balls” time. They break 2 or 3 steps toward every ball whether they catch it or not.

This is how outfielders develop their tracking skills. They learn to see how every ball acts off every type of swing and they learn how to get a “jump” on the ball.

When the infielders are not hitting they take ground ball fungoes from the coaches. The shortstop and first basemen take ground balls from the third base-side fungo coach. The second and third basemen take ground balls from the first base-side fungo coach. This is done that way so that the infielders can take balls that are the same approximate angle as they would come off a hitter’s bat; so their footwork and throwing angles are the same.

The pitchers that are not throwing a bullpen stand on the warning track in the outfield and shag deep fly balls.

They take Batting Practice until about 6:15. Then they go into the locker room to get dressed into their game uniforms.

They take the field at about 6:30, do some individual stretching and light throwing, a base stealing drill with one of the coaches acting as the pitcher and then get in some dry swings to get loose and fortify their hitting mechanics. (This is done in the outfield grass.)

The pitcher throws his bullpen at about 6:40. The pitchers throw their bullpens in a similar fashion to the way we teach. They establish command of their pitches one at a time, fastball first. They throw ½ from the stretch and the pitching coach watches every pitch they throw. Then they get a drink of water and play baseball.

The games begin at 7 PM and last until 9:30-9:45. Whew, their day is over right? Wrong.
After the game the players pay a visit to their strength and conditioning coach for an hour of lifting in the weight room. Coach Shoemaker likened their day to a 3-11 shift- a long 3-11 shift.

The players must also get in their specialty drills, such as catchers blocking balls in the dirt or hitters taking extra batting practice. When do they do that? They have to find the extra time. These drills are outside the everyday routine but they must find the time to do them.

So the next time you go to a minor league game and the home team commits 4 errors and makes a few mental mistakes, show a little tolerance. These young men are learning their craft and failing is an integral part of learning. Tip your hat to these guys and show them some respect. They earn it every day.

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