The Art of Training

The Spring, having finally arrived in the wake of the snow, is now almost over. The National Leaguers and the Double-A Hawks have kicked off their baseball season, and Triple-A will follow shortly after a weather-induced postponement, writes Rob Jones. The Herts Raptors and Eagles will start on Sunday, and as the league action draws closer, I felt it was time to reflect on the pre-season training period.

I made it to three or four indoor sessions this year. It was great to have the help of a conditioning coach, working us out and teaching us new exercises. I’m not sure I have fully grasped the idea of plyometrics, but I learned something. And in a slightly perverse way I enjoyed making my body ache. In the last session, I started off a bit badly and actually felt quite ill. But a break and some water helped overcome the effects of intense exercise early on Sunday morning.

Indoor Training
This was how it all started, indoors in January in Berkhamsted

Many of my erudite followers will also have read the excellent baseball novel which was a minor phenomenon last year, The Art of Fielding. In many ways, it’s not really about baseball — like any novel it is, in fact, about love, frailty, friendship and frustration — but the baseball setting speaks to us players more than it does to the average British Joe.

However, one of the biggest things to strike me was the way the shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander would physically push himself — “working til you puke” — running up and down the football stadium steps, and doing endless reps with weights. It might be going too far to say that it inspired me, but it did make me want to do more and work harder.

That combination of early morning runs, protein shakes, and constant practise is part of the overall vision of being a professional athlete, which most of us reach for with our involvement in baseball. It’s not the glamour part, but it’s an element in the whole.

Perhaps, as I share Henry’s slight build, I saw it as an example of what work could achieve. And honestly, I have tried to put in some extra hours. That meant running round Regents Park in the snow in my dinner breaks whenever I could, and remembering to do my Powerball exercises at home of an evening. There has been no Skrimshander-like transformation, but I did feel better and brighter. And even more keen for the baseball season to start.

But this masochistic passion for personal pain was never going to last. “Running til you puke” is not really my style. Don’t get me wrong — especially if you are a likely opponent this season — I will give a game my all. But I am not one to drive myself over the edge in pursuit of physical perfection. I’m just too rational, too common-sense. And I often did my Powerball exercises with a glass of red wine on the go. Which may have defeated the object slightly.

And so, in the first weeks of March, we were back at the diamond. A couple of cold and grey sessions were the best we could manage here. But even if you don’t arrive at the field to see its glowing emerald green stretch out before you, like a Major League ballpark, it still lifts the heart a little to be at Grovehill.

And I felt pretty happy with these workouts. Just getting to throw the ball freely was good, and playing the rough hops of the diamond instead of the smooth predictability of a gymnasium floor! I felt I was throwing well, and the masterful Darrin Ward gave a large squad of would-be pitchers excellent tips.

Geoff Hare
Geoff Hare, once a fine Herts shortstop, now one of the country's top umpires

In one session, the equally excellent Geoff Hare taught me a base-running technique I had never heard before. Which impressed me, I can tell you. It’s not that I thought I knew everything about baseball, but that after ten years or so you do assume that further things you learn will be on the next level of the game — wheel plays, hit and runs, delayed steals. But this was something you can use in every situation. Obviously, I can’t reveal it here, it’s top secret, but suffice it to say it was fine advice.

The training part of the year ended on Sunday, with a few final drills and a scrimmage game between the Single-A rivals, the Eagles and the Raptors. I’m not sure I made a dramatic case for getting a second baseman’s job ahead of Raptors’ manager Arnie Longboy (who also likes to play there!), as I distinctly remember bobbling a ground ball which should have been the final out of an inning. But fortunately I became the first of three players involved in getting the last out at home plate instead!

I have hardly swung the bat this year so perhaps should not be surprised that my two at-bats led only to a groundout to short, and a pop-up to third which, luckily, was dropped. At least the first AB went to a full count, which is normal service for my batting! I did manage to hurt my back swinging for a low pitch, but I am trusting that is just the rigours of old age.

The most important thing was to take part, and to feel the ball in the glove after weeks snowed off, rained off, and dominated by weekends of work. Hopefully I — and the other Single-A players — will now be set up for Opening day. The Raptors are away in Leicester. Yes, Leicester. This game can take you places. Some places you never dreamed, some that you always dreamed of….  See you there.