December 2008

Prospects Classroom

The young men sit behind tables in three neat rows, black three-ring binders open, pens in hand. The room is in the bowels of AT&T Park, down the hall from the Giants clubhouse. It is usually used for press conferences. But during this week in November, it has been transformed into one of the most exclusive schools in the world.

“There’s going to be somebody in this room who’s going to play for us next year in the big leagues,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean tells them. He sits on a raised dais next to Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Several students shift in their chairs. Some nod. Most try hard to show no reaction, assuming as best they can the unflappable posture of a star. But you can see it in their eyes: The anticipation of what might come. Some might someday land on the cover of Sports Illustrated someday. Some might become so famous they have streets named after them.

But for now, at this moment, they are just guys with great curve balls, guys with wicked swings, with other guys with great curve balls and wicked swings, in a room full of hope.

These 20 young men are among the Giants’ top prospects, handpicked from the farm system to come to San Francisco for five days of Here’s What It’s Going to Take. One player graduated from high school just four months earlier. The others attended at least some college. Most have spent a little time in the minor-leagues, living four to an apartment, riding buses, budgeting their few-hundred-dollars-a-week salaries – all to earn their own three-foot-wide locker at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.

The curriculum for the week was The Giants’ Way – how to get in top shape, how to play with integrity and enthusiasm, how to behave professionally, how to engage with the media and fans. The young players spent their mornings with the Giants conditioning staff, pushing themselves through tough workouts. They spent their afternoons in this makeshift classroom with Giants front-office staff, learning that making it to the major leagues takes more than talent.

“Attitude is so big in this game,” Bochy tells them. “You have to be full of optimism. You have to have a gut-level belief that you will play at this level. We all know you have the ability. That’s not the question. The question you have to ask every day is: Do I have the attitude to leverage my capabilities to be a major-league player?”

Sabean leans toward the microphone to deliver the hard facts, the ones these players won’t hear on SportsCenter. They have to be willing to put baseball before everything in their lives, Sabean says, which means making sure their loved ones are willing to make the commitment with them. They have to play on rock-hard fields in Arizona’s midday sun in front of near-empty bleachers. They have to play in the Dominican and in Puerto Rico. They have to play and play and play and play. They have to figure out how to keep their sanity in the face of repeated, sometimes unrelenting, failure.

“I’m not sure what the wash-out rate is today, but it used to be that just 5 to 8 percent of players signed made it to the major-leagues,” Sabean says. “You have to be one tough SOB to play this game.”

He offers an example.

“Barry Bonds never put himself in a position to let his guard down,” Sabean says. “He never showed his frustration — threw a bat, kicked the dirt. If he hit a ball well and it was caught, he tipped his hat to the other guy knowing he did the best he could. He rarely showed any emotion to an umpire. He acted as if it never happened because he never wanted the pitcher to think he wasn’t in control.

“His complete control made his talent that much more to deal with.”

Earlier in the week, new managing general partner Bill Neukom told the 20 hopefuls that the Giants’ Way meant fundamentals, attention to detail, preparation. The Giants, he said, have made sure there are great teachers at every level of the organization.

“As Giants players, you will be better conditioned and better informed than your opponents,” Neukom said. “You will be more focused. You will have an approach to every at-bat, to every pitch at that at-bat. As good as you are, you will get better.

“We wouldn’t swap this group of young players for any other group,” Neukom says. “You not only are the best in the Giants organization, you are the best in baseball. You’re here because we think you’re warriors, because you love to compete. We want to help you express that. But you will be the ones to decide if you’re going to get here.”

In the makeshift classroom at AT&T, Sabean and Bochy are wrapping up. Sabean throws in another piece of advice: “Sign autographs. Connect with fans. It’s a relationship you need to have.”

The players close their binders and head down the hall to the clubhouse, where, for one more day, the lockers of Lincecum and Molina and Zito are theirs. They don’t know that Willie Mays is waiting there for them. It’s a surprise. A gift. Another lesson in what it means to be a Giant.

Soon the 20 young men will return to Michigan and Florida and New Jersey, wherever they call home, until another conditioning camp in Arizona in December and spring training in February. In the meantime, the Giants pass around a sign-up sheet for an optional tour of the ballpark on their final day. Nothing special. The same thing any fan or tourist gets.

Seventeen of the 20 sign up – a sweet reminder that even future baseball stars are, at heart, romantics like the rest of us. They know, or at least seem to know, that baseball is more than the dugout and the diamond, more than the players. The real classroom of baseball is the park itself, housing as it does our memories of past summer days and delivering each spring another dose of hope.

Welcome to Inside the Giants Clubhouse!

Let me tell you a little about this blog and about me.

I worked for the Examiner and Chronicle for 22 years. I spent about a dozen of those years writing a sports column before moving on to op-ed and news. As the Chronicle scaled back on its staff, I took a buyout in August 2007. I had a book contract to keep me busy, but I also approached Larry Baer, then vice president and now president of the Giants. He hired me to work with the players on strengthening their relationships with the media.

I hadn’t covered sports in a number of years, and I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy being back in a clubhouse filled with rich, young, swaggering stars. The self-centered arrogance of so many pro athletes was, in part, what had persuaded me to leave sports in the first place.

But I was utterly captivated by this group of Giants players. They were intensely competitive and driven but also, almost to a man, down to earth and open. They seemed to like each other. The veterans were generous with the younger players; the younger players allowed the older ones to relive that dream-like excitement of making it to the bigs.

During the 2008 season, I spent time during every home stand in the clubhouse working with the players. I interviewed their friends and families to unearth the stories beyond the field – who they were as fathers and sons, brothers and best friends. The Giants then pitched these stories to reporters as way to help fans get to know the players better.

But the shrinking news hole limited most Giants stories to chronicling what happened in the game, who strained a shoulder muscle, or who was being called up or sent down to Fresno and San Jose.

So a funny thing happened on my way to becoming a media consultant.
I found myself wanting to write about baseball again.

Thus this blog.

I’ll focus in this blog mostly on the stuff I liked best as a sportswriter (and still like best as a reader): the stories that show the human side of the game, the stories that shed light on the behind-the-scenes decision-making, the stories that show the mind-set that sets apart the guys who make it to the pros and the ones who don’t. And of course I’ll include stuff that I just think is interesting.

For instance.

Barry Zito and Brian Wilson are spending the off-season at Zito’s LA home following the grueling the “P90X” training program. This has been Wilson’s regimen for a while, and Zito, whose locker is next to Wilson’s in the clubhouse, asked Wilson if he’d teach him. The program requires strict, specific meals six days a week. Zito has a nutritionist deliver his meals every day fully prepared. Wilson makes his own.

“My food is hot and I’m already eating, and he’s just getting out the ingredients,” Zito said. “I’m done and downstairs playing video games before he turns the stove on. He gets so mad.”

On Sundays they can eat whatever they want. “Chicken parm, whatever we can get our hands on,” Zito said. “On Monday morning we’re already looking forward to Sunday night.”

Zito shared this last Wednesday night when he was a surprise guest at a “Chalk Talk” for about 125 season-ticket holders. The Giants had set up two couches on a low stage in front of rows of folding chairs inside the Giants clubhouse. The announced guests were GM Brian Sabean, manager Bruce Bochy, managing general part Bill Neukom and moderator Jon Miller.

Zito said he has followed the tough training program pretty easily because he’s so motivated after the past two disappointing seasons.

“Anytime you are brought to your knees in life, you want to crack your head open and let in a new way of doing things,” he said. “I have this new fire in me, so discipline is easy right now.

” It’s been great having Wilson down there with me. It’s always good to have someone in your life that lifts your game. We feed off each other. It’s a great relationship. We push each other.”

If he and Wilson were on the P90X program, Jon Miller asked, what training program did he think Tim Lincecum was on?

“He’s on the genetic freak program,” Zito cracked.

To Zito’s credit, he arrived without handlers or hangers-on. Just him in a pair of jeans, a black T-shirt and a gray horizontal-stripe cardigan. He looked like he had gotten lost on his way to the Student Union. (He, along with Randy Winn, had spent 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon at a Giants party for kids from San Francisco homeless shelters.)

For a detailed recap of the Chalk Talk, check out BruteSentiment’s December 17th fan post at the McCovey Chronicles (www.mccoveychronicles.com). He attended as a season ticket-holder.
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I look forward to the hearing from you. Give me your best thoughts and ideas about what we can do together with this blog.

Coming up in my next post: A look at one of the most exclusive “schools” in the world – a week-long camp last month at AT&T Park for the top Giants prospects.

See you in a couple days.

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