Best Seat in the House – the Dugout Rail
Here’s the scene.†
Gorgeous day. †Blue sky. High sixties, low seventies maybe. Sunny, but just enough leftover winter to need a jacket in the shade.†
Scottsdale Stadium at 10 a.m.†
The field is scattered with players and ball machines and screens.†
Brian Sabean and Felipe Alou are on the top step of the dugout, leaning on the railing, silent, their eyes taking in the smallest details about this player or that one, bits and pieces of information to be filed away in their baseball brains for later analysis. Bobby Evans joins them. Then Larry Baer. A couple of equipment guys. A few reporters.†
We look like railbirds at the racetrack.
On the field, coach Fred Stanley is hitting grounders to third base. Sandoval, Guzman, Gillaspie, Rohlinger, Uribe, Aurilia – they take turns scooping and throwing to first. Scoop and throw. Scoop and throw.
Each throw seems barely to miss coach Ron Wotus, who is standing a few feet behind the pitcher’s mound, tossing soft grounders to three players taking turns at shortstop. They field the ball and throw to second. Another group of players, lined up at second, take turns catching the throw, pivoting and firing to first.
†Except it’s not really first base. That has already been claimed by the guys participating in the third-base drill. The second basemen throw to coach Roberto Kelly, who stands in the baseline between first and second. There is a screen behind him to keep errant throws from beaning the coach playing first.
In the outfield, a ball machine shoots fly balls from the right-field line to players spread out in center field. They practice calling for the ball.†
“Gottit! Gottit! Gottit!” each one yells as he settles under the ball.†
Scoop, throw, pivot, fire, gottit, gottit.
Over and over at all three stations.†
They’re the same drills you see in Little League. The same drills, probably, players have done for a hundred years, minus the ball machines.
“Doesn’t even look like he’s moving,” one of the equipment guys says of Fred Lewis, chasing down a ball by the far fence. “He just glides across the field.”
I ask Bobby Evans what he looks for this early in the spring.
“You look at the crispness,” he says. “This early on, that stands out. If you can make the play over and over. If you have the range and footwork.”
He’s not paying much attention to hitting yet. The players just started with live pitching yesterday. But he watches the pitchers, who have been in camp almost a week. “You look to see how well they’re able to repeat their delivery. Finding that arm slot.”
Only a smattering of people watch from the stands. I’m not sure why more people don’t come down to this portion of spring training, before the games. You get to see all the players on the field simultaneously. No one’s in the dugout. You see non-stop action. And it’s free. And you can spread out across three seats, like the old days.†
Larry Baer recognizes the pleasure of just watching the players practice. So this year, the Giants plan to open the doors to spring training games †about 30 minutes earlier than usual so fans can watch more batting practice and fielding drills.†
I was laid up yesterday with a bad cold and couldn’t make it to the ballpark. Something’s going around because today the team sent seven players home from practice for the same reason. Happens every spring.†
Fred Lewis is still waiting for his special spikes from Nike. After his bunion problems last season, he flew up to Nike in Oregon in December and his feet were measured by some special computerized system. He needs his spikes to be a little wider than usual to reduce the risk of further bunions. Until the new custom shoes arrive, Lewis wears his old spikes to take fielding, then switches to tennis shoes for hitting and conditioning.†