- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The difference between running minor league camp, as Rob Leary did for the Boston Red Sox the past seven seasons, and running spring training for the big leaguers, his newest assignment?
"I don't think I'll be running any curfew checks," Leary said, "or giving a bus driver directions."
For the first time since Terry Francona became manager of the Red Sox prior to the 2004 season, his close friend and former Sox bench coach Brad Mills, the new manager of the Houston Astros, will not be the man drafting the blueprint for how the Sox will spend six weeks in Fort Myers.
That job has been given to Leary, who after serving as the team's minor league field coordinator has a new gig, which carries the cumbersome title of major league coaching assistant.
Leary's skills as an organization man came early. "You hear the expression that someone is anal retentive?" Leary said. "That was my mother, Judith, and my family, and it's carried over to my wife [Candace]. I chose a Type A severely anal-retentive woman to marry.
"Part of me likes things neat and orderly, part of it was my mom's strong hand."
Leary grew up in San Carlos, Calif., an affluent suburb about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. He was 7 when he first met Barry Bonds in a coaches-pitch league; the two became friends and teammates at Juniper Serra High School, the legendary athletic factory that produced such stars as Tom Brady and Lynn Swann in football, Jim Fregosi and Gregg Jefferies in baseball.
Leary played quarterback and Bonds wide receiver at Juniper Serra. Leary pitched and caught on the baseball team.
Bonds became the game's greatest home run hitter and controversial figure. Leary, who remains a loyal friend, was drafted as a catcher, was behind the plate for Randy Johnson in the Florida State League and made it as high as Triple-A, where he spent a week and got a hit in one of only two at-bats at the end of a season. At the end of that season, John Boles, who was running Montreal's farm system, proposed that Leary become manager of the team's Rookie League entry.
Leary was 27.
"People figured out at a young age what kind of player Rob Leary would be -- he'll be a good manager," said Leary, who is now 46. "I took it as a great compliment."
He was only halfway through his first season as a manager when he got promoted: When Pat Kelly, the father of Sox top prospect Casey Kelly, was moved up to another level, Leary became manager of the Expos' Class A team in Rockford, Ill.
In 1995, he went over to the Florida Marlins as a minor league catching instructor, and eventually wound up as their field coordinator before coming to the Sox in 2003. His combined experience with the Marlins and Sox means he has run 11 minor league spring trainings, instructional leagues and June mini-camps.
He's got this camp stuff down cold, although he is the first to acknowledge that it is hardly a one-man job. There is input from all the minor league managers, coaches and roving instructors, the medical staff, and the strength and conditioning staff. In previous spring trainings, he generally spoke to Mills a couple of times a day, determining which minor league players might be used in certain exhibition games and what extra staff would be required by Francona.
He and Francona began mapping out this spring almost as soon as Leary was given this new assignment in November. Numerous e-mails and text messages followed, and just before Christmas he met in Florida with Francona and new bench coach DeMarlo Hale to talk in greater detail.
Each coach has significant input: Pitching coach John Farrell maps out the pitching groups and the throwing schedule for the pitchers, and batting coach Dave Magadan does the same for the hitters. Tim Bogar, who will coach the infielders, and Hale, who instructs the outfielders, also were on Leary's speed dial, and he also sought the counsel of some of the minor league coaches and instructors.
Baseball camps tend to be mocked for their lack of intensity, especially in comparison to the other pro sports, most notably football. But long gone, Leary said, are the days when players show up for spring training intending to work off the excess pounds gained over the winter. At the end of a season, every player is given a program for offseason conditioning, and the expectation is that players arrive to camp in shape.
So once camp begins, the idea is not to have daily marathon sessions on the field, but to compress highly specific work and drills into two to three hours. Most field work is done by around noon, followed for most players by weight training.
"The goal is to keep the player stimulated with meaningful and purposeful work, and keep the focus narrow on any given day," Leary said.
There's also an awareness, he said, that the goals can vary from player to player. A veteran uses spring training to prepare for the season, unless he is in direct competition for a job. A kid in his first big league camp, on the other hand, usually has no chance of making the club. The goal for him is to make a good first impression, on the manager and coaches, and his teammates.
Some components remain the same day to day, and often begin before the team assembles to work out. "Hitters all have their routines," Leary said, "and some guys begin as early as 7 o'clock to hit in the tunnels."
Francona generally meets with the staff at around 8 a.m., to discuss the day's plans and to get a medical update on the team. The media has access to the clubhouse for approximately an hour and a half, before the doors are closed around 9. The team then takes the field for light games of catch and stretching exercises, before players split up into six groups that rotate among Fort Myers' five practice fields and the batting cages.
The outfielders and infielders go to respective fields for position-specific drills; a shortstop, for example, will field a certain number of ground balls hit directly at him, then a number to his left and a number to his right. Throwing is carefully moderated for all positions early in camp; the goal is to build up arm strength.
Pitchers, meanwhile, take up a couple of diamonds to work on fielding drills -- they're called PFPs, or pitchers' fielding practice -- before heading in groups to the bullpen area, where there are a half-dozen mounds from which to throw. The progression for the pitchers goes from long tossing to side sessions to pitching live batting practice, with one group throwing one day, the other on the next.
Hitters begin camp batting against coaches before stepping in against live pitching.
But in addition to the daily routines, Leary's schedule also incorporates time devoted to practicing a particular skill: rundown plays, bunt defense, outfield relays and cutoffs, first-and-third stolen base defensive plays and pickoff plays. These are nothing new for many players, of course; the trick is to keep the drills sufficiently interesting that the players maintain their focus.
What seems like drudgery in March, of course, can mean the difference between playing or not in October.
Consider, for example, one of the great highlight plays of recent times: the playoff game in which Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter reacted to an outfield overthrow and raced to the first-base line to retrieve the ball, then flipped it backhanded to the plate to catch Oakland's Jeremy Giambi trying to score.
Was Jeter's play a matter of being where he was supposed to be, or individual genius?
"A little bit of both," Leary said. "I can say from our standpoint that the shortstop's responsibility isn't to be down the first-base line. On that play [the ball was hit into the right-field corner], the shortstop is supposed to be in the second-base area to help with an overthrow on the cutoff. I've never seen where Derek was at the start of that play, but I'm guessing he was in the second-base area, probably on the [infield] grass.
"But what impressed me is how quickly he read the bust, read the terrible throw, and his instincts and speed and agility took him into that area. A great play."
But ones that shouldn't come as an alien event, if players are paying attention in camp.
By the first week of March, the exhibition games begin, with the work on fundamentals taking place in the morning before games. The players who don't hop a bus for road games stay back and have supervised workouts; it's Leary's job to coordinate which staff is where.
"You build up to the spring games, then you build up to April 4," Leary said, referring to the date of the first regular-season game. "You don't want to wear them out."
Once the season begins, Leary will be with the team to assist Francona in running batting practice. During games he will be doing video analysis, and also will help the advance scouts when they assemble their reports. He is not allowed in the dugout once the game begins.
But after a quarter of a century, Leary is in the big leagues. Spring training will be his Olympics.
The Red Sox have a new man in charge of keeping spring camp on course.