- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The road to spring training is not a highway lined with palm trees.
The real road to spring training is long and lonely and (especially) sweaty.
When you throw baseballs for a living, the road to spring training begins in early November, when spring training still feels as if it's farther away than Uzbekistan.
It's a road lined with thousands of long tosses in an empty ballpark, with billions of crunches and stretches and exercise reps, with hours spent jogging or sprinting or both of the above.
This is a road that none of us civilians ever see. But the part of baseball we do get to see -- the part that goes on from February through October -- wouldn't be possible without it.
That's why there might not be a less sensible word in the whole English language than "offseason." Where's the "off" in it?
"There's really no offseason when it comes to baseball," says Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf. "I think that's one thing that's really hard for people outside of it to understand."
Well, he's right about that. So Wolf -- who signed a one-year, $7.5-million free-agent contract to join the Dodgers this winter, after eight seasons in Philadelphia -- agreed to let ESPN.com follow him through an entire January workout day. Because he did, we can now let you in on a side of baseball most people never get to see.
This is how a pitcher gets ready for spring training.
There's a philosophy behind every bead of sweat he generates. To learn more about that part of this story, just keep on reading.
The "other" schedule
Every player has his handy-dandy little pocket schedule that lays out his life from March to September. But in the "offseason," the script isn't printed anywhere but inside a guy's brain.
"When the end of the season comes, you want to just not do anything for a while," Wolf says. "You don't want to have any responsibilities. You don't want to have anywhere to go. You want to just veg for a little bit."
But after three or four weeks in the vegetable bin, vegging time is up. So Wolf normally begins easing his way into shape -- pitching shape -- in early November.
"It's amazing what happens after three or four weeks, how amazingly out of shape you feel when you start up again," says the 30-year-old left-hander. "And that's the hardest part, to start up again."
But once he turns it on, he never pulls the plug. "From then on," Wolf says, "it's just work."
Why he does what he does
You need a different workout plan to pitch a couple of hundred innings than you do to, say, climb Mount Fuji. So it's no accident that Wolf's program includes the variety of aerobics, throwing, strength and agility work that it does.
But the funny thing is, his philosophy of what to do is based in great part on his philosophy about what not to do.
He has seen a lot of players, he says, who hire personal trainers and spend their winters doing work they can't possibly keep up during the season.
All that heavy strength-building work on their legs and upper bodies makes them great candidates for the cover of "Muscle and Fitness" by the time they roll into spring training. But then, Wolf says, "all of a sudden the season starts and they don't do anything they did in the offseason. And for me, there's really no point in that.
"If you're going to do all this work in December, January and February, and all of a sudden March-April-May-June come around, and all that stuff you don't do anymore, all that strength is going to go away. So I'd rather have a routine that's more similar to what I'm going to do during the season."
How this light bulb went on
Once upon a time, like most of the species, Wolf never worked out. But when he got to college at Pepperdine, his first pitching coach, former Twins and Angels pitcher Geoff Zahn, changed all that.
Before he met Zahn, "I just got on the mound, threw as hard as I could, and didn't understand the physical aspect of staying in shape and what I needed to do in between starts to get myself ready," Wolf says. "Luckily, I had a guy who pitched 12 years in the big leagues who taught me a great work ethic."
Learning what to do -- and not to do
A work ethic can be a beautiful thing. But it also can be a dangerous thing if you don't know how to work out. And it took Wolf a few years to find out it's possible to work too hard.
"I want to be in baseball shape," he says. "I'm not going to run a marathon or be a decathlon athlete. I'm training to have 35 starts, hopefully more than that [if his team makes the playoffs]. That's what I'm training to do. And I think there were times during the season where I lost my stamina because I didn't listen to my body. I'd go too hard, too hard, too hard, and then I'd fade out.
"Back when I was 22, 23, 24 years old, I was big into running and keeping in shape that way, and I wouldn't change my routine. I was still into running five, six miles. And then all of a sudden, I'm in the sixth inning and my legs were dead, and I'd have no idea why. I realize now I was just working too hard the days I was not pitching."
So over time, he learned the art of listening to his body. He also had to learn the specifics of how to work, how to stretch, what to strengthen -- in other words, what specifically to do and not to do.
Most of his current regimen was devised by recently retired Phillies trainer Jeff Cooper. And now, every move has a purpose.
"Basically, it's all preventive care." Wolf says. "That's all arm exercises are. A little bit is for stamina and velocity. But it's basically what's called rehab when you're hurt, and, when you're not hurt, it's prehab."
"The funny thing is you could be running 10 miles a day and be squatting 1,000 pounds, and be in the most amazing shape of your life. But you're still guaranteed to be sore after the first two days of spring training."
-- Randy Wolf
The Tommy John Factor
Speaking of rehab, Wolf knows way too much about that topic now --because last winter, that's all he was doing.
He was coming off July Tommy John surgery. So he was in the middle of, for all intents and purposes, a 10-month offseason.
He eventually made it back in midseason and made 12 starts for the Phillies. But now he's building toward his first healthy season in 2½ years. So he has altered his normal offseason throwing schedule, at the suggestion of his new pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt.
"Because I'm just coming off the injury, I think I'm a little more aggressive this winter," he says. "I want to go into spring training a little bit stronger than usual, a little more game-ready. I don't want to feel like I have to play catch-up with my arm. So I started throwing a little bit earlier this year."
When Wolf returned to the big leagues last summer, his arm strength returned with him. What didn't come along was the command he once had before his surgery.
So this winter, regaining control has been part of the program.
The key to doing that, he says, is merely focusing on the little things -- on "when I play catch, having a purpose, just trying to hit the glove every single time."
Is it possible to use the winter to get your brain ready for the season ahead? Randy Wolf thinks it is, anyway.
There might not be any machines in the gym that will stretch your medulla oblongata. But "mental preparation starts in the offseason, as well," Wolf says.
"A lot of times, when you're out there throwing, you're just throwing," he says. "You're getting your 50 to 80 throws in and you're trying to feel good. But when you start with a purpose, you say, 'All right, I want to throw to his left shoulder,' and really just work on that.
"Or I'll pay attention to what I'm doing with my lead arm. 'Am I following through? Why am I off-balance? All right, let's get on balance.' You start thinking about just baseball-mode things and concentrating on each throw. That's where you're going to have a head start when spring training starts, when the games start, when the season starts."
But there's also one more mind game we can all relate to -- setting his imagination in motion.
"At this time of year, it's funny, but I start thinking about a whole bunch of situations," Wolf says. "I start thinking about commanding an inside fastball, setting it up with a 1-1 curve, and little things like that.
"I think that's really important," he says, "because there's really no doubt that the mental part of the game is much more dominant than the physical side of the game."
How you know when you're ready
When all this begins after Halloween, there's a finish line way off in the distance. Technically, that line arrives the day he leaves for spring training. But figuratively, it's more than just a date on the calendar.
How does a player know when he's ready for the grind? Hey, you never know until that grind starts. But after a while, you learn how to get there.
"For me," Wolf says, "it's just a matter of knowing you've done it over the years and there's only so much you can do. It's kind of like studying for a test. You do everything you can to get ready for it. And when the test comes, you're either ready for it or you're not."
After putting in his four hours a day, five or six days a week, for three months, he looks ready. And feels ready. And sounds ready. But is he really ready?
"The funny thing is," he says," you could be running 10 miles a day and be squatting 1,000 pounds, and be in the most amazing shape of your life. But you're still guaranteed to be sore after the first two days of spring training."
And that, Randy Wolf says with a laugh, is why "a lot of guys say the best way to prepare for spring training is just to go out on your lawn, put on a pair of spikes and just stand there for two hours."
Well, here's an even funnier thing: That's a drill nobody actually does -- not even a pitcher who has made every other conceivable stop on the road to spring training.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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