- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Royals manager Trey Hillman invited eight veteran infielders to his house for a mini-camp in the offseason. That's a sentence that I'm sure I've never written before, nor has anyone else. Hillman has a major league infield in the backyard of his 3-acre lot, and this was a chance for his infielders, including new first baseman Mike Jacobs, to familiarize themselves with certain philosophies and certain drills before spring training began.
"After the workouts," Hillman said, "we had cookouts. It's about team building. It was fun."
It's all about communicating. It's all about trying to connect with the players in order to get the most out of them, which is what managing is all about, especially in today's game. Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams didn't do it this way; he'd go a month without talking to some of his players. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver didn't do it this way; he didn't need to have individual, heart-to-heart meetings with players in spring training as some managers do now. When Pat Kelly, a former Orioles outfielder, went to Weaver to tell him of his plan to join the ministry, he waited for the perfect moment, then told his manager, "Earl, I'm going to walk with the Lord." And Earl said, "I'd rather you walked with the bases loaded!"
Thirty years ago, even 20 years ago, that was the relationship between a player and a manager. The manager was in charge, and everyone knew it. Things have changed, however. The players in today's game are spectacularly talented, more talented and athletic than they've ever been. But with their gifts, their agents, their fame and their money has come a sense of entitlement that can be annoying, if not harmful, to a club. A few years ago, when Frank Robinson, then the Nationals' manager, was told that "the players think they're in charge today," Robinson said, "Think they're in charge? They are in charge."
That may be slowly changing, and it's being changed by the managers. Last year, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel twice benched the reigning National League MVP, Jimmy Rollins, for not hustling or for being late to a game. This spring, Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin set the rules early again: We hustle here. And when a veteran player didn't do so in an early workout, he got a quick reminder, and then he did it right. This spring, a young White Sox player didn't know who Harold Baines was, or that his No. 3 is retired by the club. The next day, White Sox coach Joey Cora introduced several members of the White Sox to the young player.
"This is Harold Baines," Cora said. "There's a bronze statue of him on the concourse in our ballpark."
It's not clear when or how this new communication started, but Angels manager Mike Scioscia had something to do with it. Every day in spring training, he addresses his team; every player has to be at his locker. Sometimes, it just takes a minute, a "let's go get 'em today" reminder. But most days, it's much more involved, including assigning tasks to players, then having them perform that task in front of the team. That way, players get to know their teammates a little better by speaking to them as a group. This spring, Scioscia sent a few players to a local gymnastics meet, then they had to give a report in front of the team the following morning. Scioscia sent another group to the Renaissance Festival. A few years ago, pitcher Ramon Ortiz did a demonstration on how to catch a fish barehanded.
It's about consistency. You have to be fair, firm and consistent; that's our thing. [The players] have to know that you're there every day.
”-- Indians manager Eric Wedge
"Mike is the best," Angels coach Ron Roenicke said. "Other managers do things like this, but no manager -- I promise -- is better at it than Mike. No manager has a mind like his."
One of Scioscia's protégés, Rays manager Joe Maddon, does similar things in spring training. Last spring, the Rays had a joke of the day: Someone told a joke, and it became the theme for the day. Maddon and certain coaches also meet individually with every player on the team during spring training. The appointment times are set well in advance -- four or five meetings a day -- and they average about 10 to 15 minutes per meeting. Each player is told what is expected of him, and each player is allowed to talk about anything that he likes.
"With mine," new Rays reliever Joe Nelson said with a smile, "Joe called me in, looked at my numbers last season [54 innings pitched, 42 hits allowed and 60 strikeouts] and said, 'Hey, you're good.'"
This year, the Rays have continued the lighthearted approach in spring training, all in the name of team-building fun. When one of the Rays' coaches, Todd Greene, decided that non-roster pitcher Jason Cromer was spending a little too much time in the trainer's room, Greene arranged for a training table to be brought out onto the field during stretching exercises, and had Cromer, in full view of fans and everyone else, lie down on it. When it was decided that new Rays outfielder Matt Joyce spent an inordinate amount of time eating in the kitchen, it was arranged to have him eat a huge sandwich in front of everyone during stretching.
New Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, who is extremely intelligent, also meets individually with all of his players. He asks them all sorts of questions, including their interests, their best friends on the team, etc. He does this all in the spirit of trying to figure out who they are, and how he is going to get the best from them. So far, the M's have had a very smooth camp. The Royals have done similar things with their players. And their camp has gone smoother in part because Hillman, their manager, has acknowledged being looser this spring.
"He has been great," said Jacobs of Hillman.
"He's a different guy this spring," said one player. "He's way more relaxed."
Indians manager Eric Wedge meets with his team every morning in spring training. On the board in the clubhouse is the directive: In uniform at your locker at 9:25 a.m. Sometimes, it's just a quick word, nothing elaborate, but the idea is that everyone is together.
"It's about consistency," Wedge said. "You have to be fair, firm and consistent; that's our thing. They have to know that you're there every day. It's a good team-building thing."
That's what the Angels are about. One spring, Jarrod Washburn, then an Angels pitcher, and a couple of young players were assigned to cover a local ostrich festival. For $150 and a couple of autographed balls, Washburn, the team prankster, convinced the workers at the festival to bring the ostrich to the Angels' clubhouse the next morning. "I told them, 'The team meeting is at 9:30 a.m.; make sure you're there,'" Washburn said. "At 9:30, in they walked with the ostrich. It was chaos. Guys were screaming with laughter." Scioscia was one of them. "[Pitcher] Ramon Ortiz jumped in his locker," Washburn said. "He was holding on to the walls and yelling, in Spanish, 'Get that big chicken away from me!' It was hilarious. I don't think anything we do will ever top the ostrich."
Then-Angels first baseman Scott Spiezio did in a way. "He was given the word 'erudite' to research," Scioscia said. "He got all mixed up and researched the wrong word. He researched 'hermaphrodite,' not 'erudite.' So he's up there talking about all this sexual stuff, and everyone in the room is laughing. From 'caveat' to 'hermaphrodite,' I've learned a lot of new words."
Roenicke says nothing that happened this spring could match the ostrich or Spiezio's hilarious mistake. "But there have been several times this spring when our guys rolled out of the clubhouse laughing as they went on the field," Roenicke said. "It's fun. And that's good."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.