A's infield and third base coach Mike Gallego told us a year ago that he improved his focus as an infielder by counting the bounces on every ground ball hit to him, and he told us that during the earthquake in the 1989 World Series, as Candlestick Park was literally shaking around him, he risked his life going back into the pitch black clubhouse to retrieve his glove.
That's how important his glove was to him, that's how important defense is to a team, a philosophy that he imparts on his infielders every day. The A's led the American League in ERA last season in part because of their defense, which, in the infield, is led by Gallego, who is 5-foot-6 and "couldn't hit" but played 13 years in the major leagues because every day, at shortstop or second base, he vowed to be the best defender on the field.
Here are some of things that he teaches:
"I ask our infielders, 'In a three-hour game, how many of you are completely focused on every pitch?'" Gallego said. "A few of our guys raised their hands. I said, 'Bull.' Then I asked, 'OK, how many of you are completely focused on every pitch when on defense?' A few guys raised their hands. I said 'Bull.' Then I said, 'If our pitchers throw 130 pitches per game, two seconds per pitch, that's a total of 260 seconds that you have to be perfectly focused out of a three-hour game. That's four minutes and 20 seconds. Let's round it off to five minutes. How many of you guys are completely focused for five minutes? A bunch of hands go up. I said, 'Bull.' You guys are at two minutes. We need five."
It is more than focus, it's also about asserting yourself as a defender, especially when you are the shortstop. A's shortstop Cliff Pennington gets better and better every day on defense, and few shortstops can throw like him. Last year, he made a tremendous play on a ball up the middle to end an inning, but when he returned to the dugout, Gallego blasted him.
"Dallas Braden had just thrown a no-hitter, so maybe Cliff was a little intimidated by him," Gallego said. "Dallas gave up a broken-bat hit with one out, putting men at first and third. Dallas was upset. Cliff yelled to him about coverage [at second on the potential double play]. Four times he tried to get Dallas' attention, but Dallas wasn't listening. So, the ball was hit back to Dallas, and he wasn't sure who was covering. He hesitated, Cliff got the ball, threw to first, the runner was safe, we didn't get the double play, the run scored and the game was tied. Cliff's great play on the next play kept the score tied, and everyone was congratulating him when he came into the dugout. But I screamed at him, I told him that he is the captain of the infield, he is charge of the coverage, and the next time, he had better go to the mound and TELL Dallas the coverage, or I'd go take him out myself!"
It's more than focus, and leadership, it's about looking for every edge you can get as an infielder.
"I ask our middle infielders, 'Who is the second base umpire today?'" Gallego said. "Most times they look at me as if to say, 'I don't know. Who cares?' I always cared. Umpires are human beings. When I played, I did a little research on the bio of the second base umpire every game. If the guy was from Notre Dame, I'd go out of my way, before a game, or between innings, to ask, 'How are the Irish doing?' I knew another umpire that loved to eat. So I'd always say to him, 'Where are you going to eat tonight? Chinese? I know a great place.' And he'd say, 'Hey, thanks, Mike.' So now, if there's a bang-bang play at second, maybe I'll get a break. And if we're running a pickoff play at second, I'll tell the umpire, 'Third pitch, heads up, we might be doing something here.' He'll say, 'Thanks, Mike' If we are, I don't say a word, I just look at him. Then he'll be on top of the play."
These are the little tips that Gallego gives to his infielders, to possibly get an edge in case the game is on the line and every advantage is needed. Or if your pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, as Yankee Jim Abbott was with two outs in the ninth inning in 1993 at Yankee Stadium.
"Our [the Yankees'] shortstop that day was Randy Velarde, and he told this story," Gallego said. "Two outs in the ninth, no-hitter on the line, Velarde looked around and [third baseman] Wade Boggs was in his stance pounding his glove, he was ready. I was at second. I was hopping in place. I was ready. [Don] Mattingly was at first. He was shifting back and forth like a goalie in hockey. He was ready. And Velarde said to himself, Look at me, I'm not even moving. I'm stuck in cement. Please, don't hit it to me. And, of course, the guy did. Randy was so stiff on the play and so scared, he kind of forced the ball over to first, but got the guy. Randy was the happiest man in the world after that."
He got away with one. Usually you don't, especially on defense. That's what Gallego teaches.
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 in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.