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It's not the same old ballgame at spring training

Years ago, major league players generally used the time to get into shape, but now they typically show up in top condition after working out during the off-season, often under the watchful eye of their clubs.

February 18, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Philllies pitcher Cliff Lee stretches before a workout before the start of spring training on Saturday in Clearwater, Fla.
Philllies pitcher Cliff Lee stretches before a workout before the start… (Matt Slocum / Associated…)

Sometime soon, Phil Niekro plans to make his way from his home outside Atlanta to the Braves' spring-training site near Orlando, Florida, where he'll watch a little baseball, play a lot of golf and, as he does every year, throw some batting practice.

Niekro is 72, but he can still lob it in there. Besides, age doesn't really matter since anybody who has ever picked up a baseball feels young again when spring training rolls around.

Even a man who reported to his first camp more than half a century ago.

"I think everyone enjoys spring training," the Hall of Fame member said. "That's the fun time of year."

The rites of spring have changed drastically since Niekro's rookie year.

Where the majority of teams were once based in Florida, half are now around Phoenix. The training complexes, once little more than a single pot-holed field of yellow grass, now sprawl over several acres, housing up to a dozen immaculate diamonds. And while the fans are more plentiful — and spending considerably more money — the workouts are actually shorter.

Yet, despite all that, when 20 of the 30 major league teams welcome pitchers and catchers back this weekend the most noticeable change between then and now will be the players themselves.

"The guys today are in much, much better physical condition than we were," Niekro said.

The reason has nothing to do with the spring and everything to do with the winter.

Players now "stay in shape the whole year around," former Dodgers outfielder Al Ferrara said. "They know about diet. Our diet was a pizza and a beer. We came into spring training basically out of shape and worked ourselves into shape."

And, in more than a few cases, worked themselves into sobriety too.

"The drying-out period for a lot of us was also part of the action," Ferrara said. "But that was the day. And that day was a lot different than it is today."

Ferrara, who played for the Dodgers in the 1960s, was one of the few players from that era who showed up ready to go each spring, partly because he spent the winters playing in Latin America.

The economics of the time forced many players to hold down some kind of off-season job. Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Richie Hebner dug graves in the winter. More typical was the experience of former Dodgers outfielder Tommy Davis, who worked for a Brooklyn department store.

"We didn't do very much in the winter," Davis said. "And we came down and got in shape. We didn't have a lot of [winter] injuries. It's tough to get injuries when you're drinking beer."

All that changed with free agency, which drove the average salary from $29,303 in 1970, Ferrara's final full season, to more than $3.34 million last season. The big league minimum salary will rise this season to $480,000.

As a result, players can afford to hire nutritionists and personal trainers or attend winter workout camps.

"There was nothing like that," Niekro said. "I kept myself in shape in the off-season by playing ping-pong. In ping-pong you've got to have real quick feet and good hand and eye reflexes. So I really worked on that a lot."

If that sounds funny, remember this when some chiseled superstar is sidelined on opening day because of an injury: Wintering in a department store, Davis hit .294 and averaged 118 games per year over 17 seasons. Ping-pong training resulted in Niekro throwing more career innings than any pitcher in the last eight decades.

"At some point along the line, people realized … they had to come in in shape in order to compete," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers senior director of medical services. "More people were getting into the gyms and then teams started developing strength and conditioning programs that extended into the off-season.

"[But] we still have a lot of the same injuries that we've been seeing over the years in spite of advancements in our strength and conditioning programs."

One reason for that, Conte said, is that while winter workouts build muscle, endurance and improve overall fitness, few mimic the kind of movements baseball requires.

"The objective is actually to run the bases, throw the ball, pitch the ball and hit the ball," he said. "And the best way to do that is to actually to do those [things]."

Which is why nearly three dozen Dodgers pitchers will show up for the first day of spring training Tuesday fresh off a team mini-camp last month. The Dodgers are one of several teams who now keep close tabs on their top players all winter, allowing them to both identify potential injury problems as well as make better use of their six-week spring training.

"In the old days, a lot of times a coach or a trainer would not put his eyes on a player from September until February," Conte said. "Now … we probably put our hands on about 120 to 130 players in the off-season, physically seeing them."

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