Judging the Royals

Lee Judge: Spring training is an organizational nightmare, but it can’t look like one

Spring training may look like fun and games, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation that takes place to make sure it all falls together without a hitch.
Spring training may look like fun and games, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation that takes place to make sure it all falls together without a hitch. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Last Wednesday afternoon I got hit by the flu. Since then I’ve been lying on my couch pretty much around the clock, but I’m now ready to step outside for the first time in four days … and if I see my shadow, I assume it means six more weeks of coughing.

But enough about me.

Unless I’ve totally lost track of time — which seems like a distinct possibility — today is Feb. 13 and pitchers and catchers report to the Kansas City Royals’ spring training facility in Surprise, Ariz. Tomorrow, those pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout.

Those of us back home will soon get bombarded with pictures and videos of ballplayers frolicking in the Arizona sun. (Actually, I’ve never seen a ballplayer “frolic,” and if I accused Mike Moustakas of doing so he might punch me in the nose — and I wouldn’t blame him.)

Anyway … those sorts of pictures make spring training look like a lot of fun, but it’s more like watching a swan glide across a lake: elegant above the waterline but paddling like hell underneath the surface.

A few problems we tend not to think about

The Royals’ spring training complex has six and a half practice fields. (The half field is an infield used for bunting, infield play, etc.)

Eventually the spring training complex will fill up with all the organization’s players from Omaha, Northwest Arkansas, Wilmington, Lexington and East Horse’s Breath, Wyo. (Relax … I made that last one up.) The point is the complex will be filled with a whole lot of ballplayers, and they have to be kept busy and productive ... and that takes some planning.

Everybody needs eye exams and physicals, contact information needs to be updated, uniforms need to be fitted, buses need to be scheduled, as do English lessons … oh … and you might want to feed everybody and give them showers and time in the weight room and do their laundry and arrange their living quarters and dozens of other things that aren’t occurring to me right now. (I’m blaming the flu; I’m much sharper when I’m not busy coughing up a lung.)

And the players can’t all eat, shower or work out with weights at the same time, so you have to stagger all these activities — which is why the minor-league guys have to show up early so they can eat breakfast and get the heck out of the big leaguers’ way.

What about baseball?

So far we’ve only talked about mundane matters like laundry and lunch, but what about baseball?

When teams plan spring training, they figure out what they were weak on the year before and what they want to work in the spring. Every day the Royals list a daily “fundamental” and everybody works on it that day.

But let’s say the daily fundamental is “cutoffs and relays,” and one of the outfield coaches wants his outfielders to throw to bases. Something’s got to give. You can’t have the outfielders max out their arms in two different throwing drills on the same day.

So all the drills and activities need to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and that means someone has to stand back and look at the whole picture. If you’re doing cutoffs and relays as the daily fundamental, you might want to work on base-running drills the same day. Using two different muscle groups prevents a bunch of outfielders from developing sore arms.

But what do you do when something gets screwed up?

‘If something goes wrong, fake your @#$ off’

That’s a direct quote from a coach on another team, except he didn’t say “@#$.”

It’s OK for a coach to complain in a coaches’ meeting behind closed doors; it’s not OK to complain in front of the players. If you’ve scheduled a bunting drill on Field 4 and the pitching machine isn’t set up when you get there, you don’t start dumping on the grounds crew in front of the players; do that and now the players think it’s OK to dump on the grounds crew. And pretty soon everybody’s sniping at each other, and then you have an unhappy camp.

If the pitching machine isn’t there, throw the pitches yourself or make sure you get a message to the grounds crew without any of the players knowing.

Better yet, get your butt out to the field early and make sure the machine is there before the players ever show up. That way you can correct the mistake before the players know someone made one.

Why not admit a mistake, you ask? It destroys confidence.

You don’t want players walking around saying the organization is a mess. We’ve all been invited to a meeting where the people who called the meeting can’t get their power-point presentation to work, and it doesn’t do much for your confidence. If they can’t handle the small stuff, what are the odds they’ve got a grip on the big stuff?

And you never ask the players what they want to do. Set that precedent and in the middle of a game when you call for a steal, some player is going to feel free to argue — after all, you’ve asked for his input in the past.

How to spot a good spring training camp

If you’re lucky enough to visit Surprise during spring training, pay attention to the time between drills; if players are finishing one drill and smoothly going on to the next one, that’s a sign that things are well-organized and efficient.

If players are standing around waiting for the next drill to be set up, that’s not so good.

I’ve asked whether it’s possible to have a bad spring training but a good season, and the answer is yes, if the players are talented enough. But who wants to have to overcome a bad start?

Fortunately for Royals fans, Kansas City has the reputation of running well-organized spring trainings. Of course, running a well-organized spring training doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to the playoffs.

But it’s a start.

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