It’s noon and the desert sun is beating down.
It’s not too bad in the shade, but there’s no shade where Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas and coach Mike Jirschele are standing; they’re on one of the backfields of the Royals spring training complex.
Moose is standing at third base while Jirsch is positioned at home plate with a fungo bat. Jirsch has two big buckets of baseballs and one by one he uses them to hit ground balls to Moose.
There are dozens of fans 30 feet away on the other side of a chain-link fence watching Moose work. They watch in silence; even the least informed of them seems to understand that this is work.
And Jirsch isn’t making things easy on Moose; he hits ground balls to the left and right, forcing Moose to move his feet and get set up in the proper position. When Jirsch thinks Moose needs a break, he hits ground balls right at him.
Moose is “getting his feet under him” and that means taking grounder after grounder to get his legs in game shape.
Good defense begins with the feet; get to the right spot at the right time and catching the ball becomes much easier. Get lazy, quit moving your feet, start reaching for the ball and making those plays becomes much tougher.
Moose is wearing a practice glove; an undersized infield glove so small that a ball has little chance of sticking if it’s not caught in the pocket. That forces Moose to concentrate and when he goes back to his regular-size infield glove, catching a ground ball will seem comparatively easy.
After Moose makes a catch he flips the ball toward the third base coach’s box; this work is about his hands and feet, not his arm and there’s no need to make dozens of unnecessary throws.
After Moose makes a particular difficult backhand play, Jirsch encourages him to work from the “bottom up.” That means having the glove beneath the ball as it arrives and bringing it up to make the catch. Get tired or lazy and it’s easier to stay upright and then bend down as the ball arrives — but bend a heartbeat too late and the ball is past you.
Better to start down and work up.
After dozens and dozens of ground balls, Moose is dripping with sweat and pauses to take a drink from a water bottle. Jirsch asks if he’s had enough and Moose say no. Jirsch has already hit Moose one bucket of baseballs and they’re working on the second bucket.
Moose wants to know how many balls are left in that second bucket and Jirsche says it’s about a quarter full; Moose says go ahead and hit the rest.
After more than a hundred grounders, Jirsch picks up the last ball in the second bucket and tells Moose he’s got to make the last play; in baseball you don’t end practice on a negative note. You always want to make that last play or square up that last batting practice pitch — if you don’t, you do it over.
So Moose is ready for the last play, anticipating a tough one, but Jirsch hits him an easy chopper. Moose declines to end on that and asks for a hard one and Jirsch obliges; this time it’s a hard chopper that takes Moose into foul territory to catch the ball. Then Moose jumps and whirls and makes his first throw of the day; a one-hop strike to first base.
But practice isn’t over.
In baseball you don’t leave the field until the baseballs are picked up and even if you’re a star in the big leagues you don’t make someone else pick them up for you. You also thank the coach that hit the balls or threw the pitches; you were working out of self-interest, he was working to make you better.
And if you make a great play in a big-league game, you’ll get the credit. Nobody is going to say that play would not have been possible without the coach that got you ready.
So make sure you say thanks to your coach; there’s a good chance no one else will.
As Moose walks to the outfield to pick up some of the balls that made it that far, fans begin to ask for autographs. Moose says, “I hear you” and asks them to give him a few minutes. He finishes picking up baseballs in the blazing sun and then wearily walks over to the fence and begins to sign autographs.
And Moose signs for a long time.
We see big-league ballplayers make incredible plays and assume they made those plays because they’re naturally talented — and they are. But talent only takes you so far; to make it to the big leagues and stay there also requires hard work.
And one afternoon, on a practice field under a blazing sun, some of us got to see just how hard that work can be.