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April 12, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Spring Training Psychonightmare

by Jason Parks

Detox
The spring training detoxification process started when I received my boarding pass from the obnoxiously attractive boarding pass czar at the JetBue terminal at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. Her name was “Katie.” It was 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night and my mental state closely resembled Nick Nolte’s liver. As I approached “Katie,” my eyes were stinging from the Arizona scene and my skin was rocking this half Guatemalan/half English-countryside tone that made me look slightly dangerous and unkempt. I’d been living in Surprise for five weeks. I started talking to myself at some point during the second week. 

“Will you be checking any bags?” She obviously wanted to know my darkest secrets. “Mr. Parks? Will you be checking any bags?”

Playing along with her game, I reluctantly answered and our relationship took a step forward.

“You look like you’ve been out in the sun.” Katie didn’t miss much. “New York? I’ve always wanted to visit New York.” Chuck Woolery would offer to pay for the date at this point. “You are all set, Mr. Parks. Have a great flight.”

Just like that, Katie and I parted ways. She passed me a folded piece of heavy stock paper, which I assumed had her cell phone number and a list of her personal likes and dislikes. I played it cool, gave her a wink (I can’t wink, so it probably looked a little suspect [read: palsy]), and drifted into the night. The piece of paper in my hand turned out to be the credit card receipt for the second checked bag. Take it easy, “Katie.” Thanks for the memories. 

I was three hours deep into my five-hour flight, and I never felt more isolated. I spent 60 percent of the first three hours staring into space and the other 40 percent thinking about what I'd like to think about in the last two hours of the flight. I tried to find solace in my television viewing options, but you can only watch original Bravo programming so many times before you start to hate your own life and wish harm upon one or all of the Housewives. I reached into my hipster-approved messenger bag to find the contraband alcohol I smuggled onto the plane and stumbled upon the three scouting journals I kept during my tour of duty. I was quickly transported back to Surprise, where I lived a strange Groundhog Day-like adventure for an amazing and terrible 35 days. Two hours until wheels down at JFK. I might as well ask for a club soda, open up the alcoholic stowaway living under the seat in front of me, take a quick drink (or two) while the stewards tend to the snack needs of the other passengers, and reconstruct the formula my daily life followed. The sun will be up shortly.

A Day in the Life…
I rented a furnished apartment at The Cliffs at Sun Ridge, which housed more suspect personnel than any complex I've ever had the privilege of visiting. I didn't do an official poll, but I'm pretty sure 90 percent of the occupants had substantial criminal records, and at least 75 percent had starring roles on "COPS." If you enjoy smoking meth, making meth, wearing Rude Dog t-shirts, watching television with your front door open, smoking more meth, smoking Misty cigarettes, digging through the trash for treasure, or drinking hard liquor from plastic bottles in front of your shoeless children, this apartment might be what you're looking for. Tell them Jason sent you. Ask for Kent.

Most days saw me up by 7:30 a.m., but I did manage to sleep until 8:30 a few times. I cherished those days like Cristiano Ronaldo cherishes his bone structure. After a quick up-and-at-‘em shower, I would normally devour a Clif Bar and a banana, but the granola bar experience was always a letdown because the chewy texture I had grown to expect was replaced by the stale, sawdust-like taste of food purchased at a Wal-Mart. Aside from a few mornings when time was on my side and Starbucks was an easy in-and-out, this was my morning meal. 

Before leaving the apartment to head to the fields, I went through my checklist: radar gun, notebooks, two pens (Zebra Orbitz Gel Retractable 0.7 mm—I'm very particular about the pens), bottle of water, stopwatch(es), media credential, messenger bag, sunscreen, handy wipes, gum, cell phone, comfortable shoes, and a hat (just in case).  

Most back-field workouts start with stretching, which is lame to watch, but not lame to participate in, especially when your yoga instructor happens to be from Sweden. When the players are stretching, I usually found myself wandering aimlessly around the complex, looking for coffee in the media area or coming up with unusual scenarios in my head in which my "talents" for scouting are appreciated and rewarded by full-time employment. After stretching, pitchers head to throw on the field before taking their spot in the line for bullpens. At this point, I'm usually still staring off into space. 

The pen line typically has anywhere from five to eight pitchers throwing to five to eight catchers, while coaches and front-office personnel stand behind and/or to the side of them. I like watching bullpens, but eight at a time is hard to focus on—I'm sure a porn joke can be inferred without further comment. When I'm watching a bullpen, I pay attention to mechanics and how frequently the pitcher is hitting his spots. At this time I'll make note of his arm slot (assuming I have a good angle), arm action, and any idiosyncrasies to his delivery. Again, I don't go crazy with the ‘pens, but they are a good source for mechanical info, so I treat them as such. 

As the ‘pen rotations proceed, position players find their way onto the field for live batting practice, usually in rotating groups of five or six. In the cages, hitters aren't always swinging, so you can't sit back, watch for hard contact, and judge it accordingly. In situational drills, hitters are often asked to move a runner with contact, plate a runner with a fly ball, or go to the opposite field with a pitch out over the plate so you can see which players can execute on command. I like watching batting practice, but after a few weeks it gets old, especially when you can watch them hit in game action later in the day. After the shine of batting practice wore off, I spent a great deal of time staring at the sun, waiting for a sun god to descend from the sky, take the form of a scouting director, and offer me a contract for my services. 

After batting practice, groups rotate from fields with live-action (coach throwing) to fields with machine-action (machine) infield/outfield fielding drills. This is chaotic, because watching two coaches hit balls to a group of infielders while a coach hits balls to a group of outfielders is like watching a giant live-action pinball game, except it’s not really interesting and there are no flashing lights or cute monophonic sounds. I find my focus when the drills become more isolated and specific. I take some notes. Nothing crazy. I stare off into space.

Food consumption during commonly recognized lunch times rarely occurred. I was running on the fumes of stale granola by 12:30 p.m., but with minor-league games set to commence at 1 p.m., I was able to placate my hunger with bottled water and a promise to hit In-N-Out if I didn't pass out. At this point I would head over to the benches where the players tasked with charting would set up shop. I'd get the rosters and decide which game to focus on. As the players took the field, my gun parts were out and assembled, my notebook of choice was in my opposite hand, my Zebra Orbitz Gel Retractable 0.7 mm was in my breast pocket, and my stopwatch was wrapped around my right wrist, with the watch itself cupped in my palm. It's time. 

During the game I spent most of my time charting pitches and taking notes in my journal. Here is a sample of what my pitch charts look like: 

First Inning of Work:
vs. (LH): 87 (FB) b; 87 (FB) ground out (weakly hit)
vs. (LH): 88 (FB) b; 75 (CB) k/looking; 87 (FB) fly out
vs. (RH): 74 (CB) k/foul; 74 (CB) fly out

Second Inning of Work:
vs. (RH): 88 (FB) b; 87 (FB) b; 88 (FB) fly out
vs. (RH): 88 (FB) k/foul; 75 (CB) b; 75 (CB) E6 (Thrown out trying to steal 2B)
vs. (LH): 88 (FB) b; 81 (CU) b; 88 (FB) b; 88 (FB) BB
vs. (RH): 89 (FB) k/foul; 89 (FB) k/foul; 89 (FB) b; 81 (CU) b; 88 (FB) b; 88 (FB) BB
vs. (RH): 83 (CU) k/foul; 75 (CB) k/swinging; 76 (CB) k/looking

Basic stuff. Along with the charts, I used my watch to collect home-to-first times, first-to-third times, pitch delivery times, catcher pop times, and times when I could actually feel my skin cooking in the sun. After ~2:30 hours of note-taking and general observation, the games end and the back fields become ghost towns. I'm starving as I reach the parking lot. To fulfill my duty as an American, I feed at the trough until the mastication process exhausts me. I attacked In-N-Out burgers like John Belushi attacked cocaine and In-N-Out burgers. I felt ashamed and triumphant at the same time. I conquered the Double Double with ketchup and cheese like Aroldis Chapman would conquer a matchup with Helen Keller. Question: Are Helen Keller jokes funny? For whatever reason, I’ve always enjoyed making them. I'm a bad person.

After my embarrassing display of gluttonous consumption, the time is ~4 p.m. I'm exhausted from the onslaught of the sun and the half-pound of beef and bun that my body is struggling to process. I really need to nap, but I've never been able to nap. I've tried for most of my adult life, but the ability to sleep for 45 minutes and wake up with a charged battery has eluded me. I usually end up sleeping for two hours and wake up confused, cranky, and unable to function as a human. Basically, I go to sleep as Jason and I wake up as my grandmother. 

With notebooks full of work waiting for me, I remove an attempted nap from the agenda and press on with the tasks at hand. For the next three hours, I will go over my notes for the day and attempt to recreate the action from the text. *For the first few weeks of camp, I attended a series of college games in the evening hours, not to mention the occasional “A” game that would start at 6 p.m. This pushed the note reconciliation and second feeding back several hours. These days were obnoxiously long.

As many of you know, I also write for a Texas Rangers-specific prospect site called "Texas Farm Review." Depending on what I saw that day, I would extract all Rangers-related information and produce a camp notes article for my site. After publishing my daily update, I would usually Google my name for a few minutes and then stare into space until my appetite returned and informed me that it's 8 o'clock and time for my second feeding. 

Feeding number two is more controlled, with less violence in the attack and more chewing. Because chain restaurants that were flanked by chain restaurants that were flanked by shopping malls surrounded me, my choices were slim and unappealing. Almost without exception, I was joined at feeding number two by my good friend alcohol, which made eating at Chili's slightly more appealing, although pounding drinks at Chili's presented a whole new set of problems. I’d finish my salt and butter nightmare, slam another drink or six, pay my bill with a "please bring me a rope so I can hang myself at the table" smile on my face, then return to my palatial apartment, buzzed from the fat content of the food and ready for the final phase of my day at ~10 p.m.

After taking yet another look at my notes from the day's action, I put the baseball away and find sanctuary in my bedroom, which I convinced myself was a room at the Waldorf rather than a room with "To Catch a Predator" written on its face. Some nights I read, but some nights my eyes don't really work, so I stare into space. I downloaded a few shows from iTunes, which help pass the time and don't require much participation on my end. That's the beauty of the television medium: You don't have to participate in the process; even if the show sucks or the aesthetic is cheap, you aren't invested so it doesn't have a true affect either way. I watched all three seasons of "Sons of Anarchy" while in Arizona. Ron Perlman, who plays the patriarch of the biker gang the show is centered around, has an incredibly large face, so that helped me relax and find comfort in my surroundings. I'm a sucker for a large face. It's like a pacifier or a mother's heartbeat to me. I'm fast asleep by 2 a.m. 

 The spring training detoxification process is still ongoing: My diet has been regulated, but my appetite for baseball is too salacious for the simple meal provided by MLB.tv. As lonely and depressing as my journey was, it might have been the happiest five weeks of my adult life. I was spread thin and deposited in a cultural wasteland, but can you think of anything better than watching baseball in person, for six to eight hours per day for 35 straight days? I really can't. I miss it already. See you soon, “Katie.”  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Out Of My League,  Time,  The Process

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