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March 18, 2004

Breaking Balls

Scowling with Ozzeroo

by Derek Zumsteg

Some people don't take spring training seriously enough. Fans head down to Arizona where they stay in cool hotels built around buttes, swap Tootsie Rolls for autographs, watch games in the sun, while poor saps like me toil away, pounding out columns under overcast skies as that day's member of the executive committee whips us with the content-producing cat o' nine tails. Teams play split-squad games. They're required to send a couple of anticipated regulars so what fans come out see some recognizable names, but I have to ask: If you're an average fan, it's a beautiful day, you're drinking your first beer in the sun, would you care if the Tigers sent out Fernando Vina or Cody Ross? Would you get up and demand a refund because Craig Monroe was out there in the outfield instead of Alex Sanchez?

And some people take spring training far, far too seriously. I call these people "Ozzie Guillen."

Last week the White Sox rookie manager blew his stack after his team lost a couple exhibition games in a row. He got mad about how his dugout was quiet in a 5-4 loss to San Diego.

I've read a lot of player autobiographies and many of them talk about this. If things go well, players are supposed to be enthusiastic, peppy, into things. If things go badly, they're supposed to be serious, not depressed, but obviously considerate of the weight of the tragedy that just befell them all. They're evaluated on this--it's part of "makeup", but it ends up being more about acting ability than temperament. I could be the best player in baseball, hit a series-winning grand slam home run, and I'd probably whine about the low quality of champagne being sprayed on me. Jonah's more like a super-charged David Eckstein: He'd be the guy clapping after he grounded into a double play in the ninth, leaving his team down by 15 with two outs and no one on. "Made good contact there," he'd say. "This guy's got nothing, rally time, rally time."

But attitude doesn't make talent, and it doesn't go the other way either. People motivate themselves in different ways. Ben Grieve got into this with Tampa Bay's manager Lou Piniella, who for all his good qualities has left a long trail of broken young players behind him who didn't have the attitude he wanted to see. He wanted to see a more vocal Grieve and Grieve..."Not so much with the talking, for you," as Aaron Sorkin would have some chick say before kissing him (Grieve, not Sorkin).

Guillen had some more to say: "I expect them to come with intensity every day. If it's spring training, the first day of the playoffs, the last game of the season, I don't want them to lay down and relax."

Ken Griffey Jr. once admitted that he didn't always try as hard as he could. That in blowouts, for instance, he didn't charge and dive for fly balls, because the injury tradeoff wasn't worth it to him. Was the risk of catastrophic injury so great that it outweighed the value the opposing team got from converting a single into a double, and putting the game further out of reach? Considering the backups the M's had to take his playing time, that might not be so crazy, now that I think about it. Alex Diaz hit .248/.286/.333 subbing for The Kid in 1995, after all.

I can't argue that players shouldn't take their profession seriously, or that they shouldn't try to improve their play before the season starts. But spring training games are meaningless. There's no reason players should risk any kind of injury if it won't get the team a win in the real standings. I'll never understand what teams are doing with some of these drills, either...sliding practice for pitchers? What, isn't there a UFC competition teams could enter their precious starters in to liven things up even more?

The games themselves are unstructured workouts. They're a chance for hitters to get their hacks in against real pitchers. They can work the rust out of their swings, play around with new stances, timing tricks, whatever. Pitchers get to throw in game situations with a real batter standing in the box (unless they're facing the Brewers), and can play around with new pitches and arm angles without worrying that one gopher ball will cost the team their chance at the division title.

That's not good enough for Ozzie. While we've debunked the notion of closers before, say that you believe in it. The ninth is special. The entire stadium is cheering for the closer or against him. There's a crackling energy in the ninth that causes the hairs on your arms to rise up and weaker pitchers to crumple. His success or failure will determine who wins or loses this contest.

Now take a spring training game. Couple thousand people there who enjoy the game but know it's of no consequence. The win or loss doesn't matter. Would anyone blame a manager for making sure his closer, or his closer candidates, get their work in early?

Ozzie Guillen would. He's refused to bring Billy Koch into a non-save situation, for instance, even though Koch was up and throwing already.

It's good news if you're a White Sox fan who goes to spring training and doesn't watch or care about regular season games. Ozzie will be bringing you the most intense one-game, in-game strategies for your enjoyment each and every day you're in Arizona.

Every game as intense as the playoffs, huh? I look forward to seeing the last game of spring training, when the White Sox will take on the Brewers, which should feature:

The baseball season's longer than any other sport. It's frequently compared to a marathon, and for good reason. It runs for many months, during which teams play series after series, travel back and forth over and over as the aches and nagging injuries pile up. For players on the White Sox, though, it's going to feel much longer.

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