For the past five years, Tony Gwynn has carried a curious-looking box with him on the road. It's a portable video machine. And for the modern baseball player, it has become almost as standard as a Rolex watch and Gucci loafers.
The tape player enables Gwynn, a seven-time All-Star outfielder for the San Diego Padres, to understand why he might be streaking or slumping, thriving or merely surviving. Late at night, in the quiet of his hotel room, he can turn on a tape and watch himself in the batter's box the way thousands of fans do.
"When we go to Chicago, for instance, I can set the timer to tape the whole game on WGN, then come back and watch it later," Gwynn says. "Whether I go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, I'm still going to go back and turn on that video to see what I look like. Early in my career, I pretty much went up to the plate and just hit. But I've learned how important it is to understand what it is -- and why it is -- you do what you do."
Babe Ruth probably would choke on his hot dog if he could see today's players, coaches and managers getting ready to play the game. When they aren't parading from one meeting to another, charting an opponent's offensive and defensive tendencies, they're in the film room, watching more footage than Siskel and Ebert. In an age in which tobacco chewing slowly (and fortunately) is becoming passe, more and more of baseball's spitting is left to computers. They spew statistics about how this batter has fared against that pitcher, home and away, night and day, ad infinitum.
No less a baseball man than Roger Craig, manager of the San Francisco Giants, keeps a pocket-sized computer in the dugout. The Giants' "wizard," as the device is known, helps Craig with decisions such as how to position his outfielders. "I can ask my [bench] coach, Bob Lillis, 'How do we play Ryne Sandberg?' " Craig says. "He can push a couple of buttons, and right away we know: 'Straightaway and slightly to pull.' We can store a lot of stuff in there." Like most teams, the Giants also keep an 11-by-14 chart of every player in the league. The chart, based on input from the team's advance scouts, has a diagram of the field and shows where the player is likely to hit the ball. The computer condenses that information.
Alas, baseball has entered a new era. Crusty scouts tell Craig they often can accomplish more watching four games at home on satellite than they can in their traditional box-seat perches behind home plate. "In the last four or five years, there's been an explosion of games that have been televised," says Tony La Russa, manager of the Oakland Athletics. "And though we don't use video to the degree some teams do, I'll be the first to say it can be a real useful tool."
Some teams provide each player with a reel of positive reinforcement to guide him through slumps. The player is asked to choose his favorite moments, which are made into a highlights film and set to his favorite music. Dave Gallagher, a reserve outfielder for the New York Mets, still carries the tape he received last season as a member of the California Angels.
"There are times when you think you stink, when you wonder if you can still play this game," Gallagher says. "That's when you pop the tape in."
The Cubs, who are making personal highlights tapes for their players this season, also have looked into a high-tech video analyzer that projects the break and speed of each pitch in the strike zone in three dimensions. Its cost: $600,000, or roughly the salary of a utility infielder.
To some, the growing emphasis on preparation -- especially the technological variety -- seems a bit frightening. It stirs visions of football, a sport in which coaches often sleep in their offices, the better to watch more film, diagram more plays and invent more jargon. The Mets joke good-naturedly that under new manager Jeff Torborg, they attend meetings to "find out when our meetings are going to be." Is baseball, that grand old game, becoming more like football, which long has been accused of taking itself too seriously?
Fear not, says La Russa, whom some consider the most organized manager in the game.
"We don't prepare for 16 regular-season games like football," La Russa says. "We play 162. If you decide you're going to prepare for every game of every series, you're making a tremendous commitment. And it will test you. In five hours, maybe you can take that video and this film and this computer printout, plus what you have from your advance scouts. But you might have to say two hours is a good amount of time and five hours is not. I love using a lot of information to try to get ready, but you can get overwhelmed."