With Oates as drill sergeant, O's earn basic training stripes

March 03, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Every baseball organization budgets a specific amount of time during spring training to work on the basics, and does so realizing that those workouts are as tedious as they are necessary.

Dull to the eye, but not the mind.

All teams cover the same subjects, but not always the same way. And none has yet figured out a way to make these exercises interesting, let alone enjoyable.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates is well aware of the drudgery as well as the importance of the daily drills. He also knows that, despite what the dictionary says, the word "fundamental" does not begin with fun.

"A lot of what we do is as much conditioning as anything else," he said. "Especially for the pitchers.

"There's only so many times they can pick up a ball and throw it during the course of a day. And you can only run sprints in the outfield for a certain period of time."

Suffice it to say that, other than the first and last day, spring training is not the most exciting part of the season. It is, however, when the foundation is put in place.

Ability separates the good from the bad, but it is execution that provides the difference for successful teams. And how well a team is schooled in fundamentals -- not how long it works on them -- determines how it executes.

"Our rule of thumb is that we work for a half-hour or until we get it right," said Oates. "If you're out there longer than a half-hour, it means you're not doing it right.

"One of the things I'm most pleased about this camp is that we haven't had to spend extra time on fundamentals even once."

When working on fundamentals, the ability to stand, watch, listen and absorb is a prerequisite for players, coaches and managers alike.

"The best way to prepare for spring training," said Orioles minor-league pitching instructor Tom Brown, "is to do some stretching, throwing and running -- and then turn on the television and watch it for three hours while standing up."

Spring training is filled with dead time, and the portion devoted to fundamentals is usually the most dreaded of all.

"It's probably the most boring part of camp, but it can also be the most important," said Oates.

That is why the Orioles traditionally break it down to one segment a day, rather than cram everything into one prolonged workout.

On Tuesday, for instance, the Orioles concluded their primary round of fundamentals with relay and cutoff throws (there is a difference -- the relay man is stationed in the outfield; the cutoff man in the infield).

On Monday, the topic was defensing against the bunt. The previous day they worked at preventing the double steal. Prior sessions included base running, pickoff and rundown plays, and the various means of oral and signal communication.

Not exciting stuff. And, when everything goes right, nothing that requires a lot of time -- or attracts much attention.

Subtle differences

Because the Orioles have several new players, and there are subtle differences between organizations, there might have been a legitimate concern that it might take the new players time to adjust. To this point, however, that hasn't been the case.

"It's still the same game," said third baseman Chris Sabo, one of the newcomers who has made an easy transition. "The biggest differences are in positioning and terminology.

"Cal [Ripken] takes a deeper cutoff position than [Cincinnati shortstop] Barry Larkin. Everybody's a little different in that regard. Other than that, it's basically the same."

A difference in terminology can be as basic as identifying the bases. Some teams, including the Orioles a few years ago, refer to them as one, two, three and four, instead of first, second, third and home.

"I don't know of anybody who ever ran to 'four,' " said Oates, who prefers the traditional system.

"I would say most teams do basically the same things," said Oates. "Some stress it [fundamentals] more than others, some have slightly different methods and some put in more trick plays.

"My philosophy is the trickier you get, the more you're asking for trouble. We have a couple we put in, but for the most part I feel basic is best."

For instance, in a bunting situation with runners on first and second, the Orioles will go for the out at second more often than they do at third. The play isn't as risky, is easier to execute and keeps the double play in order.

Almost over

During the course of spring training, each of the fundamental drills is reviewed, but most of the work is completed before the exhibition season starts. "We cover all of the basics here [during the first phase of camp], and we'll ad-lib when we go to St. Petersburg [tomorrow]," said Oates.

"Here we do everything together. Once we get up there, it's more specialized. We can work with smaller groups, the guys who aren't on the game squad any given day."

Except for game conditions, the pitchers won't be covering first base again until next spring, when it starts all over again. Neither will they have to fill in as base runners while outfielders run down the ball and infielders scramble to get into position.

In other words, it's time for the fun part of baseball -- playing the game.

For the most part, the mental phase is history until next spring, unless the execution, or lack of it, dictates otherwise.

The second, and last, stage of monotony won't set in for another two weeks -- with the countdown to Opening Day.

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