Before I get into today's regular story, I have to share a few quotes from the aforementioned book, "Strength Training for Baseball." After all, it is not often the first base coach is the subject of his own story. It may be now or never…
From Canseco's biography page, "Canseco's dedication and diligence in physical conditioning are legendary even among his peers in major-league baseball." Somehow, I don't think that is what his peers are saying about him anymore.
From McKay, "I actively discourage the use of steroids and other such drugs. They may make muscular development come easier, but you pay for it later on. Whatever short-term gain there might be, it isn't worth the price your body will eventually have to pay. There is no room for steroids in this program or any other program for a serious athlete."
Especially prophetic about the paying for it later, though I doubt McKay could forecast the type of payment being driven by current events. I do believe him, though.
In fact, for those who missed it, McKay did address his feelings about the current steroids flap. See my March 12 Game Observations elsewhere on this site. March 12 Notes
But, to borrow the most recent quote from another player with a prominent role in this week's Congressional hearing, "I'm not here to talk about the past."
The real purpose of today's story is to look into what might sound like a mundane part of daily spring training activities, base running drills. Because the ball park gates don't open until so close to game time (a pet peeve of mine), most fans have no idea that the players actually do get in regular, serious workouts stressing fundamentals.
One sunny morning earlier this week, I was chatting with McKay on the main field at Roger Dean when he had to excuse himself to get to work. Coming toward us were those position players still in spring training camp, preparing to do their base running. The group was led by David Eckstein, who clearly goes all out even in drills.
A winning finish
I asked McKay, who in all seriousness is a committed teacher, what he tells the guys in preparation for the drill. "Running through first base, you don't lunge at the bag. You run through it. It's like you have an imaginary finish line chest high. Your chest should hit that finish line at the same time as your foot hits the bag.
Taking the extra base
"Instead of lunging and risking jamming your hip or your heel, you lean and just as your foot hits the first base bag, your head turns to your right. You're the first one to see a ball get by the first baseman and if you see it, you can get to second base. Because if you run through it and a coach yells, "Go, go, go," they always stop to see why.
It's all about efficiency
"Rounding corners, I stand there on the bag with my fungo (bat), just exposing the inside corner of the base, giving them a target to shoot for. The more I can get them to focus on the inside of the base, the shorter their turns, the quicker they'll get around the bases."
Never too old to learn
On why they are still teaching at this level. "You don't assume. From the very start of spring training, we explain to them that we're going to assume they are the most out-of-shape player who doesn't know the game in camp. We're going to start it out and build them up. "You experienced players, stay with us because we're going to take it one step at a time." So, that's how we do it."
Part of the master plan
Rather than having the players just running around the bases in circles like the youngsters get to do after the games on Sundays, McKay had a specific game plan all written out. "Two 90's, three 180's and two 270's" and a bunch more drills were written on the piece of paper in his hand.
As the players executed the drill, McKay's placement of himself and his fungo bat on first base made it impossible for the players to do anything except hit the inside corner of the bag as they completed the 90 foot sprint from home to first. Player after player hit the exact spot as they passed. Yet, I noticed some landed on their right foot, as others touched with their left. "Left foot, right foot, it really doesn't matter. Whatever is most comfortable for the player" said McKay.
Stretching them out
Next, the players took a three-step hop off first, taking off for second. Same off second to third. Next was as if they hit a double, then second to home. Finally, a triple and then a sprint from first to home, with McKay and his fungo bat positioned on third base, again making them hit the inside corner of the bag on the way past.
It's conditioning, not a tryout
I asked McKay if he was evaluating players on effort and hustle. "No, this is more conditioning. I don't know if you heard me, but the first time I told them to go at half speed. This is to feel the base under their feet.
The early bird
"It is conditioning. Pete Prinzi, the strength coach, is conditioning running. It used to be that we did our running at the end of the day; run the bases after the game. But, the fields are hard, the legs are tired, guys sitting on the bench, not playing, they've got to get up and run the bases. The legs feel much better if you do it in the morning. You get more out of it.
Getting the feel
"Rather than having them run sprints on the field, we'll have them running the bases. It's like having them feel the bases under their feet, the corners under their feet. As you can see here, they had to do three 90's, three 180's and two 270's. That was three home to first, three doubles and two triples.
Two birds with one stone
"So, we incorporate our conditioning running on the bases, rather than have them run a straight line on the grass. You can kill two birds with one stone here, especially in the very, very beginning before they even play a game, and you can get them used to touching the base under the feet. Feeling that little push off and drive to the left rounding the base and it just gets their groins, quads and hamstrings and gets them used to touching the base."
Wise guys encouraged
On what he teaches base runners about watching the pitcher and the catcher. "We talk about that with the base stealers. In fact, not only base stealers. Some guys are very smart base runners. Take, for instance, I am going back a ways, Johnny Bench. Bench ran OK. But, he was 10-for-10 in stolen bases. He took advantage of them not paying attention to him.
Keeping a book
"I keep notes on every pitcher we face – his times, his moves, his quick moves, his times in certain counts to the plate, take a catcher's arm into consideration. You know whether this particular player can run on this guy. You might say, "You can steal on this guy, but you have to get a good jump." Or you could say, "Just go and there is nothing they can do to stop you with this move and these times."
Taking a lead
"On taking a lead, some have to be shorter. A lefthander with a quick move, you can't be way out there. Whereas a pitcher with a poor move, you can go out as far as you can and still get comfortably back. Your lead wants to be where you can get comfortably back after a pick off attempt."
Finding a key
On whether he has to inform the base runners who the pitcher and catchers are and what their numbers are. "I have the book on everybody. Everything he does on the mound; whether or not he steps off. Everything he does ends up in my notes. Sometimes you pick up something. Something that tells you that he is going to first instead of going home. You look for a key, what they are doing differently. They all do something different going home as opposed to going to first. You try to figure that out. Some guys are easy to figure it out and when you do, if they're not quick to the plate, you can make the game tough for them. If you can get guys on, you can possibly score some runs.
Working with Eck
What about new guys that come over from the American League? Do guys like Eckstein get special treatment? "Yeah, he's a guy you go over to tell him what you are going to do. He realized that I have a game plan here and I can learn things (from him}. Coaching first base, I let him know what I do. They have to know a little bit about you and you, about them. I am sure that when he came to camp, he had to wonder what we do about information we have on guys, because obviously it's a whole new group of pitchers over here for him and I think we have something to offer him, something to show."
Be aggressive, not passive
Is the philosophy for Eckstein like others? That is to run, but make sure you don't get caught? "We hear he's a heads-up player and we might give him a green light a lot, where you can go on you own if you think you can. We don't necessarily say "Go only if you can make it." We don't want to take the aggressiveness away from the base runner. You don't ever want to do that. Even when you make mistakes, you don't want to scare them into not wanting to get leads. You want them to get leads, you want them to be aggressive. But, you are trying to control that aggressiveness. There are certain situations because of the score and the amount of outs that you can't be the first out at third base. If you take third or steal a bag, you have to do it standing up, I will tell them. I will walk up to them at first base and say, "You've got the green light to steal this bag, but you have to do it standing up. Sliding and being safe - that is too close. You have to be able to do it standing up."
Head first sildes discouraged
Reid Gorecki went head first into second base the day before. What is McKay's reaction? "He runs good and has real good legs. We don't preach sliding in head first. You expose your fingers. And, just a little jammed finger wreaks havoc with your hitting. We try to discourage that. A guy like Rickey Henderson, he would do it a lot, but that was his trademark thing. We try to discourage it, certainly into home, where the catcher blocks the plate and even now at second base and third base, middle infielders will block the bag. But, sometimes you just need to do it to elude the tag. That was a pretty good time to do it. The second baseman was on the other side of the bag and he just wanted to make sure."
So, there you have it. Next time you see Cardinals base runners, you'll know not to take any of it for granted. It was rehearsed over and over again in spring training drills like the one described here - running as conditioning by first base coach Dave McKay.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.