Dodgers Spring Notes: Oppo Steak-o

One of my favorite experiences of the spring happened on my final day in Arizona. A simple round of batting practice turned into an epic struggle against evil. Or pulling the ball.

After checking out of my hotel on the 22nd of March, I decided to head to Camelback Ranch for one final day, or at least a few hours, of watching minor leaguers. Tommy Lasorda, in full regalia, gave instruction to hitters on one field, while minor league instructors watched BP on the adjacent field.

Just as it looked like the session would end, as would my final day at Camelback, two minor leaguers walked onto the field for one final round of batting practice. However, this was no ordinary happening on the minor league field. It was one of the most important days in the lives' of two Dodgers' minor league hitters. And the stakes couldn't have been higher.

A fourth round pick in 2010, James Baldwin III has the look and athleticism of a future superstar. 5 tools. Dynamite defense in center field. Blazing speed. Long limbs that are aching for muscle mass. An eery resemblance to Rockies' outfielder Dexter Fowler.

JB3's first round of BP looked bad. He wasn't rigid, mechanical, inefficient. Too many moving parts. The bat was slow and the contact was soft.

After setting the world on fire for 11 games. For 11 games in June, he was a God. .378 batting average. .431 on base percentage. .667 slugging percentage. But a suspension interrupted his development and he struggled to hit .200 after his return.

I quickly noticed that there was something different about this particular event. There was a line of balls leading out to where the shortstop would play and at the end, a minor league coach.

Last year's third rounder has a name that sets him apart. Pratt Maynard. Country Music Hall of Famer? 80's wrestler? Alabama sheriff? Nope, he's one of the Dodgers' top catching prospects. And he posted some bass ackwards platoon splits in his debut: a .559 OPS against righties and a 1.025 OPS against lefties. Unique, nearly as unique as his name.

His round produced some hard contact. Hard contact to left field. Contact to left field that yielded praise from the two Dodgers' coaches, one of whom was Loons' manager John Shoemaker, who is likely going to be mentoring both of these young men in 2012.

That's when I realized what the purpose of this drill was. Not to hit the ball hard. Not to hit it far. But to hit it the other way.

Baldwin's second round was much better. He was much quicker to the ball, much shorter in his swing and much louder in his contact. He drove some balls to right-center, which was excused by the pitcher who noted that Baldwin "hit it where it was pitched." Even in a scenario like this, you have to respect a player who is not necessarily doing what he's supposed to, but doing something right nonetheless.

Maynard's second round produced similar results: hard line drives to left field. Praise from coaches. Maybe even a smile or two from the North Carolina native.

Baldwin came up once again and seemed to be really getting into a groove, blistering line drives into the left center gap. "That's it," said one of the coaches. James was getting it.

Pratt showed the same aptitude, drilling balls into left field, whistling line drives and smacking sharp grounders. One ball traveled not much more than 5 feet over the coach at short's head. This drew laughter from Maynard, who was obviously pleased with his performance. But then, at once, everything changed. And these young men's lives would never be the same. Forever.

One of the coaches proclaimed, "If you make him (the coach at short) move his feet, you get a steak dinner."

It was a challenge to rival JFK's dream to travel to the moon, only bigger. This was a matter of life or death. Or at least steak or fast food.

Noticeably pressing, Baldwin began pulling the ball to right field. He was fighting himself, thinking too much. As we all know, Crash Davis put it best: "Don't think. You can only hurt the ball club."

Maynard was more composed. He kept drilling balls the other way, though he didn't come close enough to the coach at short to make him move.

The two went back and forth, round after round, like Rocky and Apollo. Both laboring and struggling, our two heroes persevered into the wee hours of 11:15 am.

Finally, all at once, it happened. Pratt stung a ball on the ground to the hole at short. The coach, standing there like a statue for most of the session, reflexively leaned to his left. Then, madness broke out.

"He moved!" shouted the players. "He flinched!" yelled the coaches. There was no instant replay, no umpires to convene, no higher authority to appeal to. Though it seems an onlooker had some sway in determining the outcome of the event.

"He moved," stated De Jon Watson, who had been watching and now wore an amused grin upon his face. The coaches resisted, but Watson's ruling carried obvious weight.

Baldwin, unhappy with his last few rounds, asked for one more. It was granted. He began crushing balls to the gaps and, ultimately, sent a beautiful shot into the left-center gap that could have been a double or, with his speed, a triple.

But none of the balls hit were as important as the hard grounder of Maynard's bat. What was the final judgement? Did the guys get their steaks? Did they have to settle for take out? We may never know. What we do know is that the events of this day shall be recorded in history as "Oppo Steak-o."

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