Matt Potter 12:27 p.m., Dec. 27
These days of spring training — in either the Arizona Cactus League or the Florida Grapefruit League — serve several purposes other than baseball training and conditioning. When the practice games start, in fact, there are times it can get downright boring for players who are often limited to just a couple of innings per game. And many players aren't going to have an opportunity to play every day in any case. Position players are trickling in and squads will play against other squads in March.
In these practice games the final scores mostly aren't so important as is getting used to hitting and pitching and running and so on, against competition. Camp and spring training also provide for the players to bond, for rookies to get used to the big leagues, and for the team to figure out its personality. And a lot of this is simply fun and games.
Baseball has more than its share of pranksters and after a winter of downtime, those activities often need polishing. And rookies are often the easiest targets. As a reminder of what's to come, on Padres flagship radio station XX1090, radio host John "Coach" Kentera reminded of one such stunt many years ago in Padres camp, successfully pulled off by Padres veteran players and staff. Many of the rookies were told that should the team win the Cactus League (not a dubious honor at all, but certainly not the point of spring training), then they would all be awarded new televisions from one of the local appliance stores.
Not true, not true. But this was believed, which was the point of the prank. The prank was certainly harmless and tame, but then, isn't spring training camp the place to warm up for the regular season?
Perhaps one of the best pranksters in recent years was Jay Johnstone, who played for 20 years with 8 different teams, including a short stint with the Padres. The best Johnstone prank might not be as famous as some of his others. After many years of attending spring training where all players were made to give a urine test in spring training (back before the steroid-era), Johnstone grew tired of the routine, so one spring he decided to have a little fun with it.
With players milling around awaiting their turn, Johnstone went into the restroom but instead filled the sample vial with some apple juice he had secretly pocketed. He then exited the restroom and while other unaware players watched, he casually handed the vial to the nurse. The nurse examined it, and asked what Johnstone had been doing recently, that it appeared cloudy and off-color. Johnstone then asked her for the vial back, ostensibly to examine the contents for himself. To the horror of the nurse and other teammates, Johnstone said, "Let me run it through for you again," uncapped the vial and drank its contents.
Other pranks have been more elaborate. A few years ago, Tim Buss, a conditioning coach with the Chicago Cubs, found his car destroyed, bats and balls were left in the wreck. After denying involvement throught the day, the culprits finally later confessed and the Cubs pitching staff then took Buss out to introduce him to the brand new Nissan they had purchased for him.
As a member of the Texas Rangers, former Padre Jerry Hairston, Jr., somehow located a couple of police officers to show up in the Rangers clubhouse; ostensibly with a warrant for unpaid child-support for catcher Gerald Laird — going so far as to permit the ruse to run through handcuffing and being placed in a nearby patrol car while listening to a very irate Laird before copping to the prank.
Former Mariners manager Lou Pinella and former Mariners player Ken Griffey, Jr., made a wager which Griffey lost. The winner of the bet was to receive a steak dinner. Afterward, Pinella went into his office to find a live cow.
Every year there are pranks, some more elaborate than others. Managers and coaches see the vast majority as team-building. Padres manager Buddy Black who is known for liking to keep things loose and relaxed, believes in team-building exercises, although most are accomplished behind closed doors and out of earshot from media. But something always leaks out every year.
This year, with the Padres, it will be something else to look forward to, there will be a story somewhere, maybe more.
Meanwhile, if you ever find yourself in Arizona — maybe taking in the Padres and Diamondbacks during a Cactus League game — and you have the opportunity to meet Mark Grace, ask him about the time when he was a rookie and veteran Rick Sutcliffe enlisted the help of veterans Jody Davis and Goose Gossage to stuff Grace into a straight jacket. They dragged Grace up to the clubhouse and threw him onto a trainer's table and bound the rookie to it with copious amounts of trainer's tape, leaving him helplessly tied there for almost an hour until manager Don Zimmer went looking for him to take batting practice.
Ask Grace about that, but whatever you do, don't call him an old man, Sutcliffe taught Grace well about how to deal with someone that does.
Pitchers and catchers continue their routine and reports are early but optimistic. Pitching Coach Darren Balsley has mentioned that he was satisfied with the fluidity of motion coming from pitchers who were injured last year, and catcher Nick Hundley sounded impressed during a radio interview on the Darren Smith show. There is still some concern that some pitchers will want to throw too hard too soon, and that concern is being monitored.
While several position players are already in camp - mostly new faces with a couple of veterans mixed in - the full squad is expected to report on Friday. The first spring training game is March 4th against the Seattle Mariners. All spring training games will be carried on the sister station of the Padres flagship, ESPN affiliate 1700-AM. No word of any spring training games being televised, but one thing now known is that ESPN's Baseball Tonight will not be visiting the Padres camp. No word yet if Fox Sports (regional) has any plans.