Goodyear Arizona, Goodyear Ballpark – Home of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians Spring Training.
It was a much different feel walking into the clubhouse as a coach and not a player; instead of being filled with butterflies and nerves about how things would pan out for me this season, I caught myself checking out the players as I walked past them. I had to walk by the gym to get inside so I would be looking at these guys and thinking things like—good pitchers’ body or very athletic, or this guy probably could have worked a little harder in the off season… I realised then that I have really become a coach/scout, an analyst of every part of the game.
I didn’t have the nerves I thought I might as I asked around for the clubhouse manager. Finding him, I introduced myself and he said straight back to me, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the KIWI in an excited tone, come with me and I’ll show you around.’
The first thing we do is visit my locker…and there it was, Riki Paewai at the top, and wait for it – PAEWAI across the back of my jersey! This is when I got a little giddy, as the locker stocked full of every bit of equipment I would need, from new shoes to a new fungo bat.
After briefly checking all of this out, he takes me to meet the minor league field co-ordinator Billy Doran, who showed me around the place and briefed me on the day’s schedule, inviting me to choose what I do and where I go throughout the day.
At this point in Spring Training it is mostly pitchers and catchers in camp—all up 72 minor league pitchers and around 20 catchers.
8:30am - We have our coaches meeting to brief on the day’s schedule and Billy introduced me to the crew whilst pointing out I got in yesterday after 19hrs in transit, and that they all had to make sure I didn’t fall asleep. The feeling amongst this coaching staff is all about fun and being laid back; it is awesome to be a part of it.
We were on the field for warm up at 9.00 am, and some of the guys have already been doing early work which is mostly the catchers hitting in the cages. Every ball club, from Rookie Ball (lowest level of minor league baseball) to AAA’s (Triple A—one step below the Major Leagues), trainers are out there to get everyone warmed up and stretched – imagine eight trainers warming up close to 100 guys in the right field line, it was a spectacle!
After warm up and stretches, the players split off into several groups to throw. The sessions run on four fields and then end up working in smaller ‘stations.’ There would be one group throwing bullpens whilst the rest did defensive PFP (pitchers fielding practice) on each of the fields. One field would have bunt coverages, and the next plays at 1st base; the next plays at second and then the fourth worked on pick-offs. Whilst all this is happening another group of pitchers is getting warmed up to throw their sides (bullpen) and catchers that aren’t catching sides are working on pop-ups.
Each session runs to time and the horn blows and all the groups rotate to their next station like a well-oiled machine. There is no messing around as everyone makes sure to get their work in.
I spent the day in the “six-pack” (the practice bullpen where there are six pitching mounds). Pitchers would throw 25 pitches and the catchers would keep count. At the end of each bullpen they would throw two pitch outs.
After talking with the pitching coaches about the players and what they need to work on and what could help them, it was good to learn that we’re on the same page, which just goes to show that baseball is very similar no matter what country you play it in. We discussed how everyone is different and that you can’t simply try to get pitchers to use the same mechanics rather try to tweak little things and see what works best.
The last training session prior to lunch is BP (batting practice) where coaches had to help shag as the pitchers were going through their conditioning. Luckily the groups weren’t too big as not all position players were in camp yet. I spent the time chatting to coaches and finding out the things they like to teach and see from their players, what the season is like at the different clubs and how the selection process works.
Day two begins by arriving at 6am. Having showered and geared up I made my way to breakfast, and you’ve got to love the spring training buffet! I sat down with a few of the coaches and talked baseball, their journeys and their expectations for the season. Seth Etherton (a 1st round draft pick in ’98 with the Los Angeles Angels and went on to play in the Majors’ with four different clubs, as well as playing in Korea’s top league) told me about his transition from player to coach and how he coached college ball before coming to the Reds. His family will travel with him when he breaks for season with the Reds short season A ball affiliate and his wife home schools the kids which he says makes it easier to be a professional coach, he said, especially not having to leave the family for eight to nine months at a time.
After breakfast I went to my locker and sat and talked with all the guys, and it was incredible to hear all of their different stories. At 8.30 am, we had the coaches meeting and the discussion focused on the day’s schedule and the any significant issues regarding individual players.
9.20am - On the field to stretch and warm up and each team breaks to do this at their respective fields with their team’s strength and conditioning coach.
9.40am – Fundamentals with pitchers who are throwing sides on two separate fields. This session is spent with all the pitching coaches to talk more about the intricacies of the game, while all non-throwing pitchers continue with their conditioning.
9.45am to 10.30am – Early work for position players, and infielders were in the cages or on the half field working on pick-off coverages while outfielders were split the same between cages and outfield drills. The catchers do their hitting in the cages.
10.40am – Position players throwing program.
10.50am – Position players move to their team’s respective fields to go through their defensive routines, while pitchers do their throwing program on their team’s field.
11.10am – The teams run through bunt plays, while outfielders serve as base runners to ensure both sets of players are getting their work in.
11.30am – Batting Practice. During BP pitchers rotate through 12-minute stations (small groups focused on various skills) for their sides (bullpens).
On day three I spent the day with James Baldwin (former MLB pitcher for 11 years), who is in his first season coaching with the Reds. He previously coached high school baseball, so we talked a lot about the differences between coaching at this level in compared to coaching at the high school or college level. We focused on running one of the pitchers’ fundamentals stations where James had me hit fungos (hitting groundballs, flyballs to players) for him. It was interesting to witness how professionals at this level still keep it fun with a bit of competition throw in.
I spent the second half of the day in the “six-pack” watching the pitchers throw their sides. Behind the catchers and off to the side are several guys with video cameras recording the pitchers. They do this so they can go back to the video room where the coaches can sit down with individual pitcher and go over everything that they are working on and what they might need to fix. I paid a little visit to this room and it’s had everything a TV studio or production room would have, with multiple screens running video from all different players and scouts and coaches analysing every move and shot. The coaches told me that during MLB camp with the 25 players on the Big League roster, there would are analysts in the room watching it from every angle.
Day four was pretty similar to others apart from the fact that I was invited to the Big League Spring Training game against the Texas Rangers. The atmosphere was unreal, and nothing beats an American hot dog!
Day five focussed on the mental side of baseball, where the coaches would discuss the different aspects of the mental game—and I was asked to run the station that dealt with controlling the running game with Seth Etherton. It was a great feeling being asked to take the lead on this. Seth would start with controlling the running game from a mechanical stand point, varying looks and timing, changing your moves and so on.
He then would introduce me to the guys and give them a background on my baseball history and what I do for a living, and I would then talk to them about how to keep the game from speeding up on them. The main focus was on making sure you get good work in when practicing these things so that come game time the situation doesn’t get away from you. This included the obvious fact of how at each level a players rises through the ranks, the crowds get bigger as well as does the pressure.
Batting practice started and each field had five pitchers throw live BP, and I was asked to sit with Seth behind the pitcher to help him assess each pitch and the pitcher’s delivery—focusing on what we have been working on with each of them. We were with the Class A team, where some players had issues with command and others with their off-speed pitches. The guys were always very receptive of what Seth had for them. In saying that, though, most were very dominant and showed why they were there—a lot of hard work in the off season and plenty of commitment.
On my final day here at Reds Spring Training camp, I was wishing I could stay longer. But I can’t miss the National Championships back in NZ!
I’ve learned so much in the short week already, and wasn’t ready to stop, but as they say ‘All good things come to an end’ and was excited about implementing the lessons and knowledge I learned back home in New Zealand.
I met with Eric Lee (Manager of Baseball Operations) on the final day. He’s my boss, and we discussed all things Baseball New Zealand and Cincinnati Reds. It was great to finally get to sit down and share thoughts on global baseball, especially our country and its prospects.
And when I returned to my locker after practice, there was surprise waiting for me: a Reds gift bag. The label on it read, “Dear Riki, for the little girl, E.” Eric had bought my new baby daughter an awesome little Reds supporter dress as well as a Reds supporter bib! I was blown away to say the least. So a big thank you to Eric Lee and told me a lot about their leadership style and culture in the organisation.
The Reds have serious interest in the talent in New Zealand, and after talking with Eric I can attest to how much they hope our program grows.
My final coaches meeting of Spring Training 2016, the guys set me up: at the end of the meeting it was announced that the Major Leagues needed a couple of guys to throw BP—and I was the only guy not already assigned to something for the day. I won’t lie…I packed it! I cannot throw BP to Big Leaguers! A couple seconds went by, and the joke was on me. The coaches broke out laughing, and I guess the look on my face was a Kodak moment. We had a couple more laughs, and I said my ‘thank yous’ for allowing me to learn from everyone in camp.
Training took place on the usual schedule. After stretch and throw, I was assigned to hit fungos on field three while we were running pitchers’ coverage at first. Once the individual trainings were finished it was time for team defence. We were working on bunt plays again, (practice makes perfect) and these plays are obviously the ones that are most difficult and make all the difference when a player manages to get these right.
I was on the same field as the catchers’ co-ordinator for these drills, and his name is Corky Miller. I’m not sure if you remember him, but he’s one of those guys that grinded through the years, up and down from the Big Leagues. Corky was intense! If his catchers weren’t on point, he would make sure they were the next time through. It was good to see it in action, and just how quickly these guys would make adjustments. Each time something didn’t go right during these drills, everyone would come to the mound and discuss what happened and how to handle it next time.
BP –Batting practice ran for just over an hour, and I was able to drift between coaches, listening to their various approaches and different ways of teaching. (I say teaching because each coach has a different approach, though they are all aligned with the Reds philosophies.) It was really enlightening to see the different approaches, some much more laid back and others rather intense, like Corky.
After BP we wrapped up the day’s activities. We headed back to the clubhouse and grabbed lunch. Eric sat with me at lunch where he proceeded to tell me that I could take my jersey (with my name on it) home with me! I was stoked!
So before I packed up my locker I had one last thing to do—catch up with a couple of old friends: Donald Lutz and Ray Chang. Donald Lutz came to Brisbane to play in the off season when he had first started out with the Reds and stayed with a close family friend of mine. ‘Lutzy’ is a German national and made his Major League debut with the Reds two years ago. He was released last year after having Tommy John (elbow) surgery and then re-signed with the Reds after playing a key role for the Brisbane Bandits in winning this past year’s ABL Championship. I found him in the cages hitting off a tee, and I told him it was great to see him back with the Reds and I hope to see him back in the ‘Bigs’ soon.
I played with Ray Chang when I was with the San Diego Padres organisation, which is going back almost 10 years. Needless to say, when I finally found Ray, it only took a moment for him to hear my accent before he knew what was going on and who I was. Ray is an awesome guy and plays a huge role in the growth of baseball in China. He played for China in the 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC) where he homered and drove in two runs while going 3-4 with a slick defensive play to help China beat Chinese Taipei for China's first WBC win. This made Ray a huge icon in Chinese baseball, and he told me that he now goes back to China each off season to help grow the sport there. I can’t tell you how awesome it was to catch up with these two guys and I wish them all the best.
So that’s it…my Spring Training experience has come to an end. I went back to my locker and packed all my gear; I said my goodbyes to all the guys that really let me in and helped to teach me a bunch of valuable lessons. Each of them was awesome and wished me all the best in my ventures. Finally, I went and saw Billy one last time to thank him for throwing me in the deep end and allowing me to learn on the fly. He said he was happy to have me, and, best of all, would enjoy having me back. Always a good feeling to hear such sentiments!
So until next time, work hard, play hard and hopefully you will be on these Field of Dreams sometime in the near future!
Riki Paewai, Cincinnati Reds Spring Training, 2016.