- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"I like this team," Gibbons tells his players. "I like our starting pitching. We have good arms in the bullpen. Our defense is excellent. And we have a lot of very good hitters. What we need to concentrate on is being an aggressive team, being a very good situational hitting team and cutting down on strikeouts. Some people will say this team will not hit a lot of home runs. You never know how that will play out. But we're going to be aggressive on the bases."
Trainer George Poulis also addresses the team. He mentions that he noticed "a couple of guys the other day use the toilet, get up and leave without washing their hands. Now you go to the fruit bowl, you touch some grapes, not taking all of them, and the next guy comes in, takes that grape that you had touched and puts it in his mouth. And what's on that grape? Fecal matter. That's how you spread virus and bacteria."
There is nervous schoolboy laughter in the room.
"V-Dub," catcher Gregg Zaun calls to Wells, "I think someone touched that apple."
When the meeting ends, the infielders and pitchers leave for Field 2 to work on bunt defense. I join the outfielders in the four covered batting cages for soft toss, a hitting drill in which a coach tosses baseballs to the hitter from behind a protective screen about 20 feet from home plate.
I work with Mike Barnett, 46, who has the rare distinction of being a big league hitting coach without ever having played a day of professional baseball. Barnett's career as a catcher ended in 1978 when he blew out his shoulder at Ohio University. So one day soon after, just to stay in baseball, he walked into the offices of the Pirates' Triple A team in Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, and asked for a job as a bullpen catcher. He got it. He worked his way through various college and minor league coaching stops until the Blue Jays hired him to be their hitting coach in 2002. "I know every day how fortunate I am to be doing what I'm doing," he says.
The art of hitting is the ability to cast aside the preponderance of failure endemic to the task. Only hitters and weather forecasters can be wrong so often and still keep their jobs. To that end a hitting coach is really a confidence coach. He must be vigilantly optimistic. But even in this fraternity of positive thinkers, Barnett stands out. The joke among the front office staff is that Barnett is so sunny that any day they expect him to say, "You know, I think Verducci has a chance to help us...."
Barnett is not, however, a miracle worker. I am 44 years old. Excluding handfuls of pickup games involving other sportswriters, I have not faced live pitching in more than 23 years, since a Rudy-like career at Penn State spent almost entirely as an outfielder on the practice squad. I have not hit with a wooden bat since I was 10, and that one was held together with nails and electrical tape. Not wanting to pretend to be something I wasn't, I didn't visit a batting cage or even swing a bat to prepare for this adventure.
Barnett makes some quick changes that click immediately: He lowers my hands, changes my swing path to a more downward angle and shows me how to shift my weight through the swing for a more balanced follow-through. I fall in love with the solid feel and thwack of hard maple upon a new baseball. Equipment manager Jeff Ross has issued me two bats, one maple and one traditional ash. The maple is noticeably harder.
"A lot of guys who use maple won't use it early in spring training," outfielder Reed Johnson tells me. "It doesn't break as easily, and early on you tend to get jammed more. Guys would rather just break their bat and not feel the pain."