Like the crack of bats and the pop of balls against leather, the sounds of panting breaths and creaking bones have always been part of the spring-training ritual. What is new are the Kung Fu experts, the strength and flexibility coaches and the Space Age devices that now help major-leaguers shape up so they won't have to ship out.
Most of baseball's 26 teams have decided that more than a sharp batting eye and a strong arm is needed to survive the 162-game grind. To get the maximum from their skills, players must also be coordinated, fluid, mobile and rhythmic. In a word, athletic. These days, an infielder who botches a ground ball is as likely to blame his neuromuscular state as the loose webbing in his glove.
But science has not yet won everyone over. While many clubs are using the latest fitness programs, others still rely on the standard calisthenics and a few laps around the old ball yard. Among the traditionalists is Detroit Manager Ralph Houk, who holds to "light exercise and going right on to the baseball drills."
It is this attitude that has always raised so many doubts about the true physical condition of baseball players. Even when they work out they do not always appear to be working. They seem to be just a bunch of guys lolling around the batting cage or shagging lazy fly balls in the outfield. And the doubts are helped along whenever someone like beer-bellied Pitcher Mickey Lolich gripes. "The only thing running and exercising can do for you is make you healthy."
However, the more progressive teams and players have begun to discover the relationship between exercise and the basic skills of the game. Other sports have known this for years, of course, but baseball has never tended to run too far too fast with a new idea. Just consider the disregard the game has always had for muscles. "We've been old-fashioned about using weights," admits White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond, "probably because we feel they make players tighten up and slow their swings."
The success of the world champion Reds, who have been sticklers for conditioning, is probably a major reason for the change in thinking. "We have four objectives in spring training," says Cincinnati Trainer Larry Starr. "First, skill, followed by flexibility, endurance and strength. Skill is developed in drills that emphasize hitting and fielding. Flexibility comes through exercises. Endurance comes from running, and body strength comes from work with our Nautilus equipment. The importance of conditioning boils down to one thing: being able to do your skill at the time it is needed. The stronger, more flexible player will be able to avoid injury. He will also be able to play nine innings and a 162-game schedule without fatiguing so quickly."
Anyone who remembers March as the month when players rid themselves of winter fat and hangovers might notice something else that is new about spring training. Today's major-leaguers no longer have the luxury of playing themselves into shape, because in most cases their teams expect them to be in almost peak condition before they come to camp. Kansas City Manager Whitey Herzog imposes a $100-a-pound fine on any Royal not reporting at a prespecified weight. During the winter, Yankee players had to follow a rigorous training program and report their weight by mail twice a month. The Dodgers have been holding prespring workouts in Los Angeles for years, and Trainer Bill Buhler says, "The fellows who participate regularly are just about ready to go 100% when they arrive at Vero Beach."
Leaving the spare tire back home does not necessarily mean a player will have it easy. For the Cardinals, the demands are even greater when they reach camp. The man seeing to that is Walter Eberhardt, a 73-year-old former physical education director at St. Louis University, who came out of retirement this year to reintroduce an intensive program that the club had discontinued in 1972. Under Eberhardt, players with special needs get special attention. Pitcher Bob Forsch, for example, exercises to increase his shoulder strength, and Mike Tyson runs through agility drills designed to make him more nimble at second base.
Another strong believer in personalized exercises is Paul Uram, flexibility coach of the Pirates. Flexibility is important, Uram says, because it increases speed and agility and protects against muscle pulls and strains. "But no one program is good for 30 or 40 people," he adds. "One player may need more emphasis on his flection than on his extension, another may require work on his hamstring, not his quadriceps."
And you thought it was all batting averages and ERAs? Well, Gus Hoefling, conditioning consultant for the Phillies, even hopes to increase flexibility through Kung Fu movements.
None of these exercises, drills or programs are substitutes for well-executed baseball fundamentals. And in fairness to Lolich, he did win 215 games before retiring during the off-season. But if they can improve a batter's timing or a pitcher's arm strength and can cut down on muscle pulls and ankle sprains, then there must be something worthwhile about these new rites of spring. They may even be so good that they soon may be considered a tradition.