SARASOTA, Fla. -- The seats were empty. The scoreboard was turned off. And the clock said it wasn't even time for lunch. So only in the ever-churning mind of Buck Showalter could it feel like October.
Or, to be slightly more precise, sound like October.
And so, on the last Friday morning in February, the manager of the Orioles continued his never-ending search for spring-training relevance by piping actual October crowd noise into an empty ballpark.
He took an ordinary spring pop-up drill and turned it into a postseason adventure. Infielders couldn’t hear outfielders. Outfielders couldn’t hear infielders. And, of course, that was the whole idea.
"You can't communicate when you can't hear," Showalter quipped afterward, "as my wife tells me a lot."
So here's how this drill worked:
The Orioles gathered all their infielders, all their outfielders and all their catchers on the field of Ed Smith Stadium. A pitcher would then wind up and throw a phantom pitch. A baseball would come shooting out of a pop-up machine. And then ...
The crowd would roar. Not that "roar" adequately describes it. A cross between a NASA launch and a Motorhead concert is more like it. But let's go with "roar," just for practicality's sake.
As the baseball soared into the overcast Florida sky, the noise would swell. Louder. Louder. Even louder than that.
"I don't know," laughed shortstop J.J. Hardy afterward. "No one is going to get that loud on a pop-up, I don't think."
But this wasn't just any old noise. This was authentic October crowd noise, recorded in Camden Yards at the very moment that Delmon Young was rocking the house with a game-turning three-run double in Game 2 of the 2014 ALDS.
It just happened to be played at such an insane decibel level that Showalter said a neighbor called the Sarasota police to complain that the Orioles were violating the local noise ordinance. Yeah, seriously.
"I've never been in a stadium that was that loud," Hardy said. "Ever. You couldn't hear anything."
But once again, let us repeat: That was the whole idea.
One thing we've come to learn about Showalter is that he never does anything without a purpose. Anything. Not even pop-up drills in February.
"I don't ever want to do something that they go, 'This is just eye wash,'" Showalter said. "It's got to be practical. It's got to be, 'OK, this is going to help us win a baseball game.' It's not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. You're always trying to simulate the reality of a game, as opposed to what might make you feel good after the work is done."
So afer he noticed in October that when he turned to speak to his bench coach, John Russell, and could barely hear him, he went home later and wrote himself a note -- to revisit this in spring training.
And he did, all right.
In the morning, Orioles players were shown a video of 25 plays from 2014 that featured balls in the air and fielders converging. Showalter and his coaches stressed one of their team rules on pop-ups -- that when there is danger of a collision, the outfielder should "stay low" and slide, and the infielder "stay high" and keep running. And infielders were told they should use hand signals when possible, because, said the manager, "eyes don't have to hear."
Then they all hit the field, while the stadium crew hit the volume button. And the point was made.
"Usually," Hardy said, "that day [in spring training], whenever you do that pop-up priority [drill], it's so unrealistic that it's almost like a waste of time. ... But today, there was actually something to it. The outfielders would have to yell at the top of their lungs for us to maybe hear it."
But there was one more subtle message involved in this drill too, you understand. If the manager is simulating October crowd noise in February, isn't he also sending a message to the group that he expects them to be still playing baseball in October? Correct answer: Of course he is.
"Yeah, it gets crazy in October," said catcher Matt Wieters. "I don't know how many pop-ups get hit where you get that much of an ovation. But it should get us ready."
And Yet One More Showalter Drill
We've all seen pitchers do their spring-training bunting drills. But position players?
Well, we've seen it now. Showalter had a bunch of position players gather late in the day to work on pushing bunts up the first-base line. And if you thought that was just typical spring fundamentals work, think again. This is Showalter, remember. (See above.)
The manager has been ruminating, you see, about ways to combat the rise of defensive shifts. And bunting is one of those ways. But most teams preach bunting down the third-base line because there often is nobody there. Showalter, though, has other ideas. Naturally.
"I'm not so sure that bunting to third is the answer," he said. "I'm not sure it isn't bunting to first. You've got a second baseman in right field. You've got a first baseman on the outfield grass. You've got a shortstop up the middle. Where's the bigger-risk bunt? Third, where a pitcher can cut it off? Or first, where there's not as much touch allowed and you can [bunt it] firm over there? I know what the answer is that I'm getting."
Davis In Right?
If you were writing out your most likely Orioles lineup card today, you'd find Chris Davis playing first base on most days and you might find Steve Pearce in right field, depending on who's pitching. But you'd better write that lineup in pencil -- because the Orioles have been kicking around the idea of flip-flopping those two.
At one point on Friday, while he was discussing the maneuverability of his roster, Showalter casually mentioned that Davis "might be as good a rightfielder as we have here." A little later, he worked in the assessment that Pearce "has made himself into a quality first baseman."
"You know, there's a lot of debate," the manager said, "about what's our best defense? Is it Pearce in the outfield and Chris at first? Or is it the other way around? I don’t know. But we’ll come up with that as we get into it."
Well, if Showalter decides it actually is the other way around, Davis says he's willing to play anywhere.
"I take a lot of pride in being a complete baseball player," he said. "I always give Buck a hard time about, 'When are you going to let me go back out there in right?' But for me, anything I can do to help this team be successful, that's what I’m going to do, whether it's playing right field, whether it's DH-ing or playing first base."
When a pitcher has Tommy John surgery, his recovery time is now pegged at 12 to 14 months. But when a catcher has Tommy John surgery, as Wieters did June 17, the timetable isn't as precise. So Wieters said Friday that while he's pointing toward being ready to catch Opening Day, which would arrive about 9 1/2 months after his surgery, he's more concerned about being ready for the long haul.
Unlike a pitcher, he said, "I don’t have to go through the mound progression and I don't have to throw breaking balls. But I'm still going to have a lot of volume [of throwing]. So I’ve got to get it to where it's strong enough that all the muscles around [the ligament] are going to hold up through the volume of throws I'm going to make over the course of the year. So it still could be anywhere from nine to 12 months. Nine months will be March. And June will be somewhere around 12 months. So hopefully closer to nine months than 12 months. ...
"But you've got to be smart with it. Opening Day is special. And I love playing Opening Day games. But at the same time, you can't rush something to where you're going to cost yourself the second half of the season or you're going to cost yourself a month or two in there. So it's a matter of which way is the fastest, but also which way I can play the most."
Notes and Quotes
· Wieters will play in the Orioles’ first intrasquad game Sunday but will be instructed not to make throws to second base. He'll also catch some minor-league intrasquad games early in the spring in which he won’t have to throw. His first scheduled spring game with no throwing restrictions is March 17.
· GM Dan Duquette on the PECOTA projection, by Baseball Prospectus, that pegged the Orioles as finishing last in the AL East: "PECOTA doesn't seem to like the offseason work of the Orioles the last four years. But we always seem to outperform the projections."
· Showalter on Ubaldo Jimenez: "I've got a good feeling about him. ... He's got a track record. So it's there. This is a well-conditioned healthy guy. He's got a lot of 'want-to' in him."
· Showalter on the people who doubt that Pearce's 21-homer breakout season was for real: "I'll be honest with you. I'd be shocked if it wasn't."
· Hardy on whether he's constantly fascinated by how his manager's mind works: "Yeah. But I think we're getting used to it."