This is one of my favorite sports times of the year. The college football bowl season combined with the stretch drive of the NFL regular season always makes for great entertainment. Baseball is in "off season" mode and that is a special time as well, as college and high school teams are getting after it in the weight room and on the track, trying to get bigger, stronger and faster.
For me personally, this time of year gets me especially fired up because basketball season is in full swing! I played basketball throughout high school and I value the memories I made on the hardwood. I still participate in pickup games on a consistent basis – especially during the winter months – and I have become more and more convinced that my baseball career was directly impacted because of my playing basketball.
Basketball gave me so many great opportunities to compete against explosive athletes and be groomed by coaches who taught me valuable lessons. These lessons gave me a big advantage on the baseball field, particularly as a baserunner. My time at the University of Tennessee was when these skills really blossomed, culminating in my junior season when I broke the record for runs scored at Tennessee (and in the Southeastern Conference) with 105.
In baseball, it has always been understood that the best offensive players either drive runs in or score runs, and the best of the best have the ability to do both. The following list could go on and on, but here at the three most important things that basketball helped me develop that gave me an edge, both on the base paths and within the game of baseball in general:
1) Never take a play off
This was a lesson that took me some time to learn on the hardwood. I had a tendency to go all out when I had the ball in my hands, but I had no clue how to play without the ball and I was prone to relaxing at times on defense. Once I started playing high school varsity basketball, these flaws were exposed and I found myself on the bench more than I wanted to be! Through the constant encouragement of my coach Joe Bergamini, I was forced to learn how to be mentally and physically engaged at all times, which was a must if I wanted to stay on the court.
This trait served me well as a baserunner. Put simply, great baserunners have great motors. They realize that getting on base is just the beginning of the journey. Every play has the potential to become a run scoring opportunity. So stay engaged and be alert – the next pitch might be the one that gives you a chance to change the game!
2) Learn how to read situations
By the time I was a senior in high school, the thing that I took the most pride on the court was my defense. I had learned to love playing without the ball in my hands and in turn, I was able to make a number of big plays by creating turnovers and turning them into points.
A big part of defense is reading situations – the ability to catch a ball-handler when his guard is down and pounce on him, the ability to read a play and know where the next pass is going, the anticipation required to jump a lane and deflect a pass. I believe that all of these skills transfer directly to becoming an opportunistic baserunner. Reading body language and understanding situations are a huge part of scoring runs in baseball. Figuring out what the pitcher’s rhythm is when he’s in the stretch, understanding what the count is and how a catcher might be tipping a pitch, taking a peek to see if I could see the pitcher's grip in his hand, determining whether the middle infielders are paying attention or not, taking note of where the outfielders are positioned, and having an awareness of who is hitting for you team – these are just a few of the questions a base runner should be evaluating with every pitch. The ability to process information quickly from pitch to pitch and seize opportunities when they become available separates the best from ‘the rest.’
3) Physical fitness matters!
Our basketball program used to run what we called the "ladder" every Wednesday. Up and back the length of the court in 10 seconds, twice in 20, and so on all the way up to five times in 50 seconds and then back down. This was a killer, but I knew that when I could complete the entire ladder, I was in elite condition. The rest of my career I relied on this drill in the off season to measure my fitness level.
Without question, speed and endurance is a huge advantage on the bases. While most people don't think of endurance as much when it comes to baseball, I know that having a passion for being in physical shape helped me tremendously. Many teams think they can tire a base stealer by picking over multiple times, but ballplayers who are in great shape and have high-speed motors are not deterred by this method. If anything, it motivates them to take the extra base even more.
Think about this scenario: A center fielder runs to the deepest part of the park to make a catch and end the inning, let’s call it a 30 yard sprint. He then runs to the dugout (120 yards) to get ready because he is hitting lead off the next half-inning, and the first pitch of his at-bat is right down the middle. Is he ready to hit or is he still catching his breath? Let's say he hits it to the gap for a double (60 yards) and the very next pitch is a breaking ball in the dirt. Is he ready (mentally and physically) to take the next base (another 30 yards) or is he too gassed to seize the moment? Let's say he takes the base and the following pitch results in a medium fly ball that he should be able to tag up on (30 yards more). Can he finish the play and score for his team? For that answer to be ‘yes,’ he better be in great shape!
Did you do the math? That's 270 yards of sprinting in less than 5 minutes. Fitness matters! If you want to be a great baserunner, you better be in peak physical condition.