Life in the minor leagues is far from glamorous – long bus rides, shoddy hotels, sparse crowds and Podunk towns are just a few of the vast differences between baseball “down on the farm” and in the Major Leagues. But one of the great things about the minors is that quite often, you get the chance to simply sit back and appreciate our national pastime and those who play it.
Such was the case for me in April of 2013, just days after the Red Sox departed Fort Myers for Boston along with our four minor league affiliates. As the Major League season opened, one notable member was absent from the Red Sox lineup: David Ortiz.
“Big Papi” remained in Florida, finishing up his rehab from the calf injury that limited much of his 2012 season. As one of a handful of staff members who stayed for extended spring training, it was our job to make sure Ortiz got the work he needed to be ready once he left for Boston. That responsibility afforded me the surreal experience of watching Ortiz tune his craft from a vantage point very few get to see: behind an L-Screen.
Witnessing the way that he worked made it easy for me to understand how he turned himself into one of the best hitters in the history of the game. Having never actually seen Ortiz go through his daily hitting routine, I had an expectation of a guy swinging as hard as he could and pulling just about everything. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
First, he worked three rounds of front toss for a total of about 60 of the most impressive swings I have ever seen. I’d bet that 40 of the balls either went the entire length of the cage or off the L-screen, with another 15 or so to the back half of the net. Every swing he took had two common traits: balance, and a short and direct path to the pitch where he stayed inside the baseball.
The most impressive part of his work in his routine? NOT A SINGLE BALL WAS HIT OFF THE TOP OF THE CAGE. For a guy who with 541 home runs (plus another 17 in the post-season), the fact that he consciously worked so diligently to – in his own words – “stay on top and inside of the ball” speaks volumes to the importance of those swing traits in becoming a good hitter.
From there, we moved onto a back field for a normal BP session. The first round lasted about 12-15 swings, with each one resulting in a line drive or ground ball back up the middle or to the opposite field. The next round, Papi kept everything in the middle, gap to gap, mostly well-hit line drives and ground balls and a handful of backspin fly balls. Next came the round that couldn’t have surprised me more to see: situational hitting.
“Hit and run,” Papi yelled out, as I wondered to myself when the last time he actually got the hit and run sign. The next five swings, he hit the ball where it was pitched, on top and out of the middle of the field. Textbook hit and run execution from of a middle-of-the order power hitter.
“Man on 2nd, nobody out. Move the runner.” Here, Ortiz had the discipline to look for a pitch on the inner half that he could drive to the right side, while also showing off the ability to control his barrel and get around a pitch on the outer half in order to move the runner.
“Man on 3rd, infield back.” Again, just as he did on his hit and run round, David’s focus was on hitting the ball where it was pitched on the ground or line, almost as if he was playing pepper with the middle of the field. Only on pitches elevated in the zone did he really look to drive the ball deep into the outfield.
“Last one, infield in.” In this round, Papi became extremely selective. He attacked the ball that was up in the zone, as well as down and in, a hot zone for him. What was interesting in his approach was how his focus was not to hit fly balls, but rather to hit the ball hard, knowing that if he made hard contact, the ball had a chance to get through whether it was on the infield or not.
We finished with one last round of about 15 swings where he really started to open things up, seemingly hitting the ball out at will. For someone with the ability to do this, the fact that he only spent roughly just 10% of his entire workout swinging for the fences showed me how truly important it is to develop into a good hitter first, while allowing the power to come last.
And just like that we were done for the day. Four rounds, each with a plan, every swing with a purpose. Without question, it was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen over my years in the game. Little did I know that the next day would leave an even bigger impression on me.
Upon arrival to JetBlue Park that next morning, it was clear that the rain coming down would prevent any work getting done on the field, but Papi’s “warm up” swings in front toss showed the same focus on staying short and inside the ball, using the length of the cage. At this point, David was feeling pretty good, and wanted to start having some fun. So he created a game- while still in the same front toss drill- where he gave himself ten outs. Anything that was hit hard, and to the back half of the cage (mimicking the middle of the field) was one point. Anything not, was an out. His goal was to see how many points he could collect before registering ten outs.
My guess before we started was that he would score around 15-18 “points.” His final tally? 23.
Life is about competing. Those who can compete will be successful, and those who can’t, won’t. Baseball is no different. There is a stream of talented players who enter professional baseball every year, but one of the main things that separates one from the next is their ability to compete. Countless players find themselves out of the game very quickly not because they weren’t good enough, but rather because they wilt under pressure.
Over the course of his last 33 swings, David Ortiz showed exactly why he has been one of the toughest outs in the entire game over the last decade: he practices competing, even if it’s against himself. The more I was around this guy, the more apparent it was how EVERYTHING he does is done with a specific purpose in mind.
While staying in the batting cage because of the rain outside, we move to live-arm BP. There, he takes four rounds of 10-12 swings each, staying balanced and under control, working to hit everything back through the middle and towards the back of the net. At this point he tells me that he wants to go just one more round, and asks me to do the impossible.
“I need you to be Mariano [Rivera],” he says.
“If I were Mariano, this is the last place I would be right now,” I replied.
Going into further detail, Ortiz tells me to put a little more velocity on each pitch, and try to command to a six-inch space in between inside-black of the plate and the left-handed batter’s box, or put simply, where Mariano Rivera – the greatest closer of all-time – works him in games.
He has a different look to his face. More focused, more intense. After throwing a couple balls that he took over the outside part of the plate, I find my rhythm as BP thrower, and begin to challenge him in the exact area he is looking. On a few occasions, I am able to get the ball in on his hands, and jam him, when his body language clearly shows his competitive fire. But for the most part, he is absolutely hammering the ball.
About halfway through the last round I would have the privilege of throwing him, I recognized exactly what that look to his face represented. It showed David Ortiz, one of the most clutch professional hitters of our generation, in a batting cage in Ft. Myers, Florida against a no-name minor league manager, with no one watching, mentally putting himself in the 9th inning of a game facing Mariano Rivera.
Big Papi’s practice routine is exactly what has enabled him to develop into one of the greatest hitters of our generation. That routine held three distinct characteristics that players of all ages can follow, regardless of level:
1 – WORKING WITH A PURPOSE
2 – COMPETING
3 – PRACTICING GAME SITUATIONS
It’s no wonder David Ortiz has been so successful in pressure-filled, game-on-the-line situations throughout the course of his career, including the 2013 post-season on way to winning World Series MVP after hitting .688 in six games against the Cardinals.
That October, sports writers and TV commentators were fascinated, almost to the point of being bewildered, as to how the same guy, year in and year out, finds a way to get the big hit in the big moment. After those first few days in April of 2013, I knew the answer.
In sports, the actual game, in a way, is a reward for all of the work put in by athletes in practice. So, whether you are David Ortiz pretending to hit off of the greatest closer of all time or a little leaguer imagining coming to the plate with the bases loaded in the last inning, there is a clear lesson to be learned: when you practice being in the moment, you’ll be in the best position to perform.