It's hard to guess how important spring training is to a team's success during the season. Come November, when the last manager is thrown in the air after the Konami Cup, someone will say the pennant-winning effort really began on the first day of camp, when the manager said this or the player's rep said that.
That's news on the order of saying this wonderful year began on Jan. 1, imagine that! January? Who would have thought it? Nearly every player's season starts in camp, and every manager, coach, trainer and player has a list of spring training dos and don'ts.
One don't is don't have bad weather. This February has been one of the worst in memory. On Sunday afternoon, Orix international director Takashi Miyata said his club had spent three-quarters of its first nine practice days indoors.
For managers and coaches, who need as much time as possible to evaluate before the season starts, bad weather is a handicap and the main reason why clubs have gradually moved south for the spring. It was a big reason why the Chiba Lotte Marines trained in Australia the last two years.
Unfortunately another don't is don't do things players will refuse to deal with, and Miyata, a former Lotte official, criticized moving the Marines boot camp on that basis.
"Sure it's cold in Kagoshima, but the food is great," said Miyata, who believes the players prefer familiar cuisine to sunshine.
Miyata ran off a list of Kagoshima delicacies that made it sound like anyone who chose to train elsewhere simply lacked taste buds.
And while the Marines got lots of work done--a number of players were less than eager to go abroad.
When it rains, as it has a lot this year, it forces teams indoors and then the facilities play a factor in how much can get done. For the Hiroshima Carp in the city of Okinawa, this is particularly tough. Nowhere can fans and players interact more than in the Carp's camp, but trying to get your swings in when the main stadium is unusable is Hiroshima headache No. 1.
On Saturday afternoon, while hitters swung in the three dimly lit batting cages, the catchers ran through defensive drills in the main stadium's bullpen.
If the batting cages are dark, the bullpen is worse. The cramped niche under the dilapidated stands is closed off from the outside by a steel screen, giving the space the look of a dank Edo-period prison. Yet, instead of inmates' screams, the sounds from the sweating Carp closeted inside were those of professionals going about their work.
And--if one puts aside thoughts of tasty shabu-shabu--work is what players come for.
After the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters finished fourth in 2005, then-manager Trey Hillman said he had underestimated the need for hard drilling in fundamentals. His practices the following February went very much back to basics. Although always a believer in quality vs quantity, Hillman's 2006 camp was two hours longer per day, giving his staff the time to attack fundamental flaws head on.
Hillman went into that year highly critical of a 2005 fielding unit that did little right but catch fly balls and turn double plays. His revised camp made a difference in the Fighters' defensive efficiency that was key in the club's back-to-back Pacific League pennant-winning runs.
While effort is necessary, there is always a risk in overdoing it too early. There is no bigger don't than don't get hurt in practice. This must be the reason why the Tigers' situational infield drill on Saturday was a parody. Runners, ostensibly there to force speed from fielders, moved so slowly that the Tigers mascot Toraki could have made the plays. OK, it was done indoors in the cold, but it was hard to see much benefit from it.
Although Chunichi's camp gets poor marks for fan and media access, the Dragons' energy the next morning was impressive. On a cold day, their situational practice was at regular-season speed. Dragons players running the bases hard and sliding to beat throws was a stark contrast to the Tigers' play acting the day before.
Although no team has ever won a game in practice, the purposeful energy is a good sign that the champs are very focused on winning again this season.