WATCHING THE MAJOR-LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYoffs on television is different from roaming fields and locker rooms with a press pass, as I did at seven games this year. Here are three scenes that TV doesn't show.
First, batting practice: I used to see BP just as hitters taking cuts, but I've come to enjoy its careful choreography. Batters typically form four groups, with each group given 15 minutes and each player during that period receiving the same number of pitches in countdown order. At a California Angels batting practice I watched, for example, each of four batters per group receive eight pitches (bunting the first two), then six, then five, then four, then three. With fewer pitches came greater intensity, as players took easy swings at first, then more aggressive ones.
At the end players were racing into the batting cage, turning work into something between a ritual and a game. Most batters do not merely swing away. California manager Mike Scoscia explained to me the Angels' philosophy as we stood in back of the batting cage: "We want every player to accomplish what fits his distinct role. Sometimes we ask a player to work on hitting up the middle. Some players need to practice going the other way." The countdown is "to get into a game frame of mind. Every swing counts."
Batting practice is also an expression of baseball's democracy. In all the batting practices I watched this year, every player except one bunted at least the first pitch he was thrown. In all the practices, every player except one at the end of his group's time helped pick up baseballs in front of the batting cage and drop them into a bucket.
The exception to both bunting and picking up is the second subject of this column: Barry Bonds. (He did kick three balls in the direction of the bucket at the end of his batting time.) Let me offer a low and a high about baseball's best player. As I was listening to his San Francisco Giants teammates in the clubhouse, he was watching on a big-screen TV a teen make-out film. Sprawled on a leather couch, Mr. Bonds chortled at the sexual humor and made obscene comments throughout the movie. Meanwhile, a teammate opened up Playboy centerfolds for Mr. Bonds to assess.
But Mr. Bonds gave a thoughtful reply a few minutes later when I said this to him: "My 12-year-old son Ben knows about all the home runs you've hit, and he wanted me to ask you a question-'What does it feel like to be a great player?'" Courteously, Mr. Bonds said, "I don't know what 'great' means.... Tell Ben that greatness means being remembered in the minds of people. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, maybe Michael Jordan.... If your son remembers me 34 years from now, then I'll be great." I then asked, "Who should be remembered? Who do you admire?" Mr. Bonds replied, "King, Lincoln. Those are the people I admire. They did good for others. They sacrificed themselves. Tell Ben to be brave and to think of others."
Make of the contrast between low and high what you will, but at least Mr. Bonds has a theoretical understanding of the importance of self-sacrifice. And his behavior leads me to a third behind-the-scenes story: the state of the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. Each time I've been there neither the television screens nor the tables and couches have displayed raunch, and this summer I asked star pitcher John Smoltz (see WORLD, Aug. 3, 2002) about that. He replied, "This was never as bad as some other places, but a few years ago we did have the Playboys lying around. I didn't want to make a big deal of it-not in the sense of 'I'm better than you guys,' because I have the same desires-but the clubhouse is where we all spend a lot of time. It's like our living room, and I didn't want that stuff in my living room."
Mr. Smoltz continued, "I talked with the clubhouse boys about it. Now we have a box in the bathroom with those magazines, but they're not all around here, in our common living room." He grinned and concluded, "A few years ago I put a Bible in each player's locker, just to see what happened. Most of them also ended up in a box in the bathroom."