Baseball's pitchers, catchers renew spring ritual

It's sure been a long, cold winter. But soon, sports' first sign of spring arrives when baseball honours an old ritual that can still send a shiver through the bad knees of old receivers everywhere.

Old-timers Whitt, Dempsey, Quantrill share memories

Catchers from every major-league organization will soon take on the thankless task of helping pitchers prepare for the coming season. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

"In winter, I get cabin fever bad. I wish I had a tape recording of the sounds of batting practice." — Ray Miller, Baltimore pitching coach, 1979

Spring may be six weeks away from being sprung from its winter prison, but in just a few days the real first rite of passage for the new year begins when baseball honours an old ritual that can still send a shiver through the bad knees of old receivers everywhere:

Pitchers and Catchers Report.

Major League clubs will throw open the gates across Florida and Arizona between Feb. 10-12 to bring hurlers, left and right, out to slowly work on their arms, while half the backstops in the organization stoop endlessly to catch them.

Paul Quantrill has been retired from a 14-year career as a pitcher since 2005, but he still remembers one of the things that had him most excited about that famous phrase as he counted down the days to Florida.

He was cold.

"Especially when you’re a Canadian and you live in Canada, and you’re freezing your [butt] off," said Quantrill, chatting amicably from his Southern Ontario home before heading off to Arizona to help prepare this country’s entry in the World Baseball Classic.

"It tends to be exciting to get out of the cold. I don’t mind winter, but it gets old."

So, you’d pick a date to head south (Quantrill played for seven teams over 14 years, the longest stint with the Toronto Blue Jays) that was a few days before the official reporting time, "and work backwards from there."

Packing up, unless you were one of the lucky ones who lived in the city where you played, meant bringing along enough stuff to last through October, because you weren’t going to get home again.

Married? Even more complicated, as the whole family had to work out who went where, when, and how.

Welcome to the bigs

Catcher Rick Dempsey went to 24 Major League spring camps in his impressive career, but the first one in 1969 with the Minnesota Twins still sticks sharply in his mind.

Unlike today, when youngsters making their debut in the big-boy playground are taken care off from first to last, rookies in 1969 had to fight for everything they had.

Sometimes almost literally.

"In my day, it was very, very tough to cross that barrier [from rookie to teammate] because every day was a battle," says Dempsey, from California. "You had to wear other people’s uniforms, hand-me-downs, you had to use other people’s bats, and things like that."

Seems simple enough. Until the vets began testing you.

"Even when they found you using [their bats], and they knew you got them out of the bat rack where they keep all the extra stuff, you just had to fight your way out onto the field every single day.

"It was part of the game back then. I didn’t mind the battle."

Rod Carew, then starting the third year of a superb Hall of Fame career at first and second base, and a guy who came of age in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City, was especially tough.

"I used to like to use the kind of bat that he used," says Dempsey, now a broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles. "He found me swinging in batting practice with one of his old bats that they actually gave me. He would take it away from me, and I would have nothing."

That grew tired after a while, and the young catcher learned to stand up for himself.

"I know a couple of times, I had to say ‘If you want it back, and you want to come around that batting cage, feel free to do so.’

"After a while, they learned to have a little respect for you."

But you’d get there, and the way Quantrill describes it, things were pretty much like the hours before opening day of Grade 7, when all the pens, papers and erasers were new, lined up clean and neat on your desk, and nothing had happened quite yet.

"I got settled in so… I could get used to the weather, kind of get comfortable, have all your stuff in your locker just the way you needed and wanted it, so you could get down to work each and every day."

Ah, work. Stretching in the sun (once the rain of early February begins to blow away), getting your long toss done and then your pitches in from the mound, doing some running in the outfield and then… off for the day.

Now, Quantrill says he always showed up in great shape, and thus he really hated the long springs and being excited to report really meant being excited to get the season started in April. Especially since he wasn’t a power guy, who really did have to work slowly up to speed.

It wasn’t like those six weeks were super-taxing. Unlike that of, say, catchers, the other half of that dreamy old reporting phrase.

‘A necessary evil’

"Catchers get used and abused in spring training," says Ernie Whitt, from Michigan while in final prep for managing Canada’s WBC team and then reporting to the Phillies as their catching coordinator. "That’s one of the reasons I didn’t look forward to it.

"First, there was catching seven or eight pitchers, then you had to go and hit, and I was just exhausted at the end of day. I remember many days just crawling on the couch and saying ‘Leave me alone.’

"You’d see the pitchers taking off to play golf and we still had three hours on the field."

Whitt, whose first camp was in 1975 with the Boston Red Sox, would eventually catch 1,328 regular-season games over 15 years, 12 of them with the Blue Jays during their developing seasons of the late 1970s and through the 1980s.

"Early in your career, you’re very excited about reporting because it’s the end of winter, and the start of a new season doing something you really enjoy doing," he says. "As you get older, it becomes like ‘I have to go through it, but I can’t wait for the start of the season.’

"It was a necessary evil."

When he was a newbie, the challenge was a chance to find your way into a world you desperately wanted to be part of. When pitchers and catchers reported, your heart was often there long before the rest of your body arrived.

Whitt’s heart reported to Winter Haven in ’75, and immediately found itself surrounded by big names.

"[The Red Sox] had the likes of Carl Yastremski, Tony Coligliaro. Then you had the young stars I had played with a bit in the minor leagues — Freddy Lynn, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk.

"I was over in the scrubeenie pen with all the minor leaguers I knew from before — we were in the same locker room and we had our own little corner the invitees were put in."

'I loved it so much'

Not all catchers get knee aches thinking about spring training. One who played longer than most anyone loved every second of it.

Rick Dempsey caught for 24 seasons with six teams, mostly Baltimore (two World Series rings), and he’s still positively effusive about the fun of reporting, over the phone from California.

"I loved it so much that [the long days] didn’t matter," he says. "I always got into the detail of warming pitchers up, spending hours in the bullpen, but I never saw it that they were long days — every time I had an opportunity to warm somebody up or go to the bullpen I took advantage of it."

Dempsey is a little unusual here – hard to find someone who liked squatting for hours at a time in the hot sun. But consider he went to his first camp with the Minnesota Twins in 1969 at just 19 years old.

And he impressed enough to get into five games that year with a team that included Tony Oliva and Rod Carew, big Harmon Killebrew and pitchers like Dave Boswell and Jim Kaat. This despite coming in weighing 155 pounds.

"It can be intimidating [when you’re young], when you see guys who are that big, that strong, but I saw it as an opportunity to talk to those guys, find out what the game was about — I pestered them to death with questions."

Opportunity is knocking now for a new generation of pitchers and catchers.