Bill Conlin: Training is over, but it's still spring

Brett Myers settled down after giving up three homers in first two innings against Braves.
Brett Myers settled down after giving up three homers in first two innings against Braves.
Posted: April 07, 2009

THE HUMAN BRAIN has many switches. They control mood, desire, hunger, fear, aggression and right down the infinite menu of the human condition. But there is no switch labeled "Off" and "On."

You can bet your stimulus check that when Chicago and Cincinnati of the National Association headed north from New Orleans in 1870 after professional baseball's first spring training, players were moaning about what a drag it was to play exhibitions against each other and area amateur teams. Cincinnati manager Harry Wright, a Brit by birth and later the third manager of the Phillies, may have said, "My chaps can't wait for the bell to ring." Or words to that effect. Unfortunately, the Red Stockings withdrew from the Association, which folded without the team that was unbeaten in 1869 as its No. 1 attraction.

Ballplayers have their agenda. Mother Nature has hers.

Ballplayers have been grousing for 139 years that spring training is too long. Dick Allen postulated that the ideal baseball experience would be a week of spring training followed by a season of games played in stadiums closed to fans.

So they come north and line up on Opening Night full of hiss and vinegar, stand at attention in the jammed ballyard for the first ceremonies that will keep reminding them of a magic-carpet ride that became yesterday's old news the second new Braves ace Derek Lowe two-seamed his first shot-put heavy sinker.

Mother Nature had to be laughing at how she had tricked the lads again.

Lowe's body calendar appeared to be set around mid-July.

For all the "Let's get it on" bravado, the championship swagger, the regular-season schedule appeared to catch them by surprise. The Phillies' hearts swelled with the desire to hit the ground running. Well, they were close. They hit grounders and then started running.

There is a reason for the ancient April truism: "The pitchers are ahead of the hitters."

Pitchers are progressively tuned up during a 6-week process (7 this season to accommodate the World Baseball Confusion) designed exclusively for them. They start out throwing off the practice mounds, normally every other day in a controlled time frame. The next phase is throwing live BP to a catcher. Brett Myers has become particularly adept at that. He gave an excellent demonstration Sunday night of just how throwing a BP fastball and Sam Morse changeup works out with big-league hitters hacking away. After the three-homer carnage of the first two innings, Brett reverted to what has become his apparent career path: Curveball and offspeed pitcher whose fastball is now his changeup.

Charlie Manuel fretted with good reason over the participation of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino in the WBC. Both lost 2 weeks of essential exhibition at-bats, not to mention the extra hitting that is available at the Phillies' superb Clearwater baseball facilities. Rollins got plenty of game action and was the only USA player to make the All-Classic team. But Victorino was lightly played - just 19 ABs in eight games. He took a total of 69 spring-training at-bats into the opener. Not enough for a player whose role pingpongs between No. 2 and No. 6, depending on Manuel's hunches and the opposing pitcher. But because Shane was a late addition to the USA roster, he actually had more combined spring-training/WBC at-bats than Rollins, who had 61 total plate appearances.

The point is, you can flip that mental switch all you want, but the calendar usually wins.

Your mind might be tuned to the adrenaline rush that comes with a packed ballpark, the raising of the World Series flag, all the pomp and pampering this team will have until the reset button of the first three-game losing streak. But nothing much really changes between those last at-bats against the Rays on Saturday afternoon and the first at-bats against the nasty dealer who showed up for the Braves. Lowe has been the game's most consistent sinkerballer the past 5 years. He could easily have gone nine, pitched a rare Opening Night shutout. But that is not the way the game is played in this century.

Manuel correctly played it as if the score were 1-1 instead of 4-0, going Taschner-Eyre-Durbin-Lidge because yesterday was an open date and that is how the Money Pit metric works in a yard where four-run leads can vanish in an eyeblink. It was 4-1 with one out, first and second, and Bobby Cox had to squirm through Ryan Howard, then Raul Ibanez, each with a chance to tie it with one swing. Lefthanded closer Mike Gonzalez struck out both, officially kicking off what will be a long and strident debate over the Phillies' potential Achilles' heel - the left heel, of course. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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