Friday, April 17, 2009


ALBURQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO---Gray skies, mini snow flurries, and howling winds greeted the Aztecs as they arrived here for a critical three-game conference showdown with New Mexico.  The team (and it's announcer) flew in yesterday afternoon on Southwest, with a turbulent bumpy landing that led pitching coach Rusty Filter to rename our flight choice "Knuckleball Airlines", and led head coach Tony Gwynn to consider the merits of making the 11-hour drive instead of the 90-minute flight.  

The team immediately went from the airport to the University of New Mexico to stage a practice, using the team's half-astroturf, half-grass field.  Coach Gwynn placed a screen inside the batting cage, behind the plate, and then sat on a chair behind that screen, instructing his hitters not to hit the ball out of the park (not an easy feat, given the icy but blasting wind, mile-high conditions, and inviting fences).  Instead, the hitters were told just to work on their swings, the plane of the bat traveling through the strike zone, and hitting the ball the other way.  Trying not to do too much at the plate is a constant refrain from the coaching staff, pounding the message home to try and counter the natural, youthful tendency to pull and hook the ball in search of a homerun.  It was a good practice to help acclimatize the young kids into the thin air while also getting the blood flowing after a day of travel.  

What's there to do in Albuquerque?  Well, I'm sure there's something, but it doesn't exist around the team hotel.  The Drury is actually very nice, with a hot, free breakfast buffet and complimentary wings and drinks for Happy Hour.  It just happens to be in the middle of an industrial complex.  I asked the clerk at the front desk where the nearest sundry store was.  He told me it was "a block" down the street at a Chevron station.  1 mile+ later, I found it, after walking past dozens of empty office buildings.  Oh, and there's a Clear Channel radio multiplex across the street.  Yay, dark reminders!

This morning provided a fascinating glimpse into Coach Gwynn's teaching style.  The team bused to the Albuquerque Baseball Academy after breakfast, an indoor hitting facility.  After 7 or 8 rounds of BP, Gwynn huddled the team around a video monitor, where the Academy had frame-by-frame recordings of the swings of various MLB players.  

"Head behind the ball, head behind the ball," said Gwynn, "doesn't matter who you put up there (on the screen), you'll see their head is behind the ball."

Up popped Joe Mauer, A-Rod, Giambi, Soriano, Carlos Lee, and others.  Sure enough, at the point of contact, the head was always behind the ball, the arms were extended in the hitting V, the eyes were watching the ball into the hitting zone.

"Look at the bat plane through the zone now," as the next frames clicked into place.  "Flat.  Flat.  Flat.  Look at the knob of the bat.  The knob of the bat goes to the ball, the barrel follows.  Watch."

The video of A-Rod would back up two frames, and there it was.  The knob, then the bat barrel.  

Next, Gwynn asked the video tech to put up some different players.  Derrek Lee, bad bat plane, rolling over on a fastball and hitting a grounder to third.  

"See?  That's the bad, low bat plane I get on you guys about, and look at the result."

Then, the video tech had to smile at the next group of hitters Gwynn asked to see on the screen.  The tech said, "nobody's asked us to look at the David Eckstein video before!"

But there was little Eck, with the Cards, taking (as Gwynn put it) "97-mile-an-hour cheddar" to right field.

"Here's a Punch and Judy guy, but look again.  Head behind the ball, he's choking up on the bat, but the bat plane is flat, and he takes that pitch (a Bartolo Colon fastball) on a line into right field."

I've always heard about Gwynn's exploits as "Captain Video", but to watch it in person as a lesson imparted to his hitters was fascinating for a seam-head like me.  

The last message delivered to the team was one of focus, heightened awareness, staying on the little things that lead to success, and trusting your ability.  I don't know what SDSU's results will be this weekend in New Mexico.  I do know that they are ready to play.  Catch all the action on, I'll have the call at 5pm (Pacific Time) tonight and tomorrow, and 11am on Sunday.  


  1. Yes!!!

    Strasburg got a shutout! Now he'll move up in the RBI draft rankings....and we can take a depp breath.

    Go Aztecs!