Craig Calcaterra

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez stretches before the Dodgers' exhibition baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Associated Press

“There’s a sense from a lot of people that our lives are not real”

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — We turn on the game at 7pm. We turn it off at, maybe, 10:30pm. For most of us baseball occupies a three hour window of our lives each day. During those three hours fantastic physical specimens in matching uniforms and, part of the time, helmets, compete for purposes of our entertainment. In an age of bread and circuses, they’re the closest thing we have to a gladiators.

While there are frequently good stories written about the personal lives of ballplayers (this one about Ian Desmond’s family is one I still remember well), most fans still forget that they’re human beings who exist in the same world we do between the time we turn that TV off and the time we turn it back on again. They forget that they have families and responsibilities. That they have stress. That their days are longer than we typically see and that despite their wealth and despite the fact that their jobs are pretty great, those days aren’t always easy.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez knows one thing the fans don’t see: when they get to work.

“They really think we get to the park at six o’clock,” Gonzalez said. “And they think we leave ten minutes after the last out. They don’t always understand how long we’re here. It’s a great job, I’m not complaining, but we have really long days. Eleven, twelve hours and that’s without the traveling.”

And it is absolutely that long of a day. For night games, players will leave their homes at noon. Earlier if they live farther from the park or if they’re rehabbing something. They’ll eat and prep and see the trainer or take hacks or whatever in the hours before the game. Then the clubhouse opens up to the media. Then the game, of course. Afterwards most stick around for a good extra hour after giving their quotes to the media, either to ice down, do post-game “recovery” cardio or to watch film. Gonzalez says it’s rare for him to be home before 11:30 and most nights it’s midnight. For day games — which come on the heels of a night game, remember — the players may leave as early as 7am.

Again, baseball is a sweet job, but 12 hours at the office is 12 hours at the office regardless. And that’s before you take the travel into account. Oh, and some of these guys have families too, you know.

Brad Ziegler

“There are times guys go to the field and, you know, their kids are sick and they’ve been up all night with a crying baby,” Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler told me. “And no one has any idea about that. And you get to the field and you’re not the same as you’d be if you had a good night. Or you have a grandparent who has been moved to hospice. When you get here you’re supposed to block all of that out but can’t ever just completely get rid of it.”

Ziegler notes that these real problems are often invisible to fans.

“There’s a sense from a lot of people, especially the casual fan, that our lives are not real. That we don’t have the same problems because we have money.”

It’s certainly a mindset we’ve all encountered. Maybe one we’ve even harbored before. Just think of how many conversations you’ve had with fans which have included the phrase “. . . paid to play a kids game.” I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve seen here in which a fan offers some variation on “[Player] should just shut up. He makes millions” in response to one of them offering a comment about the grind of the season or the travel.

It’s not an easy dynamic for players to combat. They’re well aware of the fact that any time they publicly reference such off-the-field things they’re liable to be accused of making excuses, which is a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. There’s also the media dynamic. In an age where players are trained to give inoffensive, cliche answers to virtually every question, even the slightest deviation from the “we just gotta play them one game at a time” line is seen as “controversial.” When even a mild critique of something is called “an evisceration,” the mere acknowledgment of some negativity is seen as “entitled athlete whining.” It’s something which may be the fault of a small handful of talk radio goons and agenda-driven bloggers or columnists, but it’s something which has made its way into the general sports discourse as well.

They are big boys, of course. They can take it. They can take the travel and the long days and the misapprehension of these things by fans. As both Gonzalez and Ziegler noted repeatedly, they have fantastic jobs they wouldn’t trade for the world and they are very well paid to do them. Several months off come October or November helps a lot too.

But we as fans should not forget that ballplayers are, more or less, working 180 or so straight 11-12 hour days, often in the heat, always under media scrutiny, with a lot of travel in the middle. We should remember that when the fatigue sets in and the injuries mount. We should remember that before we moan from our bleacher seats, our barstools or our couches about how any given player is pampered, coddled, soft or fragile. We should remember that though ballplayers are, for many of us, modern gladiators, their lives are every bit as real as ours are.

The Dodgers will let the media worry about the “storylines”

Los Angeles Dodgers players warm up before a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, Calif., Thursday, March 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Christine Cotter)
Associated Press
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GLENDALE, ARIZ — Brandon Beachy was the Dodgers’ starting pitcher on Saturday night. Which made it so odd to see him just sitting in front of his locker two hours before game time with no newspaper, book or electronic device in his hand and making no effort to avoid the media. Which isn’t to say that he’s normally standoffish or anything. It’s just uncommon for the guy pitching that day’s game to be so available. That day’s starter is often off in an area off-limits to the media, prepping, working out, talking to coaches or whatever. He usually faces the media after he comes out of the game and keeps to himself before.

There’s pressure on the veteran righty. After comebacks from two Tommy John surgeries, he appears to be the top choice of Dave Roberts to take the injured Brett Anderson‘s spot in the Dodgers rotation. So far he’s doing an admirable job of it — he would throw three scoreless innings against the Cubs on this night and has five scoreless innings on the spring — but it would be understandable if he was a bit tight and less willing to just chat casually with a reporter he doesn’t know. Beachy, though, is loose. Everyone in the Dodgers’ clubhouse is.

Which is likewise somewhat unusual. To some degree all spring training clubhouses are loose because it’s still spring training and no one’s season has been ruined yet, but there are varying degrees of looseness. In the past few years the Dodgers’ spring clubhouse has seemed a bit more tense than some others. It’s understandable. Don Mattingly entered the past couple of seasons on a hotter seat than some and off-the-field and clubhouse distractions from guys like Yasiel Puig only made things more complicated. Puig is still there, of course, but he’s allegedly getting better. Mattingly is now gone.

In his place is new manager Dave Roberts, who has a lot to do with the looseness, according to Beachy. I ask him if it’s fair to say that he’s a positive, high-energy guy.

I’d say that’s very accurate. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s very outgoing. He’s a guy who likes to have fun and he brings that to our team meetings every day,” Beachy said. “He does different things to try to get us laughing and get us together as a group. You look around this room and you see guys playing video games and ping pong. We had guys taking hockey shots at each other the other day. It’s a group of guys having fun.”

Indeed, Roberts even participated in the Dodgers’ annual spring training ping pong tournament himself this year, which is something Mattingly never did. Which isn’t a slight on Mattingly — I’m guessing neither Bruce Bochy nor Clint Hurdle are playing ping pong with their players — but it says a lot about the tone Roberts is setting. Part of that tone: taking the weight of external expectations off the shoulders of Dodgers players.

The Dodgers will once again have an outsized payroll in 2016 — in the neighborhood of $229 million at the moment — and with it comes outsized expectations. While the expectations on the Cubs are born of something undeniably positive — they won a lot last year and got better in the offseason — the Dodgers’ expectations are somewhat more complicated. They’ve won, sure, and people expect them to continue to win. But there’s also a sense that because of that payroll they have somehow failed if they don’t win the World Series. There’s likewise a sense that, thanks to some high-profile controversies about and between players, the off-the-field business is impacting the on-the-field work of the Dodgers. Now, under Roberts, such things simply don’t seem to register with players in any real way.

“Yeah, everyone in baseball says ‘we expect to win a championship, we expect to win the World Series.’ And we do — that’s obviously the goal — but that’s kind of big-picture,” Beachy said. “Dave has focused a lot more on the process. The day-to-day. The smaller things that you can control. You take care of those small things and then you look up at the end and then you’re pretty close to reaching that ultimate goal. If you did your job right.”

Beachy hasn’t had a lot of time with the Dodgers yet so he can’t necessarily compare how Roberts is handling things with how Mattingly did like some longer-tenured Dodgers players could. But he did say that when he was with the Braves he found that day-to-day approach to be more conducive to players doing their jobs than thinking about a team’s overall expectations or whatever narratives are ruling the day among fans and the media. It’s a message I’m hearing over and over here in Arizona. How the “storylines” are for the press and the fans, not the players.

“We have expectations internally, in this room, and none of those expectations have to do with those outside factors. The business stuff, the money stuff, the controversy, that’s all for you guys,” Beachy said. “Our expectations come from the talent that’s in this room. You look around this room and see the best pitcher in baseball. Some veteran guys who have done it and done it really well for a long time. That’ll determine how we do. Those guys doing their job and those of us who have to step up and help them doing our jobs. What anyone out of this room says is not something which affects us or gives us higher or lower expectations.”

Two days into my spring training trip, one thing is coming through loud and clear: what we talk about as fans and commentators is almost completely divorced from what players think about. If one of these teams with high expectations starts slowly, we’re going to say that they’re buckling under pressure or possibly choking. We’re going to say that they’re feeling the weight of expectations. After talking to players, however, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that that’s an exercise in projection. That those of us on the outside are grafting a layer of drama on to a bunch of players who are simply doing — or failing to do — their jobs.

Leaving Camelback Ranch on Saturday night I was thinking about what Beachy said. And, because I’m kind of cynical, I couldn’t help but think that what he had to say, while interesting, was a little on-the-nose. Something that hews almost exactly with what team leadership and the P.R. staff likes to hear from players. A more expansive “we play them one game at time and tune out the distractions” stuff. So, with all due respect to Beachy, I wanted the view on this stuff from a player who may be a bit more free to speak his mind on the matter. Someone who plays a more prominent leadership role on his team and who is not as likely to delve into cliche as a fourth or fifth starter might.

So on Sunday I talked to Hunter Pence. I liked what he had to say about it all. Stay tuned for that post.

Madison Bumgarner to miss two spring training starts

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SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ — Giants ace Madison Bumgarner is going to miss two starts, the team announced today. He’s dealing with two injuries which the Giants say are minor: (1) a neuroma between the third and fourth joints on the bottom of his left foot; and (2) discomfort in his right ribcage just below the chest. A neuroma is the thickening of nerve tissue due to stress and strain which can cause discomfort.

The foot issue developed over the offseason but has continued to irritate him. He first felt the ribcage injury while swinging a bat in the cage on Friday. He told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle that the injuries are not serious and that if it were the regular season he’d play through them. Now, however, caution is the order of the day. He had a cortisone shot for the foot and an MRI has ruled out an oblique strain for the ribcage ailment.

The issue, more so than the injuries, is Bumgarner’s preparation for the season. Missing two starts could cause him to be a bit less than 100% stretched out by the time the Giants break camp. Of course this is Madison Bumgarner we’re talking about here. Even with this stuff and even at less than 100%, if we needed a guy to go a couple of innings in a game against the Martians with the fate of the world at stake he’d still be on the short list.