It's a Field Day At Tigers' Camp

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

LAKELAND, Fla., Feb. 16 -- There was a joke to be made out there on the practice fields of Tigertown, hard by the shores of Lake Parker, on a windbreaker-and-wool-hat Florida morning. But what was it, exactly? Some 50-odd media members -- perhaps three times as large a horde as would normally greet the Detroit Tigers' first spring workout -- had gathered to tell this particular joke. But when the Tigers' pitchers and catchers took the field for fielding drills, all businesslike and humorless, no one could quite remember how it went.

"It's like the most popular 'knock-knock' joke in the world," Tigers closer and resident funnyman Todd Jones conceded after the workout. But pressed for a punch line, Jones came up empty.

"How many Tigers pitchers does it take to screw up a World Series?" Jones offered, trying another tack.

Gee dunno, Todd -- how many?

"Well," he stammered, feeling his audience turning against him. "How many [pitchers] did we carry? Eleven? Twelve?"

So it went, on the day the defending American League champions amassed at Joker Marchant Stadium (perhaps he might have been able to come up with something funny) for the easiest slam-dunk story line of the spring: the first PFPs -- "pitchers' fielding drills" -- for the Tigers' hurlers since they quite literally threw away the World Series nearly four months ago. To refresh your memory: The Tigers' pitchers committed five errors during that fateful week (one in each game), allowing a total of seven unearned runs for the St. Louis Cardinals, who won four of those games to earn the title.

"It's an easy story," said Jones, himself a journalist of sorts -- he writes a column for the Sporting News. " 'Hey, let's go down and cover the Tigers' pitching staff, because they made all those errors in the World Series.' I understand. . . . If you make five errors in the World Series, you're going to have to accept the knock-knock jokes."

Among themselves, when not being peppered with questions about it, the Tigers seemed unfazed at all by the experience of fielding bunts and comebackers so many weeks after those same plays had spelled their doom. After a closed-door meeting with Manager Jim Leyland -- who told them not to forget last year's glory, but not to savor it too much as a new season begins -- the 29 pitchers in camp split into three groups, moving between three drill stations where they worked on fielding grounders, making pickoffs and covering first base on grounders to the right side.

There was no clowning around, no sarcastic applause when a play was made correctly, and certainly no jokes.

"I'd have to say," Leyland mused afterward, "that it [was] pretty friggin' boring."

There was Justin Verlander -- last year's AL rookie of the year, but the perpetrator of colossal throwing errors in Games 1 and 5 -- expertly making his pickoff throws and fielding his bunts during Friday's drills, seemingly oblivious to the cameras and notepads recording it all in the name of hilarity.

"You can't expect not to make errors. It just happened that all of us did at the same time," Verlander said humorlessly. "If it wasn't the World Series, nobody would've even noticed."

There was flame-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya -- who, in Game 3 of the World Series, compounded the mental mistake of throwing to the wrong base on a bunt play by heaving the ball down the left field line -- breaking in a new glove, which he hoped would "get all the evil spirits out."

"One got away from me," he said, describing his all-in-all successful first day of fielding drills. "But hey, the rest were on target. . . . I joke about it now. I make fun of myself. But if you had told me that night [of Game 3], it would've been a different story."

There was reliever Fernando Rodney -- the goat of Game 4, in which he shot-putted a throw down the right field line on another bunt play -- allowing muscle memory to do its thing, instead of thinking it through, and making a series of perfect throws.

And there was Jones, whose fielding error in Game 2 was the only one that came in a Tigers victory, moving from station to station without so much as a sly smile on his face -- but later arguing that he shouldn't have to participate in such drills.

"I give up doubles," he said. "I don't have to worry about comebackers. I have to worry about backing up third base."

Of course, other than the chill in the air, there were almost no similarities to be drawn between PFPs in the middle of February, and fielding a bunt at Busch Stadium with runners on first and second and nobody out in Game 5 of the World Series. And the Tigers insist, to this day, that they were not underprepared last October.

"It's like a pilot in a simulator," said first base coach Andy Van Slyke. "He can do everything right in the simulator, and then go out there and crash the plane. That's what [the World Series] was like."

The larger media contingent was not the only thing that changed about the first day of Tigers camp this spring. A year ago, Leyland was just starting his first year with the team, and the Tigers were coming off a 91-loss 2005 season. Nobody could have guessed what was ahead of them. This time, though, there are expectations.

"Nobody gave a [darn] about the Tigers last year," Leyland said Friday morning. "We will not be a flash in the pan. I don't know if we'll win anything. But we've got a good team. . . . In my opinion, the only way to screw this up is self-destruction."

Leyland was not in a joking mood in the morning, but after bouncing from field to field for a couple of hours, lugging around a fungo bat and shouting encouragement from one corner of the complex to another, he loosened up. And the elusive PFPs joke finally revealed itself after the workout, in the manager's office, emerging from Leyland's mouth amid a cloud of cigarette smoke.

"Well," he said, prefacing the line by noting it was off-the-record, before ultimately relenting. "We caught a couple."

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