Nationals Sprinkle In Some Pregame Fun With Pepper

"A 50-year-old man is kicking their [butts]," says Randy St. Claire. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Before it belonged to a group of young Washington Nationals pitchers, pepper belonged to the past. Some Nationals pitchers knew pepper because they had played it in Little League, or perhaps high school. A few even used it in the low levels of the minors. But in the majors?

"Never," Jason Bergmann said. "I've never seen another team play an organized game of pepper."

This summer, the Nationals became the lone torchbearers of baseball's classic skills game, reviving pepper on the hope that it can develop some primary tools -- bunting, clean fielding, coordination -- and on the certainty that its daily sessions can, at worst, give them something fun to talk-trash about. Almost every day, five hours before the evening's first pitch, between four to six pitchers, along with pitching coach Randy St. Claire, head to the edge of outfield grass to play. They go at it for 45 minutes. They break a sweat. They follow an unwritten scoring system. Each player's point total resets daily. Arguments about each player's ability, it should be noted, take no such respite.

Asked for his personal player rankings, closer Joel Hanrahan started, "I'd say you go Hanrahan one."

"I win just about every day," St. Claire countered. "They get beat up every day. A 50-year-old man is kicking their [butts]."

"Earlier in the year, St. [Claire] would have been higher" in the standings, Hanrahan said. "But he's getting too old for the game."

When St. Claire suggested that his pitchers adopt the game, he had a direct purpose in mind. He felt that his two youngest starting pitchers, Collin Balester, 22, and John Lannan, 23, needed to refine their fielding. Both had moved through the minors so quickly, the progression short-changed the basics. So one afternoon in early July, during a rain delay against Florida, St. Claire initiated the first pepper game.

St. Claire had played as a boy in his back yard. Even during his own major league career, he participated in sessions -- baseball's quintessential pregame image, where a batter peppers a loose line of fielders with close-range grounders, on and on, until the ball is pin-balling back and forth, going from glove to fungo in rapid-fire. In 1989, while with the Twins, St. Claire played with teammates Wally Backman and Dan Gladden and Al Newman. St. Claire, then, reached two decades into the past and reintroduced the game to the next generation.

For Balester and Lannan, participation was mandatory -- and it still is, except on days before starts and days of starts. Others joined slowly and became committed regulars. Hanrahan, Bergmann, Charlie Manning and Marco Estrada play almost every day. All take a certain pride in reviving the game that Hanrahan calls "old school." The drill, St. Claire said, is far preferable to the infield grounders he could hit as an alternative. As a game, pepper is perhaps most famous for being not played -- "No Pepper" signs were once ubiquitous at most stadiums -- but so long as players don't tear up the grass, few groundskeepers mind. St. Claire mandates that players wear sneakers.

This weekend, Bergmann sat at his locker and explained the game, as the Nationals have adopted it. A line of fielders needs to scoop the grounders cleanly. If you make an error, you retreat to the end of the line. If you catch a line drive, you take a turn at bat. Batters score by knocking the ball past the fielders, though they can't hit it too hard. Ideally, Bergmann said, between four to seven play. There's no waiting list; not yet, at least. If more join, the Nationals intend to create an A League and a B League.

"Can I butt in for a second?" relief pitcher Mike Hinckley suddenly asked, joining the conversation.

"Please," Bergmann said.

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