For traditionalists, spring training is becoming almost alien.
"We used to go to the race track after practice in my day," says two-time batting champion Mickey Vernon, now an instructor for the New York Yankees. "Four of us would chip in 50 cents each to go to the $2 window.
"Yesterday, I asked a player how he did at the track. He said, 'My horse won.' I said, 'How much did he pay?' The player said, 'No, coach. I didn't bet on the horse. I own it.' "
Nearby on the Yankees' practice field, another coach, Roy White, pointed to Exhibit A in his own consternation at these strange new times in the grapefruit league. With an expression of suppressed disgust, White stared at the compact, thigh-high machine beside him in the batter's on-deck circle, whirring and awaiting commands like an electric parody of man's best friend.
"I never thought it would come to this," says White, who played more games in pin stripes than anyone except Mantle, Gehrig, Berra and Ruth. "The thing is called a Ponza Hammer. They gave it to me to start spring training and said, 'It can shoot fungos better than you can hit them. Flies, grounders, foul pops.' I said, 'Yeah, sure.'
"One day I had a sore shoulder, so I gave in and tried it. You know, the day of the fungo bat may be over. I always thought I'd be one of the last to go to gadgets, but I use it every day now.
"The big change in spring training is the new machinery. It's everywhere you look."
Will the fungo gun make it to Yankee Stadium this year? "We're not at that stage yet," White said with a laugh. "I hope the fans would boo it off the field."
In recent years, especially in the last decade, spring training has been significantly transformed. It isn't just that players, who once bunked in leaky dorms or rented furnished garages for their families, now own $250,000 condos on the beach.
From the training room to the weight room, from the clubhouse to the dugout, from the field back to the room where a player sleeps at night, almost everything has been altered.
In one sense, baseball barely has changed. Pickoff plays and cutoffs, rundowns and double-play pivots are taught and practiced, just as they have been since the first Florida training camp opened in St. Petersburg in Babe Ruth's time. But step outside the white lines, and the game can seem unfamiliar.
Machines and money, modernity and medicine, even the martial arts and meditation, have made the difference.
Once, pitchers ran sprints until they wept. Now, some, such as Steve Carlton and John Denny, study karate and do ballistic stretching. In fact, the most famous conditioning coach in the game, Gus Hoefling of the Philadelphia Phillies, says, "Running's a thing of the past.
"It doesn't 'loosen you up.' It very quickly tightens you up. It doesn't 'make you stronger.' After a certain point, it's more likely to weaken the heel, knee and back. I don't advocate running for ballplayers. For eight years, I've tried to get it out of baseball."
Once, players warmed up with simple calisthenics. Now, many do ballistic stretching or aerobic dance. Gaze into the outfield on a morning in Florida or Arizona and you might think you're looking at a wrestling tournament or tryouts for the ballet.
Baseball's highest-paid player, Mike Schmidt, begins his day by grappling in the dirt behind the Phillies' bullpen with Hoefling, a 230-pound martial arts expert who looks as if he is trying to bend Schmidt's legs back over his head until they snap off.
"Stretching is the most neglected part of conditioning," Hoefling said. "You need strength to create motion, but flexibility is even more important than strength because it permits motion.
"Ballistic stretching means forcing muscles to go further than a man can get them to go by himself. It's painful and it's dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. "Running full speed into a wall would also be a kind of ballistic stretch," says Hoefling, who loves to say such shocking things as, "the perfect form of exercise is electrocution because then you get involuntary contractions that snap ligaments and tendons." Whether you think Hoefling is a guru or just gruesome, he's baseball's most influential conditioning innovator.
Once, a player couldn't go to the water cooler during practice. Now, he might be encouraged to guzzle all the time to wash down the lobster he just ate. How else could he be sure to follow the "Eat to Win" diet of a women's tennis player?
From Honus Wagner through Willie Mays, ballplayers "dieted" on steak and potatoes with a six-pack of beer. Now, the fad is scallops, brown rice and Perrier water. "Look at what it's done for Martina Navratilova," says Butch Wynegar, thus becoming the first Yankees catcher named Butch to have a 145-pound woman as his idea of a model physique. At least for himself.
"The idea that you need lots of protein, especially in beef, for muscle and strength has been disproven," he says. "Low fat, high carbohydrate and very little protein."
Well, what's for lunch, Butch? "Pasta but with no meat. I just put lots of 'Butter Buds' on it. Except I'm having trouble finding my (low-fat) 'Butter Buds' down here in Florida."
Yeah, the Babe probably had that problem, too.
In fact, if the 1927 Yankees walked into the clubhouse of their 1985 counterparts, they'd probably trash the joint. "Hey," they'd yell at clubhouse man Pete Sheehy, who was there then and still is now. "Where are the mountains of cold cuts? Where's the lasagna for Lazzeri and Crosetti?"
And what could Sheehy say? Just what he said last week, his lip a little curled: " 'Scuse me. I gotta go get the tray of raw carrots and celery."
Once, just a decade ago, a batting champ who needed knee surgery might be out a year. Now, Don Mattingly misses two weeks and has no scar from arthroscopic surgery. Mattingly pedals a fancy new Cybex variable-resistance stationary exercise bicycle in the Yankees' camp and hardly seems to know the bullet he's dodged.
Once, a pitcher with a ruptured Achilles' tendon might be finished. Now, the Orioles' Mike Flanagan gets a costly new cast and leg brace every week, wears electrodes to make his leg muscles "fire" to prevent atrophy and expects to be back by midseason.
"I've talked to people who had this injury years ago and I'm so far ahead of (their) schedule I can't believe it," he says.
Once, no ballplayer would touch a barbell. Now, stars spend the spring debating whether to do isometrics or Nautilus, repetitions or mass weights. Wanna hear a fierce argument? Just ask two players whose strength coach is best.
Fred Lynn worked with weights in the late '70s, built himself up to the point where he hit 39 homers, then, suddenly, fell apart as he had one lower-body injury after another. "I didn't know as much about weight work then as I do now. Nobody seemed to," says Lynn, who tapered his body weight back down, then gradually worked on gaining strength without bulk.
The muscle maharishis argue like prize professional beauties. None can prove his theory and each loves to dwell on the injuries of other men's pupils. Hoefling, again, is an example. He doesn't think much of Dr. Gideon Ariel's theories on Computerized Biochemical Analysis. Same with kinesiologist Mike Marshall. Of small-weight workouts, emphasizing repetitions, which some teams, such as the Orioles, emphasize, he says, "Doing a lot of reps is insane."
Since it's easier to build biceps than brains, almost every team is into muscle management, although even Hoefling concedes, "We're in the Dark Ages of conditioning the human body. We all do different things."
Once upon a time, you spit on a cut and rubbed a bruise. Now, if you don't feel perfect, a battery of trainers, doctors and masseurs try to decide whether you need diathermy, deep heat, whirlpool, ice, massage, ultrasound, acupuncture, cortisone, hypnotism or an L.A. shrink.
A trainer for the Yankees, asked if there is any piece of equipment he might wish to possess, says, "No."
Once, if you bounced your curves, they sent you to a coach who glared at you and growled, "Babe Ruth's dead. Throw strikes." Now, they send you to a clean-cut kid with a videotape machine who does a slow-motion analysis of your mechanics. Past tapes are on file. George Brett still is studying tapes of himself in '80, wondering how he hit .390.
Once, if you couldn't hang tough against left-handed pitchers, they questioned your manhood. Now, they send you to a computer wizard who tells you that you're just swinging at too many first-pitch breaking balls. Want to know what player in the majors has managed to get the ball airborne in the highest percentage of his career at bats against sinkerballer Dan Quisenberry? Andre Thornton, nine for 11. Teams keep or buy such info.
Come on, gang, how can we prepare for a new season if we don't know these things?
All these newfangled methods go down particularly hard in baseball.
Other sports, blinded by science, infatuated with the age, can't wait for the latest gizmo, the newest miracle cure or trendy diet or overnight body-building regimen.
But in baseball, old hands always ask the same question. Who needs to hit a ball harder than Jimmy Foxx or throw one faster than Walter Johnson? Wind sprints and batting practice were good enough for them. Who'd dare change something as tried and proven as the rituals of spring training? Who'd doubt that the best way to learn to hit, pitch or field was to go out and hit, pitch or field until you were tired and then quit?
Weightlifting, bah. Aerobic dance, my foot. Ballistic stretching, sure, if you want to break your neck. Computer, shmooter. Think Cobb ate carrots?
Spit on a spike wound, never baby a sprain, keep your pitching arm out of a draft and always pound that beer.
Sound like the precepts of the 19th Century? Try 10 years ago. In fact, for some extremely successful teams, such as the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, who have won the last two World Series, the old ways still are assumed to be best.
And they could be right.
"You don't see too much new machinery or weightlifting equipment around here," says pitcher Jack Morris of the Tigers. "What I do, I go out and do on my own."
"Spring training never changes here," pitcher Scott McGregor of the Orioles says. "Don't fix what's not broke.
"We're glad to see other teams trying something different every year. They just mess themselves up."
Baltimore's pitching coach, Ray Miller, says, "The Yankees sound like they're trying to play in the NFL. Baseball's not nearly as much a sport of muscle as it is a game of conditioned reflex and mental alertness.
"You see teams with these 'complexes' with six fields where they're taking BP on every field. We've never had that luxury, so we've spent our time on the little field working on base running, signs, relays, cutoffs, bunt plays, bunt defenses and all the other boring fundamentals. Those things never change. And we think they win more games."
What does the future hold ?
"In all the science fiction movies, you see these humanoid robots from the future," Miller says. "Someday I figure us coaches will just be robots like that. They'll put us back in our lockers at night, all slumped over. Then, in the morning, the manager will just come in, flip a switch on our chests and we'll come to life again."
Miller sees White aiming his fungo gun toward the Yankees' outfielders and says, "You think somebody's not working on it?"