Baseball, the sport with no clock, is filled with spare time — and not simply the idle periods between innings, pitching changes and even pitches, but also before and after games. The season is 162 games, not including the 30-plus spring training games and the postseason. But it’s not unusual for coaches to show up seven hours before night games and players to arrive five hours before the first pitch.
What do they do? Watch video, spend time in the training room, hit in the indoor batting cages, take early drills, lift weights, stretch, hold team meetings, take on-field batting practice, shag fly balls. That’s all time well spent.
But they also sit around, play video games on iPhones, watch movies on tablets, listen to music, play card games, watch television and eat. In fact, every day includes a lot of free time. Players spend more time off the field at the stadium than actually on the field playing.
“There’s an exorbitant amount of wasted time spent at the ballpark,” Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. Added Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams: “It is wasted time. I do more now than I used to.”
Part of the ingrained culture of baseball is showing up early. Some Nationals coaches, including pitching coach Steve McCatty, arrive at 11:30 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game. Eager rookies, including reliever Aaron Barrett, and motivated players show up at 12:30 or 1 p.m. Veterans such as first baseman Adam LaRoche, accustomed to their routine, arrive by 2:30 or 3:30 p.m.
“You can only do so much” lifting, stretching and massaging, LaRoche said. “There’s so much sitting around. That’s why baseball players have so many brilliant ideas, inventions, new apps and businesses they’re going to start, bouncing stuff off each other.”
Before night games, teams mostly follow the same routine: At home, the Nationals, for example, stretch as a team around 4:15 p.m., then play catch before starting batting practice at about 4:45. Those needing early hitting or defensive drills often show up more than two hours before that.
During batting practice, outfielders and pitchers stand in the outfield. Some pitchers chase down balls, which allows for spurts of exercise. Some simply chat with teammates. Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard said former teammate Ron Villone, who spent 15 years in the majors and pitched for the Nationals in 2009, once calculated that he spent more than a year of his life standing in the outfield shagging flyballs. Some players, however, love that.
“I think it’s fun,” Nationals reliever Drew Storen said. “Standing around, that’s how you get to know everybody. It’s fun to go out there and act like you’re an outfielder.”
Certain positions don’t need as much time for pre-game preparation, such as relievers who aren’t usually needed before the middle or late innings. Ideally, Clippard would need only two hours to get ready for a game but knows he needs to be at the stadium for team meetings and bonding.
“There are times guys get to the park at 1 o’clock and I’m like, ‘Why are you guys getting here so early?’ ” he said. “There’s nothing to do. For me as a reliever, I have to get all my working out and my stuff done after the game because I don’t want to fatigue myself in case I have to pitch. I’m a guy who gets here as late as possible because I’ve got nothing to do.”
Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth, a 12-year veteran, shows up later than most teammates because he prefers to stay later, long after his teammates have gone home, to lift and get treatment. Even in his 14th major league season, Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols said he shows up to the stadium for home night games generally by 1:30 p.m. “I use all that time to prepare,” he said.
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, in his sixth season, arrives at Nationals Park by 1:30 p.m. At certain stadiums on the road, he shows up about an hour later. But generally, he likes to get his workouts and treatment done so that he can hang out with his teammates.
“Most people wouldn’t call it work, but we’re watching other games and getting your body work done and taking care of yourself,” he said. “Stuff that we talk about in here isn’t always about baseball but most of the time we’re talking about strategy, not necessarily X’s and O’s but situations, what’s wrong, what’s right, how the team is doing. As much as it is idle time, it is what you make it.”
Rookies are indirectly obligated to show up early, because they are expected to use the training room before veterans do. Barrett arrives at Nationals Park for night games at around 12:30 or 1 p.m. He lifts, stretches, eats lunch, watches video or reads. On a recent afternoon, he used his pre-game time to organize the hot pink backpack filled with snacks that he carries to the bullpen during the game, a tradition for rookies.
“You don’t want to show up two hours before stretch,” Barrett said. “That just looks bad for me. I’ll find stuff to do. It’s fine with me.”
Some rebel against baseball’s show-up-early culture. Maddon, who manages perhaps the most laid-back clubhouse in baseball, encourages his players to show up to the stadium later, to spend more time at home with their families and to eat lunch somewhere other than the clubhouse.
“Don’t show up at the ballpark, stare at walls and drink coffee,” he said. “We’re playing on iPads and video games in the kitchen area under the disguise that you’re the first one there. I’m not into this concept of first one there, last one to leave. I think if you come a little bit later you stay fresher. Normally these are concrete bunkers. There are no windows. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be most of the time.”
Maddon understands players need to receive medical attention, to hit in the batting cages and study opponents on video, but there’s plenty of time to do that if they show up at, say, 3:30 p.m.
“They play 162 games under a lot of mental duress and I’m here to tell you it’s about the mind,” Maddon said. “Over-constant repetition of way too many swings can only serve to hurt some people as opposed to help them. What are pitchers doing? Pitchers don’t come out to just throw. They come out there to hang out. I hate to be blowing everybody’s cover right now. I just think there’s a much better way to utilize your time.”
One incentive for an early arrival is the modern clubhouse. Kitchens are stocked with all kinds of fresh food, including healthy options. There are couches in front of large flat-screen televisions, high-tech video rooms, hot tubs, trainers, massage and physical therapists.
“Back in my time as a player, guys would show up at 2 or 3 o’clock,” Williams said. “Some places didn’t even have batting cages, let alone weight rooms. It was show up, nibble on something and go out for BP and play. Nowadays, everything is just so nice guys tend to get here a lot earlier.”
Before a game, especially the hour in between batting practice and first pitch, players are often on their phones playing games, watching television, eating, putting golf balls or playing Ping-Pong.
“You’ve got one guy at one end of the clubhouse and playing one guy [on a cellphone game] at the other end,” Williams said. “And they’re screaming at each other and you have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Regardless of how many hours are spent at the stadium and how efficiently that time is used, players relish their clubhouse time.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Werth said. “It’s time well-spent. It’s a privilege. You put in a lot of work as a kid so you might as well take advantage of it now. It won’t last forever. And when it’s over, you can’t come back. They won’t let you in.”