VERO BEACH, FLA. — They arrive after spending years in the minor leagues, via trades, or after signing free-agent contracts. Their faces are familiar, yet they may not know each other. But as they pair off in Florida and Arizona, they face arguably the toughest job in spring training: learning how the other thinks, feels, and acts on the baseball diamond.
They are pitchers and catchers. And how well they understand each other can determine success or failure once the regular season gets under way.
"When new players come to new teams, they need spring training to learn about each other and to gel as a team," says Derek Lowe, starting pitcher for the world champion Boston Red Sox last year who now wears Dodger blue. "I saw firsthand [last year] what a team that really cares for one another can do."
Working out at the Los Angeles Dodgers' training site here in Vero Beach, Fla., Lowe now has to learn the quirks and preferences of new catchers after two years of pitching to one man, the Red Sox's Jason Varitek.
"This guy [Varitek] knows me better than I know myself and that's good and bad," says Lowe, who won 52 games for the Sox, tying him with Curt Schilling as the second winningest pitcher in the major leagues. "So now that comfort of knowing he's back there, knowing that he knows exactly what I want to do and he knows how to get the best out of me [is gone]. Now you come to a situation where you have two really good catchers. And now you've got to put the effort in to get to know them and vice versa."
Those two catchers, David Ross and Paul Bako, are looking forward to learning what makes Lowe tick. Both have caught Lowe in the bullpen, but they expect games to be much different.
"The games are really, as a catcher, when you get a good feel how they work and what their ball really does," Ross says. "Building a relationship ... is getting to the point where you are putting down the pitches they want to throw. That takes toward the middle or the end of the spring, and you're gonna take that right into the season. Hopefully it comes quick, but sometimes it's hard work with different guys. Different guys think different ways, and you try to get into their brain and see how they think."
Sometimes, it's easy.
"It just takes a couple of times, me going out there and throwing, a couple of conversations," says closer Dan Kolb, who racked up 60 saves for the Milwaukee Brewers over the last two seasons and now, at Atlanta, will be caught by the Braves' Johnny Estrada. "I'm sure there will be conversations about what I like, what he did and didn't like, but by the time the season starts, we should be on the same page."
"It just takes time," he says. "The only way you can work through stuff and to get on the same page is by pitching and working together on the field. But you can also get a lot done talking, as far as the mental part of it - kind of learn the personalities and learn how they like to pitch in certain situations."
Sometimes, the pitcher/catcher relationship is trickier, especially if star players have special demands.
For example: While most pitchers rely on their catchers to call pitches, Pedro Martinez of the New York Mets sees the situation differently.
"That's my game," says the former Red Sox star, who is now teamed up with Mets catcher Mike Piazza, a star in his own right. "Right now, I'm a veteran, and unless I'm in the heat of the situation and he comes to me and suggests a different pitch, I don't think that'll change my mind. And I did it to Varitek as well."
Martinez and Piazza were battery mates with the Dodgers in 1993. Despite the long separation, Martinez says they've already begun to click. "Mike is smart. He knows about hitters' weak spots, too. Setting up batters, seeing how they react to a breaking ball, seeing if they buckle their knees, pitching them away because they might be looking in. That's how we make pitches, and Mike is able to do that behind the plate better than anybody."
The relationship-building doesn't stop at the end of practice. "Not having our families around here the whole time, we just go to get a bite to eat here and there and build a relationship down here in spring training before the season starts," says Bako, the Dodgers' catcher.
"Ultimately it does come down to their personalities," says Jim Colborn, the Dodgers' pitching coach, entering his fifth season with the team. "But if the catchers know that that's one of their goals - to have a good relationship with a pitcher - they'll put more effort into it."