Cards lose to Twins: Spring Training effort shows when it counts

Adam Wainwright throws batting practice during Spring Training. (Source: Chris Lee, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Adam Wainwright showed he has some work to do to regain the dominating presence he displayed in 2009. The ace (he and Carpenter share the title) went two innings, allowing four runs on five hits. He walked two and had no strikeouts. Not exactly the performance that Redbird nation became accustomed to a year ago. Wainwright said he lost focus and allowed early hits to discourage him. He also said he will use this game as a wake-up call moving forward.

While the righty will probably be fine and ready to go come April, his lack of focus is a cause for concern. Just last year, baseball watched as Cole Hamels went from the next big thing to a struggling pitcher with a losing attitude. Hamels cited a lack of focus when pitching against lesser teams, and was easily rattled when things got tough. The thought that a professional athlete, who earns millions of dollars, can lose focus for a couple of hours is embarrassing for the game.

Like I said, Wainwright will likely be fine. He has a competitive fire that keeps him hungry every fifth day. But I have a problem with the attitude that this is just Spring Training. Sure, it is just Spring Training. The games don’t count on the final record. But Spring Training does count. Every little thing counts as a team prepares for a run at the ultimate prize.

One of my favorite baseball stories illustrates this. It is about Derek Jeter. No, it’s not about one of his clutch hits, “the flip,” or his patented jump throw from the hole. It’s about Spring Training. It was 1993, Jeter was only 19-years-old. It was Derek’s first Spring Training.

Don Mattingly was the star of that era of Yankees baseball. He was also the team’s leader and hardest worker. After a workout, in an empty facility, Mattingly ran up to Jeter as they headed for the clubhouse.

“We’d better run in,” Mattingly said, “You never know who’s watching.”

Mattingly and Jeter then sprinted to the dugout. A superstar sprinting off the field during a Spring Training workout is unheard of. But Mattingly did it. And he left an impression on a young player, who would use that advice as a mantra for his career.

Jeter plays as hard as anyone in the game. He respects his profession, and hasn’t let the success go to his head. I can guarantee that the Yankee captain takes every BP in Tampa to heart. He won’t be satisfied with an 0-for-3 day at the plate, and he certainly won’t lose focus. More players need to adopt the mantra.

Jeter has been compared to Pete Rose as an equal when it comes to going all-out, all-the-time. They run the base paths with fury and are constantly alert. Jeter proved it with “the flip.” Rose proved it with his legendary play in 1980, catching a ball that popped out of Bob Boone’s glove. Had either lost focus for a split second, they would not have made the plays and their teams could have lost. Their approach to the game ensured that focus would never be lacking. They wouldn’t lose because they weren’t ready or didn’t play hard. That attitude worked well for Jeter and Rose, two of the game’s greatest winners of all-time.

Like Jeter, Rose built his career on his rookie year’s Spring Training. During a game with the Yankees, Rose walked. He promptly sprinted down the line to first. Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle poked fun at the rookie, saying, “There goes Charlie Hustle!” Rose wore it as a badge of honor. He was doing something right. He played like Charlie Hustle his entire career, sliding headfirst into third, bulldozing catchers, and taking off after a walk every time. No one played harder than Rose.

The lack of hustle in the game today is sickening. Every SportsCenter highlight shows its share of double plays. Many end with no baserunner in sight on the first base line, or with the runner slowing to a walking pace. With all the gifted athletes in the game, a full out sprint would make the game tougher on defenders, but rarely do any players take off in a sprint. And that is in a game.

Mattingly and Jeter sprinted during a workout. Not because they had to, but because it was the right thing to do. Rose didn’t have to sprint that day, but he did because he had respect for the game. Today, the right thing is a rare thing. And focus is somehow becoming hard for athletes, too.

It shouldn’t be hard to do. Baseball is a game, and these players get millions to do it for half a year.

Spring Training is part of the job. It may not show up in the standings now, but it will in September and October. The journey starts now, and taking a break will only hurt when it does “count.”

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