February baseball calls for well-crafted strategies
The school year ends in early May . . . just about the time when days see some 75 degree temperatures and the sounds and smells of baseball should be in the air.
However, with the end of the college term comes the end of the baseball season.
Because schools don’t have schedules that carry into “baseball weather”, they actually begin playing games soon after Punxsutawney Phil and the other weather-alert groundhogs scurry back underground and away from the harsh winds whistling above them.
Shepherd goes south into North Carolina and tests its mettle against both the first-week-in-February weather, but also highly ranked Mt. Olive.
After Winter Storm Jonas buried the Shepherd campus in about a yard’s worth of snow, did the Rams ever get to practice outside again? Before Shepherd came to town, Mt. Olive was slated to play in Lander, South Carolina to open its season.
Playing baseball in cold weather means having time-honored plans on how the players can cope with the sometimes debilitating conditions.
How does a player keep his morale high when the wind is moving his goose flesh up and down his spine? Maintaining a positive attitude can win more February/March games than all the malarky in the baseball world about being a “good two-strike hitter” or “getting a good pitch to hit.”
Remember, every player is in the same ice boat you are. Have a pre-game check list and follow it religiously.
Coaches have limited funds but they usually have enough bats, three or four different sets of uniforms, all kinds of screens and batting practice equipment and sufficient money to take road trips in the early season trying to find locales and days when the temperature just might be conducive to playing baseball.
If they have to play games while Ol’ Man Winter whistles his icy tune on the outside, coaches should make certain their budget can stand buying the players clothing and other gear they need to perform well against the schedule that has been presented them.
Players aren’t issued shoes or fielding gloves. They buy those themselves.
But modern-day equipment manufacturers have clothing that can make winter baseball more worthy of the name “baseball.”
All the players need long sleeves and lower body clothing that has been proven to help maintain warmth.
Jackets with the school’s name across the chest are issued to the players. Those warmth providers should read “It’s winter, we’re trying to help” instead of just signaling an unvoiced message that says “get out there and play.”
Hand warmers that aid hunters can be placed in uniform pockets and found by the cold-handed players between every pitch when they are in the field. Some players will wear a snug-fitting, light-weight glove on their glove hand.
Cold, stiff hands mean more throwing errors when a winter-doomed batter eludes the cold long enough to put the ball in play.
Once a player has moved around and done his flexibility routine, he should know that continuing that movement will keep him from getting as stiff as the menacing breeze or that snowman standing just beyond the outfield fence.
The wind is the confirmed “Baseball Assassin”; it tries to kill the spirit . . . and it succeeds if it ever gets down a player’s neck or leaps up his back with a stiff gust.
Outfielders can jog to their positions and then on to the foul poles or center field fence in between innings.
Pitchers can work faster, drawing smiles from infielders whose standing-still time is shorter. The colder baseballs are slicker and harder to control, especially for pitchers who have not been outside to prepare for weeks. But those slicker baseballs don’t travel as far, either.
There was a reason one Major League team put baseballs in a refrigerator before games. That team had few power hitters and it wanted to minimize the opponent’s advantage by having them hit ice-cold balls.
Wooden bats or the composition bats now used are less effective when they are cold. Baseballs don’t travel as far off cold bats. And they break easier if they are wooden.
Pitchers can bring additional value to their weather-effected stuff if they pitch inside in nasty weather. A pitch that bites a batter near his hands or on the end of a bat will sting for a while and leave the unlucky player knowing full-well the meaning of the term “bees in the bat handle.”
Studies have shown that fewer runs are scored in cold-weather games as opposed to games played on days when baseball was meant to be enjoyed.
Staying warm(er) is possible with the proper equipment, clothing, whole-game attention to a player’s responsibilities and mental firmness not to feel sorry for your watering eyes, runny nose, stinging ears and two strikeouts in the scorebook.
But it ain’t easy. And coaches should invest as much or more money in cold-weather gear as they do on another set of uniforms or additional bases that are whiter than the most-used ones.
Baseball played on the first weekend in February is severe enough . . . give the players some small chance to enjoy themselves and get a hit or two by keeping the wind from pitching a shutout every time out.