LAKELAND, Fla. — The game didn't necessarily accomplish anything of particular importance for the upcoming season, but a competition between the catchers at Joker Marchant Stadium still had its uses. And it provides a measure of fun for the backstops while building rapport between each other.
Under the cloudless, humid, 82 degree weather, the last batting practice sessions finished up and players made their way back from the practice fields. While most went back to the clubhouse after the longest afternoon of practice seen in some time, — largely due to the torrential downpour the day before — back at the stadium the catchers convened at home plate.
Tigers catcher Alex Avila presided over the events, keeping score of the afternoon's shenanigans while manager Brad Ausmus watched close by. The competition was a series of four events designed to test a catcher's skills while having fun with each other in the process.
The early favorite to win by several of the staff was Single-A catcher Arvicent Perez, much to the dismay of first base and defensive coach Omar Vizquel, who was betting on Triple-A catcher Manny Piña.
The first test was to see who could repeatedly block a ball in the dirt the best. If you kept the ball within arm's reach, you got two points. One point if the ball was out of reach but it stayed fair and didn't touch the grass. Grass meant no points.
The second event tested a catcher's accuracy in throwing a runner out. First, second, and third base all had large medicine balls balanced on buckets, and in order to get points you had to knock the medicine balls over by throwing the ball hard enough from home plate. There were more than a few ... airballs, to use a basketball term.
"They're trying too hard!" Vizquel yelled, shaking his head and laughing when more than a few sailed well into the outfield.
There were a few more light-hearted jokes about a Single-A player "embarrassing" the more senior players, then the contest moved to pop-ups. After you caught the first ball the next one was launched, but since that's just too easy the stakes were raised. Once the first ball launched by pitching machine reached its apex, then the next would be released.
To survive, a player had to catch five in a row with the sun glaring down at full force. All made it through but one, although there were a few close calls. Bryan Holaday was 4-for-5 until a late slip followed his fifth catch that caused the ball to fall out of his glove, and he buried his head in the grass in defeat. The roars of his teammates was not far behind.
The last event was comprised of a race in full catcher's gear. As the time passed 2:45 p.m., contestants made their way to shallow right field, where they placed their gear in a line near the middle of the field. In order to win, a player had to run from the right field line without their gear, put on their equipment (glove included), and then race back to the right field line. And it all had to be on correctly, no cheating.
James McCann won this part of the race by a mile, and it ended up being the difference in the contest. All but one of the players were still putting their gear on when McCann was halfway back to the line. He won the whole thing by two points.
The competition was anything but serious, but any chance players have to turn something into a contest, they do. The ongoing ping pong tournament has been no different. Every player is highly competitive and at Joker Marchant Stadium that brings out the best in athletes. And with how long the baseball season is, having fun is an important piece of the everyday grind, even when it's at the expense of each other.