FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Sixty players, five fields, seven days. No wonder Brad Mills carries around a computer-printed itinerary that looks as busy as a menu from The Cheesecake Factory.
The Red Sox conducted their first full workout of 2009 today at the team's minor league complex, players shuttling to and from stations like commuters changing trains at North Station. And while the buck ultimately stops with manager Terry Francona, the responsibility of running spring training actually falls on Mills, the Sox' bench coach and Francona's trusted right-hand man.
"It really works. He spends a lot of time organizing the day and it frees me up to do a lot of things I wouldn't otherwise be able to do," Francona said. "There was energy and it was organized because of the way he runs it. I love the way our camp is run."
Confused? Don't be. In the major leagues, the responsibility of running spring training often falls on someone other than the skipper, who has other priorities, responsibilities, and objectives. In Francona's case, that means taking the time to speak with new players, build relationships, gain the trust that is critical to any good team and any good clubhouse.
When Francona assumed control of the Sox before the 2004 season, he said that one of his priorities of his first spring training was to begin building the relationships that would solidify his clubhouse.
Clearly, he is not about to change his philosophy now.
For Mills, this is his sixth year as the Sox' spring training choreographer, a responsibility far more complicated than it sounds. During the week before Christmas and New Year's Day, Mills touches base with each member of the coaching staff and instructs them to start thinking about their needs for the spring. A couple of weeks later, he has a more detailed discussion with each coach. Pitching coach John Farrell and hitting coach Dave Magadan will break down their disciples into smaller groups, for instance, so that Mills has all the information he needs to start making blueprints for the early days at camp.
Today, Mills arrived at the team's spring complex at about 5:30 a.m., when he began his daily morning workout with a 45-minute stint on the exercise bike. By 7 a.m., he was out of the workout room and touching base with coaches to inquire about any individual needs for the day. At 8 a.m., Mills ran an approximately 20-minute staff meeting that included Francona, who, like the others, received an itinerary detailed down to the minute.
Shortly thereafter, the Red Sox took the field and worked out for just shy of two hours, pitchers scurrying from fielding drills to the bullpens to conditioning drills while positional players worked on their fielding, hitting, and agility. What could be a chaotic fire drill instead goes off like a refined training exercise -- which, of course, is precisely what it is supposed to be.
"We try to do this camp the best we can,'' said Mills, who is quite understated. "It's not my camp. It's our camp.''
Indeed, for all of the jokes that have existed about spring training -- many regard the term as something of an oxymoron -- the Red Sox have precise objectives. Mills began today's workout by overseeing pitchers' fielding practice (the dreaded PFP) and the focus tomorrow will be on pickoff plays. The Sox will have an abbreviated workout Friday because of their annual participation in a local charity golf tournament, but their fundamental focus Saturday will be on bunt defenses.
Between now and next week, when the Sox open their spring schedule, workouts will include offense, defense, and at least one area of fundamentals.
"We try to cover everything we can to get ready for the season without reinventing the wheel. I don't think the players like [over-analysis],'' Francona said. "You have a limited number of days down here, so you try to get the most of them.''
And then, even after the games begin, the Sox try to leave no stone unturned.
For example: Next month, after the Sox have moved to City of Palms Park, the club already has earmarked two days (March 6 and 27) to work on what Mills described as "outfield communication,'' a request made by third base coach DeMarlo Hale, who also coaches the outfielders. On those days, Hale wants use of the entire back field at the team's stadium, meaning that Sox hitters and pitchers will have to find other places to do their usual work.
The object of those drills? To prevent outfield collisions and defensive breakdowns during the regular season. Hale will stand at home plate and hit balls into the gap, requiring the center fielder to communicate with an adjacent fielder in left field or in right, all in hopes of refining the communication skills between the players.
Beyond that, there are other matters to consider as the Sox put in things like bunt plays and cutoffs, depending on the skills of the players involved.
Again, an example: Because both Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo could be playing shortstop this season -- even though Lowrie is the probable starter -- the Sox need to put in bunt plays that take into account the skills of each. Though Lugo is faster and can cover more ground, any plays must also work for Lowrie, who is a little slower but more sure-handed. It is Mills's responsibility to incorporate all of those issues based on the feedback from the manager and his fellow coaches.
Because the season is so long, the Sox need to do as much groundwork as possible now, which is why Mills will conclude each workout over the next week by sitting with his fellow coaches at lunch, where they plan the next day.
"We run our camp our certain way for a reason,'' said Francona. "And we like the way it's done."
For Brad Mills, at this time of year, that is the supreme compliment.
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