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10/10/08 11:21 AM ET
Instructional League vital for Rangers
Top prospects learn from the organization's best minds
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
Minor League third baseman Matt West ran afoul of Rangers outfield coach Gary Pettis this week in Instructional League. He was wearing his pant legs halfway up his calf. "All the way up or all the way down," Pettis told him. West went for the Ian Kinsler look -- all the way up -- and went about his business. Just call it another lesson learned from the intense curriculum that is a part of Instructional League at the Rangers Spring Training facility in Surprise, Ariz. Once an isolated program deliberately placed far from the madding crowd, Instructional League has become a prominent event on the Rangers' annual calendar from mid-September to mid-October. Club president Nolan Ryan, general manager Jon Daniels, manager Ron Washington and members of his coaching staff were among those who made the pilgrimage at some point this month to meet, watch and instruct more than 50 of the Rangers top Minor League prospects. No word on exactly who was there to watch the pitchers' egg-tossing contest Thursday morning or the annual bowling tournament earlier this month, and Ryan had already returned to Texas when pitcher Robbie Ross delivered his assigned report about the history and meaning behind David Clyde. "We did a thing where certain people were assigned finding out where people were from," pitcher Blake Beavan said. "Finding out information about them: what food they like, what they do besides baseball, about their family, stuff like that." Team-building is a big part of the Rangers Instructional League, but the main thrust is still about baseball, learning to play the game right in all facets and learning to do it the Rangers way from the best minds in the organization. Pettis, a five-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder, wasn't out in Arizona to enforce fashion styles but to teach young players how to play the outfield and on Tuesday he gathered them to together for a post-workout discussion. Beneath the autumnal desert sun, Pettis told his players: "Think about what you're going to do before it happens... You're here because we think you can do it . . . show us why. Show us what you can do. A lot of you are very young but that's not an excuse for not thinking ahead of time. ...Your goal should be 'I will not miss one ball and I will not throw one ball away.' The guys that play Major League Baseball -- they do the things we're talking about." That's pretty clear. "We're serious about winning at the big league level," Pettis said. "I mean, you have to have players in order to do that, but you also have to have players that understand how to do it. And that's what we're here for. We're trying to make sure it's done the way we want it done at the Major League level." The days are long, as Robbie Ross is finding out in his first real taste of professional baseball. Ross is a left-handed pitcher drafted out of high school in June and did not sign until Aug. 15. Now he's discovering what it's all about. "We wake up about 6:30 in the morning, get here about 7 or 7:20," Ross said. "We go into the breakfast area, hang out there until about 8 o'clock. And about 8 o'clock, we have pitcher meetings. We go over strategy and things about how you do in game situations. After that we have meetings for everyone. We go through what we're going to do for the day, like if we're going to [pitchers' fielding practice] or infielder positioning.
"After that we do stretching for about 20-30 minutes and get loose and go from there to our throwing program. And after the throwing program, we'll go and do [pitchers' fielding practice]. But if you're throwing a bullpen or throwing live batting practice later on in the day or you're in the game, you don't have to do that."
The games are in the afternoon, but seem secondary to the work that gets done in the morning and it all takes a backseat to conditioning.
Conditioning, as mandated by Ryan, is the No. 1 focus of Instructional League and will be for the Rangers year-round. That's the foundation of the program he is implementing to fix the Rangers' pitching problems.
"They're going to step it up a notch," pitcher Michael Main said. "They're going to enforce some conditioning. He's real big on that. He just came in and talked to the pitchers one day during one of the meetings. When he spoke ... it's pretty significant when he speaks, trying to listen to every word he has to say."
Ryan and Pettis aren't the only ones commanding attention. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is back in Instructional League. He had knee replacement surgery at the All-Star break but is back doing what he does best.
"I wanted to make them feel that I do care," Jaramillo said. "It's all about teaching and that's what I love to do."
Not only does Jaramillo work with hitters individually in the batting cages, he also meets with them as a group in the morning going over things like hitting counts, situational hitting, the Rangers system, batting grips, whatever it takes to make them better.
"He really has taught everybody a lot," said first baseman Justin Smoak, who is in Instructional League for the first time. "It's really been great. This organization is awesome right now."
The Rangers did have four of six Minor League teams make the playoffs this year and their farm system is being ranked among the top five by publications that do those things.
But ultimately it's all about winning at the Major League level and the Rangers have had just one winning season in the last nine years. There is still much work to get done, at Instructional League and other places as well.
|"It's all about teaching and that's what I love to do."|
-- Rangers hitting coach|
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Correspondent Rush Olson contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.