Maxx: A day at instructional, dawn to dusk

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maxx tissenbaum

* Ever wonder what goes on at instructional league. C Mass Tissenbaum (Toronto, Ont.) takes readers through a day at the Tampa Bay Rays instructional league camp from the pre-dawn hours to dusk … minute by minute, segment by segment. ….

2014 Canadians in the Minors … Canadians in College

2015 Canadian draft list
Letters of Intent

Debriefing and Briefing
By Maxx Tissenbaum
maxx8tissenbaum
Oooookay. So. Here we go again, I’m back! I took a month long break from writing and now it’s time to start again in preparation for my upcoming Australian Baseball League season. So now we debrief, and discuss Instructional League, then look forward to heading “down under.”

Instructional League is a month long program at the end of the Minor League season that allows young players, toolsy prospects and players changing position to have an extra month of practice reps before heading home for the winter. I had a feeling way back in Spring Training that I’d be an “instructs” guy because of my position change, so it was no shock that I was invited, and no shock how the whole routine works, given that I’d been to instructs twice already.

Instructional League runs a lot like Spring Training or any of the “complex leagues” (Gulf Coast League in Florida and Arizona League in? Arizona, good guess). The days are very long, and to say that instructs isn’t glamorous is not even close to descriptive enough. The word routine is used a lot in professional baseball and there may not be a more routine, regimented scheduled part of the year than instructs. This is part of the reason I didn’t write for the whole month, in my mind it wasn’t exciting enough to want to write about. It was simply a great opportunity to work with Hoov, Tomas, Skip and the rest of the coaches to hammer out more reps and get more sound defensively behind the plate. I was there to work, and get better, cut and dry, that’s it. Now that I’ve been home for a while and spoken to a bunch of friends and family I’ve realized that a lot of their questions are very similar, they’ve all asked what instructs was like. So here we go, let’s do a day in the life of Maxx Tissenbaum at Instructional League 2014.

6:25 am – My alarm rings, waking me up and signaling the start of another day. I set the time to be as late as possible so that I could get as much sleep as possible while still being at the complex early enough to get all my pre practice “work” done. I don’t snooze the alarm, I just roll out of bed, get dressed, brush my teeth and head out the door en route to Charlotte Sports Park.

6:50 – I arrived at the ballpark every day between 6:45 and 6:55 depending on how fast or slow I managed to get dressed. I park in one of two spots every day, either right in front of the clubhouse or facing Field 1 in the second row of cars. I tried to stay as close to the clubhouse doors as possible, knowing that when I would leave at between 4 and 5 o’clock it would be 90+ degrees and I’d have just showered, so these spots were ideal in terms of not starting to sweat in my clean clothes. I’d scurry to my locker and get dressed in my Rays issued shorts and t-shirt, fill up my Blender Bottle with water from the cooler and head outside to the lounge to grab breakfast.

7:00 – Breakfast was about as routine as a person can get. Every morning we had a buffet style spread of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns or home fries, bananas and oranges, and an assortment of cereal and toast. I always went with a big scoop of eggs, some of whichever meat was being served that day, an orange and two cups of coffee. At 7:00 am it made sense to me that if I only had to walk to the coffee machine once I’d be conserving precious energy while also getting my caffeine kick start. In the lounge there is one TV at the far end of the room by the drink coolers so I’d always pick a spot facing the TV and watch SportsCenter while I ate.

7:20 – Finished eating I’d head into the clubhouse and finish my first bottle of water and refill, I always tried to get two bottles in before we went outside. Hydration in Florida is an uphill battle at the best of times so I tried to be as proactive as possible. After refilling I’d head down the main hallway to the bulletin board and check the schedule for the day, the BP groups, the bullpen groups and if there was a game, the lineup and pitching rotation. Unlike during the regular season when pitchers are used in specific roles, during Instructional League each pitcher is as likely to throw the first inning as he is to throw the last. There is a set schedule, and each guy throws a specific number of innings or pitches, regardless of how well or how poorly hes throwing. Normally I’d be reading through and would help out some of the Spanish speaking players if they weren’t sure what something meant, and if I wasn’t sure how to translate whatever was on the board I at least knew how to direct them to someone that could actually help.

7:40 – After finishing up any work we’d have in “Building B” I’d head back to my locker and sit and chat for a little while. My locker was in a room with all the catchers and a few outfielders who I became friendly with. Each morning we’d sit and discuss whatever plans we had for after practice, or the day we got home. We’d joke about anything and everything because there are really very few things off limits in the locker room.

7:50 – I’d pack my bag as the conversation finished so that I’d be all ready to go after my early work in the weight room. Every morning the catchers are expected to do a series of exercises with the hurdles, and after the first week of instructs we also had some yoga that we were supposed to do to help with flexibility. I got TC, the head strength coach, to give me a card that outlined the poses we did in our weekly catchers yoga class, and I tried to work in about 3 or 4 every morning. I felt like doing the yoga made me feel “gumby,” yes, that was the word I chose to describe how my legs felt. It was a combination of loose, wobbly, stringy, and bouncy. I loved the feeling because I felt like my legs could go in all different directions without being sore which was important going into practice.

8:15 – Early work stretch! Every morning the catchers had early work, as did a group of the other position players. Normally early work was split into two half hour sessions, half the catchers would start in the batting cage and the other half in the bullpen. First, we had to stretch. We did our normal regular season stretching program except, unlike during the season, each exercise was done for the full 90 feet, rather than 30. Yes, that means three times as many shuffles, karaokes, power skips, high knees and butt kicks as usual. The stretch was always on the clock and took exactly 15 minutes every day so that at 8:30 we were able to start our work. It is expected at instructs that everybody runs everywhere, so the minute stretch finished we’d run over to the ‘pen or the cage to get to work.

8:30-9:30 – Early work. Most of the time I’d start in the bullpen with my defensive work and finish with hitting, but there were some days I’d only have defensive work. Each day Hoov Tomas and Skip would have a “theme” or an area of work that we’d be focused on during early work. Some days were blocking days, some days were footwork days, some days were throwing days, some days were receiving days. There were even a couple of “Fundamental Fridays” that weren’t always on Fridays. Hoov and Skip have a theory about teaching bottom to top, in that we start with the smallest possible version of the skill and build up to a game speed practice rep. For example, when we have a blocking day we start out with our “shadow blocking” a drill to just get loose, get dirty and start sliding on our legs. We then would do some drills sitting in our finished block position to just feel the ball hitting our gear, our body and our masks. We’d then move to a drill using just our hands to start getting the move to cover our five hole down. Then we’d get to regular blocking, then we’d go side to side as though we were taking either a left handed or right handed breaking ball in the dirt, and we’d finish with a block and recover drill. Each guy would do a certain number of reps in each drill then help out picking up the balls that are left sitting in the batters box and around the other catcher that is working. By the time we’re done we’re the first group to be wearing dark grey t-shirts as we’ve all sweat through the light grey material.

9:30 – Meetings. Every morning we meet on Field 1 down the left field line to go over the previous days game, to look ahead to the practice schedule and to just generally coordinate everyone so that we’re all on the same schedule all day. Because of the number of Latin players the meeting is done both in English and Spanish, the English coach will speak about one topic, then the message is translated into Spanish. I always tried to follow along with the Spanish so I was hearing the words, and phrases that they use so that I could put them to use.

9:40 – Warmup. Pitchers are sent to Field 4 and position players stay on Field 1. This stretch isn’t as long as the first one, but it is the one that we all love to complain about because most of us have already stretched and done some practice by now. This stretch is more dynamic, movement based stuff, and usually also includes some conditioning. All in all we spend about 15 more minutes with this stretch and conditioning before us catchers split off to the right field line for throwing program. Our throwing program is also regimented and done by time. There are a series of different drills that Hoover expects us to do while we play catch so that we’re working on transferring the ball and getting our footwork done. The whole idea is that for the 10 minutes we’re not only getting our arms loose, but that we’re also getting something out of the warm up.

10:15 – This time slot is one of two things every day, individual defensive work or team defense. If it is individual work we gear up and head to the bullpen to do more catching work. This stuff gets more player specific, as Hoov always asks what we want to work on. Some guys may feel great blocking and feel off throwing, so they’ll do more throwing stuff. With the amount of coaches we have available at this time we can get a lot done. I’m big on feel when I’m learning, so if something wasn’t feeling right the day before or during early work I’d make sure to hammer it out in this session since it was still early enough to give my body time to recover if I was playing in the game.

10:30 – Batting practice. We took BP on three fields every day and we always hit in group 1 so that as soon as we were done we could go and cover the bullpens that the pitchers needed to throw. Batting practice was normally four rounds of five swings, however some days we’d have to do the BP routine

Hit and run (hard on the ground)
Move the runner to 3rd (hit it to right field)
Infield in (hit something deep in the air)
Infield back (hard in the middle of the field)
Safety squeeze (bunt to first base side)
As soon as we finished our fourth round, we’d pick up the balls that were inside the cage, and I’d say thank you to the person that threw to us, then jog back to the bullpen.

10:45/10:50 – Bullpens. While BP is going on for the infielders and outfielders the pitchers need to get their sides sessions (sides for short) in. We normally would have between 2 and 5 sides all at the same time. We’re expected to work on our receiving and blocking during these bullpens, so we have to work out of both our relaxed stance and our ready position. I normally tried to catch a guy I knew so that I had a better feel for what each pitch would look like, but sometimes I’d end up working with someone I’d never seen before. Each side lasts about 30 pitches, give or take, and each catcher normally had to catch two. If all the pitchers were being covered and I wasn’t catching a side, I’d be on one of the far bullpens working with Hoov and Tomas. There isn’t any downtime or breaks during defense and bullpens. The bright light is that we know as soon as bullpens are done that we’re finished for the practice day. This is normally 15-20 minutes after everyone else has gone inside for lunch, gotta love being a catcher!

11:20/11:30-ish – Finally stagger back into the clubhouse drenched in sweat and hurry to get out of our gross practice clothes and into a shower. Most guys shower after practice and before games, but some just choose to stay in their same stuff all day. I’m a big shower guy, I can’t be sitting on the bus wearing sliders that are stuck to my legs and a shirt that is soaked to the point that I can wring out the sweat. After a quick shower to rinse off we get dressed in our game gear (jerseys aside) and head back to the lounge for a quick lunch. We eat cold cut sandwiches, a bag of chips and a Gatorade if we’re on the road, and we have hot sandwiches if we’re at home. It’s a quick meal to keep us fueled up for the games.

12:20 pm – We’ve either traveled to Sarasota, Bradenton, or Fort Myers (for road games at Orioles, Pirates and Twins respectively) or we’ve made it out to the home stadium for our game. If I’m the starting catcher I need to be ready to throw with the pitcher by 12:40, so I give myself 20 minutes to stretch, and do some blocking in the bullpen with Tomas to get ready for the game. If today was a blocking day this could be up to the third time I’m working on blocking. Remember I said it was a great opportunity for reps? At 12:40 I long toss with the pitcher, before he throws his bullpen to get ready for the game. When he’s finished I grab my bag, a towel and a swig of water and we walk down to the dugout. We go over the signs we’re going to use, and how we want to attack and set up hitters.

1:00 – First pitch…In Instructional League we typically are put in the lineup for half the game. This allows more players to get at bats and innings defensively. If I start a game I generally go 5 innings and the other catcher for the game gets the last 4. There are always multiple catchers to cover the bullpen too, so that when we come out of the game we can stand with Hoov in the dugout and discuss our game and talk about what needs work. These conversations cover everything from pitch calling to reading swings.

4:00 – Game over. We head back into the clubhouse if we’re at home, or back to the bus if we’re on the road. On the bus ride home from an away game we get a cold Gatorade as we get on the bus. We’re all doubled up, that is, each row of two seats has two people. During the season it was understood that catchers get their own seat on the bus, allowing us to spread out a little and not have someone falling asleep on our shoulders. The bus rides are normally about an hour long, and the minute we get back it is a mad scramble to get changed, throw our laundry into the bins, shower and get either into the training room for ice or out of the complex to go home.

4:30 (home game) 5:15 (road game) – Plunk myself down on the couch and scroll through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Finally I’m out of the heat and humidity so it’s now time to start rehydrating. Lots of water and Gatorade and normally a couple of Media-Lyte tabs which are little salt pills provided by the trainers to help us get back some of what we lost over the course of the day. I spend about an hour or so playing either NHL15 or NCAA13 on my PS3 (I’m now a PS4 person tho) and just forget about the day good or bad. An idea for dinner usually pops into my head around 6:30, at which point we’ll sort of make a group decision about who’s eating what and when.

Night time – I’m probably in bed watching some game on TV. Whether it’s baseball, football or listening to preseason Leafs hockey (remember this was a few weeks ago) I’m almost always watching sports. Sometimes I’ll flip to The Voice or some other show, but mostly I watch anything in which somebody is keeping score. Come to think of it, they’re kind of keeping score too!

10:30 – TV off, face into the pillow and off to sleep because I know that at 6:25 I’m starting all over again!

So there you go. How does your body feel after that day? Legs a little sore? Don’t want to walk up the stairs to your apartment? Get used to it, there are 23 more days to go! There’s just a bit more to this line of work than showing up for a 7 pm game!

Now that I’m home from instructs I’m getting ready to head to Australia for winter ball. The ABL is a relatively new league that is being used more and more for player development. I’ll be playing for the Brisbane Bandits. There are four of us from the Stone Crabs heading down for the winter/their summer and we’re all pretty excited to get down there. The worst part has been waiting, knowing we’re leaving our friends, families and girlfriends for the only time period we normally get to spend with them. We’ve all said that once we get on that plane, we’re going to be super excited for the opportunity to see Australia and play 48 more games! Gotta love baseball season, even if it isn’t just a season!

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