The Old-Fashioned Way to Develop Durable Pitchers
It's the constant puzzle of the 21st century.
If there is one question that is repeatedly asked by major league organizations, minor league development directors and baseball diehards, it would be "Why are pitchers so fragile these days?" The usual followup is "What can we do to prevent injuries?"
From a theoretical standpoint, this should be the era of rock-solid durability. There is an embarrassment of riches available to pitchers including personal trainers, nutritional supplements by the truckload, coaches armed with the latest in technology, obsessive statistical data, hyper-specialized medical care and (for the better prospects) a nanny-like level of protectiveness that includes strict pitch counts. So why are hurlers dropping like Al Capone's rivals during Prohibition?
Notice the word "theoretical" in the previous paragraph. In most instances in life, theory and reality are two entirely opposite concepts. Pitching gurus declare that their coddling and sophisticated systems are the right way to do things, but the facts don't support those claims.
Is there a better way to develop durable pitchers who can perform regularly without calling it quits after every tweak and twinge? In this case, it pays to look to the past - say 1930 to 1970 - when starters took the mound every fourth day instead of the current five-day schedule. Relievers routinely went several innings, and they often pitched as long as today's five and six-inning starters.
So what was the secret to regularly tossing 250 to 300 innings as a starter and 100 or more innings from the bullpen with some spot starts mixed in for variety? Perhaps the key to building sturdy pitchers has nothing to do with baseball or decrees from the experts and gurus. The answer could be much more mundane and humble than high-tech wizardry and micromanagement of hurlers. How humble? Think manure.
In many cases, old-time major league pitchers shoveled countless tons of manure before they debuted in the Show. They also tossed many thousands of hay bales, milked cows by hand seven days a week, spent lots of time on the business end of a spade, hand-dug bushels of potatoes, drove tractors without power steering, strung barbed wire fences and repeatedly picked rocks out of the lower 40.
Small farms were a way of life for a significant percentage of Americans until the 1960s. There has always been a steady migration from rural areas to large cities, since slapping fenders on Chevys or working construction was a breeze (and paid better) compared to life on the farm. That trend slowed as farms consolidated and grew larger, but even those who ventured to the economically greener pastures of urban life brought something valuable with them from agriculture.
Of all the four-letter words in the language, there is one - lazy - that was and remains the ultimate obscenity on the farm. Young and old worked from dawn to dusk. Rural slackers could always move to the city for one of those cushy 50-hour a week part-time jobs. That kind of life and work ethic builds a mental and physical toughness that can't be duplicated in an era of American Idol and iPods.
Today's pitchers look stronger than the old-timers, but looks can be deceiving. Pumping iron may lead to a sculpted, buff body, but I'll trade six-pack abs any time for the kind of strength and endurance I've seen from many farmers I have known in 12 years of living in Wisconsin.
Whether it's a stumpy 5'5" type, a 6'4" stringbean who resembles Kent Tekulve or anything in between, farmers and men who grew up on farms are (pound for pound) the strongest bunch I've ever encountered. There's no preening or flexing their "guns" for the camera. These guys are too busy with chores to strut their usually ordinary-looking physiques. Strength is displayed when needed, as in climbing ladders with bundles of shingles for the new barn roof.
My experience with farmers goes back to when I was growing up in Chicago and suburbs. Andy Toschak - a close friend of my late father - is one of those unforgettable characters that remains in the mind for decades.
When I first met Andy, he was in his early 40s. He stood 5'8" and tipped the scales at 240 without a soft gut or beer belly. A 19-inch neck made it hard for Andy to buy shirts. Growing up poor on a farm in southern Illinois coal country during the Depression had formed Andy into an eminently practical man.
After serving as a Navy Seabee in World War II, Andy moved to Chicago to work in the building trades. A booming postwar economy provided decent wages and plenty of overtime, and Andy never shied away from work. He attended a Cubs tryout camp just for the experience.
Andy smacked the ball with authority and handled himself well enough at third base to be offered a Class D contract. "Sign here, son. You'll get $75 a month," the scout told him. After scuffling through the Depression, Andy wasn't going to take a big step backwards financially. He turned down the offer and spent the rest of his life working in the trades, raising six children and occasionally outrunning skinny young punks who challenged the stocky old man to 50-yard dashes.
So how did a guy with the build of a nose tackle run so fast? Farm life helped put some speed in Andy's feet.
"During the Depression, we usually didn't have money to buy .22s for rabbit hunting," Andy recalled. "We had to chase them down to get meat for supper."
What made this tale especially outrageous was Andy's perpetual honesty and sincerity. This was no spinner of tall tales, so how could he run down rabbits instead of hunting them like a normal person?
I loudly expressed my disbelief. Andy smiled and said "Let me explain how we did it. We'd spot a rabbit in the field. Me or my brother George or cousin Gooch would start chasing it. We'd chase him down into the culvert. The rabbit would run into the culvert, and one of us would be waiting on the other end with a milk pail. The rabbit would run into the milk pail. We'd take him out and wring his neck. That's how we hunted rabbits."
This was done for "fun" after completing a long list of chores and any odd jobs that could be scrounged up. Take Andy's story, multiply it across America, and is it any surprise that pitchers of the past could go nine innings without complaint? After all, they wouldn't have to do it again for another three days, plus they were getting the outrageous sums of $8000 or even (gasp!) $10,000 a season for such pleasant labor. It sure beat working the cotton fields during a Mississippi summer or dealing with dozens of smelly pigs.
Modern workout and exercise programs are certainly beneficial for pitchers, and they sometimes produce bodies that merit a photo spread in Muscle & Fitness magazine. However, when it comes to developing real strength and toughness, the answer might be down on the farm.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Think Factory.]