For the past five years, Tony Gwynn has carried a curious-looking box with him on the road. It's a portable video machine. And for the modern baseball player, it has become almost as standard as a Rolex watch and Gucci loafers.
The tape player enables Gwynn, a seven-time All-Star outfielder for the San Diego Padres, to understand why he might be streaking or slumping, thriving or merely surviving. Late at night, in the quiet of his hotel room, he can turn on a tape and watch himself in the batter's box the way thousands of fans do.
"When we go to Chicago, for instance, I can set the timer to tape the whole game on WGN, then come back and watch it later," Gwynn says. "Whether I go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, I'm still going to go back and turn on that video to see what I look like. Early in my career, I pretty much went up to the plate and just hit. But I've learned how important it is to understand what it is -- and why it is -- you do what you do."
Babe Ruth probably would choke on his hot dog if he could see today's players, coaches and managers getting ready to play the game. When they aren't parading from one meeting to another, charting an opponent's offensive and defensive tendencies, they're in the film room, watching more footage than Siskel and Ebert. In an age in which tobacco chewing slowly (and fortunately) is becoming passe, more and more of baseball's spitting is left to computers. They spew statistics about how this batter has fared against that pitcher, home and away, night and day, ad infinitum.
No less a baseball man than Roger Craig, manager of the San Francisco Giants, keeps a pocket-sized computer in the dugout. The Giants' "wizard," as the device is known, helps Craig with decisions such as how to position his outfielders. "I can ask my [bench] coach, Bob Lillis, 'How do we play Ryne Sandberg?' " Craig says. "He can push a couple of buttons, and right away we know: 'Straightaway and slightly to pull.' We can store a lot of stuff in there." Like most teams, the Giants also keep an 11-by-14 chart of every player in the league. The chart, based on input from the team's advance scouts, has a diagram of the field and shows where the player is likely to hit the ball. The computer condenses that information.
Alas, baseball has entered a new era. Crusty scouts tell Craig they often can accomplish more watching four games at home on satellite than they can in their traditional box-seat perches behind home plate. "In the last four or five years, there's been an explosion of games that have been televised," says Tony La Russa, manager of the Oakland Athletics. "And though we don't use video to the degree some teams do, I'll be the first to say it can be a real useful tool."
Some teams provide each player with a reel of positive reinforcement to guide him through slumps. The player is asked to choose his favorite moments, which are made into a highlights film and set to his favorite music. Dave Gallagher, a reserve outfielder for the New York Mets, still carries the tape he received last season as a member of the California Angels.
"There are times when you think you stink, when you wonder if you can still play this game," Gallagher says. "That's when you pop the tape in."
The Cubs, who are making personal highlights tapes for their players this season, also have looked into a high-tech video analyzer that projects the break and speed of each pitch in the strike zone in three dimensions. Its cost: $600,000, or roughly the salary of a utility infielder.
To some, the growing emphasis on preparation -- especially the technological variety -- seems a bit frightening. It stirs visions of football, a sport in which coaches often sleep in their offices, the better to watch more film, diagram more plays and invent more jargon. The Mets joke good-naturedly that under new manager Jeff Torborg, they attend meetings to "find out when our meetings are going to be." Is baseball, that grand old game, becoming more like football, which long has been accused of taking itself too seriously?
Fear not, says La Russa, whom some consider the most organized manager in the game.
"We don't prepare for 16 regular-season games like football," La Russa says. "We play 162. If you decide you're going to prepare for every game of every series, you're making a tremendous commitment. And it will test you. In five hours, maybe you can take that video and this film and this computer printout, plus what you have from your advance scouts. But you might have to say two hours is a good amount of time and five hours is not. I love using a lot of information to try to get ready, but you can get overwhelmed."
Sophisticated preparation is not merely an extension of the modern managerial ego. On the contrary, today's players need the schooling. After all, they reach the major leagues much quicker and with much less experience than their predecessors did. Small wonder that there are mandatory meetings where pitchers and catchers study hitters, where hitters go over opposing pitchers and where fielders are briefed on how to play opposing batters.
"There's a lot more teaching nowadays," says Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre, who became a La Russa disciple while coaching in Oakland in 1987 and '88. "When I was a rookie with the Dodgers [in 1965], you were expected to know the game when you got here. Now . . . you have to teach at the major-league level."
"A lot of the younger players aren't fundamentally sound when they get here," says Cubs right fielder Andre Dawson, who has won eight Gold Gloves for defensive excellence. "Most of them are brought up here because of their raw ability, on what they've done for a year or so down in the minor leagues. They're not in tune with the basics and fundamentals."
Moreover, baseball has begun a commitment to fiscal responsibility. Stars still command megabucks, but younger, cheaper players are being brought up to fill middle-range and utility roles. That makes thorough preparation even more important.
"The business end has taken over in the sense that I don't think a lot of clubs are fielding teams with their best players," Dawson says. "I think the veteran role player gradually will be phased out of the game completely." And that type of player, who relies more on knowledge than on talent, traditionally has been one of the best prepared.
Meanwhile, it's tempting to snicker at how much time some teams spend in meetings. Perhaps all those gatherings wouldn't be necessary if players spent more of their free time talking baseball.
"In the old days, we'd sit around for 40 minutes after a game, have a few beers and talk about what had happened on the field," Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays says. "That was our own type of scouting situation. We didn't need any tapes to look at ourselves or check out the other team as to what happened, who was doing well or who wasn't. We'd talk about it among all of us. It's different now. We don't see kids hanging around clubhouses after games or talking baseball much during the season."
Says Dawson: "Right after the game, guys shower and get out of there instead of sitting around to shoot the bull." He should know. For Dawson, 37, preparation means icing down his ailing knees for at least 20 minutes after every game. His day begins with lengthy whirlpool and heat treatment.
Modern distractions -- "the money, the media, the fans," La Russa says, naming just a few -- conspire to keep players from talking baseball on their own.
"I think there's definitely an improvement in their commitment to physical preparation," La Russa says. "They can afford to take the whole winter and work out five days a week, which in the old days you couldn't. But I doubt that the modern player spends as much time preparing himself mentally as far as sitting around talking, 'We're going to face Lolich today, or McLain, or Dizzy Dean. "
In general, La Russa finds pitchers more prepared than hitters. "I think there's a growing number of pitchers who want to have a plan going into a game about how they're going to go after that lineup," La Russa says. "I'd say 75 percent want to have an idea, and they plan their attack. I know that 75 percent of hitters do not have that same type of plan against a pitcher." And the reason? "If you try to give them a scheme, most hitters will rebel."
Despite all the obvious reasons for increased preparation, today's managers often are accused of favoring computer printouts over personal knowledge and gut instinct.
"The decisions you make still come from the gut," Torborg says. "But it's nice to have something to base them on. You want to make sure there are no surprises out there."
Consider an incident that occurred when Lee Elia was managing the Cubs in 1983. Gerald Perry, then an Atlanta Braves rookie just up from Triple-A Richmond, burned the Cubs in a weekend series with four hits, including a homer and two-run pinch hit. Elia responded by asking, seemingly rhetorically, "Who is this guy Perry?" Cubs general manager Dallas Green reacted angrily, telling reporters the club had provided a written scouting report on Perry but that Elia hadn't done his homework.
Says La Russa: "You never want to go into the clubhouse after a game, realize you picked the wrong pinch hitter and say, "Hell, I had a guy who had never made an out against that pitcher and I didn't even know it.' That's what preparation is all about.
"Sure, you have to be flexible and ready to react. But you get a little more sense of comfort or confidence if you've got a few things in your bag -- if you can say to yourself, 'All right, we're ready for this. Let's see how it changes.' Rather than, 'I'm not ready for anything.' "
Despite the quality and quantity of available information, it is useless if no one uses it.
Last season, at the behest of manager Greg Riddoch, Gwynn regularly briefed teammates on opposing pitchers. "As the season went on," Gwynn says, "guys would ask me, 'Tony, what does this guy like to do? What's his out pitch? What does he do with two strikes?' Our young guys who were here last year have a whole year under their belts now. Hopefully, they'll start remembering pitchers and what they did to them and how they got them out. You hope it will become part of their repertoire as far as preparing themselves to play.
"But in this day and age, you just don't know. It's hard to say what drives people, if it's just the money or whatever. The emphasis for a lot of players isn't on being the best player you can be, it's on being the best player you can be on the year that your contract is up and getting the most that you can get."
Most of today's star players, however, don't take that approach.
"I definitely have the physical tools to play the game, but a big part of my game is mental," says Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs, a nine-time Gold Glove winner who entered the season with the top all-time career fielding percentage (.990) for a second baseman. "I try to have a game plan so I'm prepared when the game starts. There've been a few times in my career when I've tried the other approach. You know, try and be a little more relaxed. Laugh, have fun, play the game. Let my abilities take me through it. It didn't work out. It just didn't feel right."
Sandberg, who always takes the same number of grounders and pop-ups in infield practice, developed his pregame routine by watching others. "I didn't really have a style of my own the first two or three years in the major leagues," Sandberg says. "But I had some good players around me, like Bill Buckner, Larry Bowa and Ron Cey, who had been around a long time. I just kind of watched their routines and eventually came up with my own game plan."
A utility player, such as the Mets' Gallagher, faces perhaps the greatest challenge in preparing to play. The Mets have four pregame hitting groups. Gallagher switches from one outfield position to another as the other three groups take their turns because he must be ready to play left, center or right. "And because this is my first year in the National League, I've got to get used to the different fields we play on," says Gallagher, 31. "I can't afford to go out there and stand around."
When he isn't shagging flies, Gallagher is quizzing teammate Dave Magadan about NL pitchers. "I ask a lot of questions, and I picked out Dave because he is very disciplined as a hitter," Gallagher says. "When you're new to the league, you have to rely on other guys. And you have to pick someone you can trust, because it's your career on the line."
Because he seldom is in the starting lineup, Gallagher's preparation continues long after the first pitch. "I'll go into the clubhouse in the fifth inning, stretch, swing the bat, get loose," Gallagher says. "I'll try to watch TV for one batter so I can see the movement the opposing pitcher has on the ball. You get a better angle from behind the batter than from the dugout."
Gallagher repeats that process in the seventh and ninth innings. "In between, I go back out [to the dugout] and watch the game develop," he says. "I never want to be out of the dugout for more than half an inning."
Last season with the Angels, Gallagher once went 13 consecutive games without playing. "Your adrenaline goes up and down as you anticipate being called on to play," he says. "When the game ends and you haven't played, the adrenaline goes all the way down. During the times I was an everyday player, I was much more relaxed."
Gallagher isn't complaining. At a time when veteran utility men are becoming extinct, the Mets are paying him $628,750. "I think the reasons I've been able to make a career of this are knowledge and preparation," Gallagher says.
And on the nights when he wonders if he still belongs, Gallagher pops in his personal highlights tape to prepare for tomorrow. In a hotel room in another city, Tony Gwynn probably is doing the same.