PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Some degree of any big league training camp is about conditioning, of course. Pitchers run sprints and "poles" -- foul pole to foul pole -- and throw, and everyone builds stamina. Outfielders and infielders have to "get their legs," catchers must reintroduce their knees, backs and muscles to the rigors of squatting. And in this Mets camp, the first one organized and administrated by manager Jerry Manuel, even the hitters work on stamina, strange as that may sound.
Swinging a bat and driving pitches never is done without effort and strain. Swing a bat 80 times in six minutes -- i.e., swing at 80 pitches and make contact with each with no more than seconds between successive pitches -- and fatigue is added to the equation. Or as Ramon Castro said Monday after his turn in the cage, "You try it and see how you feel. Phew!"
Castro, Brian Schneider and some of the other catchers in camp had been put through the grind late Monday morning, put through an innovation -- it was new to a Mets camp -- that Manuel believes will prepare his hitters for some of the situations that will confront them this summer in Citizens Bank Park, Turner Field and Citi Field.
The opposing pitcher was a latter day version of Iron Mike. And the machine doesn't know from fatigue. Rookie Josh Thole stepped into the cage and was told by batting coach Howard Johnson, "swing at every pitch. Don't take anything."
And it started, the batting practice equivalent of the sports bar free throw game "Pop-a-Shot." Pitch-swing, pitch-swing, pitch-swing.
"It's the old Les Moss drill with a variation," Johnson explained, invoking the name of the former White Sox and Tigers manager. "It's about bat control and learning to do what needs to be done when we've got a man on third and we've got to get him in. We don't need all that body movement. This pretty much forces you to use your hands."
With Manuel standing directly behind the cage, the machine relentlessly fed breaking pitches to Thole, the 22-year-old left-handed-hitting catcher the Mets have learned to appreciate in the past year. And Thole put good swings on the first 20-25 pitches. In one way, at least, he is a clone of Daniel Murphy. Thole's natural swing drives the ball to left-center, occasionally left field. And the drill called for opposite-field hitting exclusively.
For the first minute or so, Thole produced well-struck line drives over the head of the invisible shortstop. A few fly balls bounced down the line and toward the corner. By the fourth minute, the swings produced softer fly balls, occasional, up-the-middle ground balls and a degree of fatigue uncommon for batting practice.
"It's a lot harder than you think," Thole said. "You don't think about being really too tired in the cage. But with this, you really feel it after a while."
It's not only about stamina.
"It gets you doing things right," Manuel said later. "When the fatigue starts and you have to keep going, you have to use your hands. That's the idea."
Manuel introduced some players to the drill -- there's no name for it yet -- last season after he replaced Willie Randolph. Schneider recalled it.
"I can't say I like it," the veteran catcher said. "But it seems like it helps. I know it keeps you using your hands. It keeps your body out of it."
The objective is connected in several ways to improving the Mets' situational hitting hand-eye coordination, making contact when contact is essential, going the other way -- for right-handed hitters -- when a runner is on second base.
"There are things you can do in practice to make yourself better in those situations, and that's one of them," Manuel said.
After one particularly vexing late-season loss last year, Manuel pointed out that two of his players -- David Wright and Carlos Beltran -- needed to be more liberal with their strike zones in some situations; that the perfect swing is not always the proper tool. Sometimes awkward and ugly swings are needed to keep an at-bat -- and an inning -- alive.
Ted Williams never went out of the strike zone, never adjusted his swing, regardless of the circumstances. He was a great hitter. The strike zone Yogi Berra employed had neither definite size nor rectangular shape. He played see-ball, hit-ball. Berra was a great clutch hitter.
Each has a place in the game. When former Mets manager Dallas Green was managing the Yankees in 1989, he raved one day about how Royals second baseman Frank White had adjusted his swing to hit a critical sacrifice fly ball one batter after the more feared and practiced swing of George Brett had produce a well struck but ineffective groundout. Green called White a "winning" player. Out of respect for Brett, he didn't characterize the future Hall of Fame third baseman that day.
Jamie Quirk, Brett's close friend and then the Yankees' catcher, said "If George changes his swing [to fit the situation], it'll mess him up for a week. Frank has that swing in his back of tricks."
Manuel isn't trying to develop the next Berra or White, and he certainly wouldn't turn his back on the next Brett. But Manuel does find it contrary to what might be beneficial for the good of the team when players are more concerned with maintaining their swings than advancing the runner.
"It's not selfishness," the manager said last year. "It's not realizing there's another way to get it done."