From the Pages of Vine Line: Hitting the off switch, how players adjust to the offseason

Celebration

(Photo by Stephen Green)

As the calendar turned to late September, the crisp fall winds whisked through the Wrigley Field grandstand, signaling the nearing end of another long and winding year for the Chicago Cubs.

After 162 games, countless hotel stays and a punishing travel schedule, major league players are understandably drained after the last out of the season is recorded. It would be more than understandable if most were eager to walk out of the clubhouse doors and forget about baseball for the next few months. But talking to Cubs players about the offseason was revealing—in that not many were genuinely ready for it.

“I’ve seen players get traded every year, and I’ve moved around to different organizations,” said catcher John Baker, who’s played for three teams over his seven big league seasons. “In this game, you become an expert at saying goodbye.”

But, Baker added, saying goodbye to his teammates this offseason was still a difficult transition. That’s because players on professional sports teams are uniquely bonded, and no sport puts its athletes through the wringer like baseball. In addition to the forge of 162 high-stress games, the men share countless hours of practice time, clubhouse chatter, practical jokes, plane rides, hotel stays, meals, movies and much more—and it’s all rigidly scheduled, regular and repetitive.

Athletes often talk about their teammates as brothers, and that’s not really much of a stretch. During the baseball season, which spans from February at Spring Training to late September, players likely spend more time with their teammates than with anyone else. So what do they do once the routine and the camaraderie go away?

The men in the Cubs clubhouse said the shift to the offseason always feels sudden, as if a practical joke were being played on everyone, and they’ll wake up the next day either in a hotel room or in Chicago with another game on the near horizon.

“It’s pretty hard because it feels like you’re upsetting your whole rhythm of your life,” said infielder Javier Baez. “You’re playing baseball every day and then—then you just stop.”

It felt even stranger this year because the Cubs closed out the regular season on the road. Many players didn’t even bother flying back to Chicago after the final game in Milwaukee. They just caught the next flight home—wherever that was. Clubhouse attendants had already boxed up their personal effects and shipped them off.

“My least favorite part is packing and unpacking,” said starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who makes his home in Austin, Texas. “I feel like we live out of a suitcase all year, never really keeping track of where things are. Getting home and having to rearrange everything is kind of a pain.”

There is also a strange feeling of finality when players unpack their things and get settled in for the winter. It hits home that the season really is over, and there is no game to look forward to the next day.

For righty Kyle Hendricks, that feeling of suddenly having a void in his life is the worst part. After a week at home in San Juan Capistrano, California, which lies about halfway up the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, he begins to get antsy.

“I’m just sitting around doing nothing really,” he said. “That’s what makes the transition tough. After having your days kind of mapped out for you, you have to find a way to keep yourself busy.”

Most players try to take a month or so off before they even start thinking about baseball again. Between working out and taking a vacation or two, it helps to have some hobbies. Left-hander Travis Wood is an outdoorsman. Right-hander Jacob Turner, whom the Cubs acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins in August, said golf keeps him from going stir-crazy.

“I like to play golf a lot, so I try to get out and play as much as I can in the offseason,” he said. “I’m from St. Louis, so we can play until the end of November and occasionally into December if it gets into the 50s.”

Though Arrieta feels restless at the beginning of the offseason, he said his boredom usually passes after the first week or so.

“As you settle in, it’s nice to finally be able to wind down, sleep in if the kids will let you, get out in the garage, and play with the kids outside,” he said. “Then it’s not a tough transition at all. It’s a much-needed break.”

Though it feels like a vacation just being home, Arrieta still gathers up his family and tries to get away somewhere with no cell phones and little contact with the outside world.

“Just kind of hit the refresh button and kick off the offseason in a good way, in the mountains or on a beach somewhere,” he said.

Left-handed reliever Wesley Wright, on the other hand, said he embraces the offseason relaxation from the start.

“The first two weeks of the offseason is the best time of your life because you can kick back and relax,” he said. “You’re active, but nothing is set in stone. If something comes up, you do it. But most guys like to take vacations and do whatever they want to do. You reflect on what the past season was like and decide what you’re going to do to be better next year.”

Wright, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, said he doesn’t care where he goes or what he does, so long as he’s in front of a TV on Saturdays.

“Weekends are dedicated to football for me, especially Saturdays,” he said. “I’m a big college football fan. But, generally, for the first month, I like to do nothing at all—just mentally take a break from all the stress of games and different things that go on during the season.”

This period is also a time to reconnect with friends and family. Wright and his wife, Sherell, have a 3-year-old and a newborn at home.

“When you go from being a professional player to a full-time dad, it’s a different experience,” Wright said. “It definitely takes a lot more patience. But you get energy from seeing the look on their faces every time they see you. They’re so happy I’m there. It makes a world of difference.”

And those idle days spent with family are precious to ballplayers because once the season starts, there is little time for anything but the game.

“It’s important for me to just hang out with family, just enjoying my time with them for as long as I can,” Hendricks said. “You have to try to not think about baseball. As much as you want to start getting ready for the next season, you have to try to put it off because during the year, it’s such a grind. You know you’re going to have to focus 24/7.”

Baker said he treasures the downtime too, albeit for different reasons. Sometimes the closeness teammates achieve during a season can get a little too close.

“A lot of people don’t realize that showering and going into the bathroom and all that other gross stuff is always with someone else,” he said. “I know when I go home, I cherish the moments of being in the bathroom by myself. Sometimes my wife gets mad at me because I’m in the shower for 45 minutes at a time, but I tell her this is the only time I get to shower by myself. As soon as I go back to Spring Training, it’s prison showers again.”

One thing most Cubs players have in common is the habit of creating structured schedules—even though they’re not necessary in the offseason. Daily routines are so ingrained for athletes, most players can’t help planning out their time.

“You have to learn how to focus that routine-oriented nervous energy into a different kind of routine,” agreed Baker, who fills his time back home in Danville, California, by walking his dog and playing with his two kids, Brooklyn and Fiona.

Sometimes, it’s not the players setting the routine. Arrieta said that at least early in the offseason, his kids dictate his days.

“My routine starts with getting up when my 3-year-old son starts beating me up,” Arrieta said. “The day starts when my kids want it to. Then I’m either cooking breakfast or running down the street to get coffee. From there, it’s playtime for the next three to four hours or so until the kids take a nap.”

Without any children of his own, first baseman Anthony Rizzo said he keeps his routine pretty simple at the beginning of the winter. And he sleeps in. A lot.

“It’s nice because for eight months, it’s a grind, and your body eventually breaks down,” he said. “After a week or two, I’m in complete shutdown mode. I relax and hang out for about a month, month and a half before I start to work out again.”

That’s also when the players tend to get a little antsy and start texting and calling their teammates more often. Baker said the reason is pretty simple. Everyone misses hanging out together.

“You spend so much time traveling around with these guys, you consider all of them family,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what language they speak. You are with them every day, 12 hours a day, for seven and a half months straight. You care about them a lot.”

They also miss sharing all the inside jokes and general locker room banter they have to keep a lid on all winter.

“There are certain things you do in the clubhouse that you just can’t do at home, you know?” said Rizzo, who insisted on leaving it at that.

This is all part of being with a close-knit group of guys for so long. Though players value time with their families more than anything, they do develop a bond and a comfort level with their teammates that’s almost as intense.

“I don’t think there’s really any other job or situation that brings a team of guys as close together as professional baseball does,” Turner said. “Obviously, these are not just teammates but your friends, so you enjoy being around them. I definitely miss that.”

Once November hits, most of the Cubs hook up with trainers and with other professional ballplayers who live in the same area and throw themselves into a training regimen. Then their days have a more familiar structure to them. Many run in the wee hours of morning, train with weights before and after lunch, and, once the calendar flips to the next year, start doing some light baseball activity in the run-up to Spring Training.

“You’re basically working on the specific areas where you want to gain strength, and you’re trying to improve on your weaknesses from the last season,” Wright said. “I think the most important months for baseball players are December and January. That’s when guys get their bodies ready for the grind of a full season.”

By then, the vacation is essentially over. Unlike the beginning of the offseason, the end is a gradual process. Players may still be home in January, but their minds are already on the year ahead.

By the time the Cubs start filtering into the team’s Mesa, Arizona, training facility as early as the end of January, the offseason feels like a distant memory.

Make no mistake, all players need and cherish the break. But after that, they’re more than ready to return to what they love most—being back with their teammates and playing ball.

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