Rookies face hazy days of spring
Talent shows, endless pranks a part of camp for prospects
Pranks and practical jokes are par for the course inside of a big league clubhouse, and typically, everyone at one time or another is subject to the good-natured wrath of his teammates. But no one has to watch his back more than the rookie -- especially if he's been labeled Mr. Franchise Future by the general public.
High draft picks are favorite targets, and the gentle tormenting of hot-shot rookies never seems to get old. After all, they are perhaps the last remaining people on earth who believe if they end Spring Training with the highest batting average, they'll win a big-screen TV. (That prank, incidentally, has progressed with modern technology. These days, if they hit well, they win a plasma.)
Most young players know their roles during Spring Training. The rules are simple. Don't talk too much. Keep your head down. Work hard. And when your veteran teammates pick on you, you must take it. And for good measure, it doesn't hurt to pretend you're enjoying it.
Twenty-year-old Reds outfield prospect Jay Bruce, the 12th pick overall in 2005, recently realized the ramifications of appearing on the cover of a team publication. This can be especially costly when his picture is accompanied with "The Next Big Thing" in bold lettering.
Oh, boy. It took no time at all for Adam Dunn to get wind of it, and just like that -- game on.
Dunn made Bruce autograph several copies of the publication and distribute them around the clubhouse. Then Dunn sent Bruce to Dusty Baker's office, telling the rookie his skipper wanted one, too.
For good measure, Dunn keeps one of those signed Bruce covers at the front of his locker.
"I think he's handling himself great," Dunn said. "I just told him to be himself and have fun with it. Everybody is going to have fun with him. He's doing it. He's enjoying it."
Talent shows are a big hit during Spring Training. The rookies, of course, are the contestants. Rockies TV play-by-play man Drew Goodman noted a particular crafty project for a couple of Colorado's young stars, instigated by strength coach and resident funnyman Brad Andress.
On a daily basis, Goodman recently wrote in a blog, Andress instructs various rookies to "perform" for their teammates during stretching. When they were rookies, Cory Sullivan had to sing a Frank Sinatra ditty or two, while Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Stewart's assignment was "ballroom dancing."
And the Rockies' No. 1 draft pick in '07, Casey Weathers, has quite a load to carry -- literally. After having to push around a shopping cart containing an elk head on the first day of camp, he has had to haul a red carpet wherever he goes, because stars, of course, always walk red carpets.
Wes Roemer, one of Arizona's two sandwich picks in 2007, has had a colorful spring as well. Upon finishing first in running drills by the pitchers, an unnamed player, or players, took Roemer's spikes and tennis shoes from his locker and spray-painted them gold. That was a nod to former United States Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, who wore gold shoes while winning five gold medals in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
"I thought that was good, and he took it very well," manager Bob Melvin said of the prank. "You see quite a bit of that in camp, and I think that's good for morale -- it keeps things light. Where he's going to find his next pair of shoes, I'm not sure, but I'm sure they'll take care of him down the line."
As a non-roster invitee last year, Astros outfielder Hunter Pence tried his best to stay in the background. He probably thought he was safe while eating meals in the lunchroom, but he quickly found out that wasn't the case. In the blink of an eye, he was demoted from top prospect to an errand boy of sorts. The kind you'd find in a high school cafeteria.
"Everyone at the table will ask you for a random item to get for them," Pence said. "You have to get a chocolate chip cookie for one guy, a banana for another guy. I'd have to dig through cabinets for a specific napkin. I'd come back from getting something for one person at the table and the next person at the table would think of the weirdest thing they could think of for me to go get."
Joke-telling has its place as well. In Rays camp, players attending their first Spring Training have to begin the daily meeting with a joke. Each day, it has been a different player.
David Price, the top pick of the '07 Draft, told a joke that apparently cannot be repeated. But whatever he said earned him instant respect.
"David Price got the whole thing off to a rip-roaring start," skipper Joe Maddon said. "His delivery was fantastic. And, as [coach] Jamie Nelson said, for $6 million you would expect a great delivery. He was the very first one and he nailed it."
Most of today's rookies will soon jump to the other side of the clubhouse divide, serving as the instigators instead of the butt of the jokes. Because most of them escape the annual Spring Training rite of passage unscathed, it's likely rookie hazing will never become a thing of the past. Generation after generation, it's as commonplace as batting practice and bullpen sessions.
"It's been fun," Weathers said. "It's not necessarily hazing but everybody's kind of gone through it. I just kind of look at it as I'm really privileged to be here, anyway. It's just exciting to be a part of that, and get a chance to be initiated on a big-league club."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Thomas Harding, Chris Haft, Bill Chastain, Mark Sheldon and Steve Gilbert contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.