Non-events: Combine and Spring Training
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 28, 2007

PRO SPORTS are filled with non-events these days, happenings which are reported with breathless enthusiasm by the media but actually have very limited significance.

My two favorites, in this order, are the NFL Combine and spring training.

Every year after the Combine workouts are held in Indianapolis, pro football writers and radio/TV commentators analyze the results. Frequently, you’ll hear that one player significantly boosted his draft status.

Why? These players are not playing football. They’re being measured and tested for their times in a 40-yard dash, their jumping ability and their weight-lifting ability. But, more than any other sport, football is about making plays. There are always players who don’t fit the profile but just make plays. This is especially true for defensive players. A classic example is Gary Plummer, a former linebacker who is now an analyst on the 49er radio broadcasts. Plummer was too small and too slow but somehow, he was always around the ball, making plays.

NFL team scouts watch these players during the season and scouts, coaches and executives have access to team videos for further evaluation. Why would they let their judgments from watching actual games be overridden by what they see of players who aren’t even in uniform at the Combine, going through the various exercises in shorts.

More and more, agents are advising player clients who are candidates for being selected on the first day, especially those who look like first round picks, to pass up the Combine and work out for NFL coaches and scouts on their home grounds.

One reason they tell their players to bypass Indianapolis is that the track on which 40 times are recorded is slow. NFL scouts and coaches pay far too much attention to 40 times rather than speed in a football uniform. One classic example: Jerry Rice was downgraded by many teams because his 40 times weren’t exceptional – but did you ever see Rice caught from behind when he was playing?

Because of this unreasonable reliance on 40 times, agents want their players to run on their college tracks, which are faster. That can be critical for a player like Cal cornerback Daymeion Hughes. The only question about Hughes is his speed, and a relatively slow 40 time could drop him into the second round, though anybody who has seen Hughes play knows he’s a first-rounder.

Both of the top quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell, skipped the Combine for another reason: They want to be able to throw to the receivers they worked with in college. There is nothing more critical to a quarterback than knowing his receivers. If he doesn’t know the players he’s throwing to, he may misjudge their speed or their pattern-running and look bad. Throwing to the receivers with whom he’s familiar can make all the difference.

Frankly, I don’t know what purpose the Combine has, except to generate publicity. That, of course, is also a main purpose for spring training. When clubs first started training in Florida, it was expected that New York writers would be so happy to get out of the cold in the northeast that they’d write reams of copy about baseball. They were and they did. And, though many teams are now training in Arizona, including both Bay Area teams, spring training is still way over-reported.

There is a logical reason for a training period, of course, because players have to ease back into the game, except for the minority who play winter ball. But reporters often are too quick to draw conclusions. Since Garry Schumacher, the first baseball public relations man (with the Giants) declared Clint Hartung a “phenom” in 1946 spring training, there have been a number of such flowers who bloom in the spring but wilt during the regular season. Hartung was one, of course. In San Francisco Giants history, Randy Elliott stands as a prime example, a player who hit .500 in the spring and .200 in the regular season.

In the Giants camp this week, the debut of Tim Lincecum, the No. 1 pick last spring, drew rave reviews, though he threw only nine pitches. When Barry Bonds said to a teammate the Lincecum’s fast ball might be too straight to fool major league hitters, Giants executive Dick Tidrow said, “Ask the California League hitters if they thought it was straight.” That’s nonsense, of course. Lincecum struck out 48 in 27 1/3 innings at San Jose, but that’s Class A, which is a long way from the majors. There have been many minor league pitchers with high strikeout totals who couldn’t throw their fast balls by major league hitters. Lincecum may prove to be the real thing, but his minor league achievements are no guarantee of major league success.

The basic problem with spring training is that players approach it in different ways. Veteran players know what they have to do to get ready for the regular season, so they work toward that goal, not worrying specifically about the games. Younger players know they have to impress managers to get a roster spot, so they go all-out in the exhibition games – and they often look better than they are.

There are also players who vow that they’re going to turn their careers around with a new batting stance, a new pitch, a new whatever. An extreme example of that came this year with the overblown stories about Barry Zito’s new windup. That windup lasted one day. Most changes last a little longer, but few last into the regular season. Hitters, especially, will go back to the stance they found comfortable as soon as they fail with the new stance. Pitchers who see their new pitch hit out of the park a couple of times will drop it.

Spring training is great fun for fans, many of whom plan family vacations around a trip to Arizona or Florida to watch their favorite teams.

But I stopped thinking that spring training was really important to players more than 40 years ago. In 1966, Juan Marichal held out for almost the entire length of spring training before signing his contract. Then, he won the first 10 games he pitched in the regular season, on his way to a 25-6 season.

Marichal was an exceptional pitcher, of course, but his success with virtually no time in spring training underscores the fact that spring training is more about publicity and the box office than actual training.

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