“There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.” — Honus Wagner, 8-time National League batting champ.
WILLMAR — That may be true, but it was said a hundred years ago when natural ability trumped all. Honus had it, Cobb, too, and, of course, The Babe.
Today, it’s not enough to be athletic with extraordinary eye-hand coordination. One needs a (legal) edge.
For the modern ballplayer that means you’d best be fit as a jungle cat and just as hungry. Jordan Smith has spent the offseason lifting weights, hitting in drop-down batting nets and since Jan. 9 immersed in the ACCEL performance and fitness program.
Last Wednesday, at the invitation of Jeff Kennedy, the ACCEL director, this reporter visited the ACCEL room at the ACMC Skylark complex to observe a workout.
Smith, as you likely know, is a player to watch in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league organization. In two seasons, the 22-year-old Willmar High School graduate hit .311 with 43 doubles, 8 triples, 9 homers and 121 RBI in 711 at bats.
He reports today for an early camp with some 20 other top prospects at the Indians’ spring training grounds in Goodyear, Ariz., outside Phoenix. The camp for all minor league position players in the Indians’ system begins March 8.
Smith is already huffing and puffing when I arrive.
“This is perfect for what I’m preparing for,” Smith said.
Kennedy explained: “The specific order of his workout is geared to a baseball position player. He understands that lifting weights is often the easy part to commit to. But you need to apply that improved strength along the way if you’re expecting better acceleration and quicker change of direction.”
During the session, words like “explosiveness” and “violent” are tossed out to indicate power bursts applied to his smooth swing or jump starts on the basepath or in the outfield.
I gather that the goal here isn’t building strength and power so much as its release.
“I’m not a base stealer,” Smith mentions at one point. “But they’d like me to get up around 20 a season.” (He has 12 career swipes.)
My mind drifts thinking that this roomy, pleasant chamber occupies space in what originally was the Red Owl supermarket. Bill Taunton, the store’s popular co-owner, supported high school and junior college athletics and was a highly-respected umpire working as high as the Big 10 and the American Legion World Series. The baseball park where Smith played growing up, and later for the Willmar Stingers following his first year in college, bears Taunton’s name.
Smith is 6-foot-4 and around 220 pounds, though listed at 205 on his Lake County (Ohio) baseball card. He is sharp featured and kind of rangy but as an athlete he is striking more for being graceful than “hard muscled.”
He played in right field for the Captains last season.
“I like it,” he said. “I’m very comfortable out there.”
The stations pass quickly over the four rotations. Short but intense is what Kennedy wants.
Kennedy came here from Mankato early in the century. The first three years, he ran ACCEL out of a storage area in the athletic wing of the community college.
“We called it the broom closet,” Kennedy said with a smile.
He works with high school and college athletes, male and female, in all sports (a female golfer had the next session). The programs are especially attractive to hockey players. Kennedy shows off the new hockey treadmill known as The Blade.
It’s the width of a bike path. Hockey players wear their skates; hold onto a bar at hip height while Kennedy cranks the electric motor up to 20 mph. A brochure described the German-engineered product by Woodway as a rotating sheet of “black ice.”
Back to baseball.
Smith feels more at ease going into his second spring training.
The first time down there so much coming at him he felt he should “Be carrying a notebook around.”
“I’ve got a better feel for what is expected and what kind of shape to be in,” he said.
The probability is an assignment to the Tribe’s long-season Class A team outside Raleigh. The Carolina Mudcats play in the Carolina League Southern at Five County Park in Zebulon, N.C.
If things go especially well, he could get promoted the Class AA Akron Aeros before the end of summer.
Kennedy takes note of his Jordan’s professionalism. “He’s more focused than even college athletes. It shows up in how he works out and even in his attention to getting loose, even cooling down. He’s got a great attitude.”
They also talk nutrition. I didn’t ask for details but Kennedy mentions that his pupil’s furnace must be stoked with from 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day to fuel the workouts. Smith said he generally eats a late breakfast and an evening meal with a snack near bedtime, perhaps oatmeal or popcorn (hold the butter! please).
The major leaguers are into their third week of spring training. Cleveland spent big money in the off season hiring Terry Francona to manage and signing free-agent first baseman Nick Swisher from the Yankees, centerfielder Michael Bourne from Atlanta and first baseman Mark Reynolds from Baltimore.
During the spring the minor leaguers mix with the big leaguers at the player development complex and the Goodyear Ballpark that Cleveland shares with the Cincinnati Reds.