Teams find unique ways to bond during spring

Teams find unique ways to bond during spring

Teams find unique ways to bond during spring
If building a winning baseball team is a science, consider Spring Training the classroom where the chemistry students meet.

Getting along has never been a requirement for teams that already possess the potent mixture of talent and drive to make it deep into October, but it can't hurt. The long days on back fields and evenings free for leisure only create more of an atmosphere conducive to serious big league bonding.

In Port Charlotte, Fla., the Tampa Bay Rays are hard at work fleshing out the very beginnings of what they hope will be a repeat turn as American League East champions, and manager Joe Maddon is doing what he does best: keeping things light in the mornings before the hard stuff rules the afternoons.

Because he never played in the Major Leagues, Maddon was an unconventional choice to be skipper when the Rays hired him prior to the 2006 season. His strategies have been unconventional, too, as anyone who remembers him intentionally walking Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded will verify. So it's not surprising to hear how he makes a point of getting his players to stick together every spring in the hopes that they will stick together all summer.

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This year, Maddon is eager to share his nearby rental home with anyone who wants to relax. He was pleased to learn that catcher Kelly Shoppach treated the rest of the Rays' backstops to dinner one night. The ideas keep coming.

"I want to bring some guys over that like to fish, have them hang out in the backyard and fish, have a beer and talk a little bit," Maddon says. "Plus little things like maybe a long-drive contest at the complex one day. All of these little kind of offbeat things you do where everybody laughs matters. All of those things seem to be kind of silly on the surface, and maybe they are, but what lies below the surface is really more important.

"I think a lot of good things happen, and it starts with humor."

Outfielder B.J. Upton might good-naturedly roll his eyes at some of Maddon's out-there ideas, like a Joke of the Day or themed road trips during the regular season (the club dressed in all-Western garb on one excursion and hockey sweaters on another). But Upton gets it, and so do the rest of the Rays.

"That's just Joe," Upton says. "That's the way Joe has been since he got here. It just seems we all find a way to come together."

In Tempe, Ariz., the man who helped Maddon cut his teeth with this approach works on sculpting his Angels by making the mornings more memorable.

Manager Mike Scioscia corrals his troops into the Diablo Stadium clubhouse early every day and closes the door to members of the media, who stand in the hallway and wonder what's going on when they hear all the laughter. One morning, famed Blue Collar comedian Bill Engvall walked out the door upon the meeting's conclusion. On another occasion, it was an ostrich. Seriously.

It was the spring of 2001, and Scioscia, as he is wont to do, scoured a newspaper, looking for a local activity that chosen rookies could experience and document, presenting a report to the entire morning group the next day. He picked an ostrich farm down the road in Chandler, and pitchers Jarrod Washburn and Matt Wise did him one better, paying a bird handler to escort a beaked charge into the locker room, just to see the reaction.

Everyone busted up in hysterics. Everyone except starter Ramon Ortiz.

"Ramon was so scared that it was like he was glued to the back of his locker," Washburn said. "You had to peel him out of there."

This year, the new Angels are watching and waiting for their turns to shine -- or get shined.

Reliever Scott Downs, who signed as a free agent, can only imagine when his time will come, but he's living up to the code of secrecy regarding these clandestine gatherings. He refused to tell a reporter what he's seen behind that door -- only that he approves.

"I like it," Downs said. "It's a lot of fun. It brings everybody together as a unit. For myself and [outfielder] Vernon [Wells] and the new guys, it gets everybody involved, laughing. It's all about the team, getting camaraderie with the players, getting to know each other. There are some very creative things done, but I can't be specific. I can say there's been no singing."

If Downs did spill details, he'd be fined. Same goes for team leader Torii Hunter, who wouldn't even touch the topic, calling it a "hot tamale" sure to come back and burn him.

And while the Angels might not be singing for their breakfasts, "American Idol"-inspired vocal competitions have gone viral in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues.

Who can forget Barry Bonds in a wig, portraying Paula Abdul for "Giants Idol?" And really, what player doesn't want to go all Simon Cowell on a teammate every now and then if given free reign?

"It's kind of what makes the team," Upton says. "You get together and do things."

That's why the Yankees went, en masse, to a Tampa arcade and played video games one night last year. Two years ago they had a billiards tournament. Manager Joe Girardi is said to be planning something similar that will happen soon.

That's why Ken Griffey Jr. stunned his Mariners teammates last year by replacing the batter's eye on a practice field with a 30-foot-high, 60-foot-wide photo of himself and catching instructor Roger Hansen hugging in the dugout.

And that's why former A's manager Ken Macha had the bus driver pull over at the Dairy Queen halfway along the 100-mile drive to Phoenix after a game in Tucson in 2005. Macha led his team, still in uniform, into the joint and had them line up for a Little League-style ice cream feed.

"[The driver] thought I was kidding," Macha said. "But I was not."

Hey, it might not yet be summer, but there's a reason they call it camp.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.