Learning curve for youngsters
Newer pitchers seek out veterans
FORT MYERS, Fla. - For his first few years in the big leagues, his eyes were always on Josh Beckett. Jon Lester would follow him around, ask questions, observe. That was how he learned what to do, where to be, and how to act. Sure, some he learned on his own, but quite a bit was because of Beckett.
Now Lester is one of the veterans to whom the younger guys should go. And yet he's still learning, like many of the pitchers who have recently come through the Red Sox farm system. So that's where Beckett, new acquisition John Smoltz, and Lester come in.
"If they're smart, they'll watch," manager Terry Francona said. "We have a lot of big league pitchers that do it the right way. We've tried to impress upon the young kids in camp today in those meetings, 'You know what? You wouldn't be real bad off watching Lester, Beckett, Smoltz, guys like that, how they do things.' I know they have talent, but there's a reason [they're successful]."
The team doesn't force its young players to latch on to veterans. There are gentle suggestions, a slight push here or there, but mostly the youngsters have to determine their own course. If they realize that Smoltz, for instance, might have a thing or two to teach them, so much the better.
"Some guys, they have to figure it out on their own," Lester said. "Some guys don't want to learn from other people. That's their personality. There's nothing wrong with it. It's just the way they learn. Other guys ask questions and other guys feed off different guys and other guys just gravitate to guys and stick with them and figure out what they do. I think I was a little bit of everything. I learned a lot on my own but also learned from listening to guys and following guys around."
"It's not luck," Francona said of Lester's success. "He followed Beckett and did what Beckett did. I think Beckett deserves a lot of credit for that, too. It's one thing to be good. To lead by example is the best way to lead. We're proud of Beckett for that."
That isn't to say every veteran fits the role. Some aren't interested. Some don't have much to offer. Some younger pitchers just won't listen. But there is something to the relationships between players. And not just on the field.
In an industry with odd schedules and travel times, there are basic questions players can have upon arriving in the big leagues. Where do I go? What do I do? What time should I eat after flying all night from Boston to the West Coast? Things that might not seem crucial - until they become a factor in that start every fifth day.
"The quicker you can feel comfortable in this league, not only playing but in your surroundings with different players and different stadiums, the travel, the easier it becomes," Lester said. "You learn from different guys how they handle getting in late, how long they sleep, what time they do this, how to prepare for each start."
So with more minor leaguers in camp than in most years, the young pitchers will perhaps be looking up to those who already have proven themselves. Especially now, with an extra surefire Hall of Famer hanging around. Though with Smoltz, they'll have to be proactive.
"I like to sit back," he said. "I'm willing to fill up the sponge, if that's what it is. But it comes up to each personality, and each person handles it differently. I'll let them determine what that is."
So it's not a myth that rookies and veterans make for a good combination. There are experiences to be gleaned and understanding to be gained. But no one in the Sox clubhouse is going to look at Smoltz and decide he should suddenly throw a slider because Smoltz does. Instead, there's a presence. There's a guy who, at 41, is crushing younger players at conditioning drills.
There are a few lessons the Sox brass wouldn't mind their youngsters learning.
"It's not a life-changing experience," said Justin Masterson, who already has talked to Smoltz about shuttling between starting and relieving. "This guy is coming in, everybody's life is going to be changed. I'm not saying it can't be, but it's more just subtle things. You are your own person. You're taking little bits of this and that as you go. It's like another piece of the puzzle coming in; I see the bigger picture a little bit better."
Not only that, but they suddenly can do their jobs better. With those on-field lessons - not to mention ridding their minds of the off-field minutiae - they can focus on playing the game. On making the Red Sox better.
Though Lester still isn't comfortable with the notion that he's an established major leaguer, he knows he might soon have to embrace the role Beckett embraced for him. He'll have to listen and counsel.
"I think that's something that you don't really have a choice to take on," Lester said. "I think that's just kind of thrown upon you, and if that's the case, then yeah, it's great. I don't consider myself a veteran. I'm still learning a lot about the game, learning from different guys. But I mean, yeah, it's something that if I'm thrown in that position, I'll try to do the best I can with it. Hopefully, I can take somebody like Josh did with me and move him in the right direction."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.