Lakeland, Fla. — It’s taken a surfing manager to introduce the Tigers to a different kind of spring training.
Not entirely different, mind you.
With Brad Ausmus in charge, the Tigers are still completing the fundamental drills they’ve always done.
But in addition to the Rag Ball competition that wrapped up on Monday for the pitchers, complete with a wild celebration by Joba Chamberlain, Tigers catchers on another diamond were into a game that involved elimination — and eventually a champion.
No, Tigers spring training hasn’t turned into the X-Games.
There are no Big Air slides into second or a Super Moto race from first to third.
But the age-old routine — and, yes, even the drudgery of early camp — has definitely given way to new competitions.
For the catchers Monday, that meant a catch-and-tag contest. In turn, each catcher stood at the plate as if they were taking a throw from the outfield.
Then they were supposed to tag an imaginary runner.
The incentive for doing it right was staying in the game, because that’s what the Tigers’ coaching staff turned the drill into. The workout became a game.
Flub the throw and you were out.
Except it wasn’t a throw at all.
What came at the catchers in the drill was a ball off the bat of a coach facing the plate from a drawn-in infield position.
The coaches were simulating throws with batted balls. Some were sizzlers, some were easy.
But the catchers loved it because it was something they could win.
Again, field the ball cleanly and you stayed in.
Make a mistake and you were out.
One by one, they were eliminated. Some outstanding plays were made ... some easy ones were missed.
Along the way, “there was a little trash-talking,” said Alex Avila. “It was fun.”
When it came down to the finalists, those still in it were Victor Martinez and non-roster invitee Craig Albernaz.
Because he’s ultra-competitive, Martinez wanted to win,
But he didn’t.
Albernaz won, but without the equivalent of Chamberlain’s reaction to being the Rag Ball king.
The pitchers definitely were into the Rag Ball competition. That is the reaction drill in which softer baseballs are hit hard directly at the pitchers, as if they are trying to steal hits from an opposing hitter.
Two pitchers from each of four groups made it to the quarterfinals, with the semifinals featuring, among others, Max Scherzer.
In a major upset, though, Scherzer didn’t make it to the finals. Chamberlain and lefty Kyle Lobstein did, with Chamberlain winning.
“Athlete!” the winner bellowed while pumping his fist — almost like Maximus shouting “Roma Victor” in “Gladiator.”
“But you know what?” Chamberlain later said, “It creates a different dynamic for PFP’s (pitchers fielding practice).
“It gets a little different, though, when the whole team gets here.”
The spring competition might not be over, though. Ausmus is thinking of holding a “catchers Olympics” before the exhibition games begin.
He said it would be a “multi-event workout” consisting of blocking balls in the dirt, throwing to different bases, et cetera.
“Playing to win something changes the intensity level,” Ausmus said.
In the first few days of camp, that’s become quite clear.