The Tigers went through the "Good Morning America" drill during spring training in Lakeland, Fla., on Tuesday. Chris McCosky, Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — The way the Tigers infielders start their practice day is a sight to behold.
The drill is called “Good Morning America,” because it is the mother of all wake-up drills. It’s something that manager Ron Gardenhire took and modified from his old boss Tom Kelly and used it to get his Minnesota Twins infielders ready every spring training from 2002 through 2014.
“This is something I enjoy and there is a reason behind it,” said Gardenhire, who introduced the drill to the Tigers infielders Monday. “It’s about controlling the baseball and not letting it control you. Tom Kelly was a stickler for fundamentals and I grew up with Tom’s teaching.
“‘Good Morning America’ evolved because infielders never left the field thinking they didn’t get enough ground balls. They had enough before the pitchers even got out on the field. It was something that made us better and that’s what we were always looking for.”
The drill, which on Tuesday took about 30 minutes and was non-stop, involves every infielder in camp and all the catchers — so 22 players around the diamond.
The drill starts with coaches dropping balls in front of the plate for the catchers. They throw to first, then to second, then to third. Quick fire. On the throws to second, the shortstops pivot and throw to first. The third basemen throw across the diamond to first.
Next come the fungos. Four coaches hitting ground balls to all four positions simultaneously — starting in at the edge of the grass, then moving back to normal depth and then deeper. They take a few rounds catching balls hit directly at them, then they move to their right and to their left and they take a round backhand.
Gardenhire handles the next round. He rolls balls to each infielder, varying the speed and bounce. First round the fielders throw to first. Next round they start a double play. Throughout this part of the drill, the catchers are lined up behind Gardenhire shuttling balls to him, bucket-brigade style.
It is constant movement, constant chatter, pure energy. Toward the end, as Gardenhire was rolling and tossing balls at the first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who had just completed his rep, leaped in front of him like Ben Wallace and blocked his toss.
Gardenhire said, “Hey now,” and laughed.
“We are all together and we’re just having fun,” second baseman Dixon Machado said. “I like it. Normally everybody is doing their own thing. But this, everybody is doing the same thing. And that’s what you want. You want to be together the whole time.”
Gardenhire hasn’t even put all the elements of the drill in yet.
“We haven’t done the slow rollers yet,” he said. “It’s a little show time because it’s showing off their ball transfer skills. But this is for them to learn to slow the game down, see who panics, see who tries to go too quick.
“This is a controllable, fast-paced drill. They have to slow down and yet continue their movement. That’s what this is all about.”
You might think a fielder as skilled as shortstop Jose Iglesias would scoff at taking rolled grounders from his manager; but he’s bought in to what Gardenhire’s doing.
“I like it, I really do,” he said. “He believes it can help younger players be educated with their foot work and making sure one at a time we pay attention to the fundamentals, and I agree. I’m doing it. I love it.
“We had a great time, seeing these guys moving their feet and paying attention to the work. So, he believes it and, he’s the Skip, I believe it too.”
On Monday, Gardenhire purposely started the drill when the pitchers were stretching in right field. He wanted the pitchers to watch the infielders do the drill.
“We wanted them to watch the infielders catch the ball so maybe they will throw the ball over the plate,” he said. “They know if they get the hitters to put the ball in play, these guys behind them will make plays and get them outs.”
Back when Kelly ran the drill with the Twins, it was called Rocket Fire. And it wasn’t a daily drill. It was a grueling, one-hour grind — like a fundamental crash course.
“Rocket Fire was TK hitting a fungo for a straight hour,” Gardenhire said. “It was him killing himself more than the players. I was a player then and all I know is, I started looking for my apartment in Portland (Twins Triple-A affiliate) after Rocket Fire.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be on the big-league club after my performance. I was falling on my face and I said, ‘Rocket Fire just sent me to
Portland.’ So I changed the name of it because that wasn’t a good memory for me.”
Earlier in his tenure with the Twins, he would rankle some of his veterans by insisting on doing infield drills every day, even during the season.
“It made me a lot of money,” he said. “I would let the veterans buy their way out of doing infield. Like if Kent Hrbek or one of those guys didn’t want to do it, I’d let him buy his way out for $100.”
By the end of the year, he had enough money to tip the clubhouse attendants and throw a big party. Probably a safe bet Gardenhire won’t let the rebuilding Tigers buy their way out of Good Morning America this spring.
“You know what, we aren’t reinventing the wheel here,” he said. “It’s just an upbeat, up-paced, solid fundamental drill. The guys seem to be having fun with it. I heard Miggy say that he really enjoyed it.
“He said he thinks it’s good for this team.”