It's the most important part of the job for a minor-league ballplayer, and there are no scorecards, box scores or statistics to prove it.
Hours before the first pitch is thrown on a game night at Lake Olmstead Stadium, the Augusta GreenJackets are sharpening the tools they hope will carry them all the way from Class A ball to the big leagues.
In baseball, they call it early work. Early, as in four hours before gametime.
The work consists of hundreds of extra swings, ground balls, throws or other drills designed to ingrain the fundamentals of the game into the minds of young players until it becomes second nature.
"Early work to us is probably more important than the games," GreenJackets manager Arnie Beyeler said. "It's not about performance at this level. It's about allowing them to play, and then see them using those skills we worked on all day long at 7:15."
On a typical day, a group of four to six players are scheduled by Beyeler and the coaching staff for early work.
The group arrives at the ballpark by 1:30 p.m., and are dressed and on the field by 2:30 p.m. to begin working on their swing in the cage down the right-field line with hitting coach Guadalupe "Jaby" Jabalera.
"The early work at the low levels is important for these guys so you can explain and work on stuff that they do wrong in the games," Jabalera said. "To me, early work's the base so they can get a better approach to hitting."
By 3:15 p.m., the cage is open for all the players, while those in the early group turn their focus to defense.
Infielders work on turning double plays and slow rollers, while outfielders work on getting good reads on fly balls and throwing to bases and cut-off men. Once a week, Beyeler also works on bunt defenses and pitchers' fielding drills.
Once early work is finished, the team's regular game-day routine begins at 3:45 p.m., with a team meeting in the outfield followed by stretching with trainer Mark Ryan at 4 p.m.
The Jackets then take batting practice on the field from 4:15 to 5 p.m. before taking a 45-minute break in the clubhouse "to grab a bite to eat and relax a bit," Beyeler said.
Pitchers also get their work in before the ballgame.
Starters will throw a bullpen session on the second day after their previous outing. The "bullpen" is an eight-minute session with pitching coach Dave Tomlin, during which the pitcher will throw off the mound and mix in all of his pitches.
Relievers don't throw bullpens because they pitch more frequently, but they throw lightly and run to keep their arms and bodies in shape.
Beyeler said a young player's commitment to early work could mean the difference between a career in the minors or a ticket to the majors.
"I saw some reports on Rafael Furcal in the desk here that (former Jackets manager Billy Gardner) wrote up, and it had Furcal striking out three times a night in this league," Beyeler said of the Atlanta Braves shortstop, who played for Macon in 1999.
"If you look back, lots of guys in the big leagues now, hit .200 in this league. But I'll guarantee you they were the ones in here early getting their work in every day."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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