Winter unique time for each player, coach
Offseason offers chance to work out, decompress, recharge
It's a normal winter day throughout the baseball world, and away from the Hot Stove reports, buzzing Internet rumors, TV talking points and front-office plotting, there are other things going on.
Joe Maddon is riding his bike.
The manager of the Tampa Bay Rays pedals the beachside streets near his Southern California home five days a week as part of a daily routine that doesn't change much. He wakes up, gets caught up on the news, eats breakfast with his wife, Jaye, and then gets his workout in -- 10 or 12 miles on the bike, lunch, and then the gym. And while Maddon's tires advance along the asphalt, the wheels are spinning in his mind.
"I'm thinking about everything while I'm riding," Maddon says. "It's baseball, it's my grandkids, it's my wife, it's everything. And when you get into that nice rhythm and you're breathing really well, you're mind opens up.
"I do a lot of Rays-related work on my bike. I really do."
Like others throughout the Majors, what Maddon does in the offseason is a big part of what makes him who he is when the ball's in play. Some find solace in the great outdoors, while others enjoy the warm comforts of home. Whether it's members of the Marlins visiting Iraq this week or the many players and coaches attending fan fests throughout the country, the offseason offers an opportunity to explore any number of activities they wouldn't necessarily be able to do during the season.
Including riding one's bike, breathing and opening up one's mind to a foolproof plan to conquer the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.
Maddon says his main focus in this offseason has been taking his team to the next level in the mental game of baseball. Since he took the job prior to the 2006 season, the Rays have had a remarkable path, going from the worst record in the Major Leagues in 2007 to a World Series appearance in 2008. Injuries and inconsistent pitching -- not to mention a brutally tough American League East -- got the Rays last year, although the team still won 84 games and finished in third place.
As his spokes flash in the sun, Maddon keeps riding and keeps thinking. In previous winters, he had written each of his players letters, a "mass mailing of thoughts and ideas, things I'd read that I wanted them to think about as they approached Spring Training."
Not this offseason. Aside from text messages here and there to players, Maddon has had more of a laissez-faire approach.
"With how last year went, it was good for everybody to just get away and shut their brains down," he says. "Sometimes that's OK."
It's never OK for Maddon, though. Through the readings of the motivational teachings of Dr. Wayne Dyer or serving meals to the needy on Thanksgiving or accepting induction into the Hall of Fame of his beloved alma mater, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Maddon is always doing something to get better and always thinking about how the Rays can get better.
"We're in a position right now where we know what our team is and we know what we want to work on guys with, as opposed to the first two years, when there were so many things to think about," Maddon says.
"So what I'm thinking about when I'm riding that bike is how to get off to a better start and how to really understand the fine line between winning and losing. It's such a fine line, so minute that it really breaks down to fundamentals and the smaller aspects of the game. It comes down to the process in general -- what you're doing before the game, how you prepare. We have to be risk-takers. We have to do things differently."
In a town outside of Orlando, Fla., on a high-school field in the middle of swampland stands a veteran Major Leaguer who doesn't do a thing differently. His name is David Eckstein, and he's spending this January day like he spends every winter day -- working on his game.
Eckstein is 5-foot-6, he weighs about 170 pounds on a rainy day, he's 35 years old, and he's about to enter his 10th Major League season. He's also a two-time World Series champion as a leadoff hitter and shortstop, an All-Star and a World Series Most Valuable Player winner with St. Louis in 2006. This season he'll start at second base for the Padres.
He doesn't hesitate to say most of his success begins right here on this all-grass field.
"The one thing I knew from Day One in this game was that I would always have to be in the best possible physical shape I could be in and mentally be as prepared as I could possibly be to get the absolute most out of the ability I have," Eckstein says. "Doing the daily repetitions of all this stuff in the winter is really valuable to me."
So is Eckstein's brother, Rick, also known as the hitting coach for the Washington Nationals. Under Rick's eye, David and a host of gathered players from high school, college and sometimes the big leagues meet at the field to take in the workouts.
On days when it doesn't rain, Rick leads an intense, rigorous workout, throwing as much batting practice as he can before the players take extended infield practice and shag flies.
"I'm very blessed to have Rick around," David says. "He keeps me on my toes. He makes sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and what I need to be doing."
The one ritual for the workouts, which are often attended by local spectators who are "in the know," according to David, is the pop-fly rule.
"Rick can hit really, really high popups," David says. "You're not allowed to leave the field until you catch one."
David spots his popup in the cloudy sky, gloves it and then heads to lunch and an afternoon of weightlifting. He figures he'll watch some TV with his wife, Ashley, and go to sleep at around 9 or 10.
Then he'll wake up the next day and do it all over again.
About 100 miles up the coast from Sydney, Australia, in a town called Newcastle, it's already the next day, about 1 p.m., and Ryan Rowland-Smith is driving south, looking for something bluish-green, glassy and breaking like a big league curveball.
Rowland-Smith, the Mariners left-hander, is a true Boy of Summer, having grown up in Newcastle and returning there after the conclusion of the Major League season to continue his never-ending season of hot weather. It's perfect for his second love, surfing.
"I've surfed my whole life," says Rowland-Smith, 27, whose father, Rob, is a famous fitness guru in Australia with the nickname "The Sandhill Warrior" and whose older sister, Rhiannon, is a professional surfer.
"I'll never stop doing it. First of all, it's fun. Second, it's social. You do it with your friends. And it's also a great workout. Even if you don't catch any waves, you're still paddling the whole time, and that's great for your back and shoulders. For me, as a pitcher, that really helps."
Rowland-Smith doesn't have any contractual stipulations from the Mariners preventing him from surfing, but he says he doesn't go nuts.
"It's pretty cruisy," he says, using the Aussie term for mellow. "Maybe three- or four-foot waves. It's not like I'm surfing 10-foot pipelines in Hawaii or anything."
If you're looking for advice on how to score waves Down Under, the southpaw is happy to oblige.
"If I don't like what I see near Newcastle, I'll drive south," Rowland-Smith says. "The key on the East Coast of Australia is the southerly swells, and the wind is a big factor. If it's too windy, forget it. But I like it to the south because it's less crowded."
Then again, he knows some secret spots in Newcastle that are only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles with tires that can handle heavy sand.
"Surfing just feels good," he says. "It puts you in such a good frame of mind for the rest of the day."
Back in the San Fernando Valley, it's dinner time, and Soup's on at Soup's Sports Grill. Literally.
Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Jeff "Soup" Suppan and his wife, Dana, opened their Woodland Hills, Calif., restaurant in November 2007, and spend as much time as they can in the winter working the front of the house, greeting customers and making sure they're well-fed and happy in their little slice of gastronomic glory.
"The personal side of it is important to us," Suppan says. "I want people to feel like they can come in here and talk to us, especially the kids."
There's plenty for the kids -- and adults -- to check out at Soup's Sports Grill. Suppan designed a replica Major League dugout that includes tables and chairs, and, with help from Brewers clubhouse manager Tony Migliaccio, he got the same green paint used in the dugouts at Miller Park.
Suppan, who won a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, also put authentic Busch Stadium seats in the restaurant and equipped the dugout with a real bullpen phone. Pick it up and you get a message from Suppan himself. And if you really want to dine in big-league style, you can reserve the oversized Rawlings leather "mitt seats." Or you can sit on the rooftop deck and soak in the rays.
The venture is a product of a food family. Suppan's father, Larry, worked as an air traffic controller before attending culinary school and owning and operating the Old Factory Grill from 1999-2003. Jeff and Dana were silent partners in that business and also pitched in doing the tough stuff, Jeff busing tables and washing dishes and Dana helping out with hosting. Eventually they took over, found their current location, and got to work on the pitcher's second career.
"I find it very challenging, but I enjoy it," Jeff says. "I enjoy interacting with people, and I want to keep learning the business. Now, my No. 1 focus is as a Major League Baseball player, and once the season starts, I am focused on that."
So is Luke Scott, don't get him wrong.
But until that day arrives and the Baltimore Orioles outfielder has to check into camp in Sarasota, Fla., there's a good chance he'll be lost somewhere in the wild. And he'll definitely have some serious scruff.
"No doubt," Scott says. "I've got a nice, fluffy face right now. A mountain-man beard. It keeps that cold air off my face while I'm out in God's country."
Where that might be is never quite clear with Scott. It could be West Texas. It could be Wyoming or Utah or Montana or New Mexico. There are only a few necessities.
"Peace, quiet, fresh air and nature," Scott says. "I like to get away from the bustle, just kind of escape from all the traffic and people and just get out there and have time to get up in the mountains, track a herd of elk, camp by a river, whatever. Just be."
Scott, an avid hunter and target shooter, spent some time this winter outside of the small town of Blackwell, Texas, near Abilene in the north-central part of the state. He hunted whitetail deer, fished and left baseball-related complications such as his arbitration eligibility up to his agent while wandering in and out of cell-phone reception.
"I was out there for about 10 days," Scott says. "I saw a lot of deer, and I didn't even take any. If the right one happened to step out, I would have taken it, but sometimes it's just relaxing and peaceful to be out there.
"I respect and admire God's creations."
Scott didn't make it into the woods as much as usual this winter because he's been overseeing the construction of a new house on 22 acres of "pasture land, cattle land" in his native Florida. But next year, he says, you can bet he'll be back out there, braving the elements on a new adventure in the sticks.
"Being a professional athlete is a blessing, and it comes with responsibilities that need to be fulfilled," Scott says.
"But whenever you have your free time, it's also a huge blessing to be able to do things you want to do whenever you want to do them."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Adam McCalvy contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.