Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Winter Workouts That Changed Teixeira

Saturday, May 7, 2011

STAMFORD, Conn.—When Mark Teixeira first called the staff at Bobby Valentine's Sports Academy and told them he wanted to spend the winter training there, predictably, they didn't believe him.

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Mark Teixeira homers against Toronto on May 1.

"They asked for his name, and he said, this is Mark Teixeira," recalled Mitch Hoffman, the owner. "I didn't think anybody was going to come. I thought it was a friend on the phone playing a prank on me."

Yet Teixeira did show up. He told them he needed a place to hit during the cold Connecticut winters. After bouncing around facilities in Texas and Arizona during the winter, Teixeira was looking for a place to call home. He had work to do.

"This was my first year full time in Connecticut. Last year, I was in Texas, and I had a place in Texas; years prior, I had gone to Arizona. I'd never really had a a routine, a home," Teixiera said.

Finally settled in New York after trades that took him from organization to organization, Teixeira had a problem to solve. His Mays through Septembers were good enough to earn him a $180 million contract from the Yankees, but the star first baseman had become known around baseball as a slow starter.

Most Aprils, he hit only a few home runs, and his career OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) for the month hovered around .750. Every other month was over .900.

Teixeira believed it had something to do with the way he prepared for the season. He needed to do something different. Every April, the bat felt heavy. It took him a month before he felt normal.

"That's just the way I felt...When you pick up the bat, and it's heavy, you don't want it to be heavy anymore," Teixeira said.


Teixeira scores against Detroit on May 2.

Baseball players are creatures of habit. They develop routines, stick to them relentlessly, and use them to keep an even keel through the natural up-and-down of the season.

Changing a routine can be destabilizing. There's a fear that removing one bolt will bring the entire machine crashing down.

"It's always tough to do something that you haven't done your entire career, to change the way you work, the way you prepare for the season, because of the success I've had during my career," Teixeira said.

But Teixeira had reached the point where he couldn't ignore his early struggles anymore. They were the chink in an otherwise flawless coat of armor.

So just after his disappointing 2010 season concluded, he called up Hoffman and told the facility's owner to start looking up prices for an Iron Mike throwing machine—a blue behemoth with a mechanical throwing arm that throws batting practice the way a human never could—relentlessly, at speeds above 90 mph, up to 600 balls in a row.

Teixiera had taken batting practice through many winters—including some sessions at Bobby Valentine's before the 2010 season—but he hadn't simulated the rigor and regularity of what he would face in spring training. He felt he needed to train harder, more intensely, and with more regularity.

Teixeira bought the $4,000 machine and had it installed in one of the cages at Bobby V's. When January 1 arrived, his routine began in earnest.

Teixeira would arrive early, usually before the facility opened, said co-owner Frank Ramppen. He would start with 45 minutes of intensive cardio work, sometimes with a trainer—"he was soaking wet by the end," Ramppen said— before moving on to the batting cage.

Then, he and the Iron Mike would face off. From time to time, Valentine would drop by to chat with Teixeira and watch him work.

"He's a pretty simple guy," Valentine said. "He had the cage to himself. We'd open up early for him so he didn't have to deal with a lot of autograph seekers.''

Sometimes, teens would filter in for private lessons, only somewhat conscious of the solitary figure working with the machine. But they would eventually realize there was something different about him.

"His bat sounds a little different when he makes contact," Hoffman said.

The teens' lessons devolved from there. It's hard to do much teaching when the pupils are constantly glancing over at the star in the corner.

"There were lessons going on, but it was tough to keep the kids' attention," Ramppen said.

Teixeira kept up the routine, three to four days a week, until he had to report to spring training.

There, he faced the annual questions about his poor starts. This time, he responded that he believed he had found the antidote, in his new routine.

From the first day of the season, he set about proving it. Teixeira homered on opening day, and didn't stop there.

He hit home runs in the Yankees' second and third games as well, and finished the month with six doubles, six home runs, a .256 average, and an excellent .941 OPS.

He kept hitting into May, and heading into Wednesday's game in Detroit had eight home runs on the season.

He has found a routine that works, and expects to repeat it each winter. "It makes me realize that I made the right decision," Teixeira said. "I was really happy with this offseason, with my preparation in spring training, and so far, I feel like I'm in a good place at the plate."

At Bobby V's, Hoffman took pride in watching Teixeira excel this April, feeling like he had played some small part in it. They've renamed the cage Teixeira used "Cage 25" in his honor, and they occasionally put the Iron Mike to use, when they have students who can handle it. But it will likely stay dormant for much of the year—until Teixeira returns next winter.

"I think he's found a home," Hoffman said.

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