By: Kevin Modesti, Staff Writer
In Woodland Hills one afternoon last week, the man Oakland Athletics left-hander Barry Zito trusts to whip his body and mind into shape for spring training was lecturing a half-dozen young pitchers on the necessity of seizing the moment.
“(The question to ask) is, ‘What can I do today to strengthen my focus and get better?’ ” said Alan Jaeger, barefoot and clad in a blue bandana, a T-shirt and shorts. “Believe it or not, what you’re doing right now is a step forward in your career.”
What the players were doing right then was lying flat on their backs on workout mats in a Ventura Boulevard karate studio, meditating behind closed eyes in a half-lit room that was silent except for the hum of a soda vending machine and the leader’s soft voice.
After the meditation session, they would go through yoga exercises to improve their flexibility and balance, a routine that left the professional athletes sweaty and breathless even though they never ran a step or lifted so much as a baseball.
And later, warm and loose, they would move to the Pierce College field a couple of miles away for an unconventional throwing session in which their “long tosses” stretched to extraordinary 350-foot lobs.
None of this is prescribed by the sport’s traditionalists, who prefer running, jumping jacks and “long tosses” that rarely go longer than 120 feet.
But it’s all part of a six-week offseason training camp that Zito credits for making him the major leagues’ most durable pitcher the past four years.
“Baseball’s pretty old-fashioned,” said Zito (Pierce College, USC), the 2002 American League Cy Young Award winner whose 139 starts since the beginning of 2001 lead the majors. “But I think more guys are realizing the benefits of getting a good sweat going and good muscle stretching going before they throw. It’s tough coming out three days a week, but the yoga and flexibility work is really worth it.”
After following the Jaeger program for four years, Zito tried a different regimen in the winter before the 2004 season.
Zito’s appreciation for Jaeger may have grown when last season turned out to be his worst in Oakland, producing a 11-11 record and a 4.48 ERA as the A’s lost the AL West title to the Angels by one game.
Having returned to the 10-player camp this year, he sounded as if he felt the difference as he got ready to report to spring training this week in Phoenix, where at age 26 he will be the veteran of the A’s rotation that lost Mark Mulder to St. Louis and Tim Hudson to Atlanta in trades.
“I’m in shape,” Zito, an offseason resident of Van Nuys, said after a bullpen pitching session at Pierce. “I’m ready to rock.”
Zito and Jaeger met while the latter was pitching at UC Santa Barbara. Jaeger, a Granada Hills High third baseman and Pierce and Cal State Northridge relief pitcher, had practiced sports psychology while coaching pitchers at Mission College, at Santa Barbara, at Cal Lutheran University and at the Cape Cod summer league. In 1992 he began to merge the pitching and what he called “the mental stuff” and was on his way to founding Jaeger Sports, his West Los Angeles-based academy, on the principle that (as his Web site puts it) “training should address more than just an athlete’s physical skills and preparation.”
Jaeger, 40, believes some of the orthodox methods used to train pitchers’ arms are misguided.
“I do believe the throwing programs of 120 feet are contributing to injuries to pitchers,” said Jaeger, who thinks a longer, higher-arched throw builds more strength and flexibility than shorter, lower throws.
The part of his program that shatters the baseball mold is the three-hour indoor sessions, led by Jaeger as a combination aerobics instructor and Zen guru.
“It teaches you to listen to yourself,” Houston Astros prospect Jason Hirsch (St. Francis High of La Canada, and Cal Lutheran) said after a yoga session, “to push yourself to limits – and then go past them.”
Unusual by baseball standards, admitted Hirsch, one of 10 pitchers in the camp that ended this week.
“Having Barry associated with it kind of legitimizes it,” Hirsch said of the only major-leaguer in this year’s camp.
Zito went 7-4 in the second half of the season in 2004 and said he learned more than he ever had.
“I wish the season had gone on longer,” he said.
Jaeger, who lists Brett Tomko, Glendon Rusch, Scott Eyre and Mike Leiberthal (Westlake High) among his clients, thinks Zito’s offseason work will result in a bounce-back performance.
“This year, I tell you, he is as motivated and focused as I’ve ever seen him,” Jaeger said. “He has an aura this year. He’s in a very good space.”