SURPRISE, Ariz. – The back fields of a baseball complex, away from most of a guy's teammates, away from most of his self-assurance, are the same in Jupiter, Fla., as they are here.
For whatever reason, they're a little dustier. The sun is hotter. The gnats are more aggressive. The water bucket is way over there, where all the other players are.
All that room, foul line to foul line, and there's barely enough room for a coach, a fungo bat, a ballplayer and his uncertainty.
"It's just going to take time," Skip Schumaker was saying six weeks ago. "It's going to be a lot of hard work."
He'd just come off a field in Jupiter, where the St. Louis Cardinals train. He'd stood out between first and second bases while coach Jose Oquendo rolled baseballs at him. Nearby, Albert Pujols crossed his arms and watched.
Schumaker is listed on the Cardinals' roster as an outfielder. He'll start for them at second base.
There are no epiphanies on the back fields. The progress comes an inch at a time, if at all. It comes with one hand wrapped around the handle of a ball bag, if at all. It comes on the 101st try, if at all.
"It's definitely been a process," Mark Teahen was saying Sunday morning.
He'd just come off six weeks on a field in Surprise, where the Kansas City Royals train. He'd stood out between first and second bases while coaches Dave Owen and Frank White fungoed baseballs at him. Nearby, the regular season approached.
Teahen is an outfielder on the Royals' roster. He'll play second base for them. He might also play occasionally in the corners of the outfield and infield. But if he's to be a starter come opening day and to play big innings, it'll be at second base, and it's looking like he could be that guy.
This time of year, everybody else gets at-bats, opens or closes the stance a little, maybe hits a few to right, calls it a camp. A few reinvent themselves.
So, Schumaker, who hadn't been on the blunt end of an infield grounder since he was a shortstop at Loyola Marymount University, became a second baseman for St. Louis. And Teahen, at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds much larger than Jeff Kent or Ryne Sandberg or about any other second baseman in history (Schumaker, for one, is 5 inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter), became a second baseman for Kansas City.
Missouri, the Show Me the Way to Second Base State.
They've lived parallel springs, danced and stumbled around the same base, broken the same bad habits that only weeks before had been the skills they'd used to become big-league ballplayers. And, they both hit, which is why they're standing out at second base – it's not about the gloves, it's about the bats, and the left-handed bats at that. The Cardinals needed a leadoff hitter (especially against right-handed pitchers), but were up to Tony La Russa's aviators in outfielders. The Royals didn't want to do without Teahen's power threat, but they kept promoting/signing/trading for players that pushed Teahen out of his last position; third baseman Alex Gordon and outfielders Jose Guillen and Coco Crisp over three winters.
So, as Schumaker and Teahen drifted into their late 20s, second base was what was left. They ordered up new gloves. They made off for the back fields. They got up on their toes and waited for the first grounder.
"Hopefully," Teahen said, "this is just the start of my long journey to becoming a major league second baseman. I've liked being in the action, being in the middle. … The next step is having complete trust in what I'm doing."
There is a lot to know. Second base is a ballet. It's a head-on collision. What it's not is left field. Or even third base.
"When you're athletes like both of those guys are, they'll be OK," said Orlando Hudson, who has three Gold Gloves there. "Catching a ground ball is not going to be a problem. It's turning the double play. And if you only turn it one way, teams see it and start bearing down on you."
Hudson pantomimed a half-dozen ways to get over or across or off the bag. He said he'd never been hit hard and been badly spiked only once – Ryan Klesko got him. ("I never got him back, either," he said without a smile.) He said the best second baseman he ever saw was Roberto Alomar. The best young second baseman, he said, is Brandon Phillips.
Out there, then, surviving the position, learning when to stand in and when to bail out, Schumaker is beginning to see plays coming, and Teahen is trying to stay as low as he can, and it's mostly worked. Neither, presumably, will see the late innings with a lead. And both will get more work against right-handed pitchers than lefties. But, you know, six weeks is not a long time to become a major league anything, and they've covered pretty good distance already.
"His ability to play the position will continue to evolve," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Teahen. "He's not the finished product at this time."
Same goes with Schumaker. Heck, he'd worked harder than anyone he knew to get here – "I wasn't ever the most talented guy," he said – so another couple months seemed doable.
The only thing, he'd said, "I don't want to be a liability. Good pitchers pitch to contact. And I don't want to fail them."
When Teahen had moved from third base to the outfield he'd joked that it was fine, "as long as they're not asking me to play second base next spring."
Asked if he believed he'd won the job, Teahen said, "Um, yes and no," and praised Callaspo and Bloomquist.
He continued, "The way I've played this spring, I expect to be in the lineup every day. I had to prove I could play second base. But, I think what I've done offensively, I deserve to be in the lineup."
With that, his day at the ballpark began. The morning was cool. The grass was moist. When he gathered his gear and turned to go, you had a pretty good idea where he was headed.