The lost art of throwing a baseball is where Gopher Coach John Anderson starts.

"Hey, you want to have a catch?"
    - Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams
by Dave Washburn
Spring 2002

University of Minnesota Baseball head coach John Anderson.

Gopher Coach John Anderson's advice to young players and coaches: keep it simple. Twenty years of coaching one of the nation's top baseball programs has taught John Anderson a thing or two about coaching. Mainly, if you keep things simple like teaching how to throw and catch the ball, your job can be a lot easier. "We don't spend time trying to outsmart people, or out coach people." says Anderson, "Some people think there are all these great schemes, but it all comes down to executing the fundamentals."

Simply throwing and catching the ball is one of the most important, and least practiced, fundamentals. Anderson is somewhat surprised at the lack of throwing ability that some of the new players in his program show when they arrive, "I think that it's the thing we probably teach the least, and spend the least amount of time on, but it's the most critical part of the game." 

Yet, Anderson doesn't really blame the players, because, "Everybody loves to hit, and everybody loves to play, but playing catch is boring." To put it simply, according to Anderson, "Baseball is a game of catch, and it's very important if you want to keep climbing the ladder. More people are eliminated along the way because they can't throw." Anderson continues, "The outfielders play catch with the infielders, the infielders play catch with the other infielders, and the pitcher plays catch with the catcher. The whole game revolves around your ability to catch the ball, and throw the ball."

The Gophers coaching staff dedicates a lot of time to just that area of the game. The first twenty minutes of every practice is set aside to work on throwing and the mechanics of throwing. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of sore arms the first few weeks of practice. But in time, the players get used to the workload.  And that's how the baseball Gophers spend most of their practice time. Anderson would rather work repeatedly on the basics, than on fancy defensive shifts that rarely come into play. "Every day we spend time on the five fundamentals; throwing, fielding, hitting, base running, and bunting, and we try to pay attention to the little things that make a difference."

"Talk to your kids, ask them questions, get them involved. Ask theiropinions about how they think things are going."
- Coach John Anderson
Beyond the ability to catch and throw, Coach Anderson feels that good defense plays a major role in having a successful team.  A lot of that has to do with the pace of the game and the players' ability to focus on the game. "My classic example of that," explains Anderson, "is when a pitcher walks the first three guys to start the inning, and then finally on the fourth guy, he throws the ball over the plate, the batter hits it to the shortstop, he kicks it, and the pitcher gets mad at the shortstop, and I tell him 'Don't get mad at him, you put him to sleep!'"

Like most coaches and players, Anderson prefers pitchers who work quickly, "There's nothing worse than a slow paced game. That's when you lose concentration." But there are things you can do to keep from getting distracted. Anderson's advice to players: if you're in the field, try to think ahead, and anticipate what you need to do if the ball is hit to you, and if you're on the bench, watch the pitcher, see how he's getting people out, figure out what pitches he's throwing for strikes, and what kind of move he has to first. "To some people, the game of baseball is boring," says Anderson, "but in my opinion, it's really not. Because the situation changes with every pitch, and most people don't understand that."

In order to stay in tune defensively, the Gophers utilize their two most popular practice drills. The first is known as the "Florida State Drill", named after an idea they stole from the Florida State baseball program. The staff divides the team into three groups: hitters, runners, and defense. Then they create situations they would like to practice at that time. Coach Anderson explains, "We try to practice situations that happen the most. It's one of my favorite drills, because it really incorporates all of the fundamentals of the game." he adds, "You really find out who has the instincts to play." It also gives the staff an opportunity see where the players' strengths and weaknesses lie, as well as the opportunity to have "teaching moments", because they can stop at any time to work with the players.

The other drill is sometimes not as popular with the players. It's known as the "27 outs drill". This is a very basic defensive drill, where one of the coaches fungos balls to the defensive players until they make 27 consecutive outs. This may seem easy, but try it sometime. The coaching staff usually uses this drill as an incentive for batting practice, and if the team is struggling defensively, "Some days we just don't get to hit." says Anderson.

The Gophers offer both summer and winter baseball camps, and they spend a lot of time working with younger players. On an individual level, coach Anderson has some advice for those players: be patient, work hard, and try to avoid the 'microwave athlete' syndrome. "A lot of kids come to camp and think that in five days they can become the next Kirby Puckett." says Anderson, "They see the product of great athletes on TV or they go to the ballpark and watch, but they're not familiar with how hard people work to get to that level." One thing he would like young athletes to keep in mind, is that most professional athletes have great natural ability, but they work hard every day to improve that ability and stay competitive. Along with hard work and patience, he suggests that young players decide what it is that they want to do and stick with it for a while. "We tend to give up too easy in our society, because there are so many choices." adds Anderson, "Kids think, I'll try this for a while, and if it doesn't work out, I'll go do something else."

On the flip side, Anderson doesn't think you need to be a specialist at an early age, "If you want to be a good player, understand how much work  it's going to take, but have some balance in your life. Don't just [practice baseball] all the time. Take some time each day and put some time into [baseball]. When it's over, it's over, and go onto the next thing. We're not asking people to give 24 hours a day to become a better baseball player."

Coach Anderson has a few suggestions for youth coaches as well. "I think that like most coaches, I enjoy the teaching aspect of the job." But Anderson notes that he's not the only one teaching, "I've learned more lessons from players that I've coached, than I've taught." He would like to see coaches spend more time talking with their players, and listening to what they have to say, "Talk to your kids, ask them questions, get them involved. Ask their opinions about how they think things are going." Anderson feels that most players have a pretty good idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they need to work on. He adds that as a coach you also need to be consistent, "Kids these days are very observant, and very aware of what's going on. You better be consistent with what you really say you are, and what you're all about, because if you're not, they're going to pick up on it." He also feels that one of the most important things  a youth coach can do to be successful is to lower expectations, and try to take some of the pressure off the players. Keep in mind, that if the players don't enjoy themselves, they probably won't be back next year.