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Once a revered ritual, pepper becomes passe

Zimmer, Piniella among those who bemoan the decline of the early 1920s creation.

By BRUCE LOWITT
Published July 26, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Once it was as much a pregame ritual as batting practice, shagging fly balls in the outfield and card games in the clubhouse. Now it is fading into major-league antiquity like baggy flannel uniforms, doubleheaders and Ladies' Day.

Most youngsters starting out in baseball once played it. Most in the minors, where indoor stadium space isn't as available and equipment isn't as sophisticated, still do. Some players, new to the Show, miss it already. Progress - technology, exercise machines and techniques, personal trainers and sometimes personal preference - have rendered it passe.

It isn't outlawed like the spitball and corked bat. It isn't even frowned upon. Nevertheless, the sign on the padding behind home plate insists: NO PEPPER

"Pepper was part of your life in a day's work. I looked forward to it," said Don Zimmer, infielder-turned-Yankees bench coach. "I couldn't wait to get out on the ballfield and grab a bat or be on the other end of it and get in a pepper game. It's good for hand-eye coordination, quickness, whatever."

Stan Musial loved pepper. The Cardinals Hall of Fame outfielder retired in 1963 with a 22-year batting average of .331. "What I used to do," the left-handed batter said from his home in St. Louis, "I'd get a bat and get three or four left-handed throwers and let them throw the ball at me. Practicing against lefty throwers helped me tremendously."

Pepper - not the condiment - is derived from pep (energy and high spirits). It is a rapid-fire warmup exercise. Fielders, traditionally three though it's not a rule, stand 20-30 feet from a batter. He chops the ball toward them. Whoever catches it tosses it as quickly as he can (but not too hard) to the batter, who swings at the throw (but not too hard), and the drill continues.

"Down in Vero Beach, we'd play 6-7 minutes, then (coach) Jake Pitler would blow a whistle and we'd run around the stadium," said Zimmer, who spent his first four big-league seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. "Then we'd come back, play another 6-7 minutes of pepper, the whistle, run around the stadium again, come back ... " He paused.

"So many things have changed," he said wistfully. "Pepper, pepper, pepper ... "

"Cut it out'

It has been relegated to the outfield by some ballparks. Some clubs say it's to protect fans who might be injured by a ball sailing into the stands. "If that's the case," Zimmer said, "hit away from the stands. How easy is that?"

Actually, safety is secondary to neatness.

George Toma is sports' best-known groundskeeper, formerly with the Kansas City Royals, now a worldwide turf consultant. "It's to protect the grass," he said. "If it's an everyday thing in one area like behind the plate, it's going to wear out the turf."

Rays manager Lou Piniella, an 18-year big-league outfielder, said the demise of pepper's popularity began "because (the field) has got to look real nice on TV." Pristine green, particularly behind home plate, is de rigueur. Bald spots? Oh, please!

Then there are the indoor batting cages in every stadium. They didn't exist a generation or so ago. Players spend more time there, less on the field.

"We basically try to do the same things in the cages with the hitters," Piniella said. "Pepper's better for pitchers because they get used to the ball coming right back at them after they release it."

Alex Johnson, a journeyman outfielder from 1964-76, liked pepper. When he played it he dug about a 6-inch hole for his back foot. Toma would have to shunt him toward the outfield. Not all players were as accommodating. Dave Rader, for instance.

Rader was part-time catcher for Boston in 1980. Joe Mooney, long-time Red Sox groundskeeper, remembered stepping onto the field at Fenway Park one day "and Rader's got this pepper game going back of the plate with some other guys. I say, "Cut it out,' and he just laughs and keeps playing and I say, "I'll get even with you,' and the next day he comes out and there's no batting cage, nothing. That was my ground he was (messing) with."

A cousin of pepper

Pepper was the early 1920s creation of Jesse Lee "Doc" Tally, said Terry Bertolino, co-author of The House of David Baseball Team (Arcadia). Tally and two teammates on the bearded barnstorming club did it to kill time waiting for fans to show up.

It evolved into a midgame show with the trio assembled in the infield. By show's end the air would be replete with balls, bats, even gloves. "As many people sometimes came to see it as came to see the game," Bertolino said.

The Gashouse Gang - the 1934 Cardinals of Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Ducky Medwick and others - popularized it at the big-league level, a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters' signature Sweet Georgia Brown pregame basketball circle of no-look, behind-the-back, between-the-legs passes.

The Gashouse Gang's version actually was the flip game, a cousin of pepper, several fielders flipping the ball to each other, sometimes never taking it out of their glove.

"Sometimes it doesn't go over too good," Zimmer said, "so if we're playing pepper, that's one of the rules; no flip game. Guys would get hit in the eye, spike each other going for the ball."

USF coach Eddie Cardieri doesn't allow it. "Tossing the ball with the glove, that's like practicing missing it, not catching it," he said.

Young Rays outfielder Carl Crawford played pepper before every game at Jefferson Davis High in Houston. It remains a staple in high school, though some coaches, Tim Sims of Hernando High among them, have switched to using Wiffle Balls as part of practice. "You can play with them indoors on rainy days, and you can take a regular swing," Sims said.

Crawford played pepper a lot in the minors, too, but very little since his big-league debut in July 2002. "Probably some guys don't like the idea of slapping at the ball," Crawford said. "They don't want to get into the habit in a game where they're going to be swinging as hard as they can."

Rays veteran outfielder Al Martin said pregame rituals have supplanted pepper games.

"We do a lot stretching exercises, and (Kevin Barr, strength and conditioning coordinator) puts us through a routine that gets you loose in other ways now. Lots of different things go on on any given day as far as preparing for a game," Martin said. "You kind of don't have enough time, so you disregard the little things. Pepper's one of them."

- For information on the history of the pepper game and the House of David baseball team, go to www.peppergame.com

[Last modified July 26, 2003, 02:18:07]

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