Red Eye Chicago - - Sports - By Paul Sullivan

In the early 2000s, when re­hab­bing Cubs starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were throw­ing sim­u­lated games on the morn­ings be­fore Cac­tus League games, the Chicago me­dia were on hand to chron­i­cle ev­ery de­liv­ery—real or towel-aided.

The cov­er­age was overkill, of course. But it was spring train­ing, and be­cause Wood and Prior were con­sid­ered keys to the Cubs’ chances of fi­nally win­ning it all, ev­ery sim­u­lated out­ing made head­lines.

Pitch­ing coach Larry Roth­schild quickly wea­ried of sat­u­ra­tion cov­er­age of what ba­si­cally were con­trolled bat­ting-prac­tice ses­sions, and he was es­pe­cially irked at re­peated ref­er­ences to the towel drill, which they per­formed be­fore the fake games.

Like­wise, Wood and Prior grew tired of an­swer­ing ques­tions about their progress. They did it so of­ten, Prior joked dur­ing 2005 spring train­ing that the two were can­di­dates for the Sim­u­lated Hall of Fame.

Who knew they were sim­ply ahead of their time? Sim­u­lated games were the norm for sev­eral pitch­ers early this spring, as more teams opted for con­trolled ses­sions to stretch out pitch­ers and work on dif­fer­ent things. Chris Sale and Jake Ar­ri­eta were among those who went the sim­u­lated route at some point.

Spring train­ing will never change be­cause it’s big busi­ness for some teams, in­clud­ing the Cubs, who are av­er­ag­ing more than 15,000 fans per game at Sloan Park. But the ac­tual games are be­com­ing more ir­rel­e­vant for the “train­ing” part of spring train­ing.

Sim­u­lated train­ing has be­come the new wave. Con­trol­ling the at­mos­phere makes sense from the teams’ per­spec­tive, even though most pay­ing cus­tomers would rather watch Sale pitch in an ex­hi­bi­tion game in­stead of Erik John­son.

“I like to be­lieve the so­phis­ti­cated fan un­der­stands that,” Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don said. “If you un­der­stand what’s go­ing on, you can cope with it a lot bet­ter.”

Cop­ing is easy in 85-de­gree weather, so no one is com­plain­ing.

But if the games aren’t that im­por­tant for prepa­ra­tion, why not re­duce the month­long slate and cut down spring train­ing by a cou­ple of weeks? You could start the sea­son a week ear­lier and have a few more days off, and ev­ery­one would still be ready on open­ing day.

Mad­don ar­gued re­cently that the cur­rent spring train­ing pe­riod of six to seven weeks is “per­fect,” and Cubs catcher David Ross con­curred when asked by the Tri­bune this week.

“This is the time ev­ery­one wants to say spring train­ing is too long,” Ross said. “… But for pitch­ers and catch­ers, it’s the most im­por­tant time be­cause we get to go through some things to­gether and grow to­gether.”

Maybe, but since they’ve never tried it any other way, who knows if five weeks would suf­fice? Per­haps a cou­ple of sim­u­lated games and three spring starts would be enough for pitch­ers and catch­ers to get on the same page, and for hit­ters to per­fect their tim­ing.

Ev­ery­one’s ready by the fi­nal days of March and ea­ger to be­gin the sea­son. That’s some­thing you can’t sim­u­late.

Cubs pitcher Kyle Hen­dricks throws against the White Sox on March 18 dur­ing a spring train­ing game.


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