April 4, 2009
By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Skip Schumaker wanted to go the extra mile during baseball's off-season.
The former UCSB star enlisted a Los Angeles County SWAT officer to work him in the gym like a drill sergeant.
He got Mark McGwire, the 70-homer successor to the Sultan of Swat, to tutor him at the plate.
But St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa threw the 29-year-old outfielder a big curveball just a week before spring training: He moved Schumaker to second base.
"Tony asked me if I'd be willing to try it," is the diplomatic way that Schumaker described it.
"Oh crap," he said with a gulp.
Schumaker still has many more miles to go before he sleeps, but general manager John Mozeliak gave a thumbs-up to the experiment last week: Schumaker will be the starting second baseman in Monday's season opener against Colorado.
"When you look at his improvement, I think he's been remarkable," La Russa said.
Schumaker is a little more critical of his performance, describing the conversion as "a bit of a roller-coaster ride so far."
"There have been a lot of ups and downs," he said. "I've never played second, so everything is new. The more reps, the better I'll be. But it's going to take getting into games and seeing things and getting used to them."
He played errorless defense while getting four chances in a spring game against Minnesota last Sunday in Fort Myers, Fla. They included a tough back-handed play up the middle on a first-inning ground ball hit by Alexi Casilla.
But Schumaker became irritated after getting a bad read on a grounder that Nick Punto hit past him for a single in the fourth. He slammed his glove onto the bench when he went into the dugout, although he did cut himself some slack a few hours later.
"That's going to happen with me," he said. "I'm not going to get as a good a jump as many guys, and that's part of the game-situation thing. With more reps, I'll get better jumps."
He's committed five errors, although two came in the same game early in the spring. His fielding percentage is .948, with only four of his innings coming in the outfield.
"Tony has never B.S.ed me about anything -- he said he was going to give me a real shot, and he has," Schumaker said. "It's been tough, but it's getting better."
Infield coach Jose Oquendo wondered about the move when he heard about it, but Schumaker has turned him into a believer.
"From the beginning of spring training, we were surprised by how he looked," he said.
It's not the first time that Schumaker has had to change positions. He moved to the outfield at UCSB after playing shortstop as a freshman at Loyola Marymount.
But he was overjoyed with that transition.
"I had one of the worst experiences of my life at Loyola Marymount," Schumaker said. "The head coach there was an absolute nightmare. He's no longer there for a reason, and I'm not afraid to say that. There are a lot of guys who left that place.
"I knew him growing up," Schumaker said. "He was instrumental in getting me over there. They took a chance on me because of Chad, I think, and it really worked out."
No kidding. Schumaker batted .400 as the leadoff hitter and center fielder of the Gauchos' NCAA Tournament team of 2001. St. Louis picked him in the fifth round of the baseball draft that June.
"We had nine guys who were drafted that year," he pointed out. "We had a really good team and the chemistry was good.
"With any team, college or pro, if you have good chemistry, you're going to win."
He's played parts of four seasons in the Major Leagues and was platooned in center field last year, starting against right-handed pitchers. He has a career average of .299 in 795 at-bats, which included .302 as a part-time leadoff batter last season.
Although Schumaker is no power hitter -- he has 11 career home runs -- McGwire has made a big difference for him.
"I owe him a ton," he said. "He's done probably the most for me, hitting-wise, than anybody else. He completely changed my hands.
"A few off-seasons ago, Tony asked me to go to him. If you would've told me when I was in college that I'd be hitting with McGwire during the off-season, I would've fainted, so it's been a dream for me to work with him."
Some might consider a workout with the SWAT guy -- Jim Moss -- to be a nightmare, but not Schumaker.
"To have some guy yelling at you and making you do stuff that you're not used to doing -- tricking your body a little bit -- it's a lot of fun," he said.
Kind of like trying to play second base.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.