When catcher Brian Serven was invited to Rockies spring training, he expected to work on techniques behind the plate, and maybe make some adjustments to his batting approach. You know, baseball stuff.
Little did Serven know that manager Bud Black had something else in mind for spring training.
“We ate some bugs, some chicken’s feet, some pig heart,” said Serven, a product of the Rockies farm system. “One of the guys ate a tarantula, I think. A dead one, obviously.”
If your skin isn’t crawling, just wait and remember, there’s no crying in baseball.
“And we all had to let snakes sit on our head,” Serven said. “We had pythons wrapped around our bodies. Tarantulas crawled on our face, scorpions… hissing cockroaches crawled up our arms.”
Rockies spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona was the team’s very own version of “Fear Factor.” It was actually Serven’s fault. During team introductions, he said he was a fan of podcasts from the show’s former host, Joe Rogan. That left Black with the idea that maybe what baseball practices need are some snakes and spiders.
This isn’t normal clubhouse activity. But Black assures there’s a method to his madness.
“Spring training, you know its six weeks,” Black said. “And it’s every day. And I don’t wanna say it’s monotonous or grueling, but I think there is time for some levity, and I do think there’s time to get to know each other in a different way than just baseball.”
The third-year skipper organized a basketball tournament, where some players — like Charlie Blackmon — wore some very old school white short-shorts and headbands and showed off their less-than-spectacular jump shots. Young players were also given a variety of special homework assignments that they had to present in front of their teammates.
Even in the show you might still have to do an oral report.
Bret Boswell, a 24-year-old second baseman from Texas was roped into a special assignment when he let it slip to teammates he was a Dallas Mavericks fan. Headmaster Black made him “do a presentation on international basketball players because I brought up Luka [Doncic] being awesome and fun to watch,” he said. “And that kind of led to him asking how many international players are there in the NBA, and nobody knew so he had me do an actual project.”
Boswell put together a map of the world with little pins to mark which countries players hail from. In case you were wondering, there are 113 international NBA players, according to Boswell, who said it was “like a history class or something.”
“There’s like 50 guys who are all out of school [at spring training]. I kinda thought I got away from this, but I guess not.”
These goofy exercises are all about team-building and to help younger players come out of their shells. Most of the prospects the Rockies invite to spring training won’t be on the opening day roster, but they could still play in the majors someday, perhaps even this season.
Black believes the unity lessons from March will pay off when the team comes together to win big games in September.
“I want Bret Boswell to introduce himself to Nolan Arenado; what Boswell does, what his hobbies are, what he likes to do,” Black said. “And I think it’s important that guys know each other, more than as ballplayers, who they are as a person.”
Hawaiian-born hurler Rico Garcia made a presentation where he named all the Major League Baseball players to come from his home state, from Johnnie Williams in 1914 to present day, 23-year-old Rangers pitcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Garcia sees the value in what his manager wants to get across with these assignments.
“To get the new guys familiarized with the whole ball club and you know, feel comfortable and not really feel like you’re the new guy and you’re kinda left out,” he said. “He really wants it to feel like a family.”
The Rockies are an inclusive clubhouse during training camp. All the players, whether they’re all-stars or rookies, eat meals and workout together. That’s not the case with some major league teams.
This was Boswell’s first major league camp. A lot of non-roster invitees on other ball clubs “are not even in the same area as the rest of the team; they’re a mile and half away from their big league team,” he said. “So I think it’s really cool that we get to share the weight room, share the meal room, and we get to see those guys every day.”
Tyler Nevin, an infielder in the Rockies farm system, appreciates the congenial atmosphere Black has created. He called the team “a bunch of guys having fun playing baseball.”
“It’s just a good way to get all the young guys involved, to you know break the ice with them, find out their personalities, just see who people really are,” he said. Which is exactly what Bud Black said he’s trying to get across with these activities: Fun and unity, even when guys have snakes and spiders crawling all over them. Well, almost.
“I didn’t put a snake on my face like those guys did, and I know they’re probably not happy about that,” Black said with a chuckle. “But overcoming some fears in front of your peers is... you know, they overcame something that they probably thought they could never do in front of the guys. And who knows, they might be better off for it one day.”