SURPRISE, Ariz. — Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett remembers sitting in the Kansas City Royals clubhouse with teammates long after games ended talking baseball, often sharing a bunch of beer and a bag of potato chips.
When Bruce Bochy was a catcher for San Diego at the end of his playing days in the mid-1980s, nearly a decade before becoming the Padres manager, there were many late nights listening to stories told by well-traveled championship reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage.
“He’d stay there until 1 or 2 in the morning,” said Bochy, who has won two World Series in San Francisco the past four seasons. “You wouldn’t go home. You felt guilty if you tried to leave, and it’s hard to find a little space in between his stories where you could say, ‘I’ve got to go.’”
That was how many old-school players spent their time after coming off the field, long before social media and the amenities now so common for major leaguers. Sure, players today still talk baseball and spend plenty of time together — but not the way it used to be.
“The biggest change, guys are in the clubhouse really early. And, after games, they’re out quick,” said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who spent his entire 13-year playing career with the New York Yankees. “Now guys are at the ballpark by 1 o’clock — there’s a bunch of guys there already.”
That’s generally six hours or more before first pitch in most parks.
As clubhouse attendants went through their nightly routine of laundry, shining shoes and preparing everything for the next game, it used to be a very crowded space. Players, some still in uniform and others in their underwear, would be talking about the game they had just played or maybe dealing another hand of cards. The clubbies might even have their tasks interrupted to go pick up pizza for the players, or maybe buy more beer and cigarettes.
“We didn’t have a chef, we didn’t have video, we didn’t have a room you could go watch all your at-bats,” said Brett, who played all 21 of his major league seasons with the Royals. “We didn’t have a players’ lounge. We had a locker room.”
These days, it usually doesn’t take very long after games before the clubhouse workers are alone in the smoke-free space as players head home, out to eat or back to the luxury hotels where they stay on the road.
Padres manager Bud Black was a young pitcher with the Royals when he’d often join the postgame gatherings with the likes of Brett, Hal McRae, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splitorff and other veteran players. He remembers some of the cramped barren clubhouses, such as old Tiger Stadium or maybe Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
“Guys didn’t go to the park early in the old days. Guys rode the bus, 4 or 4:30 p.m.,” Black said. “Because there was no (batting) cage, there was no lounge to go have a nice meal, no TVs to watch out of market games, no couches, no food, no four or five training staff guys to get a massage from.”
Boston catcher Davis Ross has spent his 12 major league seasons with six different teams, winning a World Series with the Red Sox last year. He has noticed a distinct shift in things since his major league debut with the Dodgers in 2002.
“There’s a lot more that goes on, so many guys are at are the park really early, but they’re just getting their work in,” Ross said. “They’re in the lounge. Now you have a lounge rather than guys playing cards in the middle of the locker room.”
When Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin made his major league debut as a player with the Detroit Tigers in 1985, almost the entire team — players and coaches — would take the last bus from the hotel to the stadium.
There were no cellphones, Internet, laptops or the latest XBox and PlayStation systems. No plush seating was positioned in front of numerous satellite-linked televisions with 24-hour sports, news or movies.
Even when players are headed to the ballpark now, Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura notices that most everyone is on a smartphone, usually talking or communicating somehow with someone on the outside instead of teammates sitting with them on the bus.
Brett has stayed part of the Royals organization since retiring as a player after the 1993 season, and is a volunteer coach at spring training. He even stepped in for a few weeks last summer as their interim hitting coach, a short time back in uniform and the dugout that gave him an even closer look at how much has changed.
“They still talk the game. Sometimes they go in and watch each others’ videos — if you know how to work the VCR, or the computer system,” the 60-year-old Brett said. “A lot of guys go into the workout room and work out after games. … They’ll go with the strength and conditioning coach and go do something to improve themselves, where we would just sit in the locker room.”
Mattingly said one thing really hasn’t changed: Players still talk about the game.
“I see them watching the TV screens and talking about different players and things like that,” he said. “It’s just done a little differently.”