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Phillies use pepper to spice up camp

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Frank Herrmann, wielding a black bat, stared down four of his fellow Phillies pitchers. They stood in a semicircle about 20 feet away. Herrmann, a 31-year-old righthander with one career professional at-bat, swung and hit another dribbler at the grass near his feet.

Manager Pete Mackanin (center, right) and John McLaren (center, left) watch as players play pepper during Phillies spring training in Clearwater, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.
Manager Pete Mackanin (center, right) and John McLaren (center, left) watch as players play pepper during Phillies spring training in Clearwater, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Frank Herrmann, wielding a black bat, stared down four of his fellow Phillies pitchers. They stood in a semicircle about 20 feet away. Herrmann, a 31-year-old righthander with one career professional at-bat, swung and hit another dribbler at the grass near his feet.

The pitchers laughed. "This is borderline embarrassing!" one yelled at Herrmann. Around them, nine other groups of five played a forgotten drill banned from ballparks across the country.

Pepper is alive and well in Phillies camp.

"We've done it every day," Herrmann said. "But there's certainly crazier and less important things I've done in spring training."

For the Phillies, this spring is a time for prospect gazing and bullpen competition. But after the newness of a young and unfamiliar roster subsides, the monotony of spring can be consuming. The drills are boring and repetitive. Spring training used to be a time for players to get back into playing shape, but almost every player arrives to camp after a winter of training.

This spring, the Phillies have one of the longest (43 days) and most crowded (66 players) camps of all teams. Manager Pete Mackanin has emphasized defense in camp, and the fourth-round pick in the 1969 draft remembered pepper as one method for improving hand-eye coordination.

So, the first-time manager at age 64 thought, why not?

"I want them to handle the ball as much as possible," Mackanin said. "It's fun for them. It's a baseball activity that they're not used to, rather than the mundane drills of covering first and throwing to second. I think all of that together creates an atmosphere of fun."

Pepper, it is said, was derived from "pep" because of the drill's frenetic pace. Players of yesteryear used it as a warm-up exercise until pregame stretching and indoor batting cage work gained popularity. The batter lightly chops a ball toward one of the fielders, who must make quick - but not hard - throw back at the batter for another swing. If the batter hits a liner or pop-up, the fielder who catches it becomes the batter.

The game is probably best known in modern times for generating signs at many ballparks that declare, "NO PEPPER." That once confused former slugger Matt Stairs, who said he played pepper only in Mexican winter ball during his 19-year career with 12 teams.

"You can't use pepper on your food?" Stairs asked, upon first seeing the warning.

Jesse Lee "Doc" Tally created pepper in the early 1920s. Tally and his teammates on a barnstorming club used the drill to kill time before games. In the last few decades, as training methods progressed with booming indoor facilities and groundskeepers became more protective of their grass, pepper vanished.

Some Phillies did not know the rules. It's a drill still seen in some youth programs and high schools. But few professional organizations use pepper.

"Let's put it this way: We didn't sit there and explain how to do it," Mackanin said. "But we watched them and said, 'Hey, wait a minute. Choke up a little bit.' It was funny at first. But now when they play, they're getting into it. They're devising little games for themselves."

Jeremy Hellickson, a veteran Gold Glove winner, said he last played pepper while in rookie ball. Daniel Stumpf, a lefthanded reliever in camp, played it in high school. Catching prospect Andrew Knapp remembered a version of pepper from Little League.

Righthanded reliever Hector Neris, who tried pepper with two balls Monday, has played in the Dominican Republic with friends.

"It's a good game," Neris said. "You get to handle a bat. You're close to your teammates. You're talking."

That, for a clubhouse brimming with new faces, is another benefit. A 15-minute stint of pepper is a good way to strike a conversation with the guy next to you. Whatever it takes to create some sort of bond among the players on a team in transition. Before Monday's pepper, Mackanin even had the 36 pitchers in camp take grounders at shortstop.

"The pitchers take it pretty serious," Knapp said.

At first, Hellickson said, it was something of a novelty. That is starting to fade; pepper is merely another drill. Herrmann, who sees a point despite the public shaming, deadpanned: "Yeah, pepper lives on."

Mackanin whistled Monday morning at 11:13. "All right, boys, let's go," bullpen coach Rick Kranitz yelled. The pepper games stopped, and it was time for the pitchers to run another round of warning-track laps.

mgelb@philly.com

@mattgelb www.philly.com/philliesblog