From the cage, about 110 feet away from where you stand between first and second base, a major league baseball hitter is spraying line drives all over the field. About 10 feet to the hitter's right, a coach is whacking sharp grounders at you from a separate angle, timing them to come between each swing in the cage. Across your path, on a straight line from second base to first, another coach is drilling wicked shots with a fungo at a trio of first basemen, simulating difficult throws that have to be scooped.
Baseball is a leisurely sport? Tell that to someone who hasn't played the game competitively in three decades and is suddenly in the middle of this geometric pattern of hard grounders created by professional batters and glove men.
That's where Eric Yarber found himself on Tuesday morning, after he and a group of fellow Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches accepted an invite to spend a day with the Tampa Bay Rays at their Port Charlotte spring training site. Yarber, who tutors the Bucs' wide receivers, was joined by Head Coach Raheem Morris, Tight Ends Coach Alfredo Roberts, Running Backs Coach Steve Logan and Defensive Line Coach Grady Stretz, all as special guests of Rays Manager Joe Maddon. It was Yarber, however, who had been specifically invited to pick up a bat and glove and join in the real action.
It was a wonderful experience for Yarber, who spent three years in the NFL as a wide receiver but hadn't played organized baseball since his high school days in the early '80s. He took five turns in the batting cage before his group moved out to the field. Both parts of the practice were surprisingly taxing.
"It was real fun," said Yarber afterward. "I was nervous a bit out there. I kind of had a lot of anxiety, because I hadn't been out there in about 30 years. I just didn't want to make a fool out of myself. That was my major concern, representing my coaching staff well. I just got a greater respect for baseball players, because in that batter's box, taking those cuts, I was winded. I kind of needed some oxygen."
Yarber actually acquitted himself nicely at the plate and in the field. After struggling a bit in his first round in the cage – star third baseman Evan Longoria told him to be less "spastic" during the bunting warm-ups and coach George Hendricks told him to keep his hands back and avoid lunging at the ball – Yarber got progressively better each time through. By his fourth and fifth turns, he was cranking legitimate line drives in every direction. In the field, he displayed a quick glove and even made several backhanded stabs. Yarber also learned some new terminology. For instance, to show his appreciation for hard-hit opposite-field shots, Longoria often greets them with a yell of, "Sexy time!" Yarber drew one such exclamation.
"He did a great job out there today," said Maddon of Yarber's practice efforts. "It takes a lot of guts to come out and do what he did today, because he has not played in 30 years. To hold his own that way, I was very impressed with the whole thing. And early this morning we had the long-drive contest and [Morris] out-hit the major league manager by a lot. So the major league football coach hits a lot better off the tee than the major league manager, although that just means [he's] spending way too much time out there."
Morris and the rest of the visiting Bucs crowded around behind the cage during Yarber's sessions, and also enjoyed a close-up view of the bat work of such key Rays players as Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and John Jaso. In the afternoon, when the Rays moved into the main stadium at the Port Charlotte complex to take on the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, Morris sat in the dugout with Maddon and helped manage the game. Morris also delivered the lineup card to home plate before the first inning and Yarber logged some time as the first base coach.
The Rays won the game, too, by a 3-2 score in 10 innings, which was a nice capper to a day that began early in the morning, with the coaches observing as the baseball players stretched out. Maddon could feel the added excitement that the visiting Buccaneers added to the atmosphere.
"The energy throughout the whole group…during the stretch this morning you could feel the energy," said the Rays skipper. "I like things like that. I think it's good for us as a group. I just think it's a healthy atmosphere to create for the entire area and, a little selfishly, for our team right here.
"For me, it's very exciting. I've always talked about it in the past – when we came to this city with the Rays several years ago, I always envisioned or hoped that I would be able to interact more with the professional coaches and teams in the area. I really do enjoy our friendship and I hope to continue to grow it."
Indeed, Maddon and Morris have grown close, and they get together when they can to compare notes and gather strategic tips from each other. Maddon said he would enjoy an opportunity to visit the Bucs' training camp in turn, and maybe even take a crack at running the scout-team offense.
"I do enjoy bouncing things off him," said Maddon of Morris. "He's got a lot of great idea. When I'm around his entire coaching staff, you get a sense of the way they work as a team. I really enjoy picking up on that also. I'd like to get more involved and get out there once in awhile when I can, because I am a football guy at heart. I'd like to see a little more of the football realm and how it actually operates."
Tuesday was Morris's opportunity, however, to see how Maddon operates in his realm.
"Any time you're around great coaches and seeing how they interact with their players, how they deal with people, how they coach and how they talk to people, you always pick up things," said the Bucs coach. "Every time I'm around this man I pick up something, whether it's development of concepts or development of team goals. That's really what it's about more than anything."
Maddon and Morris can also compare notes on getting the most out of a young roster. As they are currently constructed, both the Buccaneers and the Rays have mined much of their talent through their own systems, and have seen the benefits of very shrewd drafting. The Rays have won two of the last three NL East titles despite competing against big-payroll, free-agent-attracting giants like the Yankees and Red Sox. The Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 despite having the youngest roster in the NFL.
"We talked about it, how we're similar, how we're built with young players and adding pieces when we get to that point," said Morris. "Right now, Tampa, we're at that point. [The Rays] had a chance to add guys like Manny [Ramirez] and Johnny Damon, guys that can come in and add great leadership with the youthful players around. It's really similar, what we do and how we handle our priorities."
On Tuesday, their worlds even overlapped, with Yarber resembling a raw but promising minor leaguer and Morris contemplating out loud the idea of making Longoria a linebacker or outfielder B.J. Upton a cornerback. In the end, the two sets of pros will surely stick to their own sports, but Maddon and Morris will look for any opportunity to bring their teams together.