David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
At first glance, viewed on high from the press box, it looked as though the White Sox were taking standard infield practice before Thursday's game at Yankee Stadium. Third-base coach Joe McEwing, the former Met super-sub, was running the drill, swinging the fungo bat, hitting pop-ups and grounders.
There was rightfielder Alex Rios chasing down a long fly and then firing to a cutoff man for the relay to third. Second baseman Gordon Beckham made a nifty backhand stab behind the bag before flipping to Alexei Ramirez to complete the double play.
No matter where McEwing's fungo shots went, or how difficult the play appeared to be, the White Sox didn't flub a single one. They couldn't -- because the drill was being performed without using a baseball.
That's right. McEwing ran the entire infield session, down to the final mile-high pop (or so it was imagined) to backup catcher Tyler Flowers, without ever hitting a ball.
He didn't invent the "phantom infield" practice. It's still done at the high school and college levels after first appearing in the majors during the 1920s and '30s. Trying it for the first time on this stage seemed like a bold move. But the White Sox appeared to really get into the drill, suggesting a comfortable working relationship with the first-year coach.
"I wanted to have fun with it," McEwing said. "Just to keep things loose. When you can pull back sometimes, and guys can have fun, they enjoy that."
McEwing had two baseballs in his back pockets, but that's where they stayed, and he probably got more out of his players without them. It also provided some insight into why McEwing could be among the most-coveted managerial candidates in the not-too-distant future.
He interviewed for the Cardinals' vacancy in November after Tony La Russa announced his retirement, but the job ultimately went to former St. Louis catcher Mike Matheny. And now that he's on the staff of Robin Ventura, who is an early candidate for Manager of the Year, McEwing is likely to get more of those opportunities, especially if the AL Central-leading White Sox make the playoffs.
"I've known him for a long time," said Ventura, a teammate of McEwing's for two seasons (2000-01) on the Mets. "I think playing with him for a few years, you see every day what a guy brings and understands about the game. He relates well, works hard, and that's the kind of stuff you're looking for. For me, there had to be a comfort level with the people I was going in with."
That was especially important for Ventura, who had no previous experience as a coach or manager at any level. McEwing, 39, already has two managing stints on his resume -- with the White Sox's Class A and Triple-A affiliates -- so he was a natural fit for Ventura's staff after Ozzie Guillen bolted to the Marlins.
Known as "Super Joe" for his utility skills, McEwing routinely did everything but pitch during his nine years in the majors, including five with the Mets as a favorite of Bobby Valentine. He had his best season in 2001, batting .283 in 116 games for the Mets, and finished as a career .251 hitter.
But it's not the numbers that make McEwing an up-and-coming managerial prospect. It was all the time spent on the bench -- waiting for his chance to influence a game -- that has helped him the most in his post-playing endeavors.
"Being a utility guy, you kind of manage," McEwing said. "You try to think along with a manager, trying to be ready for that situation when it arises. It's something that I always wanted to do. I wanted to stay in the game in some capacity because I wanted to give back what was taught to me."
At the moment, however, McEwing seems to be enjoying himself on Ventura's staff, and Thursday's phantom infield was another indication of that. Managing can wait -- at least until next season. Said McEwing, "I'm in no hurry."
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