Anchorage — Hours before any Alaska Baseball League fans find their seats at Mulcahy Stadium, music laden with guitars and crooners fills the afternoon air, along with the distinct percussive rhythm of batting practice.
Bats pop every few seconds as hitters hone swings in a batting cage and coaches twirl fungo bats on either side of it.
Whether it's the Anchorage Bucs or Anchorage Glacier Pilots meandering onto the field for their daily 45-minute warm up, the loping gait of outfielders running under fly balls or the soft, loose arm action of an infielder floating a ball to first make serious college players look like carefree kids.
"It's always fun to hit," said Pilots infielder Kewby Meyer of the University of Nevada-Reno. "I think that's the best part of baseball."
Though some players like to use batting practice as nothing more than a way to get loose for a game, Meyer is in the group that likes to make improvements. Games aren't ideal for trying to perfect newly learned skills, said Meyer, who will occasionally belt a ball over the fence during batting practice. Always focused on the action at the plate, however, he never watches the ball long enough to see where it lands.
"A home run is a mistake," Meyer said. "You try to hit the ball on a line, but sometimes you get under it a little bit and it goes out."
There may not be a tangible measurement for quantifying a successful batting practice, but Bucs infielder Collin Ferguson of St. Mary's University recognizes it when it happens.
"It's more about feel," Ferguson said. "I've had some games where I feel like my batting practice is awful and then I end up hitting really good in the game and vice versa, so it's more about how you feel than the result of your batting practice."
For some, a relaxed afternoon ritual can take on a serious tone, prompting bats to be thrown to the ground in anger when properly connecting with a ball becomes a struggle.
"Some guys get caught up in results in batting practice," Bucs head coach Tony Cappuccilli said. "We have some very good hitters that go out in games and perform and their batting practice is ugly. I don't really put a whole lot of stock into BP."
That doesn't mean Cappuccilli isn't an active participant. He and some of the other Bucs coaches display lively feet and hands when hitting grounders with a fungo bat. The bat swings from their fingertips and rarely stops moving as coaches wait for a hit ball to be retrieved and returned. Players loft the ball toward the coaches, who seamlessly catch it on a hop, skip into a hitting posture, flip the ball in the air and chop it back across the infield.
"We're getting old," said Cappuccilli, 33. "We need to get loose before we throw batting practice."
In addition to the fungo shots, Pilots and Bucs fielders stay busy grabbing live hits off the bats of those in the cage. Batting practices vary from team to team and some choose only to field live shots from hitters in the cage, but a fungo bat is a great way to increase a fielder's practice repetitions.
"You can get easily 100 reps in one 45-minute BP session," said Pilots manager Conor Bird. "We can practice getting our body in the right position and taking our body through the movement pattern of fielding a baseball correctly and later on in BP we can just take live reads and react to the balls hit."
As batting practice progresses, fielders become visibly looser and balls leave their hands with increasing zip. Hitters start releasing the bat with fully uncoiled turns as they seek more forceful hits.
"You could relate it to basketball and how they do lay ups and they have a whole routine," Bird said. "Leading up to game time, you're progressively getting a little more aggressive and freeing your swing up and making it more game-like."
Both the Pilots and Bucs let hitters play a game with the final cage session. Batters usually only look at four to five pitches at a time to avoid fatigue, but can extend their last turn by hitting hard line drives. As long as they hit the ball hard, they can stay in the cage for another pitch. Of course, not everyone agrees on what equates to a hard hit.
"The guys behind us give us a hard time if they don't think it's hit hard and we stay in," said Bucs infielder Chase Compton of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "It's all in fun. We just kind of laugh about it."