Stephen Tarpley heard murmurs about it, quiet whispers from his new Miami Marlins teammates.
Tarpley, an avid table tennis player when he’s not working his day job as a pitcher, was told the team had a ping-pong table somewhere around the clubhouse at their training facility at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex. But as spring training reached the halfway mark, no table had surfaced.
On Saturday, the day after the Marlins made their first round of roster trimmings (and thus had more room in the clubhouse), the table appeared, front and center.
“I was waiting for this day to come,” Tarpley said.
So has his teammates. They use pickup ping-pong games in the clubhouse as a stress reliever and a way to keep their competitive juices flowing, a way to kill time before practice and games as well break up the repetitiveness that comes with their six-week spring training stay before the season begins.
Yes, the players are fighting for roster spots, trying to impress the coaching staff, working to make any and all adjustments to their personal games as possible before the season begins on March 26.
But when the paddles are in hand and the small orange ball goes into the air for first serve, any internal and external pressures seem to fade away for a few minutes.
“It’s friendly competition,” said pitcher Jordan Yamamoto, a regular at the table on the days he’s not competing to crack the Marlins’ starting rotation. “We talk smack to each other and still laugh about it. It’s not too serious...”
Until it gets serious. Official statistics aren’t kept. They play singles and doubles contests. Games can be first to 11 or 21, depending on how much time they have or really what both players prefer.
Players are allowed to bring their own paddles — “If you get mad about that, I’m sorry,” Yamamoto said. “Go to Dick’s Sporting Goods or Amazon and buy one. It’s 20 bucks” — or use one in the clubhouse, provided he wipes it down with hand sanitizer between games.
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“I heard a lot of people who said they can play ping-pong,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said, “but it’s not the same to play at home as it is to play here in the clubhouse in front of everybody.
“When you play in front of a lot of people, that’s where you show it.”
The Marlins last season, in the spirit of March Madness, put together a tournament bracket of their own. The top player from major-league camp eventually faced off against the minor-league camp’s top table-tennis star in a championship match inside their batting cages.
For 2019, that meant first baseman Garrett Cooper against pitching prospect Braxton Garrett.
Players live streamed the event. Front office and coaching staff members took an hour or so of their time to watch the spectacle unfold.
In the end Garrett — a fifth-grade ping-pong champion (he still has the picture) — won.
Cooper played a short game in the clubhouse Sunday before starting in right field against the St. Louis Cardinals. He said it was his first game since that championship loss.
“Last year was a fun time,” Cooper said. “I think I take ping-pong a little more seriously than other people. ... Spring training’s fun, especially for guys who come in here and try to beat me, the reigning champion in this locker room. Hopefully I don’t have to face Braxton again and whatever cheating paddle he was using.”
Garrett isn’t taking any of that “cheating paddle” nonsense, though.
Growing up with three brothers, he had the competitive juices flowing early in life. Baseball is his passion, but he’s been honing his ping-pong skills since the third grade. He played against older kids at the YMCA and won regularly
His mentality at the table: “My stuff is better than yours. Hit it back if you can.” He doesn’t rely on analytics. He doesn’t prioritize finesse shots — although he can hit those, too.
Backhand shots are his strength, but he improved with his forehand last spring training thanks to practicing with fellow pitching prospect Nick Neidert.
“He wanted to get better,” Garrett explained. “He never competed with me, but he only hits it to my forehand, so it made my forehand better. You can ask him. He’ll take credit for it immediately.”
Others have more complex scouting reports.
Take Tarpley, who has been playing ping-pong regularly in his down time since he was about 12 years old and has a “nasty” serve when he’s using his paddle (which he expects to be here in the next couple days).
“High spin-rate guy. Launch angle. All that stuff,” Tarpley said. “Smash factor’s pretty good.”
Others, like Yamamoto, go with the flow and understand their limitations.
“Usually, I’m decent,” Yamamoto said. “I haven’t played in six months. Gotta practice a little bit.”
Yamamoto’s occasional problem: Finding a steady opponent.
He spent the first two days with trying to knock the rust off with mixed results. As the Marlins returned to the clubhouse from their pregame warmups on Saturday, Yamamoto lost a quick game to switch-pitcher Pat Venditte (who only plays ping-pong right-handed) and tried to find another opponent.
Was Caleb Smith interested?
“You’re not even worth my time,” Smith responded with a smile and short chuckle.
“Nah,” he said. “Can’t blow out my rotator cuff.”
Finally, Brian Anderson stepped up — and won. Then Rojas played a game against the Hawaiian pitcher — and also won.
Meanwhile, players formed a crowd around the table and watched their teammates play.
The comments came after almost every point.
“Yami, you’re supposed to hit it over the net ... and keep it on the table.”
“You had your own paddle and still lost? Unacceptable.”
Who’s the biggest trash talker of the bunch?
“Me,” Rojas said. “Like always.”
But Rojas at the very least tries to back up that trash talk by playing ping-pong just as aggressively as he plays defense at shortstop.
When a doubles game started, he glanced at partner Tommy Eveld.
“Can you play?” Rojas asked. “Don’t waste my time, Tommy.”
After a couple points against opponents Yamamoto and Sterling Sharp, Rojas advised Eveld to start his serve slightly higher. He had watched Yamamoto. He wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Sure enough, Yamamoto bounced the serve back into the net. Point Rojas and Eveld.
“The players enjoy it,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get hurt playing ping-pong. I feel confident, knock on wood. Spring gets a little long and tedious at times but it is something that the guys are in here a lot and early. It’s fun.”
These past few days — and likely the next week — are just practice sessions, similar to the first week of spring training itself.
The ping-pong playing will become serious should the Marlins revive the tournament, which Rojas is adamant about. If it happens, though, Garrett will be part of the big-league camp’s bracket because he spent the first three weeks with the club before being sent down on Friday.
“We’re going to invite him to the tournament this season to see if he’s good enough to win this one right here,” Rojas said. “... He’s going to have to play here to see if he can be the champion here.”
Garrett, meanwhile, welcomes the competition.
“This year is going to be a lot of fun,” Garrett said. “I have the target on my back. But playing ping-pong is really, really fun.”