Erik Ostberg spends baseball’s offseason working out with Ahmed brothers

  • Erik Ostberg, center, a catcher, jokes with several ball players, including his younger brother, Ian Ostberg, left, and Seamus Curran, of Agawam, a first baseman in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Florence native Erik Ostberg, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a workout with other professional and Division I college baseball players at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday. Visit gazettenet.com for more photos and video. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a regular workout with 2018 National League Gold Glove shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nick Ahmed, right, of East Longmeadow, at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Erik Ostberg throws during a workout at Soccer City in Wilbraham. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arizona Daimondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed, above, of East Longmeadow, takes part in a workout at Soccer City in Wilbraham. Ahmed won the Gold Glove for his defense this past season. At left, Florence native Erik Ostberg, left, talks with his younger brother, Ian Ostberg, right, a sophomore infielder at Quinnipiac University. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a regular workout with 2018 National League Gold Glove shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nick Ahmed, in background, of East Longmeadow, at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, in center of frame, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a regular workout at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. Behind him are, from left, Drew DeMartino of Pittsfield, a sophomore infielder at the University of Hartford, Ostberg's younger brother, Ian Ostberg, a sophomore infielder at Quinnipiac University, and 2018 National League Gold Glove shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nick Ahmed of East Longmeadow. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • National League Gold Glove shortstop with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nick Ahmed, center, of East Longmeadow, takes part in a workout at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, with Drew DeMartino, left, of Pittsfield, a sophomore infielder at the University of Hartford, and Florence native Erik Ostberg, right, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Matt O'Neil of East Longmeadow, who played ball at URI, takes part in a regular workout with other Div. 1 and professional players at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Ian Ostberg, back home on break from Quinnipiac University where he is a sophomore infielder, takes part in a workout with his older brother, Erik Ostberg, at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a regular workout with other professional and Div.1 college players at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. He is joined by his younger brother, Ian Ostberg, right, a sophomore infielder at Quinnipiac University, home on winter break. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, takes part in a regular workout with other professional and Div.1 college players at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton native Erik Ostberg, left, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, was joined by his younger brother, Ian Ostberg, right, a sophomore infielder at Quinnipiac University for his regular workout at Soccer City in Wilbraham on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff writer
Published: 12/25/2018 9:48:37 PM

WILBRAHAM — Cowhide and cork popping against leather echoed against the Soccer City Sports Center’s elevated ceilings, the heartbeat of summer distorted by cavernous architecture. One sharp sound followed another closely then dulled with the reverberation. Florence’s Erik Ostberg played catch with Matt O’Neil, while brothers Mike and Nick Ahmed of East Longmeadow threw next to them on a gray, December morning.

“You know it’s December because my arm doesn’t want to go past here,” Nick Ahmed said, stopping his arm motion between his ear and nose.

Twice a week this winter, some of the best baseball players western Massachusetts has produced this decade gather to train. Ostberg was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and played for the Hudson Valley Renegades in the Class A short-season New York Penn League last summer. Mike Ahmed, an infielder, reached the AAA level the past two years in the Dodgers organization. Nick Ahmed won a Gold Glove playing shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks this season. He first reached the major leagues in 2014. Ostberg first connected with the Ahmeds through working out at AP Academy in Palmer with Peter Fatse four or five years ago. He’s made it a winter ritual to work with the pair when they’re all in western Mass. Nick Ahmed, 28, is five years older than Ostberg, and Mike is four years his senior.

“I was watching them (when I was) in college at Hartford. I’d come home for winter and they’d be training,” Ostberg said. “I’d watch, sometimes hit with them. When I got drafted, our schedules aligned. Now I’m able to join the clan a little bit.”

Ostberg arrived at Soccer City first in his white Toyota Rav4. He brought the car with him to spring training in Florida last year. Nick Ahmed, Mike Ahmed and O’Neil entered the hangar in short order. O’Neil, an East Longmeadow native, played at UConn and Rhode Island, and now works with AP Academy. He primarily serves as a catch partner and hits ground balls during the session. After entering the field area through the black netting, Ostberg jogged around the perimeter to activate the motion sensor lights. Soccer City occupies an elongated, sheet metal warehouse on Boston Road. Off-brand arcade machines and local advertisements line the blue and white walls under exposed industrial ceilings.

The athletes began with their own individual stretching routines. Ostberg unfolded his stocky frame close to the ground, his legs moving comfortably between catchers posters he’s occupied for nearly two decades. The Ahmeds cut a stark contrast next to him, tall and lithe.

The workout began with catch of a different sort, throwing a football back and forth running routes on the turf. They all resemble natural receivers, the motions of running, cutting and catching familiar to the lifelong athletes.

“Your release point for that is perfect,” O’Neil said after catching a dart from Ostberg.

For the last play, Mike Ahmed decided to cover Nick. The Diamondbacks’ shortstop ran a crossing route followed closely by his younger brother. O’Neil tossed him a perfect ball where only he could reach it. Nick Ahmed celebrated his victory with a quick yell, then the real work started.

Nearly everything is a competition when the group gathers. Drills are scored or split into games that determine the best performance.

“It’s by design. I think it makes it fun,” Ostberg said. “They’re at the highest level. I’m working to get there. Why not make it as hard as you can?”

In the first drill, O’Neil stood on one side of the half-size soccer field perpendicular to the goal with a bat and bucket full of Incrediball training baseballs. They bounce on turf more unpredictably than regular cowhide. Ostberg and the Ahmeds waited on the other end bare-handed. The object of the drill is to field as many grounders or line drives as possible, cleanly without using a glove. The fielder stays on until they miss then rotate out to the next person. O’Neil did not hold back. He forced them to dive to both sides and drop straight down, smoking the occasional ball at chest level. Mike Ahmed snatched one that snapped against his palm.

“Ow,” he said, tossing the ball back to O’Neil.

He won the first round, but they collectively gave it an asterisk because all three performed poorly.

“You stink,” Mike told Nick after he missed an easy catch that would have won him the game.

After two rounds of bar-handed fielding, the Ahmeds partnered up while Ostberg faced O’Neil. What appeared as two simple games of catch turned into putout practice. If the throw hit within the strike zone so a tag could easily be applied, that earned a point. Every point earned moved the thrower further away from his target. Ostberg eked out a narrow victory over Nick Ahmed. Though he plays a vastly different position from the Ahmeds, who are both middle infielders, Ostberg picks up the subtleties of the game just observing them.

“I love watching their feet, watching their eyes work with their hands,” Ostberg said. “It’s impressive. It’s the highest level of baseball.”

He received a front row seat during the next drill: ground balls and double play work. Ostberg situated himself 90 feet away from O’Neil where first base would be rather than a corner flag. The longtime catcher is trying to add first base to his positions library so he has more avenues to reach the field. Ostberg caught and found his way into the lineup as a designated hitter at Hudson Valley last season. The New York-Penn League named him an all-star at DH.

“I’d like to just play,” Ostberg said. “If that’s going to be catcher, fine, if that’s gong to be first base, fine. I can hit anywhere. I’m obsessed with hitting. That’s the thing that’s going to take me to the bigs.”

The Ahmeds turned defensive plays with familiar efficiency. They’ve been doing it all their lives. Nick Ahmed picked a ball ranging to his right, flashing his Gold Glove range, then flipped it to Mike Ahmed, who caught it bare-handed and fired to Ostberg.

“I gotta get used to this, I’ll be playing on it next year,” Nick Ahmed said.

The Diamondbacks are installing synthetic grass at Chase Field this season. It’s expected to be ready by opening day.

“How do you feel about that?” O’Neil asked him in between hits.

“Not looking forward to it,” Nick Ahmed said. “Not as pure for the game.”

In between shots toward the middle infield, O’Neil ripped grounders toward Ostberg. Too many of them were right at him for his liking.

“You can challenge me a little more, Matty,” he said.

On his next turn, Ostberg ranged to his left and stabbed with his glove followed by a roll. That elicited cheers and a “let’s go” from O’Neil.

The workout ended with Ostberg’s gray Rays T-shirt a shade darker with sweat. The Ahmeds didn’t perspire as much.

“I’m feeling hot,” he said as he exited the field.

“You’re carrying a little more weight,” O’Neil said. “Not in a bad way.”

“I also didn’t dive 14 times and get black pellets all over my face,” Nick Ahmed said.

He brought up Ostberg switching to first base after nine or 10 years in the big leagues as a catcher and finishing his career as a designated hitter. None of this was teasing or jest. Ahmed meant every word.

“It’s a long road in the minor leagues, but I think he’s got the talent for sure, the work ethic for sure,” Ahmed said. “If he develops his mental game like I know he’s going to, he’s going to play for a long time.”

After fielding workouts, the clan usually lifts and takes batting practice. The Ahmeds went to AP Academy to do that, but Ostberg needed to go home. He and his brother, Quinnipiac sophomore infielder Ian Ostberg, headed to Shirley, Maine, to visit Dove Tail Bats. Ostberg is under contract with them, and he was picking up and testing his signature bat - the EO21. It was only the second time he’s seen Ian all year.

Once he got back to western Mass., the work began again. He’ll continue working out and teaching at AP Academy, which he does after training, until the Rays minor league camp opens.

Ostberg expects to begin the season either with the Class A Bowling Green Hot Rods or Class A-Advanced Charlotte Stone Crabs.

“I’d like to just get on the field and catch more,” Ostberg said. “It’s gonna be a huge year.”

His focus stays locked forward and upward. Ostberg admits he doesn’t take enough time to appreciate the point he’s already reached.

“I operate from a mindset of discontent. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad,” he said. “Sometimes I need to step back and say, ‘man I made it pretty far, especially out of Northampton.’ But at the same time, I think my ability plays farther. I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I didn’t.”




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