Sun, warm weather, and baseball. Every year in Florida and Arizona, MLB teams open up Spring Training camps in minor league stadiums and practice facilities. It brings the big leagues to communities that would otherwise never really see MLB action. The players are separated from the fans by a simple chain link fence, like a set of neighbors in the backyard. I have been lucky enough to go to a few spring training camps, and each one has its own distinctive taste. The Yankees are business as usually. They try to limit fan-player interaction much like they do up north at Yankee Stadium. The Rays on the other hand want fans to get as close as they can and have fun while they watch the game. The Dodgers old facility in Florida was a whole community built in the 1950s because Jackie Robinson wasn’t welcomed in other areas of the state. The Marlins players walk amongst the fans as they go from field to field.
For most fans, Spring Training is all about the prime autograph opportunities. I went to spring training this year with baseballs with hopes of getting autographs like in years past. I even brought cards of some of my most hopeful autographs like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte (I know, I am crazy for thinking that they would even entertain signing autographs). But I still got some awesome signatures, like Reggie Jackson (Mr. October).
Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
One of the amazing things about ST is the opportunity for the minor leaguers. The Yankees had a player named Corban Joseph, he was playing for no reason other than that Robinson Cano is with the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic. Another minor league player, Gil Velazquez got to warm up by having a catch with Derek Jeter before the game. When is Gil Velazquez ever going to be able to have a catch with Jeter again? He could have grown up idolizing Jeter (like myself) and yesterday he turned a double play with him.
It also brings hope for teams, as well as fans. The Yankees almost always finish last in Grapefruit League play. This year, the Royals are in 1st place in the Cactus League and had a 10 game winning streak at one point! At the same time, the Angels who made big splashes the past two years, are in last place in the Cactus League. Now ST is obviously not a direct representation of the season but who knows, maybe the Royals can contend (actually possible) and maybe the Angels will miss out on the playoffs (doubtful).
Spring Training is not about wins and losses it is about practice. It is about pitchers getting innings in. Which explains Mariano Rivera pitching in the 4th inning last night. It is about hitters getting their at bats so they are ready for opening day. It is about managers beginning to over-manage. Joe Girardi didn’t play his left-handed hitters last night because lefty Cliff Lee started against them. Really, I can’t make that up. It is about fans interacting with the player and the coaches and they “special assistants” and team management. George Steinbrenner understood that interaction. On a trip to Tampa 10 years ago, I waited on a line up to Steinbrenner’s box after a game. To George’s credit, he sat up in his box until there was nobody left on that line and signed anything and took a picture with every fan that asked for one. That is what spring training is all about.
Spring Training is about the fans being able to see the players in another element. Outside of their the billion dollar stadiums. Away from the big concrete walls that separate them from the fans. Spring Training is all about this interaction between fans and teams. It is about a younger version of myself walking with Dan Uggla between fields and getting an autograph. Or the current version of myself running over to ESPN’s Jayson Stark as he got into his car so that I could say “hi, I really like your work” and talk Syracuse Basketball with him. Spring Training is not about the games, because the games don’t matter. The games are played by guys with number 98 and 77 and 85 on their backs because they won’t make the team this year. Spring Training is about connections, whether it is number 85 Gil Velazquez having a catch with Derek Jeter or a younger version of me waiting on line tired after a long day to get a picture with George Steinbrenner. Spring Training is about players having fun with fans, not home runs and batting averages. It is all about getting back in action and having fun, not about wins and losses.