Spring Training, One Of Baseball’s Great Traditions
Given its rich history, it isn’t surprising Major League Baseball is a game wrapped in lore and tradition. One of the most important of these traditions is Spring Training. That is particularly true here in northern climes where just the mention of spring is a tonic. Never mind those ground hogs, the true harbinger of spring is the phrase “Pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training tomorrow …”
What makes Spring Training different from most other major sports training camps is the community nature of it. Based in just two locales, Florida and Arizona, teams go south (except for the Florida Marlins who go north within the state) and gather in late February to shake out the cobwebs and prepare for the long season ahead. Young players eager to make the team, or at least make an impression for future consideration, get a chance to mix with veterans. Older players sometimes delay their retirement announcement until just before the team “goes north” to start the season, as if they wanted to squeeze in one more Spring Training experience.
Part of what makes Spring Training special is the atmosphere, the laid-back nature of things. It’s not at all unusual to see players stretching or running in the outfield during exhibition games, or standing alongside an outfielder from a visiting team to catch up on family news. The players are also much more available to fans in the small venues where Grapefruit and Cactus League games are played. Autographs and photos are great keepsakes from a trip to Spring Training. Mind you, this closeness has occasionally resulted in heated discussions between leather-lunged fans and cocky players, but not too often.
In general baseball players have always been more available to fans than other professional athletes; they don’t call them the boys of summer for nothing. Certainly baseball has its share of prima donnas as do football, basketball and hockey, but over the years ball players’ contact with fans seems to be an integral part of the game’s tradition. From Babe Ruth sharing a few beers with folks in a local bar before going to play, to Bill Lee going on strike to protest the Montreal Expos’ trading of his buddy Rodney Scott. (Lee left the Olympic Stadium during a game and went to Salon 76 to play pool and quaff a few cold ones with the locals, all in his uniform. To his credit Lee did inform the pitching coach where he was going and left a phone number in case he was needed for pinch-hitting duties late in the game!)
A current trend in Spring Training is to take the whole team north on one or two weekends and play games at the home stadium. Covered facilities make this possible for even the most northern-based clubs. It’s a win-win situation in that people who can’t get away to Florida or Arizona get a taste of baseball in the midst of winter and an idea of what the team may look like for the upcoming season. As well, the team gets to sell out a much bigger venue and sell much more beer, hot dogs and many more T-Shirts and souvenirs.
By all means enjoy these home-town games that are convenient injections of baseball after the long off-season, but don’t confuse them for the true Spring Training experience.
Deegan Stubbs is a baseball fan who still laments the loss of his beloved Expos. He blogs as DCMontreal at http://dcmontreal.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @DCMontreal