The Irresistible Call of Spring Training

My wife and I spent March 2016 in Phoenix watching baseball. It might have been the best month of my life. We’d been to spring training before—my first trip came in 1993, when I got to witness the beginning of Tim Salmon’s career and the end of Robin Yount’s up close and personal—but never for more than a few days at a time.

The seeds, though, were planted in those early visits to the Cactus League. Whether it was watching the Future Hall of Famer Yount sign autographs in the outfield corner long after he’d been removed from the game, engaging in chance conversations with strangers who shared my passion, or hanging with friends who did the same, I was hooked.

The first thing to understand about spring training is that games are arguably the least important aspect of it. Yes, it’s nice to see ballplayers competing after a few months of rest, but these are just exhibition contests without much at stake. Maybe a hotshot rookie is looking to make the team, or two guys are battling for the shortstop job, but in terms of outcome nobody cares whether games are won or lost.

 

Imagining the Future

Fortunately there’s more to spring training than meaningless games. We spent most of our time at Peoria Sports Complex, where the Padres and Mariners train. Every morning large, athletic young men would be scattered among several backfields, working on baseball fundamentals and trying to improve their skills enough that they might one day reach the big leagues.

These kids come from a dizzying array of backgrounds. Each has a common goal, though the vast majority will see their dreams fall short for one reason or another. All are talented, but some are not talented enough. Others may not be willing or able to make the sacrifices necessary to even try to grasp the ring. And still others will suffer from plain old bad luck—an untimely injury, a manager that doesn’t like them, and so forth.

But in the March Arizona mornings, there they all are, running through drill after drill designed to imprint correct form into muscle memory so that the movement becomes automatic in a game situation, in real time. Such seemingly mundane exercises lay the groundwork for the flowing symphony millions will savor all summer long and into the fall.

Players keep a running commentary in English and Spanish amid the flurry of activity. Coaches bark instructions and sometimes take one or two kids aside to reiterate a finer point or explain the importance of a particular maneuver that could make all the difference in some future game that decides the fate of a team’s entire season.

When a group of players moves from one field to the next, the clatter of metal spikes on concrete brings comfort to gathered spectators who eagerly await Opening Day. Even with the clatter, the chatter never stops.

Instructors and team executives make their rounds as well, observing and discussing, formulating and solidifying plans for the coming season. Their impressions inform how they will use these players throughout the year, be it at the big-league level or some lower rung on the organizational ladder.

 

Enjoying the Present

It isn’t all minor-leaguers. The stars are there as well, often surrounded by throngs of rabid fans clamoring for a word or an autograph. And in this relaxed atmosphere—the players still need to get their work in, but most of them make time for children of all ages who came here to see them—it’s not unusual to hear lively exchanges.

Many years ago there was a minor star in camp who had played for the Diamondbacks and who made his off-season home in the Phoenix area. Locals knew him, and so it came as no surprise when a fan asked him one morning during batting practice how his young son had performed in a soccer game the day before. Between swings, the player looked over at his questioner with a wide smile and proudly announced that he’d scored four goals. Or maybe it was five, who can remember?

Another spring I recognized a pitcher shagging fly balls in the outfield. I’d seen him in the minors several years earlier and actually sat next to him while he was charting a game. Nice guy, very friendly. He only made it into a handful of big-league games but enjoyed a fair amount of success in the minors and in professional leagues on various continents. On this occasion he was returning to North America after a year in Japan, and as he chased down a stray ball, a friend and I mentioned seeing him pitch back in the day. He flashed a smile, thanked us, and said a few words before trotting back to his position as we wished him good luck.

 

Appreciating the Cycle

These are the moments that linger in memory. That last incident occurred a decade ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. Yet I can’t recall the score of any of the dozens of actual games I’ve attended at spring training. Such trivial concerns fail to capture my imagination and fuel my love of baseball.

What remain with me are mental images of an arriving Salmon and a departing Yount, a well-known player talking about his son’s soccer game between swings, an unknown player offering humble thanks for our support, and the like. There are so many more of those snapshots, too many to recount in this brief space but not enough to ever exhaust a fond recollection of time spent at spring training.

Whether it’s players I’ve watched, executives I’ve chatted with, or friends and strangers who have shared the experience with me, it always comes down to people. Every spring, when the great baseball machine fires up again, we all get a fresh start. And what I’ve been doing sporadically for a quarter of a century will be experienced for the first time by others. Their imaginations will likewise be captured, their love of the game fueled, sustained for another journey around the sun and toward October, when it all ends again only to be reborn the following spring for still others to become a part of something. much greater than themselves.

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Geoff Young is Crooked Scoreboard’s baseball editor, and he highly recommends planning to trip to spring training. You should follow him on Twitter. Below are some more spring training photos taken by him:

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