In Fort Myers, Florida, the winter is over, and signs of the summer ahead have already appeared. In Scottsdale, Arizona, shopkeepers and restaurant owners are in the first days of a month of frantic excitement. And in Port St. Lucie, Florida, a small town has welcomed back its favorite long-time residents for another year.
These three cities, along with 19 others, are participating in the annual American ritual that is MLB’s spring training. And across the country, millions of fans are doing the same. Slowly but surely, baseball’s offseason is receding; the darkest period has ended, and now we are in the home stretch.
Espousing my love for spring training, as I do every year around this time, I inevitably come across someone who simply is not as enthusiastic about it as I am. “Why do you care?” they’ll say. Or, “It doesn’t count for anything, it’s meaningless.” Or, worst of all: “There’s no reason to get excited about it.”
Spring training — that is, the practice among MLB teams of spending a month or so in warmer climes, preparing for an upcoming season — began taking hold in the 1890s. By 1910, it was a widely established and accepted practice. It was already an annual phenomenon that Americans got excited about — so much so that in the 1912 book, “Pitching In A Pinch,” Christy Mathewson, legendary pitcher for the New York Giants, devoted an entire chapter to stories from spring training. It is nearly as old as modern organized baseball itself, and since 1912, it has only gotten better.
Why do I place so much emphasis on the level of excitement and awareness that spring training generates? Simply to note that if it’s really so meaningless and if there is really no reason to get excited, you’d think everyone who gets excited about it would have figured that out by now.
But they haven’t, of course, because they’re right. When spring training begins, there is everything to be excited about. The regular season is right down the road, for one, but even beyond that, there’s a lot to like about spring training itself.
Spring training is everything that makes baseball great. Spring training is warm, sunny days, ice cream in the stands, autographs over fences, picnics in the outfield. Spring training is games that do not count but are all the more fun because of it, two teams made up of players who do not mind the outcome one way or another but just want to have some fun. Spring training is first looks at promising rookies, tenth looks at beloved veterans and, when you put them all together, a new look at a new team. In Spring training, your team comes together for the first time. Everything that happens from April to November — the wild walk-off wins, the diving catches, the complete-game shutouts, the rookie who comes out of nowhere to become a star — starts down in Florida and Arizona in February.
Even the way spring training is covered is part of its allure. There’s no 24/7 news channel, no live stream, often not even a TV broadcast. Often, all we get are a few pictures a day of teams and players alike, stretching out under the sun or doing the same ground ball drills we all used to do in Little League. We see players laughing, talking, relaxing, smiling. Baseball players are human, but over a long season, this is sometimes forgotten. During spring training, it’s on full display.
Now, none of this should be construed as claiming that spring training is preferable to the regular season — it’s not. On the first day ofspring training, everything gets a little bit better; on Opening Day, the world is right once again. Spring training is a lovely prelude, but a prelude is all it is. The regular season is where baseball stands out, where it earns its title as the national pastime. For the truest of baseball fans, the regular season, April through October, is the best time of the year. Then there’s the postseason and spring training; spring training, theoretically, could be as low as third in the baseball importance rankings.
But either way, the second or third best part of the greatest game in the world? That’s not too shabby.
Spring training games have already begun, and soon, things start to move. The days get longer and warmer, the games get more important, and the regular season roster begins to take shape. And before you know it, there’s a week left until Opening Day, and you are agonizing over every minute that passes, counting down the seconds until baseball begins again.
Well, that’s what I will be doing, anyway. I don’t know about you. But either way, one thing is clear: The long dark winter of our discontent is over. From now through late October, baseball is back, and the world is happy once again.
James Schapiro ’19 can be reached at james_Schapiro@brown.edu