A New Jerseyan turned Floridian on the annual spring ritual that many baseball fans find pointless.
I moved to Florida when I was eighteen because I grew up in New Jersey, and New Jerseyans look at Florida as a snowless paradise where the airfare is affordable, the kids are happier, and the better half of baseball teams spend their spring.
If you go to a Major League Baseball game in Florida, in March, you will find yourself surrounded by people who, at one time or another, have lived or live at least part of the year in New Jersey. They sit in the bleachers at small ballparks on sweaty afternoons surrounded by Floridians in jeans. New Jerseyans—and Northerners in general—are not just drawn to Florida in March because it is a time, back home, when they dust off their shorts at the first sign of fifty-degree weather and try to ignore the continuing threat of blizzards; they are not just drawn to Florida in March for the opportunity to watch baseball outside the confines of a couch; they are drawn to Florida in March for both these things, yes, but mostly because Florida in March is spring training.
The fifteen MLB teams who spend their spring in Florida make up the Grapefruit League, the binary to the Cactus League in Arizona. The leagues are divided like this:
Based on this design, you’d think all baseball fans live in Florida and Arizona, but spring training is as much a national event as it is a regional one. Even the distant outliers in the Grapefruit League—Houston, St. Louis, Minnesota, Toronto—lure their baseball-deprived fans to our state with the opportunity to build their Florida-bent vacations around a game or two, to escape their frigid landscapes and daily routines, to watch their favorite players on their favorite teams play for three innings (and then take a seat for the rest of the game and watch from the bench).
Sometimes Northerners make the trip but don’t get to watch their favorite players at all. A spring-training ticket holder often does not know beforehand who will have a day off, nor do they know that their ticket to the home game is on a day when the team has gone “split-squad” (a common occurrence when the team divides in half—one half scrimmages at the home game you bought tickets to, and the other half scrimmages in the next city over).
This would not fly in other forms of entertainment. If you went to a movie and the projectionist cut all the scenes featuring one of the lead actors, you would ask for your money back. But we do not go to a movie for the same reason we watch baseball, and perhaps part of the allure of spring training—aside from the opportunity to watch both garnered and unknown prospects flourish or flounder in their quest for regular season playing time—is the opportunity to watch the nation’s top athletes indulge in the same half-passive act of viewership that we, the faithful spectators, have grown to love long after our abilities to play the game have vanished.
Watching baseball is always an act of reliving; whether you’re reliving your own glories and failings of seasons past, or your favorite team’s, you’re always both inside and outside the moment. When I was twelve, I began to fear the increasing speed of the ball and quit the sport altogether. Instead, I got my kicks from Sportscenter highlights and stat lines on the backs of baseball cards. But in my late twenties, all those years of spectating had sparked my desire for participation, I came to terms with my adulthood and joined a recreational softball team with my brother. Two years later, trying to turn a single into a double for no reason other than being wrapped up in a beautiful feeling where I forgot I was Mike Wheaton and not Mike Trout, I rounded first as I watched my base hit land in the outfield. I was sure I could beat the throw from centerfield, not thinking about the consequences of attempting to slide into second base in gym shorts—having not attempted a slide into a base for fifteen years—and tearing my ACL. I partly blame the injury on watching too much baseball, which I enjoyed explaining to fellow spring training fans who asked me what happened as I wheeled around the stadium in a chair. That beautiful feeling rounding first, everyone understood it.
That March, I posted-up for games in the wheelchair section, and during one game I traded my tickets on the first base line for two beers to a father and his teenage son. The father analyzed every incoming pitch and asked the son what he thought the follow-up pitch would be. The father told me proudly that the son was a pitcher on some team in some other state, boasted about scouts coming this season, and fingers crossed. Conversations like this are as common as calls for peanuts and beer. A father or a mother leans over their son or daughter’s seat: Look how he’s digging that back foot, look at all that weight on there, if he gets a fastball near the plate… Look—look at the pitcher’s eyes, he’s looking inside, but you know where he’s going. See he was early, on top, should’ve waited and gone opposite field, yeah, what he should have done was… And always these comments tread into personal stories of faded glory, typically a bit more glorious than the time I tore my ACL in a casual men’s softball league, a story I’ll nonetheless tell anyone at a ballpark who will listen every time I see a player go down with a leg injury.
But from the nostalgia of faded glory, there emerges the relentless hope that is at the heart of spring training. Despite where your team finished last year, you believe they’ll turn it around this year and burst through the playoffs to the championship, and it will be a surprise to everyone but you. And, as baseball history has shown, that illogical hope is not completely unfounded. The Houston Astros, for instance, a team that had lingered around dead-last since the turn of the new decade, found themselves, last year, in a make-or-break Division Championship game against the World-Series-winning Kansas City Royals—a team who lost the series in a make-or-break game the previous year, but before then hadn’t made the playoffs in my lifetime. Even if your hope is logical and based on past records of success, the World Series is no guarantee. The 2013 and 2014 champions—the Red Sox and Giants, respectively—failed to even make the playoffs the year following their championship runs.
Then, of course, there are many people who believe spring training means absolutely nothing. These are not people of the popular opinion that baseball, in general, is boring—idiots, as I like to call them—these are smart people who love the game and simply try to temper their own hopes by pointing out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the pre-season.
For example, in the opening game of spring training this year, the Philadelphia Phillies will play… the University of Tampa. Last year, in the same match-up, the Phillies lost 6 – 2. And the team probably didn’t think twice about it. Spring training is a time when an actor like Will Ferrell or an NFL quarterback like Russell Wilson will decide they want to suit up with a team, and the team will let them. It is a time when pitchers try new pitches they won’t use at all in the regular season––a screwball they used to throw in middle school, perhaps, or a split-finger fastball that doesn’t break and never will. Batters try new stances or dig into the other side of the box and try bunting, just for the hell of it. Coaches see what happens if they put a relief pitcher at third base or a third baseman as a relief pitcher. Spring training is a time when unknown players hit a double every at-bat and then fall into obscurity in the regular season, and superstars struggle to hit the ball out of the infield until, in the first game of the season, they smack a grand slam and amass twenty-five more homeruns before the All-star break.
And worst of all, especially for those who believe in the futility of the pre-season, spring training is a time of inexplicable month-long injuries: shoulder stiffness from sleeping too hard, neck strains from eating Cuban sandwiches, broken fingers from wedging a wad of chaw between their teeth. All of these have happened, more or less, and will continue to happen, and yet we fans are still happy to be there and pay attention to the futile box scores and stat lines because, of all sports, the success of baseball teams seem to be the most random and least predictable. And it’s this randomness and unpredictability that’s fueling all the relentless hope in the first place.
Though fans of spring training are drawn to games for many of the same reasons, the experience is ultimately personal. For me, spring training is the awakening of latent ritual. I watch, over and over, on MLB Network, the same analysis of projected standings and stats and conjectures about breakout prospects and sure-to-bust veterans and which teams will or won’t fare with all the new faces in the locker room. I fill my mouth with sunflower seeds and beef jerky and carbonated drinks while driving down Interstate 4 with the windows down before realizing it’s too hot and switching on the AC instead. I wait in traffic at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex to see the Braves, a team I was trained to hate as a child and now enjoy thanks to the relationship I’ve made with my aunt—my wife’s aunt, a spring training season ticket holder—through a series of invitations to take the seat next to her. I wait in that traffic with people just as impatient to get to the game as I am, and I am happy to do it.
Spring training is the moment I withstand the traffic, have my ticket torn, grab two hot dogs, a beer for me, and a coke for my aunt, and together watch the groundskeepers create art with rakes on the diamond, then follow with our eyes the mowed lines from the outfield to the bullpen to see who is warming up—but we can’t see because it is just too far and yet we squint anyway. Spring training is the return of allergies and blowing my nose into rough napkins. It is peanut shells cracking under my feet. It is singing along to tired old ballpark songs and watching the corporate-sponsored mascot races and not letting my brain criticize the value of corporate-sponsored anything. It is looking around the stadium at out-of-town fans with their palms shielding their eyes, a Jersey, a t-shirt, a cap for the away team, for teams who aren’t even playing. It is being the first in the section to shout the correct answer to fan quizzes and talking stats and telling stories of spring trainings past with people I’ve never met before, listening to and indulging their faded glory. It is yelling—together—at the umpires for a call we know was right but didn’t like. It is yelling just to hear ourselves yell. It is finishing a twenty-ounce beer in time to get another before they stop serving in the seventh inning, or making the tough decision about whether or not to leave early and beat the traffic.
Spring training is that time the forty-year-old veteran recovering from a thumb injury (who everyone knew would be playing in Single-A that year) got up to bat with a man on second in the eleventh inning, at home, down by one with the infield in and the outfield aligned in a shift, a reminder that even a player this insignificant can be well-scouted, and only a quarter of the fans remained in the stands as it started to drizzle, and the old—commonly referred to as “washed-up”—veteran got down in the count 0 – 2, and off went this flicker in my mind that, here we go, he is going to wail one into the gap, maybe even out of the park, and those of us still here lingering between the empty seats will go crazy. Relentless hope in microcosm. And then the pitch came. And the veteran whiffed and the game ended and that glimpse of hope faded into pain and anguish on his face, one long sigh of disappointment sounding from the crowd as the announcer called the game. That one moment where we had a window into that man, and we felt something meaningful for him, even though it wasn’t joy, and in the larger sense—on the team, in the league, in our lives—it actually meant very little.
Spring training is that time a foul ball hit a bird that had been perched on the backstop all game, feathers wafting down into the stands, and the security guard picking up the struck bird from the inside of a fan’s glove, carrying it up the stairs and, somehow, the word spreading throughout the crowd, whether it was true or not, that the bird survived.
These are the moments that make spring training Spring Training. The moments when something happens that has no bearing on anything except that moment, a moment that will not be replayed on national television, that no one outside of the crowd is likely to understand the significance of—moments that mean something small and distant.
There’s an old quote attributed to Rogers Hornsby that fans remind each other of in the offseason. It goes, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Despite the fact that baseball is a game of numbers and stats and chess-like situations that can be turned on their heads with the change of the slightest variable, Hornsby’s quote taps into the emotions underlying the game, our hopes and fears in face of calculable odds.
Despite the sport’s continuous insistence on sabermetrics, baseball is for romantics, and so is the spring. We ignore the past. We ignore the probabilities. We go to games because it simply feels good to go. And we, even those of us who spend the winter in snowless Florida, have waited long enough.