The Super Bowl and the hockey and basketball All-Star Games are minor sporting events meant to fill the gap before baseball’s spring training begins. Every February, professional baseball players report to their various camps in Arizona and Florida to prepare for the coming season.
This tradition began long ago, when the major leagues had no teams south or west of St. Louis, Missouri. At that time, baseball players often neglected their training during the winter and needed a few weeks of practice to restore their timing and their strength. Now major league teams play in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Now professional athletes work all twelve months of the year to keep their bodies at peak performance. Spring training remains, though, as a chance for team players to become reacquainted and to meet the newest members of the team, and as a chance for the management of the team to decide which twenty-five players will be on the team roster Opening Day.
Players with multi-million dollar contracts do not have to worry about their jobs. Barring injuries or felony convictions, they can expect to be with their major league teams from the first day of the regular season. Many other players are under pressure during spring training. A team might have three of its five starting pitchers chosen by virtue of their contracts and their past performance; more than a dozen pitchers might be competing for the last two spots. Some of those competitors are young and will return to the minor leagues for more instruction, practice, and improvement. Others might fail to make the team and then retire, or they might choose to play a season or more in Japan. A very few might miss their chance to make one team, only to be chosen by another team and added to its roster.
Spring training sometimes has some interesting competitions, not only for the pitching staff, but for a regular position or two as well. Often the known players will play only the first part of a game before being replaced by the up-and-coming youngsters and by those scrambling for one of the last open spots. Managers and coaches are doing more than selecting their rosters, though. They are detecting problems in each player’s performance so they can work with those players to get rid of their problems. They are seeing how the players work together as a team so they know what to expect during the regular season. They want to know which players are going to support the team and which are only interested in personal achievements. They want to see players communicate with each other; and they hope that, by the end of spring training, communication is less necessary because the players will know what to expect from one another.
The chief glory of spring training, though, belongs to the fans. For three months we have relived the past season, its triumphs and its disappointments. For the last three months we have speculated about the coming season, who will do better than last year and who will not do as well. For the last three months a few players have been traded and a few have retired, and for every retirement and trade there has been speculation of a thousand other possible trades or retirements. During spring training the fans learn more about the young players who might join the team in a season or two. Best of all, during spring training the fans can re-experience the sights and sounds and smells of baseball. Once again we see the green grass and the reddish-brown dirt and the white chalk lines. Once again we hear the crack of a bat hitting a baseball, or the slap of a baseball landing in a glove, both accompanied by the patter of the players on the field and by the cheers of the crowd. It is not too soon for an overpriced beer and hot dog, or a cardboard bowl filled with corn chips covered with glow-in-the-dark orange cheese-flavored sauce. All this is part of baseball, and it has been missing from our lives for far too long.
Spring training is one of the best times of the year for a baseball fan. Opening day is fast approaching—the day that begins with every team tied for first place, every team hoping to be champions by the end of the season. As players begin to report to their various camps, the anticipation of baseball grows day by day. As every fan knows, this year will be the year, the year our team will win it all. On behalf of fans everywhere, “Play ball!” J.